Sri Lanka travel- visiting the hill town of Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
The mountainous interior of Sri Lanka, Hill Country, is full of mountains, picturesque towns, and hillside plantations where the country’s famous tea is grown. Among the largest towns in the Hill Country is Nuwara Eliya, considered the centre of the country’s tea industry. As a former British colonial hill station, Nuwara Eliya was a favorite holiday retreat for British officials, hence its wooden bungalows, a charming post office, and a horse-racing track that is still used today.

The town is a good base for visiting tea plantations and waterfalls in the nearby hills, as well as Horton Plains National Park (several hours away by car), where you can visit World’s End, a cliff edge with a massive drop of 4,000 feet. Nuwara Eliya itself features Single Tree Hill, and a small lake, as well as Pidurutalagala, the country’s tallest mountain.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Hiking up Single Tree Hill, so called for a lone tree at the top (not actually true), provides great views of the town as well as the tea plantations on its slopes. It’s a relatively easy hike because most of it is along a small road which is not too steep. At the top, you can either go back down the way you came or clamber down not-so-clearly-marked trails through residential neighborhoods. Watch out you don’t accidentally trespass onto a tea plantation as I did!

To actually visit a large tea plantation, just go outside Nuwara Eliya to Pedro’s tea factory (3.5 km away). You can get a guided tour of the factory to see how they sort and process the tea, and then walk around the tea plantation outside the factory. Very conveniently, just opposite the road from Pedro’s is a trail that leads to Lover’s Leap waterfall, a 30m-high waterfall on a cliff. I took a tuktuk from town to Pedro’s, then after completing the hike, I took a local bus back to Nuwara Eliya.

How to get to Nuwara Eliya: Take a train to Nanu Oya station, then a tuktuk into town. If you want to be fancy, hire a local car and driver to take you from cities like Kandy or Colombo.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
View from Single Hill Tree
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Japan travel- the holy island of Miyajima

Miyajima, Japan
Near the city of Hiroshima lies the holy island of Itsukushima or Miyajima, as it’s more commonly called. Tiny and sparsely populated, Miyajima is one of Japan’s most well-known destinations as it is where the famous “floating” torii gate lies, in the waters just off the coast of Itsukushima Shrine. Also called the “Island of the Gods,” Miyajima has been a place of worship for over a thousand years.

You’ve probably seen this giant orange “floating” torii gate in photos or blogs, as I did before I came to the island. However, Miyajima also features several temples, in addition to Itsukushima Shrine, and a 500m-high mountain that provides great views of the island and the Inland Sea.

Miyajima’s “floating” torii gate is among the first things you’ll notice when you come across on the ferry from the mainland. The torii gate certainly “floats” during the day when the water is at high tide, and you can get a closer view from the shore of Itsukushima Shrine. However, I only realized that in the late afternoon, the water recedes from the shore during low tide which allows you to walk right up to the giant orange torii gate. The low tide exposes the foundations of the torii gate, which are firmly rooted to the beach “floor,” hence it isn’t really floating (see below).

Torii gate aside, Itsukushima Shrine is an important temple. Dedicated to three daughters of a Shinto god, Itsukushima is considered so important that since 1878, no births or deaths have been permitted near the shrine. That means pregnant women on the island, as well as the very sick or elderly who are near death, are expected to leave for the mainland to give birth.

On the way from the ferry pier to Itsukushima Shrine is a street lined with shops and restaurants, as well as wild deer wandering all over the place. As with the city of Nara which is well-known for its deer park, the deer here are friendly and curious, walking up to people and letting themselves be fed. Along the coast is a tiny beach which was just a little bit wider than a sidewalk.

The most important temple, Daishō-in Temple, is located in a pleasant complex on the lower slopes of Mt Misen. There are several halls as well as dozens of small stone statues and even a small cave hall. At the back of the temple complex is the start of a hiking path to Mt Misen. I took this trail, which passes through a waterfall and a few small temples before reaching the top. I write about the hike in a separate post.

I also enjoyed visiting Senjokaku (Toyokuni Shrine), a wooden temple with a large, open interior built in 1587. While it was dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s three great warlords that unified the nation, Senjokaku’s construction was stopped after Toyotomi died. But I think this state of incompletion adds to the charm of the temple. Its open roomless layout means it’s a good place to sit and enjoy the breeze while taking in the many paintings hung on the ceiling.

Next to Senjokaku is a five-storey pagoda that was built in 1407, making it older than Senjokaku.

How to get there: Take a ferry from the mainland to Miyajima, which takes 10 minutes. The ferry terminal on the mainland is a short walk from Miyajima-guchi train station. Miyajima-guchi station is a 25-minute train ride (some trains may take longer) from Hiroshima. There is also a direct ferry from Hiroshima to Miyajima.
Miyajima, Japan Miyajima, Japan
Senjokaku (Toyokuni Shrine), above and below
Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
Daishō-in Temple (above and below)
Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima’s deer are a friendly bunch
Miyajima, Japan
However, the island’s deer aren’t big, as the size of this buck shows
Miyajima, Japan
Itsukushima Shrine
Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
Miyajima, Japan
The massive toii gate during low tide
Miyajima, Japan

Goodbye Miyajima!

Saladin- book review

I’ve always been fascinated by Saladin, the great military leader of the Muslim Arabs or Saracens who fought and won victories against Western Crusaders in the 12th century. His victories culminated in him capturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders, but he was also lauded for his generosity and integrity. I was eager to read more about Saladin’s life and John Man’s Saladin – the Life, the Legend and the Islamic Empire didn’t disappoint.

I first heard about Saladin when reading about the Second Crusade and the exploits of the English King Richard I or “Lionheart”, himself another famous military leader, who led the Crusaders. While Richard I was able to achieve some success, he was unable to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin, who had captured it earlier. Richard I negotiated a settlement with Saladin in 1192 and left the Middle East to return to Europe, while Saladin himself would pass away the following year. However, I didn’t know anything about Saladin’s life before that point, when he was in charge of the Arabs and hailed as the savior of Islam.

Saladin was actually a Kurd born in Tikrit, a city in what is now Iraq, and his father was a noted military leader. At that time, the Middle East was divided into Muslim and Christian territories, including several major city states like Jerusalem and Acre. Held by lords and knights who came over from Europe, and reinforced by Crusaders drawn by the goal of taking the “Holy Land” (and pillage) from the Muslims, the Christian city states constantly fought the Muslims, themselves divided into different factions like the Abbasids and Fatimids.

While Saladin had a strong mentor, he reached a point where he surpassed him. He wasn’t above committing brutal acts like ordering the execution of enemies after taking Cairo from a rival Muslim faction, but once firmly in power, he abstained from further killings. He won battles against the Franks, including the Battle of Hattin, where he captured several Christian leaders including the then King of Jerusalem. Also, after taking Jerusalem (my favorite movie Kingdom of Heaven focuses on this event), he prevented mass slaughter and allowed Christians and Jewish residents to go free after paying ransom.

John Man is a famous historian and prolific author who has written numerous books about Genghis Khan, the Mongols, Attila and ancient China. However, this was the first time I’d ever read his work. He writes in a very contemporary style, almost conversational, so much so that the book reads less like history and almost like a novel. Sometimes I didn’t quite enjoy it because it seemed a little simple, but overall Saladin was an enjoyable and fascinating read.

Sri Lanka travel- Colombo photo roundup

Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, is a very interesting city with a number of fascinating and picturesque sites, ranging from a beachfront park to elegant colonial-era buildings to temples and mosque, to a small city lake. Walking around parts of the city such as Fort district, with its colonial architecture, and Pettah, with its candy-coloured mosque, Hindu temples, gold shops, and market, were very nice experiences.

Colombo is worth a visit, and is rather safe and orderly. It might be a little noisy, a little rundown in a few parts, and hustlers will approach you from time to time, but in general, it is a good city to explore. As a followup to my previous post about exploring Colombo, this is a photo roundup of the city.

Colombo, Sri Lanka
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Swiss Watching- book review

I enjoy reading about different countries, but Switzerland has never really struck me as fascinating. Sure, it’s famous for making expensive watches and has stunning mountains, but I’d always considered it to be a bland wealthy country, exemplified by its neutral status. However, my perception has changed thanks to Swiss Watching- Inside Europe’s Landlocked Island by Diccon Bewes, an English expat who moved to the country for love and now lives there.

For one, I learned that the country is way more diverse than I’d imagined. For instance, Switzerland doesn’t have one single common native tongue, but four official languages- French, Italian, German, and Romansh, a truly indigenous language but mainly spoken in just one district. This means that the Swiss have different native tongues, depending on where they grew up, but will also speak one or more other languages, including English. The Swiss are also multi-religious with different parts being traditionally Catholic or Protestant, and they also have a large population of immigrants (21 percent according to Bewes).

This multilingualism is a result of a history in which separate districts or cantons joined together gradually from 1291 whilst retaining a sort of independence. Over the centuries, this loose confederacy endured and solidified into a nation, whilst developing an identity that is both proud but does not rely much on national icons. For instance, there are no great Swiss kings or leaders, and even in modern times, the president is not that important – they only serve one-year terms! The country is also not part of the UN or the EU, and stayed out of World War II, though their banks did hold stolen gold for the Nazis.

The Swiss do take their country seriously. For example, every male must do a period of compulsory military service, then is given a gun to keep at home for use in the event of war (I wish Taiwan would take defense as seriously). In their democracy, public participation plays a big role in the form of referendums. Two cantons even maintain the tradition of having public election meetings on one day every year where local matters are resolved by vote.

Bewes describes familiar aspects of the country like its love for hiking (no surprise given its many mountains), its tasty chocolates, its craftsmanship as exemplified by its expensive watches, its banking service, and the national train service. However, he also points out contradictions such as how the Swiss are both resistant to change but innovative, and treasure their privacy but tolerate a strong level of government intrusion. In fact, Bewes says that this is what makes Switzerland so interesting and I would agree.

There is a lot of interesting facts about Switzerland. For instance, it wasn’t always neutral as it fought wars with the Austrians, the Burgundians and others up until 1515. That’s when the Swiss suffered a bloody defeat to the French at  a village called Marignano. The Swiss decided never to fight again as a nation, though that led to Swiss soldiers banding together and going around Europe to fight for other nations and kingdoms as mercenaries. The Pope’s Swiss Guards, who guard the Pope in the Vatican while holding medieval spears and decked out in resplendent uniforms, are the sole surviving unit of Swiss mercenary tradition.

Also, Swiss people invented velcro, the division sign, aluminium foil, and the LSD (yes, the hallucinogenic drug). But not the cuckoo clock, which actually came from neighboring Germany.

While the book is not a travelogue, Bewes does visit different parts of the country to showcase aspects like the 35-km Swiss Path in which every canton is represented; sites associated with Heidi, the country’s most famous novel, and its writer; and a factory where one can still see cheese being made.

Besides the discourses on Swiss history, politics, society, and economy, Bewes fills the book with lots of humour but it’s clear he has a lot of affection for his adopted country. I admit Switzerland was not at the top of the list of European countries I want to visit, but having read Swiss Watching, it has now moved up a bit.

Berlin travel- Museum mania

Berlin, Germany

I really like visiting museums, especially those that focus on history and anthropology. Berlin is ideal for museum lovers like myself because of its Museum Island, a cluster of museums on the northern half of an island in the Spree River, right in the middle of the city. Museum Island consists of five museums, each with a different focus and each housed in a magnificent building. For example, the Neues has Egyptian and prehistoric collections, the Pergamon has ancient Middle Eastern artifacts while the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) holds 19th-century artwork.

I didn’t have time to visit all of these museums so I chose the Neues (New) Museum, which despite its name was built in 1859. It’s new compared to the neighboring Altes (Old) Museum was built in 1830. The Neues Museum featured a great Egyptian collection featuring mummies, tombs, papyrus scrolls, and busts of pharaohs, as well as Germanic and Celtic exhibitions.

I also wanted to visit a museum about German history so immediately afterwards, I went to the German Historical Museum, which is just down the road from Museum Island. The museum features cool suits of medieval knight armor and weaponry, medieval paintings of battles and royalty, German cars, as well as World War II posters and newspaper clippings. However, I wasn’t able to see everything since the museum was about to close so I missed out on a few of the exhibits.

Also on Museum Island is the Berlin Cathedral, a neat fortress-like Protestant church with a massive green dome flanked by two smaller green domes. The domes remind me of Orthodox churches and the Kremlin. Built in 1905, the Berlin Cathedral actually isn’t very old and isn’t even a proper cathedral because it’s not the seat of a bishop.

Earlier that day, I had visited a friend in a scenic residential part of town, that had a park with horses and a barn nearby as well as a horseshoe-shaped housing complex. While the inner parts of Berlin, like the one I was staying in, seem rather gritty and gray, the residential neighborhood was like a whole different world. I wish I could have spent longer in Berlin.

Berlin Cathedral
Berlin Cathedral
Museum Island, Berlin
Alte Nationalgalerie

Neues Museum

Berlin
Neues Museum exhibit, Berlin
Berlin, Germany
Ancient elk skeleton, found in Berlin, dating from 10,700 BC!

Altes Museum

Knight on horseback, German National Museum

Berlin, Germany



In a much different part of town, a horse pasture in a residential park