Europe travel · Travel

Italy travel- magnificent Milano

While Rome was the highlight of my visit to Italy during my Europe trip, Milan was actually my first stop. While the Italian financial and fashion center is not as well-known as the likes of Venice or Florence for travelling, I thought Milan was a fine city to visit. It is one of Italy’s most prosperous, being the seat of the country’s stock exchange, and modern cities, but Milan also has a very old historical heritage, said to have been founded in 600 BC by the Celts and being part of the Roman empire. However, Milan also fell under the control of the Habsburgs from the 16th to mid-19th centuries.

I’d chosen to visit Milan not because of finance, fashion or even football (I’m not a fan of Inter or AC Milan), but for its giant, white Duomo cathedral, plus the fact it was in Northern Italy and just a few hours from my previous stop in France. In addition, the city also had the fascinating Sforza castle, the 4th century AD-built Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, as well as the beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, which is right next to the Duomo. There were also the Pinocoteca di Brera art gallery, with its many fine paintings, and a very interesting science and technology museum.

When I pulled into Milan’s Porto Garibaldi station and took the subway to my hotel, I had little idea of what to expect. I was wary of the language barrier and getting around, but it turned out to be relatively easy. I actually found that there was more English in Milan than in France, such as with museums and street signs. Also my hotel turned out to be Chinese-run, so I ended up speaking Chinese to the staff. Interesting, there seems to be a small Chinese community in Milan, consisting both of immigrants and students.

The Duomo was as impressive in real life as in the photos I’d seen, especially the massive interior where it felt like being in a cavern. The giant columns, stained glass windows and various statues were very attractive. I also went up to the roof where you can get a good view of the surrounding area as well as the myriad spires and other structures.
The open area in front of the cathedral was packed with people, including tourists, locals as well as dodgy characters holding strings which they are said to tie on unsuspecting tourists’ wrists and force them to pay money. Next to the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, a high-end open shopping arcade with very attractive roof and floor decorations. On the floor tiles in the center, there were four coat of arms, those of Rome, Florence, Turin (capitals of the Kingdom of Italy), and Milan. Turin’s coat of arms features a giant bull on whose testicles (yes, really) which people stand upon and spin themselves because doing so is said to bring good luck. So many people do that so that there is a hole on the spot where the bull’s testicles are.


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Europe travel · Travel

Paris travel- Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe


The most recognizable symbol in Paris is probably the Eiffel Tower, with the Arc de Triomphe second. Previously, my mother and I had appreciated the Eiffel Tower from afar, atop the Montparnasse Tower, but on our third day in the city we went right up to the tower. But before that, we had coffee at Les Deux Magots, a cafe where famous literature and artistic personalities like Hemingway, Sartre and Picasso met and ate at; then visited the Arc de Triomphe, which we walked to from the busy tree- and store-lined Champs-Elysees. The Arc was much bigger than I’d expected and I didn’t realize it was a 19th century military memorial. That said, I wasn’t awed by any one particular structure, but all these places just confirmed my impression from the previous days – Paris is a beautiful city.


It might seem very old-fashioned but it is convenient that Parisian metro stations have giant metal signs with their names right above the entrances

The Luxor obelisk, an over-3000-year-old obelisk given by Egypt to France in 1829, at the Place de la Concorde

The Arc de Triomphe also features the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorializing the dead of World War I.

River Seine across from the Eiffel Tower

China travel · Japan travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.


Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).


Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.


Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.


The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.

 


As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.


While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.


I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.


As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.


Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.


I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.

Europe travel · Travel

France travel- Versailles


The Palace of Versailles is synonymous with French royalty and grandeur, having been built by the Sun King, Louis XIV to serve as his royal court. Completed in 1682, it served as the royal court and remained so for about 100 years before the court moved back to Paris. During that period, the nobility had to stay at Versailles, so remaining under the eye and control of the king. This is covered in the ongoing trans-Atlantic Versailles period drama series.

When we visited France, my mother and I took a day to venture to this immense royal complex. The complex was much bigger than I’d imagined, and I could see why it was so famous, both for its opulence and size. We took the train from Paris to Versailles (the town), then walked towards the palace along a pleasant street.

Approaching the complex, I saw a giant statue, a paved open space, and a courtyard filled with people in a line that snaked across to form an N shape. We got in line and it took about an hour to get in. We checked out a lot of different rooms and halls, including the opulent Hall of Mirrors, the painted ceilings, the rooms where the king and queen lived and entertained, and a brief glance of the gardens in the back, which required a separate admission fee. Everything inside was exquisite, whether the columns, the windows, the paintings, or the stairs, so much that it was almost like an overload. There are additional buildings on the grounds that you can take a shuttle to, but we didn’t have enough time.


The man himself, Louis XIV

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Books · China · Travel

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.

Europe travel · Travel

England travel- Cambridge


Besides London, the only other place in England I’ve been to is Cambridge. Done as a daytrip from London, visiting Cambridge (as opposed to say, Oxford) was actually my mother’s decision, since a famous 20th-century Chinese poet had gone to Cambridge and written a memorable poem, which has since attracted many Chinese and Taiwanese to visit there. Anyways, we took the train to Cambridge, passing through some beautiful English countryside. At the town, we headed to the university, took a boat (punt) ride on the river Cam, toured King’s College Chapel, a neat and exquisite church, and strolled through an open-air market. The university is large, open, with university buildings spread among the town, and boasts a lot of impressive stone buildings, as expected from such a great university founded in 1209. We spent several hours there but still weren’t able to see all the main buildings.

The punt (flat bottom boat steered with a pole in front) ride was quite pleasant. During the ride, we passed a lot of attractive buildings on the riverside while treated to commentary by the boatman about the university college buildings, and self-deprecating anecdotes about his personal life. At the end as he drew up to the pier, he warned us not to get up yet, but he correctly predicted that the father of a mainland Chinese family on our boat would do exactly that.

  

Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Malaysia travel- Malacca


This year 2017 is the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. However, while I don’t regard this regional multilateral organization as too useful, I do like the region a lot. I’ve visited several Southeast Asian countries before 2017 and I made my first visit to Malaysia earlier this year.

Malaysia is well-known for its food, its multicultural society, and places like the former colonial straits settlements of Penang and Malacca, and the towering 4,000m+ Mt Kinabalu. Its capital Kuala Lumpur is also well-known for the Petronas Towers, giant skyscraper twins that used to be the tallest building in the world. As I visited Malaysia during the Spring Festival, my modest itinerary was Malacca and Kuala Lumpur.

The port city of Malacca, for which the adjacent strait is named after, has a very mixed background. It used to be a powerful sultanate that was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, who in turn were defeated by the Dutch in 1641. In the early 19th century, the British took Malacca from the Dutch (mirroring the fates of South Africa’s Cape Town and Galle in Sri Lanka) and Malacca became a Straits Settlement. After the British gave up its Malay holdings, Malacca became part of the Federation of Malaya, which became Malaysia.

As such, Malacca’s main historical colonial sights are Dutch, such as the distinguished Stadthuys and the Christ Church, both of which dominate the Red Square and are painted in red. Malacca also has several streets filled with historical buildings and a small lively Chinatown, also known as Jonkers street. Malacca isn’t very big and the main sights are concentrated in Red Square and the adjacent streets so one or two days is quite enough. I was even thinking of doing a daytrip from Kuala Lumpur but I decided to stay overnight instead, which turned out to be a good decision.

Red Square features Christ Church and a distinctive red clock tower alongside the Stadthuys, a long, elegant building that was built by the Dutch in 1650 as the governor’s administrative building, then became a school under the British but now houses Malacca’s history museum. Further up from the Stadthuys on a very small hill are small museums highlighting Malaysian literature and democracy as well as the former house of the Dutch governor (all covered by the). At the top of the hill is the ruins of St Paul’s Church, which still features the graves of several European settlers. The shell of the church remains intact but the roof is missing. Built by the Portuguese and then taken over by the Dutch, the church was abandoned after the Dutch built Christ Church in Red Square. On the other side of the small hill is a surviving gate of A Formosa, a 16th century Portuguese fortress that was torn down by the British.

Jonkers Street is across from Red Square, on the other side of the canal. It’s filled with old buildings, temples, and stores. It was especially festive when I went as it was during Chinese New Year, with Chinese lanterns and umbrellas strung up over the street, but the buildings are the main attraction. Another good street is Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock or Heeren Street, which also has a lot of historic buildings, including the Baba & Nyonya Museum and mansions. Baba & Nyonya refers to the community of mixed Chinese-Malays, also known as Peranakan, in Malaysia and Singapore and who have distinct culture and even language. This street is parallel to Jonkers Street and a little less quieter with less restaurants but grander buildings such as the Chee Ancestral Mansion (see below).

In the surrounding streets, there are also Chinese and Hindu temples and mosques, signifying the diverse nature of the city. Near the canal before you reach the bridge to cross to Red Square, there are some huge murals on the side of some buildings, like in the first photo in this post. There are more historical and cultural sights such as the Malay Sultanate Palace museum and Maritime museum so if you have time, check those out too. While my time in Malacca was brief, it was a good introduction to Malaysia with its attractive colonial buildings and laidback (but not dowdy or boring) nature.


Chee Ancestral Mansion
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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.
  
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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.

 
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