I made this journey into Vietnam in January 2005 (winter).
Table of Contents
Kepler Trek is in New Zealand’s south western corner of South Island – the Fiordlands. It is a 2 – 4 days hike. The 60km Kepler trek can be walked in either direction as it is a loop. The starting point is at the Control Gates near Te Anau. We decided to hike up to Luxmore Hut (in the anti-clockwise direction). This would tackle the hardest climb earlier and would give us a ‘gentle downhill’ trek for the following days. Plus, the views on day 2 in the morning at Luxmore Summit and beyond would provide the best views, weather permitting. In the opposite direction, one would arrive here late in the afternoon and high possibility of ranges drenched in mist and clouds.
It is a stunning part of New Zealand and this trek has one of the most wonderful scenery created by glacial ice and water, weather permitting. It encompasses mountain ranges; high lakes or tarns; alpine tussock grasses; boggy and endemic wildlife including Kiwi and Takahe; boardwalks and wooden walkways; waterfalls and rivers; glacial cut valleys; large fresh water lakes and much more. However, in these parts, the weather is unpredictable, and all four seasons can appear in one day. Mountain paths can be obscured by dense clouds and mist and strong cold prevailing winds are common. This can be complicated with snowfall even in summer! A good selection of wind and water proof clothing is a must. Water proofing your pack and broken-in hiking shoes are essential. All rubbish must be packed and brought out back to Te Anau. The mountain huts have no facilities to dispose these.
All booking for the huts or camping sites must be booked through Department of Conservation (DOC). Their websites give detailed information on all requirements. Cooking gas is provided but you must bring all utensils and food. Starting and finishing points is scenic Te Anau. Local transport to and fro the starting points can be organised online or in Te Anau. We used Track Net. Transport from Queenstown is easily organised by the same people. Storage facility is available at the Holiday Park near the DOC office for a small fee (Track Net office is located here as well). It is best to collect all your booking documents at the DOC office early before the trek pick-up.
When we returned, it was bliss when we soaked ourselves in a spa pool at our hotel. Time to reminisce on our experience in a stunning part of New Zealand – the Fiordlands.
Day 1 (01/04/19) – Te Anau – Control Gates to Luxmore Hut (13.8km)
Two friends, my wife and I went on this trek. We obtained our booking tickets from DOC office around 0800. We had organized transport to pick us up from Te Anau to the starting point of the trek at the Control Gates. Left Te Anau at 8.30am and departed from the gates around 9am. It started to drizzle and the sky cloudy. Once past the Te Anau Lake overflow control gates, we entered the native Beech forest. The trek followed the shores of the Lake Te Anau. Under the canopy of the Beech forest, the drizzle was kept a bay. However, it was muggy and the forest floor wet. However, the trek was well laid. It was quiet, and the walk was accompanied with sounds of bird songs. Fantails came bravely close to inspect. Soon they lost interest and disappeared into the wooded forest. Sunlight struggled to penetrate through the canopy. Occasionally, when visibility improved, I could see Te Anau Township across the lake. The forest floor was covered in dense moss and a variety of ferns.
In open areas, I realized that the drizzle this morning had turned into light rain. We reached Brod Bay. To save a 5.6 km walk (about 1.5 hr), there is a water taxi service from Te Anau to Brod Bay. Beyond here, the trek began to ascend. A Kea bird hopped along the trek. It was not intimidated and came close to us. Kea is the only alpine parrot and native to NZ. As we climbed through the forest, unexpectedly, the trek passed on a narrow ledge along limestone formations. Under one of these limestone bluffs, we stopped for lunch. There were uninterrupted views of the valley below, although through hazy weather. Later, we climbed higher along the trek assisted with a series of wooden steps. Lichen and old man’s beard appeared on tree trunks and branches. It created an eerie forest-scape. We emerged out of the forest and passed the tree line. I was taken by surprise but was ecstatic to see the golden tussock grass field. I felt uplifted as the sun shined amidst the light rain. Strong cold wind began to blow in this open field. Wind speed up to 80km per hour. Temperature plummeted to about 5 degrees C, I thought. As I ascended, Te Anau basin in the valley came into view. Another delightful surprise, a beautiful rainbow had formed. Lee Cheng and I felt like kids running around and admiring the beauty before us. The weight of the pack seemed to have dissipated. As we progressed, bog fields began to appear. The path turned into wooden board walks to get us across without getting our feet wet. After one final turn, we could see Luxmore Hut (1085m) perched on the hill. As we approached the hut, it began to snow lightly intermittently. Temperature further plummeted to below zero.
I enjoyed the views of the South Fiord of Te Anau Lake and beyond it the snow-covered Murchison Mountains in the north. On the east – the Snowdon and Earl Mountains. Within minutes of arriving in the hut, it began to snow heavily. Some, including myself rushed out to feel it on our skins. It was probably the ‘icing’ on a ‘mixed’ weather today. Half an hour later, I was out of the cold wind but not the views of the wonderful golden tussock grass field. The dining room was a hive of activity with hikers having a hot drink, some getting into their dinner and like us, just wanted to rest a while. The warmth from the fire place aided to our well-being. We have had rain, sun, snow and icy wind. We had walked 13.8 km in 6 hours, as estimated by the DOC. This only day 1.
Day 2 (02/04/19) – Luxmore Hut – Iris Burn Hut (14.6km)
I got out of the bunk bed around 0730. I did not bother getting my boots on. With a woolen socks and slippers, I ventured outside. It was freezing. However, the low clouds were bright and the sun still below the horizon. I walked away from the hut and climbed a series of wooden steps to get some elevation. The South Fiord of Te Anau Lake was gleaming like a sheet of glass with glowing clouds reflected off it. A crescent moon and a satellite glowed in the dark sky. The Murchison Mountain was just a silhouette. Around 0815, the sun broke above the eastern mountains and the lit up the tussock grasses to a golden hue. The peaks of the faint lightly snow-covered Murchison Mountains glowed with a pinkish hue. The panoramic view was very uplifting indeed. Kea birds call could be heard when a couple flew past the hut.
After breakfast, we packed up. We decided to check out the nearby Luxmore Cave. I walked up the wooden steps and noticed that the water was still frozen. At the top of the mountain, the expansive views of greenish Te Anau Basin emerged with the Snowdon and Earl Mountains in the background. In the nearby valley, small water bodies, tarns, gleamed in the morning light. It was wet inside the cave and only spent a few minutes. The walk here was the highlight.
Back at the hut, a helicopter had just delivered a few passengers and quickly returned to Te Anau. This is an expensive way to get here and save walking in the rain, snow and wind for six hours. Where is the fun in it? Our next stop is Iris Burn Hut, an estimated six hours away. The wind had died down and the weather promised to be good. I find that the wind and cold can be managed but the rain can be depressing. We left around 1000 and the walk was uphill but not steep as the day 1. The low clouds started to move upwards as the warmed up. The South Fiord and Murchison Mountains was still visible amidst the moving clouds. We came across a tarn surrounded by golden tussock grasses.
The trek now was cut on the slopes of mountains and ridges. Avalanche signage advice on the eminent dangers during the winter and spring (between May to October) seasons. I could see the trek snaking along the slopes on a golden carpet. However, the trek itself was well laid with crushed gravel. Orange markers indicate the trek paths. The winds started to pick up. Around 1130, we reached the base of Luxmore summit. We dropped our packs and climbed up a steep mountain with loose rocks and gravel. At the rocky summit (1472m), there were fantastic 360 degrees views of the lakes, glacial gauged valleys, snow topped mountain ranges including Jackson Peaks, Kepler Mountains and Murchison Mountains. We seem to be floating surrounded by dense hanging clouds. Pocket of tarns reflected dimly on this partially clouded day. The wind here was cold and had a little bite, but manageable. Kea birds hopped around the base of the mountain fluttering their colorful wings as they flew.
The tops of the mountains were now covered with short golden tussock grasses and flowering alpine plants hugging onto the windblown slopes. Evergreen trees grew abundantly on the lower slopes just above a no name lake. Winds up to 20 km per hour began to blow. Today’s trek is quite exposed. This can be a dangerous area when strong winds and rainfall combined with snowfall. Particularly walking along steep slopes and high ridges. It can become extremely cold and poor visibility. We are lucky today. The views of the lake and surrounding mountains was fantastic. We reached Forest Burn Shelter around 1245. This is an emergency shelter and perhaps a good place for lunch. It was crowded and a little noisy for our liking. We continued and found a great spot on a rock overlooking a blue lake surrounded by evergreens and snowy peaks. Time, 1315, for some lunch.
From here-on, the trek was on narrow ridges with steep drops on both sides. The immediate landscape was mainly shorter tussock grasses complimented with small hardy flowering shrubs. The mountain looked like a beige and sometimes golden carpet, depending on the light. We walked with the ebb and flow of the mountain ranges. From here-on, the trek now cut across narrow mountain ridges. I can understand why walking on the ridges with strong winds and poor visibility can be dangerous. We are completely exposed to the elements. Fortunately, today the winds were ‘gentle’. It was cloudy but no rain. The temperature however was still low. Information given by the ranges on weather conditions must be heeded. Turning back may be the only option sometimes. Again, the importance of proper gear.
At every turn, there were panoramic views of the both Jackson Peaks and Murchison Mountains. We are actually trans versing Jackson Peaks. On the south west, the snowy peaks of Kepler Mountains rose majestically. We arrived at Hanging Valley Shelter around 1515. In case of emergencies, this shelter is in valuable. Fifteen minutes later, we walked along several tarns (alpine lakes). Finally, I could get glimpses of Lake Manapouri in the distant valleys. We descended one ridge assisted with a series of wooden steps. This led us to a lookout point, around 1600. It was still cold but with a gentle breeze.
The tree line was just below this point. On the open slopes, long beige grasses swayed in the breeze while hardy green shrubs clung onto the rocky slopes. We had now left the mountain slopes and ridges and entered the forested areas. We were greeted by beech trees draped with old man’s beard and lime green lichens. Green moss dominated the forest floor. However, my knees took a beating from the zig zag steep descent. I had to slow down. Fortunately, there were interesting spots to take my mind of the demanding trek. The trek followed a fast-flowing stream. With increased humidity, tree trunks and branches were covered in moss. I felt like walking through a primordial forest. My aches forgotten for a moment taken over by imagination. Perhaps, the now extinct Moa bird, might just run past the stream. Perhaps, I am just plain tired!
There were tracks of fallen trees damaged from storm or landslides. It looked like a strong force. Only sounds of the water flowing and gently rustling of the leaves was heard. Suddenly, I heard flap of wings high above. They were from a couple of Wood Pigeon. The feathers were colorful and was perched on a beech tree branch. I finally arrived at Iris Burn Hut located on a grassy filed around 1800. I was more relieved than delighted. No more walking for the day. Fortunately, the sun was still shining through a clearing in front of the hut. I had walked 8 hours on this leg (estimated as 6 hours). I was exhausted and normally would be happy to explore the area. A small path led towards Iris Burn River and another towards a waterfall with prospects of seeing the iconic Kiwi bird. Not today. Kea birds are notorious for investigating anything left outdoor. So, the ranger advised us to tie up our boots and hang them on hooks provided. The dining room was warm, although the fire place was not lit. A hot cup of coffee and boots off, I rested my weary legs. What’s for dinner?
Day 3 (03/04/19) – Iris Burn Hut – Moturau Hut (16.2km)
It was a “warmer” night compared to the freezing temperatures at Luxmore Hut. My boots hung on hooks remained undisturbed by the naughty Kea birds. We left the hut around 0830. The air was still and cold. The morning sun was just touching the top of the nearby mountains. Immediately we entered the mixed forest. it was slightly dark under the tree canopies. A few birds were busy forging on the moist forest floor. In an open grassland, the sun lit up the nearby mountain peaks. Lichen dominated the rocks scattered around on the narrow valley floor. Frost covered the grasses surfaces. Together with the lichen, long grasses with flowing inflorescence added some color to the otherwise green landscape. Tall beech trees dominated the mountain slopes while a dense cold fog hung just above the ground. A tomtit bird surveyed the area from a shrub, common in this area. Interestingly, numerous white silk nest of an unknown resident was bound onto these shrubs. I reckon it was the work of spiders.
We re-entered the forest. Moss grew abundantly onto tree trunks, branches and the ground. The trek continued along the Iris Burn River. Some of the scenery were amazing, the combination of structural beech trees, some in autumn colors, and the Iris Burn River in the foreground. The rocks on the river covered in green moss. It looked like a painting. Along the trek, I found a variety of fungus – red, orange, purple and beige. Some on tree branches and mostly on the moist and spongy sphagnum moss that seem to dominate the forest floor. Sweet birdsong accompanied us most of the way. Sunlight penetrated through the dense canopy creating shafts of light. This created an interesting and dramatic effect in the forest. I was just happy to get some light on my skin to warm up in the still cold and moisture laden air.
We reached a shelter around 1145 along the river. This was our lunch stop. A signage indicated the there is another 3 hours to Moturau Hut. Not to despair as my legs were still strong. As we progressed, the mossy forest floor gave way to ground ferns. A mixed forest began appearing. Broad leaf’s and shrubs with red and orange fruits appeared sporadically. Our hunt for diminutive fungus continued. Through a board walk, we emerged out of the forest onto the shores of Lake Manapouri. Half an hour later, we arrived at Moturau Hut around 1530. The sun shined brightly onto the lake and the hut.
I later ventured onto the shore and into the cold water. It was an opportunity to wash up after going two days without a shower. Within minutes, I was out and sunning myself. It was bliss. Time for a cup of coffee and put my feet up. Lee Cheng was yearning for some hot and spicy noodles. A fellow hiker was just cooking some up. She approached him and was just happy to share as he was trying to finish up his food stocks. Happy to help mate! In trying times like this, little experiences are blissful. I returned to the shores of Lake Manapouri to catch the last rays of the day. Later, we settled down for dinner and a talk by the local ranger. He gave us a passionate talk about the incidents, accidents and people whom contributed to the well-being of Lake Manapouri. Thanks to them, we can appreciate its beauty today. Still no screeching calls of the elusive Kiwi bird.
Day 4 (04/04/19) – Moturau Hut – Rainbow Reach (6km)
Sleeping in huts are usually uncomfortable for me. Being a light sleeper, every movements, snoring, conversations in close proximity and opening and shutting of door keep me awake. All the huts in this trek is no exception. Yes, perhaps it helps to invest in a set of ear plugs. However, today, most of the hikers including us got up early. The reason, to catch the 1000 bus at Rainbow Reach that would transport us back to Te Anau. This is one option on the final leg of this trek. The full trek would take us all the way to the Control Gates and thereon to Te Anau ( an additional 9.5 km, about 4 hours walk). This extra 9.5 km is mentioned as ‘uneventful’ as it hugs the Waiau River and the scenery is monotonous. Personally, we thought after walking 52.6 km, it was enough for the weary legs!
We left early at 0730 and the hut was a hive of activity. I think nearly all hiker had similar plans. It was still dark and had to turn our head torches. We immediately entered the wooded forest. Only the trek was lighted as we walked past silhouettes of trees. Half an hour later, we arrived at Shallow Bay on the shores of Lake Manapouri. There was a 180 degree views of mountains and islands including Kepler Mountains, Jackson Peaks, Mt Luxmore, Iris Burn and lots more. Paradise ducks swam peacefully in the cold water. The sky was laden with thick dense swirling clouds. We took in the cold beauty of this bay. It really is a sight to behold. Suddenly, streak of filtered sunlight burst through and hit the peaks of the cold mountains. The natural beauty now was further enhanced. We were just mesmerized by the natural beauty before us today. The lake, however, remained calm. There were no sand flies here like the beach at Motorau Hut. Insect repellent is definite essential on this trek especially on the lake’s shoreline.
There was another 1.15 hours to Rainbow Reach. It was 0835. The trek soon exited the forest into a wetland – Amoeboid Mire ( an interesting and new word for me). It is a bog dominated with sphagnum moss and a variety of shrubs. A board walk took us towards the large tarn (pool of water) in the middle of a mire (or marsh). Part of the Lord of the Rings was short here – the Dead Marshes!
The barren summit of Mt Luxmore is quite visible from here. Back on the main trek, is a large and a sapling of a Rimu tree. This is certainly a mixed forest including Podocarps, Beech and broadleaf. It varied from the forests at the beginning of the trek at the Control Gates. Here, with the assistance of a elder trekker, he identified Miro, Beech, Lancelot, and Totara trees. The forest is further complimented with lichens, moss and ground ferns. A solo female runner zipped past us with just water bag strapped to her back. These are the hardy runners training for the Kepler Challenge – a tough marathon that starts and finishes at the Control Gates ( 60.1 km race). I saw a couple on day 2, near the summit of Mt Luxmore. Hardy souls! This year’s challenge is on December 7 and the race completed just under 5 hours!! Amazing, a testament of human endurance.
We crossed a dry stream via a wire suspension bridge. soon after, the trek followed the terraces of the fast flowing Waiau River. We had finally reached the swing-bridge at Rainbow Reach. Time was 0950. The transport shuttles were already waiting for the last few trekkers to arrive. We lingered on for a while, unloaded our packs off our weary bodies and we were off back to Te Anau promptly at 1000.
Back at Te Anau, the weather turned from cloudy to light rain. To our delight, our accommodation had a spa which we indulged after dinner. Great for the tired legs and time to reminisce on the 52.6 km trek we had completed. Te Anau is a great place to unwind. Kepler Trek is an iconic trek in the Fiordlands for its unique environment, varied landscape, wildlife and flora, and its unpredictable weather. It is indeed a great privilege to witness the magic of New Zealand for those whom venture.
Recently, I had just completed a 60km hike in one of the most beautiful landscapes – The Kepler Trek, Fiordlands, South Island, New Zealand. It has one of the most diverse environment with rain-forest, alpine tussock grasses, high mountain lakes, mossy forest floor, beech forest, limestone bluffs, waterfalls, icy cold winds sometimes combined with snow, cozy huts, wildlife with opportunity see the iconic and endemic Kiwi and Takahe birds, huge fresh water lakes, mountain ranges and much more. All this in a 4- day trek. Beware, the fiordland is unpredictable – all four seasons in one day plus icy cold winds without request.
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.
Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi Province and is one of the four Ancient Capitals of China. Then, during its early metamorphosis, known as Changan, was the first capital of the Qin Shi Huang the man who united the rival feudal lords into one country. Located in North West China, it is through Xian that trade began with the west, the Middle Eastern states of the Arabic world. The starting point of the famed Silk Route to the West. Besides this, in my early school history lessons on China, I became acquainted with Qin Shi Huang Di, reputed to have unified China. The Emperor is also the character that created the iconic Terracotta Soldiers. I was quite excited to be in this renowned city of the by-gone era. The smog pollution continued from Pingyao to Xian. It was a long drive from the modern train station to the heart of Xian. The old city encircled by a Ming Qing 12m wall. However, unlike Pingyao, apart from the wall and exceptions of a small enclave of old Xian, everything was modern and towering buildings into the dark polluted air. The modern city roads had breached the wall and infiltrated into the old walled city. Today, metal, concrete and glass on show to rival any metropolis. In the evening, neon lights beamed from shopping malls. We stayed in the middle of it all, just across the softly lit Bell Tower and nearby Drum Towers. Both remnants of a colourful and historical past dynasties that ruled China. I wanted to get out and explore.
Near and around the elegant Drum Tower is a remnant of old Xian the Muslim Quarter, just below the Drum Tower onto Beiyuanmen Street. Generally referred to as Huimin Jie or Muslim Street. It is packed with street food vendors and behind them, restaurants. It is a hive of activities sales pitches; spicy aromas filled the cold air; raging flames from gas burners turned woks red hot and steam rising from bubbling soups. As the biggest festival in China is around the corner, Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, there is a sense of festivities on the streets. The narrow cobbled stone street is packed shoulder to shoulder with people.
Goat carcasses hung on rods, being stripped away little by little. Hygiene may take a new meaning here. Time for a late lunch of the Xians distinctive and favourite – Yangrou Paomo (Crumbled Unleavened Bread in Mutton Stew). It is quite a process to break down the bread into tiny pieces (takes a while as the bread is hard). However, Lee Cheng and Navindd testified that the taste is delicious. I settled for another popular north western food – the cold noodles (Liang Pi). Noodles are seasoned with a tangy, spicy savoury sauce and julienned cucumber. Long queues formed at the Mutton burger (Ronjimo) stall. Another popular snack is the steamed stuffed bun. The bun is stuffed beef or mutton mixed with the soup (from the bones of sheep or cattle). People queued in long line at this stall.