Engel’s England, and Better than Fiction-book reviews

If you want to learn more about England beyond the touristy and famous places, Engel’s England is a book you should try. This massive book (over 500 pages) covers the entirety of England as author Matthew Engel visited all 39 historic counties as well as London itself. However, let me first make it clear that this is a book aimed more at English readers than international ones. The book isn’t about introducing the counties to foreign readers but searching out and highlighting the essence of these places. That means it can get really local in some parts, with a lot of local descriptions and references such as obscure traditions or festivals specific to the county, town or village. Engels drove a lot especially to little-known small towns and rural villages, which does make much of the book “off the beaten track.”

This also means that you get a really in-depth feel of these counties and their assorted towns and villages. Big cities are often skipped or briefly mentioned, such as Manchester in the Lancashire chapter. I learnt that Leicestershire still practices foxhunting, while cricket was invented in a southern coastal part of England (I’d always thought it originated more in the middle). I also learnt about Rutland, England’s tiniest county which was actually abolished before being reinstated after a campaign.

I admit parts of it were tough to get through, especially in the beginning, but the more I read, the more I enjoyed it.  Some chapters were a pleasure to read. But in the end, I felt like I completed a major journey of my own.

Lonely Planet sometimes publishes some good collections of travel tales, and Better than Fiction- True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers is one of these. Featuring true travel accounts from 32 fiction writers, the book is packed with fun stories, poignant reflections, narrow escapes and even a reporting trip. That is exactly what travel is like. Travel can be adventurous or scary, uplifting or teach us painful life lessons. Regardless of whatever impact you get out of it, travel should always be something you can treasure.

The stories take place all over the world from Antarctica to Africa to Fiji. The authors include travel writers (of course), as well as literary big names like Joyce Carol Oates and Isabel Allende and detective novelist Alexander McCall Smith. There are some fun stories, but it’s not all fun and games. One of the grimmest stories takes place in Xinjiang, China, where the author hires a driver to visit local places and eventually gets tracked down and stopped by the police, who force her to return to the hotel. The driver was not so fortunate. Even though this was many years ago, Xinjiang was under heavy police control.

It’s a very good anthology of real-life travel stories that shows that travel can be a lot of different things.

 

Walking the Nile-book review

As the world’s longest and most famous river, the Nile possesses an significant aura of legend, mystery and fascination. Being the cradle of the Egyptian civilization, the Nile has had a role in recorded human history since almost the beginning. But few have ever walked along the entire Nile, which is where British explorer Levison Wood comes in. Starting from the source of the Nile in Rwanda, Wood trekked along the river over 6,437 kilometers (4000 miles) with various African guides through Uganda, South Sudan, and Sudan to its end in Egypt where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea. This journey is the subject of Wood’s Walking the Nile.

The journey starts off in Rwanda, where, contrary to popular belief, the Nile begins from a humble forest spring that becomes a river flowing to Lake Victoria, where the source was previously thought of as being. During these early stages, Wood and his brash and jaunty guide-turned-friend Ndoole Boston mostly trek through forest and swamp, as well as stay on the shores of Lake Victoria. There are brief pauses at cities like Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and Uganda’s capital Kampala. Wood provides a somber overview of his impressions of Rwanda and its attempt to move on from the horror of the 1994 genocide. While the country has succeeded in becoming an orderly and stable nation, it has also turned into a security state with shades of authoritarianism.

There is also a fair bit of commentary on the history and politics in other countries like Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan, which to me is refreshing. I think that while exploration and travel are great for knowing more about the world, this should include current events or history or politics of places. In a continent like Africa, with its mix of ethnicities and cultures and the impact of colonialism, it’s even more fitting to know more about local history and developments.

Things begin to get really hard as Wood moves northwards. At one point, he is joined by a couple of journalists who plan to walk with him for a week and report on it. Tragically, during an extremely hot day, one of these writers, Matthew Power, gets heatstroke, collapses and then dies. Wood calls for an evacuation and he is understandably shaken. Wood soon resumes the journey while still having some doubts in his mind.

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, presents an extraordinary challenge as it was (and still is) in the grip of a savage civil war. Lots of cash and official help were what got Wood into the country and even then, it was a precarious situation. Wood travels through the Sudd, a large swampland, where he stays with a river cattle-herding tribe, the Mundari, and is bested by them in wrestling. But after reaching the town of Bor, he encountered fighting between rival factions, which forced him to abandon part of the trek. He flies to Sudan and continues it from there. It was sad to read about the savage fighting and dire conditions in this fledgling country, which itself was borne out of war after having fought for its independence for decades against Sudan. It’s hard to feel any optimism for South Sudan.

Sudan does not get much good press or have a good reputation in the world (though this might be changing with the recent peaceful overthrow of its longtime leader). But civil war and conflicts like Darfur aside, Sudan was home to grand ancient civilizations like the Nubian Kushite kingdom. Wood highlights Sudan’s own pyramids in Meroe (capital of the ancient Nubian kingdom of Kush), which might be smaller but no less fascinating and certainly much less crowded than Egypt’s. Part of the journey sees Wood and his companions, including two friends of his, travel through the eastern edge of the Sahara, the Bayuda, which the Romans had ventured thousands of years ago.

When Wood reaches Egypt, things settle down and the journey becomes a steady progression. Walking the Nile is a fine travelogue that combines adventure with current affairs, archaeology and anthropology. It’s not surprising that Wood went on to do further treks through the Himalayas, Central Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and Central America. The man is as intrepid as they come.

 

Europe travel-Vatican Museums, one of the world’s best


When I visited Italy a few years ago, I have to confess that I almost didn’t want to go to the Vatican. I found Rome really fascinating with so much to see. Luckily, I decided to visit the Vatican on my final day in Rome otherwise I would have missed out on one of the best museum experiences in my life. This would be the Vatican Museums, a grouping of fantastic museums boasting beautiful and historic artworks, sculptures and painted ceilings, including Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the famous Sistine Chapel.

The Vatican Museums is a grouping of over 20 Christian and art museums situated within one complex featuring over 50 galleries. It’s designed so that visitors can only go mainly in one direction. It’s smart because it allows you to take in everything on display, prevents people from getting lost, and eventually leads to the Sistine Chapel.

I went on a weekday and it was incredibly crowded, especially at the entrance where the line extended outside and around the corner (I’d booked a ticket online so I got to avoid lining up). Inside was just as crowded, though when you’ve spent time in China as I have, you never mind crowds anywhere else.

The museum is well worth enduring the crowds. There are beautiful paintings, lifelike historical sculptures, colorful painted ceilings, resplendent tapestries, and more. One of the most fascinating exhibits is a gallery of giant color maps of Italy created in the 16th century on the walls on both sides, while the ceiling is filled with golden decor and paintings. There are outdoor courtyard, with one featuring Roman sculptures as well as a more spacious one with lawns and giant bronze orbs.

While most of the artwork and exhibits are hundreds or even over a thousand years old, even dating back to Roman times, there are also galleries with modern contemporary paintings as well as a few done by 20th century masters like van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling is great, though it’s hard to appreciate it fully with all the people inside and the guards yelling at people not to take photos (it’s forbidden, allegedly due to the ceiling’s image rights being owned by a Japanese company; some say it’s to allow people to enjoy the artwork better).

I don’t think I covered everything in the Vatican Museums though I was there for at least 3 hours. I certainly wouldn’t mind going back to visit it.

How to get there: Get off at Ottaviano subway station and walk southwest.
Note: To avoid lining up, buy your ticket online (there is a small booking fee).


Perseus with the head of Medusa

  

Exploring Taipei

View of Taipei
Taiwan’s capital Taipei is one of my favorite cities in the world, having been my home for many years over the last decade. My mother and most of her family like my grandmother, aunt and cousins live in Taipei, having been there for decades. As a modern, orderly city, it’s got the advantages of being first-world and prosperous while also being relatively laidback, especially when compared with Hong Kong, Tokyo, or many Chinese cities. It’s definitely a great place to live, though working is another matter. A lot of people really enjoy the food in Taipei, but for me, it’s the comfort, safety and general pleasantness of the city that stands out (I like Taipei for living, not for traveling), as well as the hiking you can do in and around Taipei.

I recently wrote about Taipei for Rough Guides website, specifically on five places to enjoy and explore, that are not night markets, Taipei 101 or the National Palace Museum. Besides an article I wrote many years ago about Taipei’s Yongkang Street food places (my first and only food article), I haven’t really written about Taipei travel, because having lived there for so long, I don’t really see it as place to travel. This changed last year when I had some free time and decided to visit more places in the city, which culminated in the Rough Guides article.

I came to realize Taipei has a lot of different and fascinating aspects, especially nature and historical. These places might not be individually famous or spectacular but they are very much well worth visiting and make Taipei special.

These places are Yangmingshan mountain park; the city’s hiking trails; Beitou hot spring area; Guandu (which features a wetland park and a large historic temple); Daan Park, Taipei’s largest park; and the historic neighborhood of Dadaocheng. Besides these, there are other interesting, historic and scenic parts of Taipei.

Yangmingshan
This is a large park in a mountain range just north of Taipei which features dormant volcanoes and active fumaroles that spew sulfur into the air. Yangmingshan also has mountain trails, grasslands and gardens all entirely on the mountain range.
Yangmingshan fumarole, Taipei

Dadaocheng
This historic neighborhood used to be a busy trading hub in the 19th and 20th centuries due to its proximity to the Keelung river. Now, it’s Taipei’s best preserved historical district and features loads of colonial buildings, shops, and museums. It also hosts Taipei’s annual Lunar New Year outdoor market.
Dadaocheng, Taipei

Beitou
This is a historic hot spring holiday destination that fulfills the same purpose to this day. Beitou has a lot of hot spring resorts and an outdoor bath, a sulphuric lake and a cool library. See my post on my travel blog here for more about Beitou.
Thermal Valley, Beitou

Guandu
I’d never come here before but it’s a low-key area to the north of Taipei that just happens to have a wetland park as well as a magnificent temple, one of the biggest and most exquisite East Asian temples I’ve ever seen.

Guandu Nature Park wetland, Taipei

City hikes
Taipei is ringed with mountains and hills, several of which offer pleasant hikes and fine views of the city. While Xiangshan is the most popular due to its being close to Taipei 101, Fuzhoushan offers a nice, less-crowded alternative where you can also see Taipei 101. Jiantan Mountain is a fine ridge walk that also has some nice views (see the photo at the top of this blog post).
Fuzhoushan, Taipei

Daan Park
It’s Taipei’s version of Central Park, though much smaller. It’s also got a cool MRT subway station that resembles a giant turbine engine.
Daan Park MRT, Taipei

 

Hiking Hong Kong’s Dragon’s Back

Dragon's Back, Hong Kong

For such a tiny place, Hong Kong has some really great hikes. The Dragon’s Back is probably one of the world’s most scenic and pleasant coastal hikes. Located on the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, Dragon’s Back is a mountain ridge that overlooks Shek O Bay. Besides the views, what makes Dragon’s Back great is that the hike is only a short bus ride from a subway station.

The hike starts from a path next to the To Tei Wan stop, which I got to on the #9 bus from Chai Wan subway station. Before you get on the path, you can enjoy fine views on the opposite side of the road (this being the west side of a peninsula) of Tai Tam bay and a ringed apartment complex. The path goes up a long flight of stairs but once you reach the top, it’s a nice walk along a ridge during which you enjoy unobstructed views of Shek O Bay, beaches, villages, and the Tai Tam headland.

Dragon’s Back is a very well-known hike and I’ve heard that the trail is full of people on weekends as it’s popular with locals, expats and visitors. As such, I chose to go on a weekday when I had free time so there were only a handful of people.

After Dragon’s Back, the trail heads gradually downward to a forest path on the hill that goes on a clockwise loop (see the map on this site) down to Big Wave beach. It’s a completely different sensation walking along this path shaded by trees, vegetation and streams after the wide open views from Dragon’s Back. This trail is also section 8 of the Hong Kong trail, a 50-km islandwide route that goes across the entire Hong Kong Island.

The loop adds at least an hour to the hike and while it is not hard, I had the misfortune of tripping over a large brown snake while staring at Googlemaps on my phone. Luckily, the only harm I suffered was a huge fright that resulted in me jumping twice (the first after I tripped, and the second after I realized it was a snake and not a long piece of rope). I definitely learned my lesson not to stare at my phone while walking along quiet forest paths.

The forest path eventually reaches a concrete clearing where it diverges into two paths heading in opposite directions. I took the path to the right and walked all the way (there are at least two side paths on this trail you can use to head back down if you don’t want to continue onwards) to Big Wave beach, then proceeded to Shek O village in a taxi shared with a HK couple (who kindly paid the full fare and refused to accept money from me).

The village features a headland, where you can look out on the South China Sea. While it’s probably a 10-15 minute walk between Big Wave beach and Shek O village, I was not in the mood to walk after just completing a 3-hour hike.
Dragon's Back, Hong Kong
Dragon's Back, Hong KongDragon's Back, Hong KongHong Kong
Forest trail on the way down from Dragon’s Back
Hong Kong Hong Kong Shek O, Hong Kong
Shek O village
Hong Kong
Big Wave beach
Hong Kong
View from across the road after getting off at the bus stop
Hong Kong
Shek O village

Berlin travel-Wall’s East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery, Berlin
The Berlin Wall is probably the starkest visual symbol of the Cold War. It divided the western or “free” part of Berlin from the eastern part that was under East German authoritarian rule until it was famously torn down in 1989, marking the end of the Cold War and the unification of Germany. Some of the wall is kept intact as a memorial and a lesson for future generations to heed. But there is one part of the Wall that serves as a symbol of joy, not sadness. This is the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km section of the wall that is covered by 105 colorful graffiti artwork. There are caricatures, wacky abstract patterns, and fantasy figures.

One of the most well-known graffiti artworks is a kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, president of East Germany, which was based on a real photo (which I didn’t know before). The graffiti painting actually has its own name “My God, help me to survive this deadly love.” The kiss was known as a socialist fraternal kiss, done by communist leaders as a greeting during the 20th century.

Situated along the river Spree, the East Side Gallery is a very pleasant place to visit, not to mention it is completely free. As a plus, the nearby Oberbaum bridge, on which road traffic and subway trains travel, looks like a medieval castle with its two towers and Gothic style design.
East Side Gallery, Berlin
Iconic kiss painting of the former Soviet and East Germany leaders (they really did do that in real life)
East Side Gallery, Berlin
Berlin
Oberbaum bridge
East Side Gallery, Berlin East Side Gallery, Berlin    East Side Gallery, Berlin

East Side Gallery, Berlin
A truly fitting message for these times
East Side Gallery, Berlin
Not all the colorful artwork was on the wall