Minato (港区), or Minato City as it’s often referred to in English, is the business and diplomatic hub of Tokyo. Not only does it boast 49 embassies but is also home to companies such as Honda, Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, Toshiba, Sony and dozens of others who decided to choose the skyscrapers of Shiodome district of Minato as their base in Tokyo, so is actually a great city to visit, and with the Discount Flights with Smartfares getting an affordable price flight easy online. If that wasn’t enough, there are 10 colleges and universities strewn across the area, making Minato City a real competitor for the title of the Heart of Tokyo, should such a competition ever take place! Yet if it did, it wouldn’t be all the above mentioned assets of the district that would probably weigh the scales down in favour of Minato, but a local landmark and tourist attraction that can be seen from many places in the city. I’m speaking of Tokyo Tower.
During my flying visit to Tokyo back in 2010, I was lucky enough to visit quite a few unmissable tourist hotspots and recognisable landmarks. One of those was indeed Tokyo Tower located in Shiba-koen district of Minato.
To make my money last while backpacking my way across various countries, I’m forced to keep a tight budget. As a result, I walk a lot – something I actually quite enjoy. And so, while wandering around Tokyo I spotted it’s Eiffel Tower replica from many places. It gave me a feeling of being anchored and the knowledge of how far away from the city centre I was. Finally, after a few days of seeing the tower from afar, the day had come to finally see it from up-close.
Built in 1958, partially from scrap metal obtained from American tanks that were damaged in the Korean War, Tokyo Tower is essentially a replica of the Eiffel Tower from Paris. However, it is whole 13 metres higher than its French counterpart. It managed this after an 80-metre-long antenna was installed on the top. It is this antenna that helped Tokyo Tower keep the title of the tallest structure raised in the territory of Japan until 2010 when the famous Sky Tree opened for visitors.
That warm sunny May afternoon I had a fantastic traditional Japanese lunch with a friend near Daimon Station and afterwards strolled towers the landmark. On arrival, like so many tourists, I purchased a ticket and a fantastically amiable and polite uniformed young female lift operator catapulted me to the top of Tokyo Tower in seconds. Once on top, Minato City, and in fact the whole of Tokyo, unfolded at my feet in all its modern greatness.
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I went to the north of Thailand for one reason only: trekking. From Bangkok I headed to Chiang Mai which is a known backpackers hub and a good relaxed town too, with a Sunday market, pretty temples, friendly bars. Indeed, it’s a very popular base camp for trekkers. Too popular perhaps. So after I had had my fun I decided to take one of the local rickety buses to the nearby somewhat smaller Chiang Rai which was supposed to offer good trekking opportunities while not being mobbed by tourists. If you want to buy commercial bus – that might be a good start-up here, as many tourists need bus or coach services. And this is exactly what I found on arrival. But there was another thing I discovered – a real gem of Northern Thailand – the Wat Rong Khun (วัดร่องขุ่น) Temple.
Reasonably early in the morning I board a songthaew in the centre of Chiang Rai and head for the temple located just under 15 km away. It’s a pleasant 20 minute ride along a busy highway. All songthaews stop near the entrance to the Wat Rong Khun complex which is convenien-tly located by the main road. I arrive before noon but the place is already teaming with organised groups of tourists from Korea and China and Western backpackers like me. I brought my SOG Day pack, because it holds quite a bit of water and has plenty of room for anything else I need. Yet at the spacious Wat Rong Khun there’s room for everyone. And by the way, entrance is free (though donations are welcome).
So, yet another temple in Thailand? Think again! Wat Rong Khun is like no other. You can roam the whole wide world and find nothing vaguely similar to what you find here, regardless if Buddhist or not. Not only is it completely white, and hence dubbed by foreigners the White Temple, but also it’s built in a bizarre unorthodox style. I say “it’s built” whereas “being built” is perhaps more apt in this case because Wat Rong Khun is a work in progress.
The work began in 1997, directed by a Thai visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat (เฉลิมชัย โฆษิตพิพัฒน์). New pieces are still being added to the whole temple complex. The whole place seems more like one big art installation rather than a place of worship.
Part of the installation can make chills run down your spine. To get to the main temple you have to cross a bridge over a moat filled with hands reaching out to you. These, apparently, are the hands of sinners begging desperately for help – help to get them out of hell where they are to spend the eternity. The whole installation can be quite disturbing and is definitely one of a kind – a description that completely suits the entire Wat Rong Khun temple complex.
The closer you get to the temple the more striking it seems. The roof and carvings are intricate and immaculately white.
Inside, an even more peculiar wonder awaits you: an enormous mural covering the inner walls. What’s odd about it is not the size, though, but what it depicts. Here, you can find the Buddha, planets, spacecraft, aliens, and comic book superheros. You can even spot the burning World Trade Center Twin Towers during the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. Sadly, photography isn’t allowed inside so you just have to take my word for it. Or else, go visit yourself – definitely recommended – or click here for a Google Image search results page.
Once I’m done inside the temple I walk out to explore the grounds and the multitude of sculptures and reliefs peppered around the massive well-tended garden.
Not only is the White Temple a prominent tourist hotspot but it is also equally popular among Thai visitors. Wat Rong Khun has become the destination for many school trips. Thai kids from around the area arrive by coach with their teachers to admire this jewel of their country’s art and architecture from which they can draw real pride. Perhaps, little do they know how special this place is.
Just as the space craft painted on the inside walls of the temple can surprise you, some of the sculptures in the temple grounds can astound you further! For instance, this scull with the offering made of a bottle of whiskey. Unfortunately, I cannot provide any explanation for it. Had I been able to speak some Thai I would have asked some of the school trip kids around, or better yet, their teachers. This, however, is not something I hadn’t seen before. Offerings of alcohol and cigarettes seem to be quite common in Mexico, which I visited back in 2009.
Finally once my touristy photo in front of the White Temple’s taken, I head towards the main road to catch a songthaew back to Chiang Rai and enjoy the rest of my day in this vibrant small town.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of Wat Rong Khun as much as I have. Take care and thank you for reading!
My backpacking tour of the Far East in 2012 took me to Tokyo, where I spent a fantastic week sightseeing, eating, cycling, and then eating some more. Tokyo has such an amazing number of places of interest that it’s simply impossible to cover everything in the little time I had. Nonetheless, there were two places which I made a point of visiting more than once: the first one was Shibuya (渋谷区) where I went to experience the Shibuya Crossing, world-famous for the throngs of people that flood it at night and during the day. The second place was Akihabara (秋葉原), the shopping hub of the capital city that specialises in computer goods, games, anime, and manga. It is the latter of these two areas that I’d like to write about today.
Somehow, Akihabara came to be referred to with a few other names. It is popularly known as the Electric Town (秋葉原電気街 Akihabara Denki Gai), but some also refer to it as, simply, Akiba. It is a fairly central district of the capital city that welcomes thousands of visitors per day, both Japanese and foreign tourists, who come here with very specific purposes.
One of the things that Akiba is noted for is gaming. There seem to be video game arcades everywhere, one next to and on top of the other. Some are huge monstrosities, with multiple floors each devoted to a few different kinds of games. In the evening those places swarm with both guys and girls, gaming in complete abandon. It’s really an interesting sight. What’s more, you can actively participate in it and try your luck at one of the gaming stations. In that, the Electric Town’s multi-levelled game arcades are definitely well-worth a visit, even despite the fact that you might end up losing some money really fast.
In Akihabara’s gaming arcades even the loos are not exempt from the presence of severe competition. In the gents, the unsuspecting out-of-towner can find himself initially perplexed by the sight of urinals which have been fitted with screens and bull’s-eye-shaped touch sensors. So aim your stream well lads and go get scoring those wee points! Seriously though, I think something like that is only possible in Japan. I certainly have not encountered interactive urinals in any place in the world I’ve been to. Still, it can be amazingly addictive!
MANGA, ANIME AND OTAKU
Akihabara can definitely be dubbed the Mecca of Otaku. But who are otaku? I already mentioned otaku in one of my previous posts (Japan: The Background of My Trip to Tokyo) but just to recap: our good old Wikipedia informs us that otaku (おたく/オタク) is a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests. In nowadays Japan, central to the otaku subculture are works of manga and anime. This leads us to another question: what are manga and anime? Well, manga are Japanese comic books whereas anime is a term that represents animated productions of manga.
Shelves and tables in dozens of Akiba’s specialist manga & anime shops offer a ridiculously large number of titles. For otaku, this is the very definition of being spoilt for choice!
Manga and anime are created for fans of all ages. The fact that it is all hand-drawn and often coloured doesn’t mean that the target audience is that of kids and teens. And so, as the manga and anime dens of Akiba cater to customer of all ages, it is not hard to find some rather raunchy volumes flying off the shelves.
Another thing that the otaku can find aplenty here are tiny figurines usually representing various characters from manga, anime, or video games. Particularly popular figurine appears to be that of Hatsune Miku (初音ミク) – world’s first ever virtual singer. Yes, virtual! Meaning, she doesn’t really exist! Curious? If so, check her video on YouTube taken from her live gig in Sapporo here and be astounded.
THE MAID CAFES
Being such a vibrant and colourful place, it’s no wonder that Akihabara draws locals and travellers by the dozen. But apart from the above, there’s yet one other very particular experience that especially the male visitors to Akiba might not want to miss out on: it is a visit to a maid café. Indeed, if manga and anime is your fetish then Akihabara is the best place to indulge it in.
Maid cafés are really quaint establishments. Inside, girls in maid costumes serve their customers treating them as masters of some old household while they themselves are the oh-so-very-humble eager-to-please servants.
I would venture to say that the whole maid café affair is a very Japanese thing, only because I have never seen or heard of it existing anywhere in the world. In this respect, maid cafés can be seen to be as Japanese as sushi or sumo wrestling!
All in all, I think I’ve given everyone enough reasons to visit Akihabara while staying in Tokyo. I reckon it should definitely feature on every traveller’s itinerary, even if they are not interested in gaming, or anime, or manga, or the maid cafés; a visit to the Electric Town can still provide a fantastic glimpse into the vibrant modern Japanese pop culture.
I personally recommend a visit in the late afternoon or evening when the streets of the Electric Town are ablaze with hundreds of neon lights, music spills out in decibels onto the streets from every gaming arcade or manga shop whose door are left wide-open enticing otaku. Akihabara doesn’t allow your senses to ignore her which makes a visit to there a one of a kind experience.
My trip to Japan was very short indeed. In fact, it was just a 6 day long break I took in the middle of my tour of South Korea and I spent all of it in Tokyo area. Although I didn’t get to see the wonderful rural Japan about the existence of which so many of us have no idea, I did acquire a pretty good understanding of what modern Japan has to offer.
The 21st century urban Japan is amazing and confusing, fascinating and at times scary. Everything seems to be happening fast. You’re surrounded by the noise of the living city and often maddening J-Pop music blaring out through the speakers of passing mobile-advertisement-vans or from huge screens fixed on buildings above street level. Oftentimes you get to witness a clash of the traditional with the modern – while crossing the street you bump into a genuine sumo wrestler or a monk only to see that behind him walks a perfect specimen of an otaku in full cosplay who decided on an outing beyond the borders of Akihabara, the district of Tokyo renowned for catering toneeds of an otaku. A word of explanation to the layfolk: otaku is a person with obsessive interest in anime, manga and video games while cosplay is an abbreviation of costume play which basically refers to the practice of wearing accessories and costumes of one’s favourite fictional characters, usually characters taken from comic books or video games. It’s worth noting that in Japan cosplayers form a real subculture and their practice of wearing costumes is accepted as part of Japanese street fashion. Also, just to make a distinction, to be a true otaku one doesn’t have to indulge in cosplay yet to be a true cosplayer you most certainly are an otaku!
Yet even in the bustling Tokyo a traveller or city dweller can get some respite in the immaculately maintained parks, like the Yoyogi Park complete with the adjacent Meiji Shrine, or the Imperial Palace East Gardens. If you don’t fancy any greenery then you can always kick back at a beach on the artificial Odaiba Island. Although swimming is not allowed, the view of Tokyo with the Rainbow Bridge at your feet and Tokyo Tower in the background more than makes up for this. Yes, Tokyo as a representative of modern Japan seems to have it all and my experiences there left me wanting more. Who knows, maybe soon I might find myself in the Land of the Shogun, visiting the more traditional cities like Kyoto, or traversing its islands one after another and having random conversations with the most amiable people that inhabit them.
Back in 1544, Portuguese explorers reached an island off the eastern coast of China. Struck with the picturesque beauty of its mountains, contrasted coastline and lush vegetation, they called their find Ilha Formosa, which translates into “Beautiful Island.” And rightly so! But nowadays it is better known as Taiwan.
Taiwan’s coast can really prove to be something you’ve never seen before and won’t see anywhere else. The Cape of Yěliǔ (野柳) can be held as evidence supporting this statement. Located a short ride away from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, Yěliǔ is frequently visited by the Taiwanese and many other tourists from China and the West.
The area of the promontory forms Yěliǔ Geopark (野柳地質公園) – one of the jewels in Taiwan’s wide array of tourist attractions. Here one can marvel at sea erosion at its weirdest, or perhaps most creative. It is to here that my Taiwanese hosts Huimin and her cousin Willy took me during my short backpacking tour of their home island.
Back in February 2011, when I considered the image of a geological park I had in my head, I came up with a vast open space peppered with geysers and various other wonders of the Earth and which would take hours to inspect; a landscape one is more likely to encounter in Iceland. Yěliǔ Geopark did not match this image. Sizewise, you could comfortably walk around and see everything you want to see within 1 or 2 hours, which is actually an advantage because it makes for a very attractive day trip out of Taipei City. Now, in terms of geological attractions, it exceeded my expectations.
One of the most striking things you’ll find in Yěliǔ are the hoodoos, also popularly called Mushroom Rocks. A hoodoo is a spire of rock that has been affected by severe erosion. The results of this process are rock formations of diverse, sometimes improbable, shapes. So if you’re passing through Taipei during your backpacking tour of Asia, put on some comfy shoes, leave the capital city for a day and delve in between those curiously shaped stones!
Yěliǔ Geopark is home to one of the most iconic images in Taiwan – the Queen’s Head” or 女王頭 in traditional Mandarin. This particularly oddly shaped hoodoo owes its name to its striking resemblance to a female’s head seen from the side, complete with a rather impressive hairdo.
Most of the hoodoos are quite large and in one area form a cluster. There, you can walk among them feeling small, as if you’ve just entered some bizarre stone forest of yellow mushrooms with brown tops.
As I wrote above, the landscape found at Yěliǔ Geopark exceeded my expectations. The diversity you find here is crazy. One second you’re surrounded by the hoodoo rocks and next thing you know you are walking on top of rocks that appear to look like massive ginger roots that push through the surface. Exactly like the ones in the picture on the right.
Finally, I arrived at the site of the Sea Candles (燭台石). How water is able to shape rock like that is improbable. It’s hard to believe that their creation has nothing to do with humans.
Having had a proper wander around the site, Huimin, Willy and I decide to head for the exit, taking a last look at the promontory and its fascinating greatness that we’re leaving behind.
FOOD: Àiyù (愛玉)
Leaving the geopark wasn’t the end of the attractions of the day! At the car park at Yěliǔ there is a small market where one can find various fruit teas for sale mixed with àiyù jelly (愛玉) – a traditional Taiwanese product made of the gel obtained from the seeds of a certain type of fig tree native to Taiwan. It’s hard to find àiyù outside of Taiwan and, I hear, Singapore. So if you’re passing through this beautiful island, by all means try some melon or lemon tea with bits of àiyù inside for a refreshing and very Taiwanese experience. True, you’ll either hate it or love it, but I believe that the odds are it’s the latter.
More about àiyù – Wikipedia
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A short walk north off the Old Town, within Tallinn’s historic district of Kalamaja, lies a derelict sea fortress. Back in the day, in 1828 to be exact, the Russian tsar Nicholas I had it erected here to provide protection for ships heading towards St. Petersburg. However, since the date of completion in 1840 it played different roles in the region. Nowadays, it is best known for the chilling glimpse into the Soviet Era that it allows its visitors, as in the years 1919-2004 it functioned as a prison. Its medical and executions rooms where many lives were ended by the KGB are a chilling testimony to the ruthlessness of the Soviet period.
During my short stay in the capital of Estonia I caught wind of the whereabouts of a defunct Soviet era prison somewhere within walking distance from my hostel. The site sounded promising and most certainly presented itself something different to the usual attractions one comes while travelling. Now, Tallinn’s Old Town is a stunning mesh of medieval streets and old merchants’ houses that you can happily lose yourself among for a few days and not want to stick your nose out the outer city walls. Yet the magic ring of the “something different” phrase I hear every now and then when I travel never fails to incite my curiosity. It did sound like something off the beaten track too. So, one late afternoon off I went walking, northwards, towards the sea.
Provided you set off in the right direction, you should get to Patarei in no time – perhaps up to half an hour, which includes breaks for taking pictures of some cool traditional Estonian wooden houses in the Kalamaja district. In any case, sooner or later you should spot the telltale watchtowers like the one in the picture on the left. Once found, follow the wall that’s unusually high for a residential area until you reach Patarei’s old and rusty outer gate.
I found the large metal gate open so I went in. Not far behind there was another open gate, but this time a mesh wire one. Next to it stood another ominous watchtower. All around not a living soul. For a while I even thought I might be trespassing but quickly accepted this likelihood while mentally rehearsing my best I’m-a-lost-foreigner-who-just-wants-to-take-some-rather-bleak-looking-pictures look.
Finally, within the prison grounds I found a little booth with a person selling entrance tickets. Sadly, it I arrived too late to enter the prison proper and view the execution and experiment rooms, or the cells. However, I was kindly allowed to have a look round the are and take some pictures before it was time to close. This gave me 15 minutes, give or take.
The first thing I noticed was a very pink figure of crucified Jesus hanging on one of the buildings, with benches arranged in formation right below it. Some alternative art exhibit perhaps? Or a figure to which prisoners prayed in the past? It was hard to guess and, as I don’t speak Estonian, impossible to find out.
I came across a few more visitors wandering around. Our attention was attracted by graffiti that embellishes the walls around. Some of it is obviously pacifist, some seems to depict prisoners’ lives whereas the rest, while being extremely fantastical, portrays crime in the act of happening.
Patarei was an active prison up until 2002. Only 3 years after, it became a museum and a venue holding art exhibitions and music events. Visitors were allowed in for a small fee of €2 – a fee I would have gladly paid had I not arrived too late in the day.
The 15 minutes I had been given by the member of staff selling entrance tickets ran out quickly and together with other visitors I slowly wandered towards the main entrance gate. I did spent an extremely short amount of time in Patarei and, sadly, missed its main, for want of a better word, attractions. Nevertheless, the flying late afternoon visit still allowed me an interesting glimpse into the past and delivered an alternative side of Tallinn to my eyes; a side that’s quite dissimilar to what you find in the celebrated Old Town of the capital of Estonia.
Itaewon (이태원) is a popular district in Seoul, just north of the Han River (한강) and south of Namsan Park (남산공원) and its iconic N Seoul Tower (which I already wrote about in Namsan and the N Tower post). It is a popular tourist destination with its many bars, pubs, and restaurants serving international cuisine and beverages. Tourists who decide to stay in the landmark Hyatt Hotel or Hotel Hamilton have plenty of shops to go through here while some of the lonelier soldiers stationed in the nearby American Military Base can perhaps shop around on the (in)famous Hooker Hill, Seoul’s own Red Light District located just south of Itaweon-ro (이태원로).
The district is quite possibly the most liberal area in the whole of Korea where one can be openly gay or transgender. Of course, this is still Asia, so we can’t really say that Itaewon is just like any other liberal Western city. Also Korea is a particularly orthodox country where even straight couples found kissing in https://buycbdproducts.com public place can easily find themselves frowned upon.
With all the Korean liberalism and American soldiers patrolling the streets after dark side by side with Korean prostitutes, Itaewon can be thought a rather unlikely home to Korea’s main Muslim place of worship: the Seoul Central Mosque (서울 중앙 성원) that’s located just next to Hooker Hill. Yet I believe this just goes to show how open and accepting Itaewon is, also when it comes to foreign cultures and their fashions, cuisines, ideas, beliefs.
I meet my Korean friends in Itaewon late in the afternoon and after some browsing in a number of shops on the high street, we make our way through the seedy backstreets surrounding Hooker Hill towards Seoul Central Mosque. If you’re a newcomer, this really doesn’t seem like a place you’d like to find yourself in after dark. It is really quite surprising to find an important temple like this one within such an area, not only due to this area’s reputation but also because of the dilapidation of the backstreets. Nonetheless, the outer entrance as well as the inner buildings of the whole Islamic complex have not fallen into the shabby state of disrepair. The outer entrance, the mosque walls as well as the interior are decorated with complex mosaic patterns so familiar to those who at some point visited any of the Arab countries. The mosque itself is quite large and sports two tall minarets. Owing to the fact that it is built on top of a hill, those minarets can be seen from quite far away.
The Seoul Central Mosque has quite a recent history. It was raised in 1976 primarily with the financial help of the Malaysian Islamic Mission and is now the heart of the Muslim community of South Korea which nowadays amounts to circa 35,000 people.
The community itself also dates back only to the recent 20th century. In fact, one might say it started with the Korean War as it was during that time, in the year 1950, that Turkey sent its soldiers to aid the United States and South Korea’s military. After the war ground to a halt some of the troops of the Turkish Brigade remained in the country in the character of peacekeepers, aiding humanitarian efforts while at the same time introducing Koreans to the tenets of Islam. Shortly a new Muslim community was born in Korea.
I guess this little bit of history wraps up what I wanted to say and write here. Hope you all enjoyed what you read and perhaps learnt a thing or two. Thanks!
Oh and if you fancy reading a bit more about the Turkish Brigade click on the link below:
High up in the hills of Lóngshèng in Guăngxī Province of China, among mists and clouds sits a small village of Ping’An. At an altitude of about 1,000m (over 3,000ft) it is safely nestled in between steep slopes. Actually, calling it a village might be going too far – it’s a hamlet composed of large family houses with few inhabitants. Most of the people living here belong to the Zhuàng minority. The Zhuàng people, or 壮族, constitute only 1 of 56 recognised national minorities of China, but at the same time are the largest minority of the country.
I set off early in the morning from the city of Guìlín (桂林), the capital of Guăngxī Province. It’s warm yet cloudy day in the middle of June. As the air is quite muggy it’s really easy to break sweat. I take a slightly worse-for-wear rickety long-distance coach to Lóngshèng county up north. The distance is just under 90kms and it takes me about 2 hours to reach my destination. Once in Lóngshèng town I look for a minivan with which to continue to towards my destination. Sadly, with my basic Mandarin skills I manage to learn that a van has just left in that direction and I might need to wait even an hour or more until a sufficient number of people gathers up to fill the next van. There doesn’t seem to be any timetable here – in rural areas vans servicing local destinations depart on demand, i.e. once there’s large enough a number of paying passengers. Because Lóngshèng town hasn’t really got much to offer, I resolve not to wait. With my barely conversational Mandarin – which keeps bringing appreciative smiles to many Chinese faces – I ask around for alternative means of transport. Finally, one of the drivers on a break points my in the right direction and I catch a van that goes more less where I want. And so, after another half hour’s ride through the Chinese countryside and a few villages, where people pack baskets and chickens into the van, I end up at the foot of the hills it is my plan to reach. However, there’s a little problem I’m facing now: I am supposed to have ended up my journey near the summit! Anxious not to lose any precious time I begin a brisk walk uphill, all the while trying to ignore the humidity. After a quarter of an hour, however, my luck turns around and I spot a teenager on a scooter driving down the road I’m climbing. I mange to intercept him and after driving a hard bargain – as you do in China – I get him to take my up the winding road to the entrance of the village of Ping’An, my final destination.
As we near the top, mists begin appearing around – it’s the clouds with which the summit is shrouded. After a relatively short drive we reach Ping’An and I pay my driver who quickly makes his exit. Everything’s very quiet here and it seems you could hear a pin drop. At the entrance to the village there are hardly any people, just a few bored but friendly local Zhuàng villagers manning a little parade of arts and crafts souvenir stalls.
There are all sorts of fabrics, pots, wooden sculptures and trinkets on sale here. Some less some more attractive, but mostly pleasing to the eye. As I am in the middle of backpacking across the country and really try to travel light, I have just a short browse and am again on my way. In general, I try to steer clear of souvenir shops, for fear I eventually succumb and embark on a shopping spree. Although my main backpack from topantitheftbackpack.com, which is waiting for me back in Guìlín, has still lots of room inside, what I really don’t need is to have to lug a bag that’s 8 months pregnant with souvenirs around the whole country.
Although the stalls mark Ping’An’s official entrance, the actual settlement is some 5-10 minutes climb away. I know that it is only the beginning of the real hike that awaits me, so I decide on a little rest before I start my ascent. I set off again and after a short while I turn a corner behind which Ping’An looms into view. The picture is simply stunning: I’m facing beautiful big wooden family houses perched on steep slopes that were transformed into rice terraces centuries ago. At times it seems that some of the houses sit precariously one on top of the other. I can also see various small winding paths leading uphill onto the famous Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces.
I walk on and enter the village proper. There are a few people around, mostly women doing the laundry, who greet my with smiles. I slowly wend my way in between buildings, paying attention to all their architectural details. It’s only my 2nd week in China and I’m still not used to the way houses are built here. Everything’s new, every-thing’s different! The houses are large, all made of timber, each 3 or 4 floors high with windows running along the whole width and length of the buildings. Some have nice balconies too. A few are adorned with traditional red Chinese lanterns.
The village is quite small so I leave it soon, following paths that lead upwards. Whenever a path splits I choose one that seems to lead in the right direction – towards the highest hill. Even though there’s no sun, the heat and humidity of the season slows down my ascent.
As I climb the views around me become more and more amazing. I can see passing clouds between me and hills around me, rice terraces are everywhere and nestled in between them at my feet is Ping’An. Backpacking and independent travelling are really worth it if the views you get at the end of the day are such as these!
The rice terraces of Lóngshèng have two peaks that can serve as fantastic viewpoints. The first once is called Nine Dragons and Five Tigers while the second Seven Stars with Moon. Truly poetic Chinese names! Anyhow, I have no time to waste so I continue my sweaty hike.
Once I reach the Seven Stars with Moon viewpoint I take a rest before heading for Nine Dragons and Five Tigers. The surrounding panorama is just magnificent. The clouds and mists add mystery to the landscape.
I reach Nine Dragons and Five Tigers relatively quickly. The path from the other viewpoint led, luckily, across a fairly level ground. It gave me some well-deserved rest from all the tiresome climbing.
I stay for a while at the top enjoying the scenery around me – a just reward for my efforts. And there is a lot to enjoy indeed. Ping’An village just below looks absolutely stunning when set against the background of the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces. I feel as if was transported to some fairy tale land!
But why actually the terraces are called the Dragon’s Backbone? Well, apparently because the clusters of the terraces resemble the scales of a dragon’s hide, while the summit resembles a long and twisting spine of a dragon. The Chinese imagination is truly remarkable!
A time passes by and I decide to descend to the village from where I am to start my journey back to Guìlín city. On the way down I bump into a couple of Zhuàng women. They are carrying some eggs and other groceries as well as baskets with some textiles for sale they claim to have made themselves (although I have my doubts about that). Both women sport traditionally long hair tied around their heads in big bundles. They wear skirts and pink blouses – this is all part of the traditional costume of Zhuàng women. This encounter nicely rounded off my trip to Lóngshèng.
In July 2008, after a month of backpacking through various towns, cities, and countryside of China, after hiking, climbing mountains, cycling and more, I reached the great city of Shanghai (上海). All through my journey the travellers I met had been wondering why I planned to stay 4-5 days in this city. “It’s just a big Chinese city” they said, “one like so many others, all alike.” But a day of explorations convinced me I was right to book 4 nights because Shanghai turned out to be just great! And one of the places I visited that reaffirmed this was the Shànghăi Gùchéng (上海古城), or the Old City of Shanghai.
My hostel was located near the Bund, the historical waterfront area on the Huángpǔ River in central Shanghai. I woke up reasonably early (for me) and after breakfast headed south on foot. The streets of Shanghai were packed with scooters zooming past here and there. Some of those little machines carried some crazy loads! It can be quite a sight sometimes. Anyhow, my hostel lay just in the middle between Nanjing Road East station and the Old City, which is a distance of a bit more than 1km. That meant that on foot I reached my destination in no time.
The Old City is nothing like I imagined – I hadn’t looked up any pictures of the place before going there. So, I was expecting to find a cluster of some old Chinese village houses surrounded with modern buildings. I was so wrong! Once I reached Renmin Lu (Renmin Road), which runs along where the northern city wall used to be, I saw traditionally looking houses as expected, yet those were a few stories high! What I saw used to be no village; the Old City’s architecture showed me that indeed it must have been a great and rich city for a very long time. Excited by what I saw I quickly crossed Renmin Road and delved into the streets of the area ahead.
Entering the Old City is a bit like entering a different world. One moment you’re in a big modern Western city, and next you’re getting lost navigating through narrow alleyways in some surreal fairy-tale like Asian town. The streets are packed with people who browse through various goods on sale here. There are plenty of small restaurants here, little souvenir shops, clothes shops, etc; capitalist enterprise thriving in a communist country!
Although all the buildings here are quite old, they have been completely revamped. Nothing’s falling apart! The streets area reasonably clean, here and there some people are resting in the shade, some are going about their daily routine and others are enjoying their day sipping some cold drink. The Old City is a very lively area, perfect for a casual walk. The pleasant hustle and bustle of the pedestrianised streets and the traditional Chinese architecture visible all around makes it easy to forget that you’re in Shanghai, the 8th largest city in the world. Instead, it’s easier to imagine you’re in some busy town somewhere in China. The only telltale signs of modernity are the digital cameras and mobile phones that you see people use everywhere around you.
After I’d had a little look at various shops in the area and a nice walk along the various lanes of the Old City, I headed for one of it’s attractions: the Yù Yuán (豫园), the Garden of Happiness. The garden is located in the busiest area of the Old City called Chénghuáng Miào (上海城隍庙) that takes its name after a nearby temple. As expected, the place was packed with tourists, mostly Chinese, taking snaps of one another.
Chénghuáng Miào is a really pretty area with traditional buildings situated around a nice pool teaming with goldfish. It does get quite crowded though.
In Chinese culture the fish represents wealth and prosperity. It is because the Chinese word yú (魚), which stands for fish, when pronounced with a different tone makes yù (裕) which stands for plentiful.
Once I took my photographs, enjoyed a little stroll around the pretty pool, fed some fish, and smiled back at some Chinese tourists who were ever so excited to see a real Westerner in real life, I went to the entrance of the Yù Yuán.
The Yù Yuán Garden was created in the sixteenth century by an Imperial Court official and has been well looked after since. Thus, nowadays it can easily be the highlight of anyone’s visit to Shanghai. It’s a really beautiful tranquil place, much quieter and relaxed than the area just outside the garden walls.
Rockeries constitute a common feature of Yù Yuán’s design. So do numerous walkways, classical Chinese pavilions, well tended trees, bushes and other vegetation as well as pools filled with some more goldfish.
Some of the buildings in the garden are open and everybody can have a little look at what traditional Chinese interior decoration is like.
The interiors are rich in ornaments, with beautiful traditional Chinese style windows that overlook the beautiful garden.
Even the garden walls are quite a sight. They draw the visitor’s attention with dragons perched right on top whose undulating tails run all along the wall.
Walkways walkways walkways… cutting across pools filled with goldfish. Everything’s very well arranged and picturesque. We could just as well be back in the sixteenth century. Nothing around reveals that it’s indeed the twenty first.
This here is only one of many fantastic examples of the traditional Chinese style up-turned curved roof. Curved not only to provide a better protection against rain but supposedly also against evil spirits. Plus there’s the lovely aesthetic factor.
When leaving the Yù Yuán you will come across the moss-covered shíshī (石獅), or the Imperial Guardian Lion. They usually go in pairs, one male and one female. In the photo above you can see the male shíshī with his right paw fixed upon the world. The Chinese Guardian Lions started their career in the Chinese culture about 2,000 years ago when they began to be used as both decorative and protective features at entrances to tombs, palaces, temples, or homes of wealthy officials. Despite this glorious origin, nowadays they also adorn the fronts of shops, restaurants and even supermarkets, and are a common sight in any Chinatown you visit.
Once out I found myself again in Chénghuáng Miào, the busy commercial district of the Old City of Shanghai. As it was the time for me to leave the Old City, I quickly went around some of the shops in the area in search of some cheap souvenirs. The choice is huge! From fridge magnets to caps, helmets and t-shirts.
Some might be interested in small scale replicas of the famous terracotta warriors of Xi’an or…
… in some traditional Chinese masks carved out of wood.
A thing to remember! This is China, and it’s a very touristy area. So haggle haggle haggle! True, when you convert the renminbi price into pounds, dollars, euros, or whatever currency you use back home, the prices are not that high. But if you’re backpacking across the continent on a budget, every little penny counts sometimes. So, if you’re able to bring the price down by 50%, why not try doing so and saving some cash for a bigger lunch later?
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You know when people go all dreamy when thinking about some remote destinations and devising some new travel plans while not fully appreciating the beauty or value of what lies nearby? Well, trying to go against that type of thinking myself, I decided to leave London and go out on a little foray into Kent County and explore some historic parts of England, namely Herne Bay and the abandoned village of Reculver with it’s allegedly haunted ruins of St. Mary’s Church.
Being a small seaside town, Herne Bay itself isn’t perhaps on the top of the list of tourist destinations. But it wasn’t always the case. Until the mid 19th century it was indeed a village with a population of just a few thousand. What’s more, it was notorious for being the head-quarters of a smugglers’ gang. Yet once that problem had been sorted out, a group of London investors came down and realising the potential of the place decided to give it a bit of a makeover. This is how, at the dawn of the Victorian Age, Herne Bay was transformed into a prominent seaside resort. Out went fishing and in came tourism! The Victorians gave it a proper promenade, a railway station and what until 1978 used to be the longest pleasure pier in the whole of the United Kingdom. The best symbol of Victorian architecture and perhaps also Herne Bay’s heyday is the free-standing clock tower on the seafront. It is said to be the very first purpose-built clock tower in the whole world! Whether it’s true or not we can only wonder during those long winter nights. However, the fact remains that it is a very pretty legacy of an age long gone by and together with the pier definitely a highlight of Herne Bay’s seafront.
If you walk along the concrete seafront in the eastern direction, eventually you will reach a shingle (pebble) beach. At that point you will be able to climb on the grassy hill and continue walking east along the top of it. On a sunny day it’s great place to have a picnic. Just stop for a while and enjoy the peace and quiet while basking in the sun and listening to the sound of the sea. Oh tranquility!
If you don’t take the trail up on the hill, you can keep on walking along the shingle beach which is considerably more tiring as your feet sink in the pebbles with every step. The beach walk can be easier if you happen to be here when the tide is out. Then you will be able to walk on firm seabed. It’s quite a sight actually, because the seabed that the retreating water uncovers is strewn with hundreds of large flat rocks which have been completely overgrown with some grassy type of seaweed. The resulting image reminds one a bit of some massive lawn that’s been cut into jigsaw pieces.
Continue eastwards and you soon will spot Reculver. It is easily recognisable by two church towers sittingprecariously on top of a cliff. These towers, or Twin Sisters as they came to be called, belong to the ruined church of St. Mary’s. These ruins are in fact what’s left of the ancient village whose history goes all the way back to the Celtic times of the pre-Roman Britain. You might wonder why has a settlement with such a long history been abandoned. Well, the reason behind Reculver’s downfall is Nature herself and the unforgiving coastal erosion.
When 2,000 years ago the Romans built their fort called Regulbium in here, the sea was over 1 mile away (or 2km). After the Romans left Britain, the Anglo-Saxons eventually turned the site into a monastery. This is how in 669AD the Church of St. Mary’s was established. Yet all along the merciless sea kept taking away 1 to 2 metres of the shore a year! Owing to this amazing speed of erosion, already before the 19th century started the village of Reculver nearly completely fell into the waters. What remained were a few houses occupied by smugglers. The two twin towers of the already abandoned and partially demolished St. Mary’s Church were also spared because they served as points of reference to mariners.
THE GHOST MYSTERY
Even though Reculver’s about to fade into the past, it still has its mysteries. One of them are the shrieks of a crying infant that allegedly are heard on the site every now and then. What makes this story even more intriguing is the fact that archeologists discovered infant skeletons right underneath the walls of the old Roman fort. Whether they were buried dead or alive is unclear, but the burial definitely took place in the Roman times, a few hundred years before the establishment of St. Mary’s monastery. There remains nothing else to do but go and find out for yourself if the infants can indeed be heard. I personally didn’t hear a peep, but who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky – if that type of creepy things gets your motor running, that is. For others I recommend a bask in the sun and a stroll round this ancient site. Photography fans also will find cool shots around here. Enjoy your day trip!
USEFUL TIPS FOR ORAGNISING A DAY TRIP:
TRAVEL – Take the train from London Victoria station to Herne Bay. You can check departure times on the National Rail website. The train journey is about 1h30mins.
THE WALK – The distance between Herne Bay and Reculver is about 3 miles (5 km). So, depending on whether you stop over somewhere on the beach or along the trail, it can take you from 1h to perhaps 2h one way. The terrain is very walkable and mostly flat.
FOOD – Apart from the thing I already mentioned, i.e. bringing a picnic with you, Herne Bay being a seaside town should have some fresh seafood available. Things you might want to try are:
Eel pie and mash, although I have to say, eel pie is one of those foods that you have to acquire a taste for. Personally, I still haven’t managed to, but maybe you will.
Oysters! Near Reculver there’s an oyster hatchery. On the Kent coast oysters are a staple so if you’re in here during harvest times, make sure you try some. Or better yet, head to the nearby Whitstable for their annual oyster festival!
HERNE BAY FESTIVAL – If you’re around in August, then why not join the walk with a local festivities. I’m sure you’ll find something of interest. For more details check links below.