28 December, 2007

No.29: Christmassy Moments

Surprisingly for the first time, the University I work in gave us a Christmas party on 21st December. That was the best time they could manage as the students were to have tests from 22nd-25th December. The 5 foreign teachers (1 Canadian, 2 Americans, 1 Philipino and myself) and some Chinese teachers were invited. I was very impressed with the effort they put in to make it Christmassy. They had specially decorated the room and set up a Christmas tree and lots of goodies to eat.

Two media persons from the University were there to cover the celebration for the website. I got a thermos as third prize from a lucky dip for the foreign teachers among the other presents they gave us. There was lots of singing. There I was, home-sick and missing Christmas back home, but the party really cheered me up.

A week before Christmas, I took lessons on festivals. And of course, with Christmas just around the corner, Christmas was the main theme. I organized card-exchange and some games for the occasion. I played some Christmas songs while the cards were being exchanged and the students had a lovely time...including myself :o)

On Christmas Eve, I invited three colleagues (2 Chinese and 1 Philipino) for dinner at an Indian restaurant. We now have two great Indian restaurants in the city where I live. Though they've never tasted Indian food before, I was very delighted to see them joyously gorging down the scrumptious Indian food. Though it's considered disgusting to eat with bare hands in China, I was surprised and impressed to see one of my Chinese friends attempting to eat with his bare hand. You rock, L! :p

Another thing I couldn't miss to mention is that I really felt blessed to receive many Christmas presents this year. It may as well be the year I received the most gifts ever. To top that, I bought a Christmas present for myself. Yep...it's a percolator. I had been circling around different super-markets debating if I should get one. After our dinner on Christmas Eve, we walked back for quite a distance window-shopping and enjoying the night until we finally reached a supermarket where they sell imported goods. As it's a special occasion, I decided to purchase the percolator as a Christmas gift to myself. An ideal purchase at an ideal time indeed! Now I can have real grounded coffee. I know...I'm such a weakling when it comes to chai and coffee. I just can't help it :)

Christmas day was spent with friends and home-cooked lunch and slurrrrp.....cheese cake and apple pie for dessert.

14 December, 2007

No.28: 'Warming up' for Christmas

14th December 2007

It's almost hard to believe we're now spending the last month of this year! The end of the year is all about Christmas for me. Come November, I'd already start reminiscing of my childhood when we'd look forward for the holidays, Christmas shopping, carol, feast and wearing pretty new dress on Christmas day. All the fun and contentment I used to have is now just a beautiful memory. Even then, my spirit tend to soar with expectation around this time of year thinking perhaps this Christmas I can relive those good old days.
This evening, I invited some students for dinner and to decorate my Christmas tree and apartment. They were all enthusiastic as they have never done this before. They are familiar with Christmas trees and Santa Claus but to actually take part in decorating it and learning the true meaning of Christmas is something new and exciting for them. They did a pretty good job on the decoration too. Christmas in China is highly commercialized. In fact, the shopping malls and streets are beautifully decorated and one can hear Christmas songs in many stores for more than two weeks now.

Well, the truth is, when I said I invited them for dinner...I didn't cook. They did all the cooking :) Three of them (two male and one female) are very talented cook. Since they all live on campus, I wanted to create a home-like environment for them where they can make special food of their choice. The weekend home-cooked dinner has become more of a routine for quite a while now. So, it's not yet pre-Christmas dinner. That is yet to come in a few days time. Tonight is just a 'warm-up' dinner :)
Other weekends we mostly had rice but this time they volunteered to make dumplings (momo). Believe it or not, there's only one restaurant (in China) where I like the dumpling so far...only one! But the ones my students made were superb! The fillings were a mixture of pork, leek, eggs and Chinese masala. Besides dumplings, an addition of roasted chicken, stir-fried 'qing cai' and pork-ribs with squash soup made excellent dinner. Burp!

05 December, 2007

No.27: Beijing - Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China
8th July 2005
In the summer of 2005, I went to Beijing with my friend J for a week. That was my first experience of the over-crowded train ride during major holiday seasons. WhenIagreed to go by train, I had no idea just how crowded it could get, but I'm more attuned to it now. It takes about 13 hours direct from Xi'an to Beijing. The Great Wall and the Shaolin Temple are the two most important places in my list and have considered them as priorities for my travel plans. I consider it a great blessing to be able to visit these places in my first two consequent years in China.

Around the end of our stay in Beijing, my friend arranged for us to join a Chinese tour group to go to the Great Wall. We visited other places first and had saved the best for last. My first experience of joining the Chinese tour group didn't leave a good impression on me and have since tried to avoid them. The tour guide yapped away non-stop throughout the whole journey which was quite annoying. I promise you, the tour-guide's voice blaring through the loud speaker, the loud humming of the bus engine, the humid/hot weather and cramped ride can really get to your nerves after a while. We finally reached Badaling Great wall, thankfully, without much further ado. Phew!

There are several Great Wall sections we can visit near Beijing. We went to Badaling which is the most popular and is the best preserved section and is close to Beijing. It is located over 70 kilometers north of Beijing. On reaching the gate, our tour guide bought us tickets which I thought to be the usual entrance ticket. I was very surprised when we were led to this individual sled that were joined together to ride up instead. It's uncomfortable on the way up but turns out to be quite enjoyable on our way down as the sleds were dismantled and we were able to ride and control it individually.

We finally made it to the top of the wall. We went past plenty of souvenir vendors and photographers trying to persuade us to buy their goods and have our pictures taken. Once we reached the foot of the place where we had to start climbing, it was a little overwhelming to see steps after steps leading up to each of the watch towers. I took a deep breath (also because I wore short skirt...lolz) as I could clearly see that the hike up and down was going to be a serious undertaking. It's hard to believe that the old women were also there to make the climb. It was equally unbelievable to see several women with high heel shoes! It took us quite a while to make our journey up the super steep stairs.

Once on reaching the tower, I could see the wall snaking all along the hills in a distant view. The climb was totally worth it and the view was spectacular. It still feels like a dream to have visited one of the (old and new) Seven Wonders of the World!

28 November, 2007

No.26: Melbourne - Healesville Sanctuary

Healesville Sanctuary
21st January 2006
During my stay in Melbourne, C&J drove me to the Healesville Sanctuary 65 kilometers or one hours drive from Melbourne. It is located in the Yarra Valley region. Healesville Sanctuary covers 31 hectares of bushland enclosure but is small enough that we can see most of the animals in a days visit. It was great walking through the bushland surrounds and to see the unique wildlife animals of Australia. There were kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, dingos, emus, Koalas, platypus, wombats, monkeys, birds of prey etc. There's this huge butterfly house. Once I entered, I felt as though I'm in a fairyland. Hundreds of different butterfly species fluttered around us and some of them actually landed on our clothes. We have to be careful not to step on them. It was fascinating. Healesville Sanctuary is one of the best wildlife sanctuaries in Australia with a wide range of Australian animals to see.

The most interesting animals for me are the meerkats. I've seen documentaries on discovery channel some years back. Even then, I was fascinated with them. I spent a great deal of time watching the meerkats. They are cheeky and very lively. I find them soooo adorable especially when they stand on their two tiny feet.

Wombats are nocturnal animals. Wombats, like the kangaroo, has a pouch in which it carries it's baby. But it opens backwards to prevent the sand from entering their pouch while digging burrows. The droppings of the wombats are called 'scats' and each wombat's 'scats' have different smell to help them find their burrow in the night :)

Aren't they adorable? They look so cuddly..

The Emperor Tamarin monkey is so cute. I wish I can cuddle him and twirl his moustache in my fingers...hehehee!

The first time I saw the dingos, I was puzzled as to why they kept dogs in the sanctuary. I thought that there's nothing special in keeping dogs there! But soon C&J explained to me that they are dingos and not normal dogs. Apparently, a dingo generally do not bark like a dog and is quite fierce. Oooopsy! I was quite misled by its appearance. Reminds me to be careful so as not to be torn into shreds when crossing the path of a dingo in the wild thinking it to be a dog. Appearance really is deceiving in this particular case ;)

The different tools of the Aborigines in Australia were also displayed.

On our way back, C drove us through the countryside. The blue sky, the huge span of open space with the mountain in the horizon makes it very picturesque. The beauty and serenity of the countryside triggers in me a nostalgic feeling. I'm so glad they drove me throught that route. It was breathtaking!

21 November, 2007

No.25: Yunnan - Shangri La

Shangri La
9th-12th August 2007
I took a short break and posted a different topic in between. I'd like to continue with my travel account of Yunnan Province during the summer holiday. Though it's long gone now, but it's still fresh in my mind.

After our Lijiang visit my two friends and I proceeded on to Shangri La. It took us 7 hours by a mini-bus from Lijiang. We were warmly welcomed by C (a Mizo, who used to study in Shillong) and her Singaporean husband J who owns a villa-type hotel there. The hotel is made of wooden and is two storeys. It's quite luxurious with glass slide as the outer door, king sized bed made cozy with electric blanket for the chilly weather, a kitchen and a cool and sophisticated shower capsule. To top it off...they wouldn't let us pay for it!! I'm very grateful to C&J for their hospitality. J advised us not to take shower the day we arrived as we were at an elevation of 3700m above sea level in order to avoid headache and latitude sickness but to first get used to the weather and high elevation.

The original name of this place is Zhongdian, and was renamed as Shangri La in 1977 which means "the sun and moon in heart" in Tibetan. Yunnan Province promotes this place as the real Shangri La from the fictitious mountaintop Utopia of James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizon". Many people believe this to be the place mentioned in the novel. Also, with the adoption of this novel in the big screen by Frank Kapra four years after the novel was published, it gained popularity that stirs up a longing for this dreamy and mystical paradise making the town a hot spot for many foreigners from all over the world. Most of us may know this name by the hotel chain all over the world.

Although Shangri La is located in the north-west of Yunnan Province, the people there are mostly Tibetan. It's located only about 300 kilometres from the Yunnan-Tibet border. It is much higher than Lijiang and is divided into old town and new town. It is a pretty old town with lots of well preserved Tibetan houses with wooden structures and twisting and narrow cobblestone and dirt roads. Everything is made and smells of wood. The weather is cold enough to require a jacket in the day and quite chilly in the evening. Even in summer it remains between 15-20 degree Celsius with constant rain.

Near our hotel is a big square where several barbeque stalls are set up during the daytime. The barbeque ranges from meat to roasted vegetables like potato, mushroom etc and dried bean-curd in skewers for 1 or 2 yuan a piece. This very same square is cleared up in the evening and the whole town seems to gather here and dance to the traditional Tibetan music with a modern dance beat blaring through the sound system. At first, they would dance in a big circle and gradually a concentric circle is formed as more people joined up. It's an exhilarating and fantastic sight. There were old women with the Tibetan traditional garb and young/teenage girls in their designer clothes, old and young men...some with business suit :) all dancing joyously and in perfect unison. Anyone can join them and it was especially fascinating to see many foreigners dancing with the local people at the bouncy and danceable Tibetan music. I too joined in and found that the dance steps weren't complicated and quite easy to pick up. I believe the dancing to be more of a regular community thing and not solely for tourists.

A little bit down the road is a Buddhist Temple on a hill with an enormous prayer wheel spinning overhead and is said to be the biggest at 24 meters tall. We had to climb up steep steps to reach the temple. Personally, I consider this prayer wheel to be the greatest icon in Shangri La. The prayer wheel is so enormous that it takes several people to turn it. We can also get a very good view of the old and new town of Shangri La from the Temple.

The following day we arrived, J drove us to a new ski resort which is still under construction about an hour's drive away from the main city. My guess is that the government has poured in a lot of funds in Shangri La to attract more tourists. We didn't stay long there and J dropped us off halfway in the city. The three of us then proceeded on for the famed Shangri La Monastery about 3 hours north out of town. It's a 300 year old monastery called Songzanlin Si, the largest monastery in Yunnan Province, and the main attraction in Shangri La. It was named after the famous Tibetan king, Songzan and built by the Fifth Dalai Lama. It's an imitation of the Potala Palace in Tibet and is considered as the smaller Potala, still...massive and impressive. We went in a crowded mini bus full of foreigners and the locals living there and the ride was bumpy, dusty and quite uncomfortable. We were told about a backside way and found it to be under renovation. Soon, the monastery will have walls all around built like a fortress.

The monastery is composed of two lamaseries, Zhacang and Jikang. It is quite dark inside the temples and has massive hall with giant buddhas, prayer mats, huge donation boxes, incense, frescos in bright colors depicting gods, demons and legends. Every time I visit a Buddhist monastery in any parts of China, I'm struck with this feeling of familiarity of the gods and demons with that of the Hindus in India. Many of the temples has gods with many hands (pretty much like Kali Ma, one of the Hindu goddesses) and the demons looks very similar to the ones from the Hindu faith. I reckon that the Buddhist gods in China are from a mixture of the Hindu and Buddhist religion. The temples are mostly windowless and lack of light inside the temple often makes me feel like suffocating. However, Buddhist temples are always one of the main attractions in all the Provinces and places I've visited in China. Sadly, I'm the least interested in Temples but almost always have to visit them on joining a tour group.

On the third day, we hired a van and headed for "Bai Shui Tai" (white water terraces) located about 101 kilometers southeast to Zhongdian County. I wasn't sure what to expect as we headed for this place but soon found out to be a tufa (limestone terrace) formation, pretty much like the ones in Jiuzhaigou.The road is narrow and zigzagged but with few traffic. It is situated in Baidi Village. We had a hard time trying to find a decent restaurant for lunch and had to settle for a dingy, dirty and ill-serviced one as there was no other choice. And the food was terrible! To make things worse, while we were on our way to the main attraction, climbing steep and hundreds of steps, my friend L started to show symptoms of allergy and was quite distressed. Probably from the food we just had. We were quite alarmed as we didn't take any medicine with us. In short, our Bai Shui Tai visit didn't turn out quite as expected.

On our last night, J&C invited us for dinner with 2 other Singaporeans. We had a lovely time and greatly enjoyed the Indian food C cooked for us. We got to eat dhal, papad and curry (prepared with Indian 'masala'), which is quite a treasure in China but often taken for granted while in India. And of course, after dinner and the following day, we got to sing our hearts out concluding a superb stay in this mystical land.

I've heard of the novel "Lost Horizon" but hadn't actually read it. Having visited the much talked about Shangri La, I bought a copy at Kunming Airport on my way back to Xi'an. Got lots of time on the plane and turns out to be a fascinating read. It would have been more interesting had I read the novel before visiting the place. Quite the other way round eh? But as the saying goes..."Better late than never"!