China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Datong and the Hanging Temple


As Datong used to be a capital of a regional dynasty in the 3rd to 5th centuries, it features several historical attractions in addition to the Yungang Grottoes. Foremost among these is the 1,500-year-old Hanging Temple. It doesn’t exactly hang, but it is an elegant wooden temple complex that is built onto a cliff wall. It already looks unbelievable in photos but it is more impressive in real. Sixty-five km from Datong, the Hanging Temple is located within Hengshan, which is also a major attraction in its own right as one of China’s most sacred mountains. As the temple, which was built during the 4th century AD, is precariously mounted on the cliff wall, it is narrow and visitors enter in a one-way direction from top to bottom.
Another historic sight is the Sakyamuni Pagoda, built in 1056, the oldest wooden pagoda in the country. The attractive, large, multi-layered tower stands 67m. While it is impressive that such a tall wooden pagoda could survive for so long, visitors cannot ascend it. I visited this pagoda as part of a day-trip arranged by my hostel to the Hanging Temple and while they are one hour apart, the pagoda is worth seeing as a secondary attraction. That said, the public toilet in the temple grounds was the nastiest I’ve ever seen, which forced me to almost run out without using it, and that is saying something (the only detail I’ll provide is no running water) given how many bad washrooms I’ve been to in China.

Aside from the Yungang Grottoes, Datong is a relatively nondescript and not-so-prosperous city. There are a couple of temples, Huayuan Monastery, a huge compound with several halls and a pagoda, and the Shanhua Temple, which features some attractive wooden buildings. The temples are more sleek than most traditional temples in China, with less animal and deity statues on the curved roofs. The Huayuan Monastery looked impressive, but there is a distinct lack of authenticity as only three of its buildings are original, as an employee told me. Meanwhile, another difference is that Huayuan Monastery’s entrance faces east unlike many Chinese temples, due to the Khitans being sun worshippers.

Datong had a mayor who had huge ambitions to build it up into a tourist mecca, which culminated in creating a new “ancient city centre” and putting up towering, brand-new city walls to replicate ancient walls that had been torn down decades earlier. However, this mayor got transferred to the provincial capital Taiyuan, so the city wall was not completed. In addition, the plan saw thousands of residents relocated and homes destroyed. While the wall looks impressive, it is completely fake so I didn’t bother to visit it.
     

Datong



This might look impressive but the wall and towers are all fake.

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Hong Kong · Taiwan · Travel

Photo roundup-Asian airports

When you travel a lot, whether as a tourist or an expat returning home, airports become a familiar place. In Asia, there are a lot of modern, large, and sleek airports. It’s even better when they are attractive or have interesting features, like the ones below.

Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport might be small but the slanted latticed roof of Terminal 1’s immigration hall is a very attractive and welcoming sight for visitors, especially with the reflection on the floor. Every time I see this roof, I never fail to be impressed.

I’ve passed through Hong Kong’s airport, one of the largest in Asia, so many times but it’s still one of the best I’ve been too. The Terminal One departure gates as well as the newer and smaller Terminal Two check-in hall are attractive, especially the wavy ceiling of the latter.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport is another large and attractive one in the region. But despite the throwback metal shed-like appearance of the check-in hall, the departure gate area is another story.

Beijing’s airport is one of the largest in the world but even then, it isn’t as modern as Hong Kong’s airport, as sleek as Bangkok’s, or welcoming as Taipei’s. As with a lot of things in China, size and grandeur take priority over actual convenience and warmth. It does have a cool red ceiling with a layer of stripes below it.


Kuala Lumpur’s airport features a unique brown, lumpy ceiling that is probably based on indigenous hut design.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Yungang Grottoes, Datong

During my final months working in China, I took a couple of weekend trips including to Datong, in Shanxi Province. While Shanxi may be better known as the dusty, heavily polluted, coal-producing center of China, it is also one of the country’s oldest core areas of civilization. China’s coal city of Datong was a former capital of the Northern Wei dynasty, a Xianbei (Mongolian) regime which ruled much of northern China from 386-535 AD, from which was built the impressive Yungang Grottoes. Yungang is one of the three largest and most famous Buddhist grottoes in China. The others include the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan, which I’d visited a few years earlier, and Dunhuang in Gansu. Datong also has a few temples, and a large city wall that was newly built to recreate the city’s old wall. Further away from Datong is the Hanging Temple, a wooden Buddhist temple built on a cliff, and Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda. I also wrote about all this for a newspaper feature about Datong.

Yungang features dozens of caves and countless stone carvings of Buddhas cut onto the cliff walls of a mountain stretching from west to east. There are gigantic towering Buddhas, smaller human-sized ones and even tiny intricate carvings smaller than your hand. The most impressive are the number 7 and 8 caves, the entrances of which are enclosed by multi-story wooden structures. The caves feature giant Buddhas, walls filled with intricate stone Buddhist figures, and cave ceilings painted with colorful murals of scenes from Buddhist legends. It is an impressive sight, as are the giant Buddhas on the outside further down.

 
Continue reading “China travel- Yungang Grottoes, Datong”

Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok revisited- live Muay Thai in a TV studio


One of the things Thailand is most famous for is Muay Thai or Thai boxing or kickboxing. Known as the art of eight limbs, Muay Thai fighters use their elbows and knees to strike in addition to fists and feet so it is a violent and exciting martial art. I became fascinated by the sport after seeing it in movies like Kickboxer and the Quest, both with Jean Claude Van Damme, as well as online videos of Muay Thai fights.

When I first went to Bangkok in 2013, I was finally able to watch it live at the fabled old Lumpinee Stadium. When I went to Bangkok earlier this year, I decided to go watch Muay Thai live again, but at a different venue – the Channel 7 studio. Less high-profile than the Lumpinee fights, the Channel 7 fights take place on Sunday afternoons, is free to attend, and is broadcast live on TV. The venue is a large indoor space that seats around 500 (I may be off by a quite a bit) and is kind of near Chatuchak Market. It is a very raucous environment, especially if you happen to be in the stands where locals are shouting out or offering bets during each fights. The fights were mostly eventful, though I remember one that went the distance but I was puzzled by who the win was awarded to. There were a couple of TKOs but no outright knockouts. During a fight, the most exciting moment is not kicks or punches but when the fightrs clinch and exchange knees.

The venue is situated inside a compound in a residential neighbourhood is across the main road from the Chatuchak Market and subway station, about a 15 minutes’ walk. Because I hadn’t been to the venue before, I actually arrived about 45 minutes early. I took a peek inside the venue, saw a lot of empty seats, so I took a walk around the block and came back. This time, the stands were packed so I went to the side where there were some empty seats. It turned out this was where a lot of bookies were operating, and I jostled with an older man who demanded I give up my seat. I didn’t and he eventually squeezed in next to me, and we spent the whole event side by side. This old guy was one of the main bookies who kept shouting out bets and taking in money throughout the fight. As I don’t know Thai, I couldn’t understand exactly what was going on but I know that the betting would be especially frenetic when people though a knockout would happen.

The more prestigious fights take place at the new Lumpinee Stadium and Rajadamnern Stadium several evenings a week but cost quite a lot for foreigners (around $40 for the standing area, the seats cost much more). But the cards at these stadiums feature more fights and sometimes, there are title fights. For some reason, these stadiums are located in northern Bangkok and are not close to the subway so you need to take a taxi to get to it. It’s not that convenient to go to (if you are a non-local and don’t know your way around) since fights end at after 9.30 pm. The old Lumpinee Stadium was very close to the Lumpinee subway station.

  
Prefight preparation with the fighters outside the entrance. The facilities are rather sparse here.


The TV cameras at the back as well as the live broadcast on the screen to the right.

China · China travel · Travel

Beijing travel- Yonghegong Lama Temple and Imperial Academy


Beijing has so many famous sites that it’s not surprising that its largest temple is somewhat overlooked. But the Yonghegong Lama Temple is still a nice place to visit, being a rare instance of Tibetan Buddhist building that blends both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist architectural aspects. Built in the late 17th century during the Qing Dynasty, Yonghegong actually was a residence for an imperial prince, before being converted into a lamasery, a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks. I first visited it during my first week in Beijing when I came to work there in 2013, then brought a friend visiting from Trinidad there. The temple is always full of worshippers and tourists, and saffron and red-clad Buddhist monks can be seen walking around as well. Unlike some other Chinese temples, the commercial aspect is toned down so there isn’t a ton of vendors and stalls in the temple ground. While the worship halls and the largest building, the three-storey Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at the northern end, are all interesting, the most fascinating aspect of the temple is the exhibit of small Buddhist statues, specifically deities wrapped up in erotic Tantric coupling, as you will see in my photos below.

Across the street from Yonghegong temple in a nearby lane is the Imperial Academy or Guozijian, a former imperial college for officials. As the name implies, it was the highest place of learning in the country and used for training and testing officials throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Built in 1306, making it older than the Yonghegong temple by centuries, the Guozijian is also worth a visit and is a quieter place than the Yonghegong Temple. Inside the ground is also the Confucius Temple, the second largest in the country.

Outside the temple, there are a bunch of fortune-telling and Buddhist paraphernalia stores along Yonghegong street, as well as sadly, numerous beggars, some of whom are handicapped and missing limbs. It might be different now, but back then, there was always a lot of them on that street.


  

After you are done with the Yonghegong Temple, head to the Confucius Temple nearby.

The famous Chinese sage

Emperor’s seat 

Rows of massive stele inscribed with Confucian classics

  


Yonghegong Temple from outside

Nearby Hutong, which may or may not still be around, given Beijing’s recent destruction of hutongs

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok revisited


Bangkok is a city I didn’t like much the first time I went there several years ago. But after going there a couple of times again in the last two years, for brief stays while transiting to other places, I confess I’ve had a change of heart. Not only does Bangkok not seem so noisy, ugly and stifling, I think I might even like it a bit.

Once you go beyond the famous attractions like the Royal Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the mega-malls, there are a number of interesting places to check out.
There is the Big Swing, a giant swing over 15 meters high from which people used to swing on it to try to retrieve something from the post during religious ceremonies (it sounds dangerous and indeed it was banned in 1935 due to a number of deaths), and the elaborate Wat Suthat temple next to it.

There are the many English-language bookstores ranging from Asia Books, a local bookstore chain, to Dasa, a multi-level second-hand bookstore, to Kikokuniya, a large Japanese regional bookstore chain. Compare this with Hong Kong where Dymocks and Page One have both shut down in recent years, leaving only local chain Bookazine for English-language books.

Then, there is Jim Thompson House, the former residence of silk magnate Jim Thompson. The small, but spacious and pleasant compound consists of several red houses, built from teak in the traditional style and brought over from other parts of Thailand, and a garden. The houses are attractive and comfortable, though you can only enter them as part of a tour (which is included as part of the entrance fee). Of course, the houses may be traditional but they are probably much bigger and fancier than the ones regular Thais lived in.
Thompson was an American businessman and intelligence operative (he served in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, during World War II) who settled in Bangkok and built up a silk export business, and disappeared in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. His disappearance remains a mystery even now though his silk brand is still thriving.
There are more, but that will be for another post.


Another form of public transport in Bangkok, which I took to get to the Giant Swing.
These boat taxis run on the narrow canals (klangs) and are different from the Chao Phraya river taxis and not as pleasant. The canal is not very hygienic and the boats are completely enfolded in tarpaulin, which are let down when passengers get on and off, as you can see in this photo. Try it for the experience, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it more than once.


Erawan Shrine, a Hindu shrine located at the corner of a busy intersection surrounded by offices and shopping centers. This was the site of a bombing in August 2015 that killed 20 people and injured over 100. I took this photo in 2016.


   

Asia Books is a local English-language bookstore chain that has a wide selection. This outlet is in Siam Paragon.

Bangkok’s colorful traffic

The Giant Swing


Wat Suthat, another of Bangkok’s beautiful temples, located next to the Giant Swing

It has a massive golden Buddha inside and walls and columns covered from floor to ceiling in intriguing black mosaics.

Europe travel · Travel

London travel- British Museum and Parliament


Two grand British institutions are the British Museum and Parliament at Westminster. The former has been home to artifacts and works of arts since the mid-18th century, the latter has been the site of parliamentary governance since the 13th century.

Whenever I visit major cities, whether it be Cape Town or Hanoi or Xian or Tokyo, history museums are always near the top of my list of places to visit. Obviously in London, the British Museum was a must-visit and it didn’t disappoint. The only thing I regret was not being able to spend more time. There are splendid displays of ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Greek artifacts, as well as sub-Saharan African collection. The huge, central atrium or Great Court features a circular reading room (closed to the public) in the middle, several statues including a giant lion from the 2nd century BC, and a nice, overhead ceiling with an interlacing or tessellated design. The exterior of the museum is a grand but somewhat dowdy gray facade with multiple columns.

Besides the sheer quantity of the collections, it was impressive to be able to view giant pieces such as ancient Egyptian pharaonic statues and tombs and Assyrian lion statues up close. The Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, were in an entire hall. In the African section, there were entire walls of weapons, colorful cloths and the fascinating Benin Bronzes. These were produced by the kingdom of Benin which was situated in Nigeria (the country of Benin is named after this kingdom but was not where it was located).

I managed to see some of the most famous pieces like the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, as well as Benin bronzes, from Nigeria. Incidentally all of these are claimed by their country of origin, which raises the point that many of the items in the museum, such as many Greek and Egyptian artifacts, were taken or bought from other countries, sometimes through surreptitious means. The Louvre in Paris is similar, with many of its famous exhibits hailing from other places.
Meanwhile, the British exhibits were alright, but not particularly memorable other than some Roman-era artifacts. I had hoped there might have been exhibits from the British Empire from the Commonwealth countries such as India and Pakistan, but then that is probably unrealistic because it would be like glorifying the empire.

Ideally many of the items should be returned to their countries if they had been illegally bought or taken. On the other hand, there is no certainty that they would be displayed and maintained in such secure and pristine environments in their home countries as those at the British Museum. Also, the best archaeological techniques and knowledge of the day, when these artifacts were obtained, belonged Western explorers and archaeologists, though of course, they honed this from roaming around the world and obtaining other cultures’ artifacts. While a bit self-serving, the availability of these pieces all in one place in the British Museum allows visitors to enjoy and appreciate the history and past civilizations of almost the whole world.

Short of returning all their exhibits, which would be unrealistic, institutions like the British Museum and their governments should provide more funding to countries from where they got the exhibits from, to help them with their local museums, historical research and archaeological efforts and so on.



Lying on the north bank of the Thames River, the British Parliamentary building or Palace Of Westminster houses both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is easily recognized, with its gray Gothic features, multitude of windows and spires and the Big Ben clock atop Elizabeth Tower on its flank, though its tallest point is Victoria Tower at its southwestern corner. Alongside the building is an impressive black statue of Richard I, the Lionheart, atop a horse with sword in the air. There is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, who helped defeat royalist forces in the 17th century and then ruled England as Lord Protector. There were armed policemen on the grounds, befitting the site of the nation’s parliament, though unfortunately this didn’t prevent a terrorist from running over dozens and killing several people, including a policeman, there earlier this year.

But Westminster Palace isn’t the only attraction in the area. Around it are several impressive old buildings such as Westminster Abbey, where the coronations of British monarchs have been held since 1066, St Margaret’s church, the Sanctuary, and Methodist Central Hall. Meanwhile, to get a good view of the Westminster Palace from the river, we walked down along the riverbank to a park and then onto Lambeth Bridge. For some reason, there was even a small rally opposite the parliament building on Myanmar’s upcoming election urging people to vote NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi and which ended up winning over 80% of contested seats in that election.



Westminster Abbey

The Sanctuary, located next to Westminster Abbey
  

More British Museum photos
  
The Rosetta Stone, from Egypt
     
Close-up of the Benin Bronzes

Books · Travel

Tony Wheeler’s Dark Lands- book review

Written by the guy who founded Lonely Planet, this is a travel book but with a big twist. Instead of sun-kissed, idyllic holiday spots and cities, Tony Wheeler travels to 8 of the most wretched countries in the world. Zimbabwe, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Papua New Guinea and Pakistan are there, though more attractive nations like Israel and Palestine (counted as one) and Colombia also make the cut.

Basically, the premise is that each of these countries has serious security, economic, or environmental problems that render them either dangerous or near impossible to travel in. Obviously, things have changed for a few such as Colombia, which is high on a lot of travel lists, but many people wouldn’t really want to go to most of these places. Tiny, isolated Nauru also makes the cut though more for its status as little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that has squandered its financial wealth from its only natural resource guano or bird crap (seriously). Its story is a bit sad, as it was at one time several decades ago wealthy, but slowly wasted its money on expensive real estate in Australia, most of which it has had seized due to being unable to complete the payments.

Pakistan is a country that is often associated with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and for that, it hardly features in popular media for anything else (its cricket team did win the Champions Trophy tournament on Sunday). In reality, Pakistan is a complex nation with interesting history and politics and beautiful scenery, according to Wheeler, who actually spent four years of his childhood there due to his father’s work at an airline. Wheeler and his wife go there to travel to Xinjiang, China overland via the mountainous Karakorum highway, during which security problems and logistical issues often obstruct their journey. They do make it though.

The chapter on Israel and Palestine sees Wheeler visit both states, which is not easy to do. He goes to various religious sites, such as trekking the Nativity Trail which traces the route Joseph and Mary took to Bethlehem, while also highlighting the absurdity and tragedy of the political situation, in which Israelis and Palestinians live next to each other but are completely divided and segregated, which doesn’t bode well for any improvement in the near future. In Palestine, he goes to Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank. While the situation seems bleak sometimes, he expresses hope it cannot continue forever.

Papua New Guinea is a unique country with its hundreds of tribes, some of which still live as they did hundreds of years, and diverse birds and animals. But Wheeler goes there not to admire wildlife, but to visit the lawless island of Bougainville, east of PNG, which fought a decades-long war for independence in the 1990s and where people can kill with impunity over witchcraft or other petty reasons.

Haiti, sadly, is as bleak as one would expect from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As if poverty and political instability weren’t enough, the country was rocked by a terrible earthquake in 2010 which killed over 100,000 and destroyed much of the urban centres. In the DRC, Wheeler visits a volcano and goes on a gorilla expedition in a country which is still racked by violent conflict and poverty.

While the book title may sound fatalistic, the book gives a nice insight into these lesser-known countries combining travel with cultural, political and historical commentary, and the outcome is more fascinating than bleak.

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

Germany 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.