30 October, 2007

No.23: Yunnan - Lijiang (Part 2)

Lijiang Old Town
7th - 8th August 2007
Lijiang or Lijiang Old Town is the home of the Naxi (Na-Shee) minority people. The Naxi's are noted as one of the few Asian people who have maintained a matriarchal society. The women inherited all the property, held power over the males for love affairs with flexible arrangements, the children belongs to the women and are held responsible to raise them. Even the disputes were resolved by the female elders. In short, the women officially ran the show of the society. Pretty much the same to the Khasi's in Meghalaya who follows the same excepting for adjudicating social disputes.

The Naxi's are one of the last practitioners of the pictograph language still in use today. They claim that it can be read by anyone without being taught. Dongba is the culture they follow as well as the name of their religion and shamans.

Night life in Lijiang Old Town is very scenic. The main part of the old town highlights the rooftops with red lanterns. Our nights are mostly spent rambling along the winding lanes with hundreds of shops on either side. We would walk past canals and over bridges with the weeping willows bordering the canals.

We were lucky to have witnessed the three day Torch Festival during our two days stay there. The Torch Festival is an important traditional festival of many ethnic groups in Yunnan Province. The Naxis celebrate this festival to protect their crops from destructive insects by fire whereas the Yi Group firework version is to serve as a warning to ghosts and for keeping away the evil spirits. They set up giant torches by bundling pine woods together decorated with flowers and lit on streets around the old town. Some of the locals gathered around the flaming bonfire singing and dancing to their hearts' content.

We also came across women selling candles with colored papers made in the shape of lotus flower to hold the candles. Many tourists bought these candles and released it on the water that runs through the town. The candle lights could be seen bobbling up and down along the canal which lends a romantic charm.

On our second day, we hired a van and went to the Tiger Lake (Lashi Hai) 15km from the booming tourist town of Lijiang. It's a natural reservoir of plant and animal species including several species of birds which winter there. It is a grassland with mountains surrounding it. Horses could be hired to tour the distant places and around the grassland. Once we reached the spot, we found that it was highly overpriced. Having visited the grassland in Inner Mongolia, I wasn't very impressed with the place plus I probably had food poisoning and wasn't feeling well at all. So we just wandered around the grassland on foot then went back to the old town.

We rented bikes the same day and toured the city. I always enjoy pedaling through the unfamiliar roads and discovering new places. With the weather just ideal for the ride, we went to a place where at one end there is a large square with a waterwheel. Here too was swamped with tourists. We spent a few hours there taking pictures and then headed back to our hotel. We went out walking again in the evening, had dinner beside the canal and took in the beauty of the old town to be ever imprinted in my mind.

23 October, 2007

No.22: Yunnan - Lijiang (Part I)

Lijiang Old Town
7th-8th August 2007

This year's summer vacation is spent visiting two provinces in China. I've written about my Guizhou Province visit. From Guizhou I proceeded on to Yunnan Province, known for having the highest percentage of the minority people group in China. It was my second visit to Yunnan Province, with my first visit in 2005 mostly spent visiting places in and around Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. This time, two of my friends Lz, J and I went to Lijiang.

Located in the north western corner of Yunnan Province, Lijiang is an old town comprising of a maze of little cobbled roads, rickety old wooden buildings, winding alleyways, drooping willow trees, little stone bridges, markets, inns and canals running through rows and rows of restaurants and bars on either side. It is at an elevation of 2400 meters above sea level, or about 7500 feet high. Lijiang old town has a history dating back to more than 800 years old. The bright lights and the Naxi (Na-Shee) culture handicraft shops seem to lend a bit of an authentic atmosphere.

On 3rd February 1996, the deadliest earthquake of the decade struck Lijiang Old Town with a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale. Surprisingly, the old Naxi buildings were able to withstand the severe earthquake and were still found standing whereas all the high rise buildings were destroyed. This instantly raised the fame of Lijiang and since has been a hot spot for many visitors. The new city of Lijiang is just another city, but the old city is what most of the people come for.

We set out from Kunming on 6th August at 8:10 pm. We boarded an air-conditioned sleeper bus with rows and rows of bunk beds instead of reclining seats. I was fascinated as this actually is my first tour on a sleeper bus. But the fascination was short lived as once the bus gets into motion, the passengers started smoking a great deal, that too with no windows!(air..air...gasping for fresh air). Also, on our way back, we took a sleeper bus again where two western women smoked at the front near the driver (hmpfff....they should have known better!). The Chinese passengers took this opportunity to practice English using all their Chinglish from their bunks. This time, my friend J, amidst the 'English practice' took the opportunity to tell them from one dark corner in a very broken English not to smoke :) I don't think they figured it came from another foreigner. But it sure did the trick :)

We stopped twice, at a bus station and at another place where the driver had something to eat at a restaurant(probably to kill time) and we, who needed fresh air and wanting to stretch our aching bones went out in the crisp night air. We finally arrived early in the morning at around 5:30 am. We lingered for a while on the bus as no public transport runs that early. At around 6:20 am, we met a girl looking for people to stay in their hotel. After bargaining and settling for the price, a van took us to our hotel which was right in the Old Town area. As we entered the Old Town, it was still very quiet and empty other than travelers like ourselves. After checking in, we wandered off to find a restaurant for breakfast. Most of the shops were still closed so we settled for a Chinese breakfast which was about the only shop open at that wee hour.

Having rested, we set out to explore the narrow cobbled streets listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. We soon found that the streets were very convoluted that it was very easy to get lost. By now the streets have come alive and it was rather shocking to find that almost all the houses turns out to be shops other than the ones at the outback area. I'd say the place is literally mobbed by tourists of about 90% Chinese and 10% foreigners! The entire town is pedestrians-only and cars, bikes and other vehicles are banned making it easy to explore and pollution free.

11 October, 2007

No.21: Sichuan - Jiuzhaigou

17th-19th July, 2005
After J and I traveled to Beijing and back again to Xi'an during the summer holidays in 2005, we proceeded on to Chengdu in Sichuan province which is his hometown. He studied in Xi'an and having graduated, was heading for home. I also helped carry several things back to his hometown. The only train ticket we could get hold of were hard seated ones. I need not explain again how it's like to travel in a crowded train plus extra luggage this time :P I stayed with his family who were very hospitable and helped me better understand family life in yet another province. Since Sichuan dialect is spoken in a fast and high tone, it seemed to me as though they were quarreling many a times *_* It was only after a while that I came to realize that it was because of the dialectal difference with Xi'an. Sichuan dialect sounds too quarrel-like to the slower and low toned Xi'an dialect I'm used to by now. Sigh!

The day after we reached Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, I went to Zetong County (15th-16th July, 2005) to visit one of my students and stayed there for two days. After coming back to Chengdu, we left for Jiuzhaigou Valley with my friend J, his father and two of their family friends from Guangdong Province in the morning of 17th July. Another reason for their visit was to see off J as he was to leave for America the following month to study there. (That was two years back, now having finished his studies; he's got a good job in the US).

We joined a Chinese tour group and took more than 12 hours by bus to reach Jiuzhaigou. It took us longer than usual as we were blocked by a landslide for more than 2 hours. We then took a detour in an old and deserted road which is not just unleveled but had to zigzag through places where there are no roads at all. Several times the bus careened dangerously to one side that I thought we weren't going to make it. But to my relief, no ill-incident befell us and we reached our destination safely at about 7:30 pm.

I was supposed to share a room with other Chinese women. Fortunately, the tour guide noticing that I'm a foreigner arranged a separate room for me. I was very thankful as we were to spend three nights there and I wasn't exactly eager to share a room with total strangers. It was colder than anticipated and was drizzling most of the time we were there. The next morning, we headed for the main attraction - Jiuzhaigou.

Most of the scenic spots in Jiuzhaigou are scattered in a Y-shaped valley. The highest mountain peaks in Jiuzhaigou are at an elevation of 3500-4500m above sea-level. The main attraction are the natural beauty with tranquil lakes, swift waterfalls, springs, the snow mountain ridges and it's geological structure with karst sedimentations.

It took quite a while for our tour guide to get the tickets. Being one of the most popular tourist spots in China, there were thousands of visitors. Appareantly, there are about a million inland and foreign visitors thronging this place every year. Once we got the tickets we could wander off on our own, which I much preferred to being shoved around by tour guides taking us to places we're not interested in with limited time. I've experienced such tours before and didn't exactly enjoy it. I was indeed grateful to be able to tour the place on our own.

Upon entering the scenic area, we soon came to an eye-catching group of exquisite, crystal clear ponds. We could actually see the bottom of the lake and the fish swimming in it. There were many lush green trees. I'm told that in spring, the leaves changes to different luxuriant colors to enhance their glamour even more. The ponds are surprisingly crystal clear and we can see the reflection of trees, mountains, clouds and sky, which is a pleasant feast to the eyes.

Before going to Jiuzhaigou, I was shown different pictures of the amazingly blue and clear waters. I expressed my doubtfulness to find such clear blue waters and tranquil places and thought that the pictures must have been edited/altered to attract more tourists. However on reaching the spot and having seen for myself the beauty and serenity of the place, I took back my word. I couldn't help but feel that this place is like a paradise, and hence aptly known as the 'Fairy Land on Earth' by the Chinese. It turns out to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. It's truly breath-taking!

On the second day, we went to Huanglong about 42 Kms away from the entry to Jiuzhaigou. Because of the high altitude, cans of oxygen were sold at various intervals for people who gets altitude sickness. I for one didn't think needed it only to realize much later, that I was affected too :) I had a mild headache while walking up towards the multi-colored pool, our final destination. Thinking it to be one of those random headaches I tend to have before, I thought it most unfortunate to have one just when we were on our way to see the most important and beautiful spot. Little did I realize then, that I was at an altitude of about 3500 meters above sea level!

One thing I'd like to mention is that some of the people using the can of oxygen continued to smoke! They would inhale the oxygen and then smoke repeatedly. I wondered how they managed to do that :P There were also some litters, a chair carried on a pole by two bearers, made available for a certain sum of money. People who took these litters were rushed up and down which is quite annoying as the road is way too small to accommodate both the bearers and the tourists. With us making our way up, tired and feeling uneasy with altitude sickness, it's quite unpleasant to have to constantly give way to these sometimes rude and pushy litter bearers. Not to mention hoards of travelers going up and others coming down.

After a while, we had to walk on narrow wooden planks. Even an attempt to stop and take pictures for a while is next to impossible with hundreds of people jostling behind me. To stick with my other friends also became very difficult at this point because of the crowd. Since there is only one way, I knew that I could soon catch up again with my friends. So I took my time in enjoying the beauty of the scenery in leisure and in taking photos.

We finally reached a Taoist temple and behind that is the multi-colored pool. I was immediately enchanted with the ethereal beauty of the clusters of tufa formation. It was strewn with gold colored limestone deposit and seems to give a myriad of different hues to the water. Its beauty is beyond mere words. I guess one needs to see it in person to truly appreciate this wondrous 'Fairy Land on Earth'.

02 October, 2007

No.20: Melbourne - Culture Shock

Need I mention that I had culture-shock in Oz? I say....definitely! Lemme write some of my interesting, hilarious, goofed up and first time experiences :P

As informed by my Aussie friends before I went to Melbourne, the climate was very unpredictable. One moment it was sunny and extremely hot and the next instant....there tends to be a downpour! When it's sunny, it's extremely hot and can burn your skin. I can't recollect ever having sun-burn until I went to Melbourne. I ended up buying sunscreen lotion which I never had the need to use before. And during one of these extremely hot days, we'd just stay indoors with our swimsuit on and take a dip in the family pool at various intervals. We needn't even take off our swim-wear; we'd jump into the pool, then would go inside the house to relax and after a while would take another cooling dip in the pool. Though it's summer, when I went out, I learnt to go well equipped to face any kind of weather....I'd mostly take an umbrella and a sweater along :)

Having gone from China where there are lots of people everywhere, I was sometimes a bit lonely and scared the few times I went out walking alone in the empty and deserted streets in Melbourne. By around 7:00 pm, most of the shops are closed in the residential area and people mostly go to bed by 9:00 pm. I'm a latie...I normally go to bed late and I often find it hard to go to bed early. I would either read books or watch television before going to bed. And I just couldn’t have enough of the television. I didn't realize I was yearning for English Channels. In China, all the channels are in Chinese and I hardly watch them. But in Oz...purrr...I spent a lot of time watching the television. It was during my stay in Melbourne that 'Prison Break' was advertised and started airing only after I came back to China. Haven't missed any of the episodes so far...and of course not on the television but through the internet....lolz. In fact, I watched the latest one last night :)

I've often heard of expressions that Churches in the west are deserted and are now used for other purposes. Well, I merely had the general idea but seeing these deserted Churches with my own eyes had a very great impact on me. I was filled with nostalgia seeing Churches at different intervals. It doesn't seem to emit warmth like Churches back home. It looks forlorn and ill-maintained. It was quite saddening to see them. But on the brighter side, that doesn't mean Churches don't exist anymore. I attended services on Sundays in Churches that looks like normal houses but filled with warmth and passionate believers.

Traffic rules are strictly followed in Australia whereas in China and India it's pretty chaotic. Somehow, when friends offered to take me out driving or sight-seeing, I always ended up in the drivers' door side. :) Reason: it's opposed to the driver's side in China. It took me quite awhile to get used to the systems in China, and I had to struggle all over again in Australia. I needed some time to get used to it again. Sigh!

During my stay there, I had one birthday party experience. It was Jen's Birthday. She invited several friends to dine out in a Thai restaurant in the city. Four of us went together and met the others in the restaurant. City life is quite another thing. It's full of life till late in the night. In the restaurant, we had to sit on the floor and were served in Thai style ;) It was quite interesting. One thing I'd like to mention is....all of us made a donation for the meal at the end...quite unlike the tradition I'm used to back home. To us it's always like...it's your birthday? Ahhh...you have to 'treat' me....rite? I understand it's not always expected to 'go dutch' in Oz either. But the idea is quite appealing to me. We get to enjoy...including the birthday girl/boy...not having to pay for everyone. Everybody's happy this way :P

One day, Mar invited me to go to a cinema. I didn't have other plans that day and I was all enthusiastic. She drove me to the Rivoli Cinema in Camberwell, a very famous theatre in Melbourne. The Rivoli Theatre is where the likes of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Matt Damon, Daniel Radcliffe (to name a few) had attended the premiere of their new movies. There were several movies to choose from. And there was this new movie called 'The Brokeback Mountain' and looks quite interesting with a western cowboy theme complete with horses, cowboy hats, boots etc. We had no idea what the movie was about and had chosen for the sole reason that it was recently released and looked as though there's gonna be lots of action...we were soon to find out that it's not quite the kind of action we expected :) We bought the tickets, bought some coke and popcorn and were comfortably seated in our seats. The movie started...halfway through the movie, we started to shift uncomfortably with boredom. Imagine the look on our faces after the movie was over.... :o)

Another thing I wanted to do was to see a real live casino. One of those places we don't have back home. Jill had previously offered to take me round the Yarra River and other 'must-visit' places in Melbourne. She agreed to take me to the Crown Casino which was conveniently on the way to the places we were planning to visit. She drove me to the Crown Casino in the evening. It was larger than I expected and was buzzing with life inside. Hundreds of people were there hoping to strike big. I was there merely to see what it looks like so we didn't stay long. I wasn't quite sure if we were allowed to take pictures, but I attempted a few quick shots anyway which, sadly in my hurried state, turns out to be all blurry. Even though I didn't actually take part in the gambling itself, yet it was an interesting experience for me...:)

I often went out walking or sight-seeing on my own and when I went out, I mostly use the Metcard for train, trams and busses.Once, my friend Mar invited me to have lunch in the city. As she was already in the city, I was to go and meet her at Flinder Street. I decided to go by train. I had taken the train once with another friend and I was confident I could make it to the city. I waited for the train in Auburn Station, boarded the same (I thought) train my friend and I took before. I'm pretty good in remembering landscapes/landmarks. As I was quite confident that I took the right train, it was after several stops that I looked out the window and realized I could not recognize the places we passed by. I quickly looked at my map and when we stopped at the next station, I realized I went right the opposite direction from the city towards Lilydale ! Hahahaha...It was too late for me to get down at that station but I got down in the next station. I rang up my friend and explained the situation. We had a hearty laugh during lunch.

Once, the B's took me shopping in a mall not very far from their house. I was meaning to buy Aussie souvenirs. But imagine my disappointment whenever I looked at the tag in the clothes, shoes and many other items. On it were written....'Made in China'! Thud! I didn't come all the way from China to buy Chinese made souvenirs...:)
Another time I went shopping with Kel, we were to go to the second floor and had to use the escalator. There were many people that day and the escalator was in frequent use. Once on the escalator, I found that the people going up were all standing to the left side. I innocently stood beside my friend to her right. I was finding it rather odd why all the people chose to stand only to the left. Hmmm....something's going on but I just couldn't put my finger on it. Must be cultural thingy....On reaching the top, I asked Kel why all the people stood to the left. She replied saying that the right side is often made empty so that people who are in a hurry could speed up by walking on the right side. Arre....I wished she had told me that earlier....or perhaps she was afraid she might offend me...dunno what but I felt like a complete fool. No wonder, several people who were behind me were looking up at me with those curious and questioning eyes...*_*
(All the names are shortened)