Books · Travel

Indonesia Etc- book review

For such a diverse, fascinating and lofty country, Indonesia is somewhat obscure. Completely made up of islands, and thus the world’s largest archipelago nation, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation and fourth most populous, and it is Southeast Asia’s largest economy. But other than Bali (and maybe the Komodo dragon), is there anything famous about it? Elisabeth Pisani decided to do something about this pitiful situation by setting out to travel across the length and width of the nation. The result was Indonesia Etc- Exploring the Improbable Nation, part travelogue, part history and political primer.
As a former journalist and epidemiologist who had lived and worked in Indonesia for many years and spoke the language, Pisani certainly had the knowledge and experience to pull this off. But more importantly, she had the traveler’s knack of always being curious, never shunning an adventure, and being able to befriend strangers, even stay with them for months as she did with a family in a headhunting tribe.
Eschewing the main island of Java, where the capital Jakarta is located and home to two-thirds of Indonesians, at least until the end, Pisani travels from giant Sumatra to tiny islands in the Maluku chain. She also takes on Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo (Malaysia and Brunei occupy the rest).

However, what makes the book compelling is that Pisani goes beyond just travel, but gives some insight into Indonesian habits and quirks, like corruption. It is common to portray third-world countries as naturally beset by corruption with family and ethnic ties playing a huge role. But, Pisani explains that for Indonesia, factors like government decentralization and democracy exacerbate corruption.
There is also some good commentary about Indonesia’s recent history, from colonialism under the Dutch to independence to the present. We also learn about the country’s first two leaders, Sukarno and Suharto, and the complications with forming a nation that was made up of hundreds of peoples, languages, cultures and islands.

Pisani also does not shy away from the hard stuff like the mass killings of Chinese and Communists by the army and militias under the guise of crushing an attempted coup in the late 1960s, as well as East Timor, which eventually separated and is now independent, and Aceh, where fundamentalist Islam is strong. For the latter, which some call “Veranda of Mecca,” a strong separatist movement has given way, after the 2004 tsunami, to but with more autonomy to run their own affairs, which notoriously include sharia law. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a pair of gay men were publicly caned after being caught engaging in sex. And also recently, the former mayor of Jakarta, a Chinese Christian, was found guilty of blasphemy for criticizing a passage in the Koran. He had also lost the election in May to an Islamist rival.

The book was published in 2014 and it had been on my reading list for some time. It still holds up even if some of the political and social problems described like Islamic fundamentalism and the decreasing tolerance towards minorities may be even worse now. But nevertheless, they would strengthen Pisani’s assertion that Indonesia is still a country that deserves more attention from the world.

Visit the book’s website where she still writes about Indonesia.

Europe travel · Travel

German travel- Berlin the bold


Despite being Germany’s biggest city and capital, Berlin, to me, evokes a kind of tough, scrappy, brutish image, both from its past as a divided city during the Cold War and its contemporary image as a inexpensive, start-up paradise. I found this to kind of true when I visited it, as it was old in some parts, but I also found it attractive and more modern than Rome or Paris. As with London and Paris, Berlin was my first-ever stop in its country.

After getting off my budget flight from Rome, I took the airport bus to the station near my “pension,” their word for a cheap kind of inn, which in this case was a set of rooms inside a low-rise apartment. The building was dark at night, had no elevator, and had graffiti painted on the walls of its driveway. Not exactly the most ideal place to stay in. But it was close to the subway, being between two stations, and further up the street, a supermarket with a separate alcohol store next door (perhaps due to local rules). On one of the nights I went there, a group of punks (mohawks, black jackets and all) were hanging out with a couple of pitbulls in the parking lot, which did give me a little bit of trepidation but nothing happened. But yet, the neighborhood was attractive, with a wide expanse of lawn and a neat row of trees separating the block buildings from the sidewalk and main road. It was only the next day I realized there was a distinctive tower with a dome (TV Tower) at the far end of the main road. The neighborhood also had a lot of small businesses like cheap eateries, alcohol stores and clothes stores.

The first place I visited was the Berlin Wall Memorial. The city’s most famous attraction, the Wall exists as a few preserved sections, as it was mostly torn down. The Memorial is right in the midst of a neighborhood built over where the wall stood. As such, the Memorial stretches along several blocks where parks, preserved wall sections with a watchtower, and a small oval church commemorate the wall. Near the end, there is a museum from which you could get a good view of the wall from the top. The setting was so serene, in stark contrast to the harsh reality of the wall which bisected Berlin into an open Western part and the Eastern, Communist section from where people tried to flee to the West. Some of them lost their lives doing so, which is also commemorated. I also visited another more artistic part of the Wall two days later.

I later made my way to the Reichstag, the nation’s parliament that was in a grand, gray building. More specifically, I went to the top of the building, a dome from where you could get good views of the surroundings. It was then a short walk to the Brandenburg Gate, which was smaller than I’d imagined. There were horse carts, street musicians, and even an Iranian protest against their country’s regime going on. I walked to Gendarmenmarkt, where three magnificent buildings – the 18th century Konzerthaus Berlin (Concert Hall) and two 17th century churches (the French and German churches) are lined up in a row. I finished off the day by going to Potsdamer Platz, a confusing mall complex spread across several buildings and basements. The coolest part was Sony Plaza, a circular entertainment building covered by a neon-coloured roof made up of blades that resembled a propeller.

The subway was old, but retro and clean in a charming way, not so much creaky and antique like Paris’, cramped like London’s or dark and dirty like Rome’s. But it was a little confusing (see the system map) because there are so many lines, divided into surface and underground trains- U-Bahn and S-Bahn.

  

Europe travel · Travel

Italy travel- Eternal City at last

Rome is called the “Eternal City” and just a couple of days wandering around was enough to make me understand exactly why. Whether it was walking inside the largely intact 2,000-year-old Colosseum, going up the neighboring Palatine Hill, or going from the young, almost 300-year-old Spanish Steps to the Pantheon to the Castel Sant’Angelo, ancient Rome exists in an impressive and timeless state everywhere.

But it wasn’t “love” at first sight when I arrived in Rome. Rome actually wasn’t my first stop in Italy (it was Milan, which also was a very interesting city), but as the capital and the country’s most famous city, I’m writing about it following my previous posts on London and Paris. My initial thoughts when first stepping foot in the city was slight trepidation and dismay, the former at the notorious reputation I’d read of regarding pickpockets and thieves, and the latter at how dark and shoddy the subway was. When I got out at my subway stop and headed up the exit stairs with my luggage, imagine my shock when a guy at my side grabbed it while two of his friends walked right behind me. But when I looked at him, he said I’m just helping and true to his word, he let go when we reached the top. I don’t think I looked too helpless, especially with my slight carry-on luggage, so maybe some Italians are really helpful.

And when I reached the place I was staying at, a bedroom in an lowrise apartment that was clearly only for visitors, I was taken aback at the elevator – a slim metallic cage in which the inside and the mechanism were fully visible, probably something that was older than my parents.

While I did visit all the great attractions listed above like the Colosseum and Pantheon, as well as the Vatican, I’ll start off with a less famous but still prestigious attraction – the Archbasilica of St John Lateran.

That same evening after I arrived, I headed out to the Archbasilica of St John Lateran. I had never heard about it until I spotted it on Googlemaps near where I was staying (just one subway stop away), but yet it is the cathedral church of Rome, and so basically the Pope’s cathedral. The archbasilica’s lofty status derived from it being the oldest church in the West, having been built in the 4th century AD, and the ecumenical mother church of the Roman Catholic faith.

The archbasilica (the first of the four highest-ranking Catholic churches or basilicas, including the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica) was different from almost every church I’ve ever seen. It stood proudly on a grassy mound at the end of a driveway from the street almost as if it was a mansion on an estate. But the host of lifelike stone popes standing vigilantly on the top of its imposing stone facade made it clear it was a house of God.

Inside, the vast hall featured ornate marble statues, gold engravings and resplendent painted Biblical scenes on the walls. Every altar, every hall and every cloister was richly decorated. In addition, six popes are actually entombed inside the church. I visited a lot of cathedrals during my Europe trip – Milan Cathedral, Notre Dame, St Peter’s; but I never got tired of walking inside them, and the archbasilica was no different. When I came back out, it was fitting that there was a brilliant burst of cloud in the blue sky that looked as if it emanated from the church. Walking away from the archbasilica towards the street with the cars brought me back to the present, but the stately Roman umbrella pine trees and the stone Porta San Giovanni wall, part of the city’s 1700-year-old Aurelian Walls, that stretched across the street with arches to allow cars to go through were a steadfast reminder that this was a city where the past exists in a formidable form.

  

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Anhui’s Hongcun village

One of two old UNESCO World Heritage Site villages near Huangshan, Hongcun is the most attractive Chinese village I’ve ever been to (not that I’ve been to that many, but trust me, it is beautiful).
Situated next to a stream, with a small lake in front of it and a pond within it, Hongcun is also where scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed. In real life, the village is just as scenic, and you’ll sometimes see Chinese art students sitting across from the lake painting the village.

I went to Hongcun on a cold, overcast morning on the last day (having gone to Xidi, the other World Heritage village in the area on the first day) of my Chinese New Year trip to Huangshan a few years ago. Unlike Huangshan, the village was not too crowded with tourists, which was a good thing because it is full of narrow alleys. To enter Hongcun, you cross a narrow stone bridge with an arch in the middle and no rails (so be careful! Or you can just walk around to the side of the lake) into the actual village and its lanes of traditional and well-preserved black-roofed white houses, examples of Huizhou architecture. Many of these were built by wealthy merchants and officials during the Ming and Qing dynasties which the size, design and workmanship, such as wooden frames and carvings, attest to. Several of the larger houses feature open courtyards with ancestral halls featuring portraits of illustrious ancestors and wooden frames.

When you get to the middle of the village, you’ll reach the Moon Pond, and the sight of old houses and their reflections on the pond is an incredibly photogenic sight. It is also exactly where one of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon scenes was shot, specifically the part where fighters are gliding across rooftops and leaping onto water while duelling with each other. There was a small meat market behind held that morning by the pond, which certainly didn’t seem like it was for tourists, while dried pork flanks, split-open fish and ducks hung right in the open on the walls of a few nearby houses.
Those were reminders that Hongcun, as with Xidi, is a living community despite being a tourist hotspot. That’s not to say there aren’t many villagers who’ve opened restaurants or sell souvenirs and local food specialties, but it isn’t as over-the-top as many other Chinese tourist areas. It’s been a few years since I was there so I hope it remains so.


Crossing the bridge to get to the village



An ancestral hall in one of the larger houses

Moon Pond





Meat market


   


Traditional pastries on sale. I think I bought some of this.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Anhui’s Xidi and Tunxi

Huangshan may be the most famous attraction of Anhui, but it is not the only interesting one in the area. The surrounding villages, whether it be the traditional villages of Xidi and Hongcun, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, or even Tunxi, known mainly as the area’s tourist hub but with a great ancient street, are also very much worth a visit. The reason why there are so many preserved historic villages around Huangshan is because this area used to be home to prosperous merchants who thrived during the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th-20th centuries). With over 600 years of history, both Xidi and Hongcun boast lanes filled with traditional homes, including large houses with massive halls and two-storey high ceilings, which no doubt belonged to the wealthier merchants. In these villages, the majority of old homes have been preserved with little or none modern houses. But far from being deserted relics or over-touristy theme parks, Xidi and Hongcun are both thriving communities with people living their daily lives while tourists come and go.
Both are attractive places but Hongcun really stood out for me with its small lake and arched bridges fronting the village and a pond within, the combination of old homes and water resulting in some very gorgeous scenes. So magnificent that a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed there as well. Hongcun is so beautiful that I’ll devote another post to it, so let’s go on to Xidi and Tunxi.

Xidi was less spectacular, but it also features a famous landmark – a high 3-layered stone paifang (traditional Chinese gate) at the entrance next to the pond bordering the village. Walking through the paifang takes you into a series of narrow lanes among which are several impressive compounds with giant open courtyards, wooden halls and ancestral tablets and paintings of illustrious ancestors. But even the “regular” buildings are attractive to look at, especially as they all feature curved upswept eaves and black tiled roofs, both distinctive architectural features in the region.
Getting there from Tunxi takes an hour by public minibus, which I took, but as it was during the holidays, I couldn’t get one back so I got a “black cab” minivan with a few other people, including a Cantonese family (one weird thing is I always run into Cantonese people when I travel in China).
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Tunxi is where I got off after coming from Nanjing by sleeper train as that is where Huangshan train station is location. Back then (2014), you could only get there by the regular slow train but they have since built a high-speed station, also in Tunxi. While the town is for the most part a hub for getting to Huangshan and not too special, it boasts an attractive old street with a lot of traditional wooden buildings. Many have been converted into stores and restaurants, but a number of them are still homes, as indicated by the dried fish or laundry hanging by the windows. Most of the stores sold souvenirs, while there was one that sold ethnic minority goods and another that sold faux Maoist stationery. Some of it was a bit too gaudy as Chinese tourist areas can be, but it was still a nice walk at night.

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Xidi
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Tunxi again
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China · China travel · Travel

Huangshan photo round-up

As we get set to move into the Year of the Rooster with Chinese New Year coming up on the weekend, enjoy this photo round-up from a CNY trip to Huangshan a few years ago. While it certainly wasn’t the best time to visit the mountain, it was still enjoyable enough.

The subject of countless paintings, photos and literary references, Huangshan is one of China’s most beautiful mountains, and it is not hard to see why. Despite not being able to hike around the paths at the top in full and having to share it with thousands of Chinese tourists, I was still able to experience some of the mountain’s beauty and magnificence.
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Books · China · Travel

The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China- book review

China is a large, vast country with an area of 3.7 million square miles and though the majority Han make up 90% of the population, has over 50 ethnic groups. As a result, beyond the teeming megacities and factory zones, and the heavily populated Han-majority provinces, there is a lot of ethnic and societal diversity.

This is what former Sunday Telegraphy China correspondent David Eimer explores in The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China as he travels to the edges of modern China. A well-known Chinese proverb goes “The mountains are high and the emperor far away.” What this means is that in the outer reaches of the empire, the emperor is a remote figure and so is his rule. The modern equivalent of that saying is true in areas like Yunnan Province and the fringes of the Northeast. There, the government’s rule is not as firm as everywhere else in the country, and local non-Han minorities and cultures still thrive. In Tibet and Xinjiang, the very opposite is true as the full force of the regime is imposed, ranging from heavy army and police presence to repressive measures limiting or banning local religious practices and languages. Not surprisingly, these areas – Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and the edges of the Northeast – are often considered exotic and fascinating to both foreigners and the Han (the dominant majority in China) Chinese. But there is also a tragic element to several of the peoples in these areas as well, as Eimer examines how these minorities like the Tibetans and Uyghurs fare after decades of Communist rule.

The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang, the most restive and repressed areas in China, is not surprisingly, rather bleak. Heavy-handed policing and harsh measures enacted against the locals have generated significant anger, the result of which can be seen now and again in the news with “terrorist” attacks in Xinjiang, which raise fears of an insurgency, no doubt played up by the government to justify their taking even harsher measures. Not only are Tibetans and Uyghurs not able to speak their language at schools or freely practice their religion, but their movements are restricted through measures like making it extremely hard to get passports, and they are unable to integrate into mainstream Chinese society.

In Yunnan, the province that has the most minority peoples in China and borders Thailand and Myanmar, a Wild-West atmosphere prevails in much of the borderlands. Here, the government practices a looser form of border control as there are several tribes who peoples live across different countries like the Tais. A thriving cross-border criminal trade exists, especially in narcotics. Eimer manages to travel across to Myanmar where he visits areas populated by minority tribes and controlled by drug armies, descendants of KMT soldiers who fled to Burma and stayed to cultivate opium.  The Northeast is more sedate, though the vast icy landscape belies the economic dominance of China compared to Russia just across the northerneastern-most border. In this area, Small ethnic groups, including the descendants of nomads, cling on while facing the obsolescence of their language and customs due to decreasing numbers, intermarriage with the Han, and modern-day integration. This is already the fate of the Manchus, a Northeast people who ruled all of China as the Qing Dynasty for over 250 years up to 1911. Interestingly, the ethnic Koreans in the Northeast provinces are allowed to have their own schools where classes are taught in their own language. There is also interaction with North Koreans across the border in the form of trade, people smuggling and marriages, but this is starting to get clamped down on by the government.

It is a book rich in travel, historical and ethnographic detail about a China so much different from the one often portrayed in more conventional travel books, whilst not shying away from illustrating the repressive rule of the Communist Party. It is also sad to ponder the fate of all the peoples mentioned in the book, many of whose cultures and languages are under threat in one way or the other. Simply put, The Emperor Far Away is about a China that is rapidly disappearing.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- A Chinese New Year’s trip to Huangshan

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With Chinese New Year coming up in just a few weeks, it’s fitting I should finally write about my first Chinese New Year in China in 2014.

Back then in Beijing, I made a spontaneous decision one week in advance to travel to somewhere in the country, specifically Huangshan, one of China’s most famous mountains. In hindsight, it was a foolish decision and I learned my lesson not to travel to places at the exact same time as multitudes of Chinese. But, the trip was still kind of good. I didn’t go all the way to Anhui from Beijing just to visit Huangshan, but also Xidi and Hongcun, two grand old villages in the area that are also UNESCO World Heritage sites. Hongcun is especially beautiful, and scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were shot there.

I had long wanted to visit Huangshan, one of China’s most beautiful and famous mountains, its mist-covered slopes and pine trees a familiar image in countless photos and paintings. Its beauty has been paid tribute to in poems and ….. So when the New Year holiday came up and as I wasn’t going overseas, I decided to go to somewhere in China, thinking that the crowds would not be as bad as during the National Week in October (I was told this by at least one acquaintance as well). I deliberated between Shanxi (Pingyao and Datong) and Huangshan and the latter won out. However, I was going to spend several days in the area, which meant staying in Tunxi, a small town an hour away from Huangshan. Getting to Tunxi meant taking a high-speed train from Beijing to Nanjing, then taking a sleeper from there to Tunxi.

Situated in Central China, Anhui is probably best known, besides Huangshan, for being the setting of The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. Set in 1930s China, this novel follows the hard struggle of a peasant amid poverty, war and instability as he tries to move up in life. While China, and the province,  has long moved on from those terrible times, largely agricultural Anhui is still one of the country’s poorer provinces despite having rich neighbors like Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Many migrant workers in the country, especially in Shanghai and Beijing (I also had a couple of colleagues and friends from there, though they weren’t migrant workers) hail from Anhui. However, Anhui is also the ancestral home of former Chinese President Hu Jintao and current Premier Li Keqiang.

But Anhui’s earthy reputation belies an interesting cultural heritage (Huizhou) that culminated in a distinct regional architectural style with black roofs and impressive wooden designs, which Xidi and Hongcun both feature some good examples of.

My trip was eventful even before it actually got underway because when I got into Nanjing, my favorite Chinese city actually, in the afternoon, I tried to find a bus to Tunxi but there wasn’t one since it was Chinese New Year. I then booked a ticket on a sleeper train but I had several hours to kill. As I wasn’t feeling to sightsee, I went to book a room at a nearby hotel. But what was supposedly a straightforward task turned out to be a jarring shock because I was turned away from several hotels because their system didn’t allow Hong Kongers (I’m one by virtue of birth and ID card) to book hourly rooms. I’d heard of similar experiences happening to Westerners when trying to book a regular room but I didn’t think this could happen to Hong Kongers as you know, being part of China. But finally I found one where the boss told his receptionist to let me stay, saying “it’s New Year, let him in,” displaying a fitting holiday generosity that was glaringly lacking from all the other hotels’ staff.

The train trip was straightforward and I got into the town in the morning, taking a taxi to my hotel, with the driver refusing to use the meter because “it’s New Year.” I went to the village of Xidi that first day, then went to Huangshan the next by a one-hour bus to Tangkou, a tourist village at the foot of the mountain. It seemed I arrived too late despite it being early afternoon, I learned that crowds would mean going up by cable car would take hours. My plan was to take the cable car up and hike around the paths on top because that was where the views were.

I had a decision to make – return to Tunxi and come back the next day bright and early, or stay in Tangkou for the night, thus paying extra for another hotel. I chose the latter because I wanted an early start. After I found a hotel, I took a walk through the village which provided some fantastic views of Huangshan from the ground. I did get that early start but apparently 6 am wasn’t early enough, because when I left my hotel at that time the next morning, I found the street filled with other tourists making their way to the car park to take the bus to Huangshan visitor center (from there, you then hike or take the cable car up the mountain). The car park itself was filled with people and the lines were crazy. Eventually I got into one and after what felt like an hour, got into a bus.
That felt like a relief, but it was temporary because when I arrived at the visitor center, I saw even more people than there were at the car park! When I approached the cable car station, the line was so long it started from the second floor or the station and extended downstairs and outside.

As before, my plan was to take the cable car up so I could hike around the top. With no choice now, I would have to hike to the top and hope I had enough time and energy to walk around the trails on the peak. As Huangshan is not that high, it took me about two and a half hours (fitter people can surely do it in less time), and while I was traveling solo, I was accompanied by dozens of Chinese. Some were in tour groups while others were with friends or family, and noone seemed to be hiking solo like me. Being in China, some of those folks just couldn’t keep quiet so there was a constant chorus of shouting, yelling, and throat-clearing, as well as music playing on little portable radios that some older hikers in China and Taiwan like using.

The nearer I reached the top, the better the views got and I was able to get a glimpse of the much vaunted peaks with clouds that Huangshan is famous for. It is a beautiful mountain up close, not just from afar, with its forested slopes and rocky granite peaks. Along the way, you’ll pass well-known rock formations and trees, such as the first photo on top, and these are even named, for example, “God Points Road” and “An Immortal Pointing the Way” (probably sounds better in Chinese).
But when I got to the top, I realized there was a lot of people there as well. I continued walking and got onto a trail, figuring the crowds would thin out along the mountaintop. But no, everywhere I went there were people, and the trails were so clogged, it was impossible to pass people. After continuing for over an hour, the sheer congestion meant I couldn’t make a circuit of the trail, and also I’d have to hurry back to the cable car station if I wanted to make it down by mid-afternoon. I hadn’t planned to stay another night in Tangkou as I wanted to get back to Tunxi.
I wish I had been able to hike around the paths on top and I feel I will return to do just that in future. Huangshan hasn’t seen the last of me yet!

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Lineup for the cable car at the foot of Huangshan, at 8 am. No way was I going to endure that, so I chose to hike up instead.
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The hike up was pleasant in some parts.

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The higher I got, the better the view as the mountaintop started appearing.
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There was a bit of the sea of clouds for which Huangshan is famous for.
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Lineup for the cable car at the top of Huangshan
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Perfect view of Huangshan from Tangkou
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Europe travel · Travel

France travel- Paris at last

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Usually I write about my travel in sequential order but I’ve decided to skip ahead to the next city on my Euro trip last year and continue doing so, and then go back to the beginning. London was my first stop so it was natural that the next big city was Paris, which was just a short cross-channel Eurostar trip away.

Paris is a city that obviously doesn’t need an introduction, being featured, written about and pictured in so many movies, books and photos. I was never one of those people who dreamed of going to Paris, especially as I’ve never been a romantic person, but I figured if I was going to Europe, I might as well come here. And I would be very glad I did.

After getting off the Eurostar train in Paris, where we had a most inauspicious start by having to go through an alternate exit due to precautions taken after station staff found a piece of unattended luggage, my mother and I got to our hotel by subway, as in London. Initially, the “antiquity” of the Paris subway was a little underwhelming, with the rickety old carriages and the doors that had to be pulled open with a handle and the somewhat dim platforms.

The first full day started with a trip to the Louvre, of course, and ended with a view of Paris and the Eiffel Tower from on high. The Louvre is one of the world’s most famous museums, and when we got out of the subway station, passed these elegant old buildings, and walked through the dark entrance of one of these buildings to see IM Pei’s glittering pyramid in the centre of the Louvre’s inner courtyard, it really hit home that we were in Paris.
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But before we could enjoy the museum, I had to brave the hustlers and pickpockets which I read so much about and had come to fear. After a brief search to buy a Museum Pass, during which I avoided people pretending to seek donations (the web is full of warnings about people seeking donations from hapless tourists while their accomplices try to take your wallet), we lined up in the courtyard for about half an hour before entering the pyramid and descending to the basement entrance.

I didn’t realize it at first but the Louvre is huge, housed in a former royal palace with three different wings in different directions (according to Wikipedia, the Louvre is the world’s largest museum). After figuring out the map, we chose one wing and set off. The museum is big but it was packed with tourists and predictably, there were scrums around the most famous exhibits like the headless Winged Victory of Samothrace (marble statue of the winged goddess Nike) and of course, the Mona Lisa, where after much moving around and maneuvering in the dense crowd (no pushing or jostling though), I managed to get up close to the fabled painting.

Those two exhibits were very decent, but there were so many great pieces of exhibits including the massive Babylonian marble lions, Greek statues, and paintings of French kings and Napoleon. We were there for only three hours, but I really could have spent a couple of more hours as we only saw about one half of the museum. Of the three wings, we saw two of them and probably not even most of them.
The only complaints I had were that all the exhibit captions were in French, which for a world-class museum was a big stunning to me. Obviously, it was deliberate because it’s the French. Also, the toilets are few and inadequate – for instance, a couple of the washrooms only had one toilet and they are far apart. While my mother had lunch, I had to walk through something like 10 rooms to get a vacant washroom and by the time I returned, she had finished. Yes, I know the building is old, and the exhibits are old, but surely the authorities should be able to install some modern washrooms.

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From there, we went on to Île de la Cité, an islet located on the Seine that is the center of Paris. This was Paris as I had imagined, with the rows of elegant townhouses, magnificent old buildings, Notre Dame cathedral, and the streetside bakeries selling baguettes and crepes. But of course, it was also a very heavily touristed place. First, we went to St Chappelle, a royal 13th century Gothic chapel fitted with the most beautiful stained glass windows I’d ever seen. There is a smaller hall from which you went on to the larger sanctuary whose upper walls were filled with fantastic multicoloured stained glass windows featuring scenes from the New Testament. The effect was like being in a hall with resplendent purple and blue ceilings.

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Notre Dame was next, with its imposing Gothic structure fronted by two towers, and the famous stone gargoyles perched on its roof and above its windows. There was some impressive sculpted artwork in its front – midway, a row of stone statues of bishops stood sentry across the entire front facade while the three curved entrances had countless stone bishops sculpted along the sides and top. The cathedral is massive and it was an interesting experience to walk in the cavernous inside and view the stained glass windows, the sculpted scenes of Christ rising, and even the stone coffins of two bishops at the back. I was starting to enjoy Paris, even its old subway system, which now seemed kind of cool.

Finally, for the evening, we went to the Montparnasse Tower. The building is considered a monstrosity by some due to its somewhat unattractive appearance, but that is exactly why it provides the best views of Paris. Because if you go up the Eiffel Tower, which is another great place to view the city, you will see the Montparnasse Tower itself. As it is, when you can see the neat triangular grids of the uniform townhouses and famous landmarks like the Louvre, Notre Dame and even Montmartre hill, Paris is amazing.
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Winged Victory of Samothrace
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St Chappelle and its beautiful stained windows
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Notre Dame, above, and its famed gargoyles, below
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Louvre again below

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Europe travel · Travel

England travel- London calling

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The first country I went to on my first trip to Europe last year was the UK and the first city, London. This was by choice, because the UK is a country I greatly admire and have always lived under, despite never having been there before. I was born in Hong Kong when it was a British colony, grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, an English-speaking Caribbean nation and a former British colony, and I went to university in another former British colony. There were several aspects of British culture like the language, Premier League football, cricket, and literature that I was familiar with.

Flying into London via Dubai from Taipei, my mother and I had an uneventful entry at Heathrow and took the subway or Tube straight to our hotel. While that sounds convenient, the journey traveled through over 15 stations though it was a nice way to ease into London, seeing houses with gardens and overpass walls marked with graffiti, both sights that are unusual in East Asia.

The next day, we started with Sky Garden, which is not a garden but a free observatory hall located at the top of a tower in the financial district. From the hall, you can walk around and enjoy a 360-degree view of London and see famous landmarks like the Gherkin, Tower and London bridges across the Thames below. The hall is huge and over two stories high, with bars and restaurants. The large front glass panel is covered with steel bars which does interfere with the view, while you walk up the stairs at the side to look at the rear windows. It was raining slightly, typical stereotypical British weather, which marred the view but since it was free, there was no harm.
The building has an unremarkable official name – 20 Fenchurch Street – but it is nicknamed the Walkie Talkie and for good reason. From below, the tower curves gently outward at the front and back as it gets higher and has a rounded roof.
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The next stop was the famous Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, where so much history, much of it unsavory such as executions and imprisonments, occurred. Unfortunately we did not actually view this history because we were in a rush and in a frugal mood. We walked across the Thames on the famous bridge, which is sometimes confused for London Bridge but is more attractive, to the other end and strolled along the riverbank where further ahead the World War II cruiser HMS Belfast, which serves as a floating museum, was moored. The view across the Thames was a fine combination of the old Tower of London fortress with the gleaming Sky Garden and Gherkin towers looming in the back. To be honest, while these are ultramodern buildings, their modest height and weird appearances (the Gherkin in particular has an obscene resemblance if you know what I mean) make the London skyline seem underwhelming, especially compared to East Asian cities. But otherwise, that was the only real complaint I had about what seemed to me a fascinating old city, having existed since Roman rule, which seemed to preserve its many historic structures and illustrious past with modern times so well.
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The Shard on the left, and the “Walkie Talkie,” or Sky Garden tower, at right, look onto the Thames.

From there, it was on to another of London’s countless famous attractions, St Paul’s Cathedral. Again we didn’t go inside, but just walking around the massive church, the first of several grand cathedrals I’d see during the trip, was enough to appreciate its grandeur and size, topped by a giant dome. More memorable than the cathedral was getting lunch at a French bakery inside a courtyard at the side, where the French cashier misunderstood the amount I gave him when I paid (to get exact change) and sniffed audibly. Incredibly, that would be the only rudeness I experienced from a French service person during the entire trip, which included 8 days in France itself.
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The next place was Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. The square, named after the famous 19th century naval victory over a French fleet, is a vast open space that features the National Gallery on one side, two fountains, and the 51-m tall Nelson’s Column, atop which is perched a statue of the famous admiral who won the Battle of Trafalgar but paid with his life. Across the street are the embassies of several Commonwealth countries like South Africa, Jamaica, Malaysia and Canada, though not Trinidad. The square was lively, with hordes of visitors and street performers including a bagpiper playing the Game of Thrones soundtrack.

The National Gallery was impressive, more so given it was free. Though I would see even better art galleries later on during my trip but at that moment, I enjoyed the National Gallery’s works of art from English and European masters, including Vincent van Gogh, and as someone who wasn’t exactly an arts enthusiast, it helped me appreciate paintings a lot more.

After leaving the gallery, we walked a few streets north to Chinatown, passing by the theatre district. As Chinatowns go, it isn’t too big and had several pedestrian lanes filled with typical Chinese restaurants and a few bars. It did have a large Chinese arched “paifang” gate on one street. We had dinner at a well-known restaurant and that was that for the first full day in London.
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The Tower of London fortress
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Old and the new
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Looking down at the HMS Belfast, a floating military museum, from the Sky Garden
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It was drizzling when we were in the Sky Garden, then the skies cleared up when we walked along the Thames.
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This guys seem to be levitating though it’s more likely the pipe structure provides some kind of support.
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Two of the many masterpieces inside the National Gallery – the rape of the Sabine women by the Romans, above, a historical event when the Romans invited a neighboring tribe, the Sabine, to a feast and then proceeded to kidnap their women, and, below, one of several Venice paintings that I really liked

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