My family and I had just returned travelling in Japan. This time we traveled to another part of Japan – it was a a journey through the Northern Japanese Alps and Onsens. The weather was as expected rainy (late June through to mid-July). These are our photos.
These are photos of my recent excursion on the Kinabatangan River in Sandakan, Sabah, East Malaysia. There are several lodges and we decided to stay at Sukau Rainforest Lodge. It is a luxury lodge. Budget accommodations are available along the river. This 3D/2N package included the Sepilok Rehabilitation Center, Sun Bear Conservation Center, Rainforest Discovery Center and the Gomantong Caves. Sandakan town is a great place to hang around, enjoying the local fruits and local delicacies. After Sandakan we headed to Melangkap, a gravel river with Mt Kinabalu as its’ backdrop. A cool place to chill out.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda ( Dacien Temple) was built in 652AD during the Tang dynasty. Today it is 64 m tall. The pagoda shaped tower had been rebuilt several times due to damage caused by earthquakes. The original one collapsed and rebuilt in 704AD and again in 1556. One important role it played was to keep Buddhist sutras, paintings, relics and other structures brought from India into China. Burning incense wafted through the still cold air. There are several squares, courtyards and water features including water fountains around the complex. It is a pleasant place to wander. Sounds of kids playing in the gardens added some pleasant distraction. This pagoda temple is an icon from the early Xian and ancient China. Another iconic building is the Small Wild Goose pagoda, which I had missed. Nearby the temple is a great vegetarian restaurant. About half an hours walk brought us to upmarket coffee shops and bars. However, it was subdued and probably become active in the evenings. A local bus to and from the city centre is easily available. The Bell Tower Hotel is ideally located for transport connections and sightseeing.
Travelling in winter had it challenges but gave a different perspective of traveling. Unfortunately, smog pollution for burning coal is unavoidable in winter. It had been at hazardous level during our travels. Furthermore, the big Spring Festival was just 10 days away and traffic can become congested. Pre-purchasing onward travel like trains is advisable, as we did.
We passed a park on our way towards the City Wall South (Yongning – eternal peace) Gate, we were greeted with a Whitney Houston song I Will Always Love You…….a light and sound show was being set up. Against the wall, huge banners and a stage under construction. Large lanterns were randomly placed. A PA system, large speakers and electronic gadget were being tested for a show, perhaps later in the day. I was quite taken back by the earlier sights as we made our way up the ancient wall. This was a historic moment for us. However! There were more surprises, the set had also been established on the wall. Large brightly coloured lanterns – a mythical horse with a cockerels tail, a yellow chick and many more. We continued to walk on the wall, to our relief, there were no more. Only the ancient Ming Dynasty wall and smog to contend with.
I read somewhere that there is an opportunity to cycle on the fortress wall. This wall was built by previous dynasties but during the Ming era, a bigger and stronger wall was built. Hence the existing Ming Wall. Although the pollution level was very high, at 320ppm, I looked forward to this ride. Past the moat and strangely as we entered through the South Gate We hired bicycles (be prepared to have 200 yuan for cash deposit plus payment) and went on our way in anticlockwise direction. The old outer wall was built during the Sui and Tang periods (around 194 BC). Changan, was the capital of Tang Dynasty. The existing Ming Wall (built around 1370) is only one seventh of the original Tang dynasty wall, which stretched to include the Big Goose Pagoda. It had been restored and preserved over the years by successive rulers. Part of the old wall may be seen in places. This Ming Wall stretches for about 14 km. Cycling was fun, although, the surface is uneven. Unfortunately, due to a heavy smog, visibility was very poor. We could almost see the silhouettes of tall modern buildings outside the wall. There are several main and minor gates, towers, a golden roofed Tibetan Temple along the way. At some walls, there is a steep narrow passage, probably to enable horses and men to travel up the wall. Some gate had several layers of structures. Small museums are also dotted around the wall. The whole walled city was surrounded by a moat. 12 km of cycling in the heavy smog should be done at a leisure pace, to avoid heavy breathing. We exited from the East (Changle – meaning eternal joy) Gate. It was a wonderful experience. I can only imagine the soldiers, horses and noblemen rambling along the walls and the flags fluttering in the wind.
On the glittering side of modern Xian, cafes are dotted here and there. A cup of latte can cost uo to 30 yuan (NZ$6). These places are seen as yuppie or trendy places to be and to be seen. To me, these places offered respite from the hustle and bustle of commerce; the dirt from the thick traffic and temporary shelter from the hazardous polluted air. Some of the coffee was good too. Xian is noticeably clean. Workers cleaned throughout the day and night. Late at night I watched a group of women cleaning the under passes.
Gao Family Mansion, about 400 years old, is the former residence of Gao Yuesong, an official of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) is one of the best-persevered traditional residences in Xi’an City. It is located on the busy Huimin Street (Beiyuanmen Street) in the Muslim Quarter. Stone lions guard the entrance. Once you enter the compound, the din of the street dissipates, and a sense of serenity prevails. There are several courtyards with ornately carved windows and decorated with traditional furniture. At one courtyard, a permanent opera style stage had been set up and today live music and singing. This experience is a small window to the past traditions. I waited to be surprised with food being offered. Perhaps, so tea to warm up in the cold air. Unfortunately, it was not forth coming. The show was good and entertaining.
The city god temple of Xian, Cheng Huang Miao was built in 1387 (Ming dynasty). It is also called the Capital City God and had looked after the welfare of the city since. Prayers to keep away bad deeds. However, during the cultural revolution, it was not spared. The entrance to this temple was crowded with people shopping either for worship at the Taoist temple or for presents for the coming Chinese New Year. There were candles, fragrant incense sticks, red packets as gifts for the new year celebrations, clothing, auspicious red lanterns and lattice wall hangings, and all the paraphernalia of welcoming the new year of the Dog. It felt more like festivities celebration than worship. Once you emerge from the flea market, tranquility returns and the smell of burning incense and joss stick over powers the smell of smog. The pious and worshipers move from one place of worship to another. There was another congregation huddled on one side of the temple entrance. I was curious. It was a serious game of Chinese chess. Families with kid in tow all visited this temple in droves. Red totems hung on wall with precious prayers and words written on them.
It is difficult to imagine that all roads from and to the East and West passed through the Bell Tower, which has four entrances. Today, in mega developed, and I must say clean metropolis, the Bell Tower I the centre of f huge roundabout. Hundreds of road vehicles are moving every second during the day buses, cars, pedal bicycles, motorised bikes and motorcycles. Then there are the pedestrians.
One of Xians iconic ancient structures is the impressive Bell Tower, built in 1384 by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. Its use was multi-functional as defence as well as used for regulating daily life. It marked the geographical centre or central axis of the ancient capital with roads departing North, South, East and West corresponding to the gates since the Tang Dynasties. The wooden tower, which is the largest in China, is 36 meters high. It stands on a brick base 35.5 meters high. Today, in modern Xian, the Bell Tower is contained within a round-about with vehicles spewing smoke and noise. However, viewing from my hotel room in the evening, with lights on, it certainly is an impressive structure. With its elevated brick platform, there was an air of invincibility.
On the streets near the Drum Tower, I met this family, two kids and an adult. They approached me and wanted to practice English with me. This is a familiar experience for me throughout my travels in China. I on the other hand belt out whatever Mandarin I know, and they are impressed. This is my great tool to mix and mingle with the locals. It establishes some rapport and has led me to several pleasant local experiences invitation to meals, into homes, offered transportation and so on. Having some working knowledge of Mandarin is certainly valuable (sometimes it gets me out of trouble).
Another prominent and iconic ancient architecture is the Drum Tower. It was initially built in 1380 during the reign of Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The drums were used to signal time (in the evening) and alarm in an emergency. As its counterpart, the Bell Tower, it is also elevated on a brick base to 34m high. The tower itself is 111m high and is completely made from wood (no iron nail used anywhere in the Tower). The exterior is colourfully painted with a beautiful green glazed tiled roof. Drums are beaten at specific time as a musical performance. Perhaps a nostalgic journey to a past era. From my hotel room, in the evening, it is brightly lit and all the drums on the south side is clearly visible. It is quite spectacular. The Drum Tower is located adjacent to the Muslim Quarter and West Street.
Walking away from the city and touristy centers, you may get to experience a real and laid-back Xian. We wandered aimlessly and encountered some food stalls, markets and street vendors. The locals went about their business. At the butchery, whole pigs hung on hooks. On one street, five birds in cages hung on street wires as people passed by. Kids played on the side streets with no care in the world. Steam floated in the air from a road side bun shop. One of my favorite shop, women selling an assortment of pickled fruits and vegetables. I love walking in the market. They give an indication of the robustness of the local economies. Furthermore, the dynamics of family. Plus, I get to see local produce and sample a few along the way. Although a big metropolis, Xian feels a little laid back and the pace of life pleasant.
The Muslims established here through trade on the silk route since the eight century. However, during the Ming dynasties that they became more pronounced and the Great Mosque was built. I can only imagine huge sacks and boxes of goods stacked on camels and horse backs plodding through on these narrow alleys and pathways. A narrow, pedestrian only alley, Huajie Lane, lined with an amazing array of nick knacks and goods lead the way to the Great Mosque of Xian. . It was built in 742 during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). We passed several courtyards before arriving at the central tower (or perhaps a minaret – Xingxin Tower). It is interesting as it has both Chinese and Islamic influence. It is a Chinese pagoda style architecture with Islamic interiors. The roof is an intricate wood work. Here, there is serenity, as we walked around the landscaped gardens. This site was already in use during the Tang dynasty but eventually established as a place of worship during the Ming era. A series of add on continued to the present day architecture and structure. A fantastic mix of Arabic and Chinese influence. The minaret, to call for prayers, looked like a pagoda. Bearded men with white hats sat behind stall counters; little whispers as a few gathered at the mosques courtyard. Some even spoke Malay language. Another man had been studying in Malaysia. I met a man selling religious items. He was well travelled. When I asked him if I could take a photo of him agreed. Just I was about to click, he flicked his fan! To exit, I went through the gauntlet of souvenir stalls. A little persuasion but no harassment
On the Huimin Street (Muslin Street), we were handed a pamphlet on a shadow puppet show. This show is very popular in Malaysia, especially in the East Coast. It is called Pi Ying in Chinese. Shadow puppets were invented more than 2,000 years ago in the capital Changan (the historic name of Xian) during the ruling of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. The storied often depict Chinese legends and local village stories such as the one we witnessed. The puppets a skilfully made with intricate designs of characters, brightly coloured and sometimes looks mythical. The shadows of the different characters are cast on a white scree using back lit lights. Music accompanied the lively performances created by the puppet master. Although, I did not understand the dialog, the show was certainly entertaining. It did bring me back to my childhood days. Very nostalgic and it left lasting a memory. Bookmarks of some of the characters make fantastic memorabilia to take home.