A travel and photography blog by Loke Chee Meng
About the title shot :
In the autumn of 2009, I found Little Bugsie, of all places, on a toilet sink in the Days Landscape Hotel located at the foot of Changbaishan, Jilin, China. I invited Bugsie into the room. I gave it the 'red carpet' welcome and took the shot above with a Panasonic DMC-LX3.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Important information to note if you are flying off from Beijing

I went to Beijing again on the 18th October 2015.  This time I visited the Great Wall (again but different segment), Chengde, Bashang and Panjin.  I will write about all these later.  But meanwhile I am quite keen to share the following with readers as soon as possible because I think the information is important.

If you are flying off from Beijing International Airport, be very sure which terminal you are departing from.  Why?  Well, Beijing International Airport Terminal 3 (T3) is 15 to 20 minutes DRIVE away from T1 and T2.  (T1 and T2 are next to each other.)  If you think T3 is next to T2, you are dead wrong! If you get to the wrong terminal, you could very well be in for a lot of hassle.

Next, if you are taking Cathay Pacific Airlines (CX), be very sure you are taking the right airlines. There is a local airline with a name that sounds exactly the same as Cathay Pacific in Mandarin and in Cantonese (though it is written differently).  I will show you the photo later.  So,  if you simply go to Guo Tai (or Kwok Tai in Cantonese) without verifying you may end up in Timbuktu.

This is the photo I promised to show you all.


Friday, 2 October 2015

Circumambulating the West Lake

The charm of the West Lake is legendary.

According to a Chinese saying,

Viewing the West Lake on a sunny day is not as ideal as a rainy day;
Viewing the West Lake on a rainy day is not as ideal as a misty day;
Viewing the West Lake on a misty day is not as ideal as a snowy day.

I take that to mean that the more obscure the view, the more enchanting the West Lake is.

There are west lakes and there are west lakes

Before I go on any further, I am of course referring to THE 'West Lake' in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province in China.  Well, the fact is that there are over 30 west lakes in China.  I have been to the West Lake in the city of Fuzhou in Fujian province.  It is nothing like the West Lake in Hangzhou.  So, don't bother to waste time visiting any other west lake.  From now onwards, I will only talk about THE 'West Lake' in Hangzhou.  By the way, there are also many heavenly lakes in China.  The two worth visiting are the Heavenly Lake in Changbaishan and the Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang.  I will write about these two some time later.

The West Lake in Hangzhou is one of the most easily accessible and conveniently located scenic locations in China. It is right in the city and the reasonably priced 4-star Ramada Hai Hua Hotel is just 150 m from the West Lake.  The pricey Hyatt Regency and Shangri-La are also equally well located. I have stayed in the Ramada every time I visited the West Lake.

Circumambulate the West Lake?

In the spring of 2014, I decided to circumambulate the West Lake.  Yes, I mean walk round the West Lake. I felt that in my previous visits I have not really seen the real the West Lake.  So, walking round it should be the best way to see more.  Is that possible?  Yes, it is.  How long does it takes?  I took about 12 hours including breaks for rest and taking of photographs. Was it tiring?  Yes, but not unmanageable.  In fact, I think I managed pretty well considering the fact that I was lugging along my photographic gear weighing about 20 per cent of my body weight.

As you probably already know, there are 10 classic scenes of West Lake:

1) Dawn on the Su Causeway in spring
2) Breeze-ruffled lotus in the Quyuan Garden
3) Autumn moon over the calm lake
4) Melting snow on the 'broken' bridge (The bridge is anything but broken.  The break is a visual delusion due to the melting snow.)
5) Leifeng pagoda in the sunset
6) Twin peaks piercing the clouds
7) Orioles singing in the willows
8) Fish viewing at the Flower Harbour
9) Three ponds reflecting the moon (This name is a bit of a misnomer and a mystery.  There aren't any three ponds.  What one sees are 3 pagoda-like stone lanterns about 2 metres high arising above the water.  This scene is depicted on the back of the RMB1 note.)
10) Evening bell of the Nanping Hill

(These days, the Chinese had come out with 10 'new' scenes of West Lake.  I have not visited any of them.  Firstly, they are spread out over quite a large area in Hangzhou.  Secondly, somehow, I feel that they are mainly tourist's traps.)

By circumambulating the West Lake, I tried to visit each of these locations.  Well I did 8 out of 10!  I did not make it to (9) because one would have to take a boat out to an island in the middle of the lake and (10) because one would have to deviate and go up the hill.

The following are some of the 10 scenes.

Twin peaks piercing the clouds
Leifeng pagoda in the sunset
Fish viewing at the Flower Harbour

Dawn at the Su Causeway in spring


On the western edge of the West Lake are several smaller lakes called Maojiabu.  This area is seldom visited by tourists and walking along the lakes, one really gets to soak in its tranquility.  Maojiabu is not to be confused with the Xixi, the wetland made famous by the 2008-movie 'If you are the one' staring Shu Qi and Chinese actor Ge You.   Xixi wetland, is a short car-ride from the Westlake.  The following are some shots of Maojiabu.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Zhang Yi Mou's impression shows

Zhang Yi Mou, the movie director, has produced several large scale, live, on location shows at some of China's most notable scenic attractions.  His shows involving several hundred performers make creative use of light and sound woven into the location's setting.  The content of the show is invariably about the local customs and dances. But each show will inevitably contain some elements of surprise that vow the audience.  Zhang is credited to have provided employment opportunities to many of the local people and made a lot of money for himself too.

The following is my impression of Zhang's Impressions. 

Impression of Hainan 

It is set in a stadium-like arena.  The theme is contemporary (his only show with a contemporary theme) and is about young people's yearning to enjoy sun and the beach of Hainan.

One of the surprises is how the stage turned into a sea of water with the clever change of lighting.  I figured out that the stage is actually built of mesh over a pool.  It turns from land to water by lowering the mesh and vice versa by raising the mesh. Another surprise comes towards the end where the back of the stage opens up and 'viola', the beach,  coconut tress and the waves washing ashore highlighted by the clever use of lighting.

My rating: *

Impression of West Lake

This is probably the most unusual.  The performance is carried out on the waters of the West Lake at night.  The storyline is set against the legend of Madam White Snake which in itself is an enchanting tale.

You have boats sailing on the lake and dancers dancing on water.  The highlight is the broken bridge sequence where a huge bridge-like structure (resembling anything but a bridge, least of all, the real 'broken bridge') is mechanically raised from the lake.

The dance sequences with the creative use of light is scintillating.

My rating :***

Impression of Guilin

This show uses the unique characteristic of the Karst landscape in Guilin (more specifically, Yangshuo) as the backdrop.  It also featured the characteristically unique folk songs ('mountain songs' literally in Chinese) of Guilin.

To a large extent, the dance items are similar to the West Lake's with dancers performing 'on water'.

My rating : **

Impression of Lijiang

The only of his shows that is performed in daylight.  The reason is obvioius.  The location is at the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow mountain some 20 minutes drive from Lijiang city.  The audience will be literally frozen if the show is staged at night.

The backdrop is the magnificent 4680m Jade Dragon Snow mountain.  The dances and content are centered around the local tea-trading 'horse gangs' with  real horses galloping around.  Other than that, nothing really unusual.

I think the magnificent Jade Dragon Snow mountain was a distraction as there were several times during the show that I found myself admiring the grandeur of the mountain rather than watching the show.

My rating : *

Sorry, I do not have any photographs of the night shows.  Well, I abide by the rules; no photography and video recording allowed.  Of course, that made me the odd-one-out in China.   Actually, I was prepared to 'follow the custom when one enters the village' as the Chinese saying goes.   However, it does not make sense to shoot anything in the vast night space without a firm tripod.  

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Travel tip#9 - How high can you go?

How high can you go?

I am not a fitness buff.  I am not even the outdoor-type.  But I have summited Mount Fuji (3776m) and gone up to altitude as high as 5248m without falling sick.

Once you are at an altitude of about 2000m, you will inevitably feel breathless when you strain yourself.  But this is not Acute Mountain Sickness (AMC) or Chronic Mountain Sickness (CMS), maybe not yet. Hypoxia is a condition in which the body as a whole or a region of the body is deprived of oxygen resulting in what we generally called ACS/CMS.  When ACS/CMS becomes serious resulting in fluid build-up in the brain (HACE) or in the lungs (HAPE), it is fatal if not attended to immediately.

As a matter of fact, Acute Mountain Sickness (ACS) or Chronic Mountain Sickness (CMS) has little to do with a person's level of fitness, gender or age.  Herein lies the danger.  It is therefore important to be prepared, recognise the signs and symptoms and know what to do when faced with it.

Now, if you are going to Tibet (which is an interesting place for holiday), most of the time you will be above 2000m.  The altitude of Lhasa is already 3650m.  The first thing to do is acclimatisation.  When you arrive at Lhasa, for example, you do nothing on the first day.  Just rest.   Don't be a hero and insist on venturing out.  Some people think that they have paid a lot of money for their holiday and they are not going to idle around and waste a day or two.  You are only asking for trouble if you do so.

Just be mindful that you are at high altitude and do things slowly; don't run, don't jump, don't bent down to pick up something abruptly.  I even tell people to brush their teeth slowly.

Some people think that when going to Lhasa, Tibet, taking the train will enable them to acclimatise better as the ascent is more gradual compared to taking a plane.  Sure the ascent is more gradual but the trains are pressurised and therefore do not help in acclimatising.

Many people believe in consuming the Chinese herbal medicine HongJinTian as an antidote for ACS.  I am skeptical.  But if you believe in it, please go ahead; I cannot underwrite your life.   I would suggest that before your trip go and see a GP and get a prescription of Diamox.

If you experience giddyness, nausea, headache, perspiration, light headedness, prolonged breathlessness, consume the medicine based on the doctor's prescription.  If the symptons still persist, go to see a doctor as soon as possible.  The doctor will most likely put you on a drip.  Now, if the doctor recommends that you evacuate to a lower level, comply as soon as possible.  Even Everest climbers have died for refusing to follow advice to evacuate.

You may also come across tourist shops selling oxygen cannisters that look like insecticide spray. I am doubtful of its content.  Again, I don't want to underwrite your life; go ahead and buy if you want it as a precaution.  If you are travelling with an organised tour, make sure you that the tour coach carries a real oxygen bottle, the type used in hospitals.

One final point, avoid consuming alcohol at high altitude.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The 12 months of 2015

'The 12 months of 2015' is a customised calendar I made with selected sunrise and sunset theme I have shot in the past at various places.   I have intentionally not mentioned whether they are sunrise or sunset in this post as I would like to leave it as a teaser for the reader.  Sorry, no prize for the right answers.   Most of these shots are originally landscape shots.



A Chinese saying has it that,

"After returning from Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), you do not want to see any more mountains.  After returning from Jiuzhai (Jiuzhaigou), you do not want to see any more waters."

Huangshan (1864m) is located in Anhui province, China.  The saying above is testimony of its unparalleled beauty.  Most people go up Huangshan via the cable car.  I walked up all the way to the top all in 8 hours!  It was tough but absolutely satisfying.

Now before you jump to conclusion that the above shot is a sunrise or sunset shot, do note that I had stayed on the mountain top (in a hotel, of course) for a night.  


U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, Myanmar
U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, Myanmar.  The teak-wood bridge is quite an icon.  This is a popular location for photographers and it should be easy to find out if this is sunset or sunrise.  The shot was taken from a small boat on very shallow waters.


Jogjakarta, Indonesia

This shot was taken on top of a hill.  It should be easy to tell if this is sunrise or sunset.  The tell-tale sign is obvious.


Bagan, Myanmar
Yes, those are hot air balloons.


Xiapu, Fujian, China
Xiapu is famous for its mudflats but you can also capture some glorious sunrise and sunset scenes.


Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
This is Brunei Darulsalam, Land of the Peaceful Abode.


Fisherman Wharf, Danshui, Taipei
Don't expect to see fishing boats returning with their catches in Fisherman Wharf in Danshui.  There aren't any.  The place is full of eateries and tourists.


Lake Inle, Myanmar
This is a pair of the iconic 'leg-rowers' in Lake Inle.  The fishermen use one leg to row the boat with the other keeping him standing.  Guess what they do with their hands.


Two dogs

There are two things I would like to say about this August shot.  First, guess the location.  Second, I think the two dogs made a difference in this shot.  Actually, the two dogs went into the water for a swim after I took the shot.


West Lake, Hangzhou

The legendary 'Broken Bridge' at West Lake, Hangzhou.  The bridge is anything but broken.  It got its name because when the snow on the bridge melts, it looks like it is broken.  It is one of the 10 classical scenes of West Lake.


Haikou, Hainan
I was looking out of the window of this restaurant by the sea in Haikou, Hainan Island, China and voila, the big round egg yolk was above the horizon.  I immediately grabbed my camera and dashed out of the restaurant to take this shot.  Of course, I did tell the waiter of my intention.  So, was I having breakfast or dinner?


Gardens By The Bay, Singapore
Singaporeans should not have problem telling if it is sunrise or sunset.


Mile, Yunnan, China
The name of this location is not pronounced as 'Mile' (as it would be in English) but 'Mi Le' as in Hanyu pinyin.  There is nothing very much to see in this city.  I was there en route to the beautiful Yuanyang rice terrace. There is this big cigarette manufacturer in this city that has gotten so prosperous that as a way to demonstrate its corporate citizenship (or rather to atone its sin) built a large resort with a man-made lake in the city.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Vista of West Lake from Wushan

Somehow, my piece on 'Circumambulating the West Lake' has been in the works for a while.    I thought I might just put up something short and simple on the West Lake in the meanwhile.

Hangzhou's West Lake is surrounded by mountains that stretch from the northwest to the southeast.  The stretch from the north to the east is flatland wherein lies Hangzhou city itself.  Two structures on the mountains are visible from the bank of the Lake.  In the north and closer to the Lake is the Baoshu Pagoda.  On the south eastern side and a little further from the lake is the Chenghuang Pavilion on Wushan (Wu Mountain).  Incidentally, there are many Wu mountains in China.

During my last visit to the West Lake, I decided to go up the Chenghuang Pavilion on Wushan to take a look at the West Lake from a different angle.  I was rewarded with a 360 degrees panorama of not only the entire West Lake but also the entire Hangzhou.  I believe not many visitors have seen the West Lake from this vantage point.

You have to pay an entrance fee to enter Chenghuang Pavilion which houses a tea house and a restaurant.  There were scarcely any visitors at the time of my visit.

The following are vistas from the top of Chenghuang Pavilion.

View of Broken Bridge and Bai Causeway
View of the Small Yingzhou Islet in the middle of West Lake

View of Leifeng Pagoda

Roof of Chenghuang Pavilion in the foreground and tiny Leifeng Pagoda in the background
As you can see from the photos, the sky was heavily overcast and it fact it was still drizzling when I took those shots.  It was the best I could do in such a weather condition.  I hope to return in future to shoot the glorious sunset from this vantage point.  Also, I must come with an ultra-wide angle lens and perhaps try to stitch together a panoramic shot otherwise I will not be doing justice to the view.

In my post The Blue Sky of Beijing, I have a shot of the glorious sunset over Beihai Park taken from a vantage point on the Jingshan Hill behind the Forbidden City.  I look forward to doing a similar one on the West Lake.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Travel tip #8 - How not to lose your luggage?

My colleagues and I had checked into the Seoul Plaza Hotel, Seoul at about 9 pm after a long flight from Singapore.  Only then did one of them who goes by the moniker of 'Eagle Eye' realised that he had carried the wrong luggage all the way from the airport to the hotel.   Apparently, he had exchanged luggage with someone else as his luggage could not be found in the airport.  Two wrongs don't make one right!  We were scheduled to have a business meeting the next morning and the attire was business suit.  So Eagle Eye had to go out to do some late night shopping.  He ended up buying an ill-fitting beige coloured suit which was probably the best he could find at that time of the night.   That made Eagle Eye looked like a lizard in the meeting the next day in a room where everyone else was wearing dark coloured business suit.

I was told of this case that happened recently.  Mr X was flying into Singapore and his luggage was overweight.  At the departure check-in, he did what most people would do.  He pooled his luggage together with a fellow passenger except that this fellow passenger was a total stranger.   To make things worst, his luggage check-in counterfoil was with the fellow passenger.  On arrival at Singapore, this fellow passenger had problems with his visa and was eventually turned back.  Poor Mr X was practically left with only the shirt on his back! 

So, how not to lose your luggage?

The obvious thing to do is to made your luggage look unique and distinctive.  Most people do this by tying a red ribbon round the handle of the luggage as red is an auspicious colour in many cultures.  No one wants a white or black ribbon!   I do not want to discourage anyone from doing that but if you think that that is good enough, you are dead wrong.   Great men think alike and fools don't differ.

A more distinctive way is to tie a luggage belt round your luggage.  I find it strange why so many people are not doing it.  Luggage belts come in all kinds of colours and patterns. It is certainly more distinctive than a ribbon.  Besides identification purpose, a luggage belt makes it easier to haul your luggage and helps to bind your luggage together in case it opens up during handling.  

These days, shrink-wrap services are available at some airports for travellers to shrink-wrap their luggage in cellophane sheet.  Great idea, great service.  Not really!  Firstly, it is very difficult to handle a shrink-wrapped item (especially after it gets wet).  Secondly, good luck to you if airport security requires you to open up your luggage.

At some point in time in the past I used to paste stickers on my luggage.  But let me caution you if you want to do that.  Please ensure that your stickers are completely and absolutely innocuous.  Nothing should be culturally, religiously, socially and politically biased!  Not even your favourite football club.  The best sticker to put is the 'Fragile' sticker you get from the airport check-in counter.

Now, one more very important thing to do and yet people are not doing it;  take photographs of your luggage at the airport check-in counter.  The advantages are obvious.

And finally, NEVER pool your luggage with strangers and DON'T help to carry the luggage for any strangers.  Ignore the damsel in distress.  

Friday, 24 April 2015

Travel tip #7 - Watch what you say and do!

When you travel overseas, whether on departure or arrival, there is a very powerful person you have to come face to face with.  He is not highly educated, not highly paid, not high up in the organisational structure, does a very simple job, yet very powerful.  He is the immigration/customs officer.  Please respect him,  observe the rules and don't say or do anything usual.

You might have heard of the case of a family which was travelling overseas for holiday.  At the security gate, they like all the others were having their luggage scanned.  The child asked the father,  'Why are they scanning our luggage?'  The father replied, 'They want to see if we have any bombs inside.'  On hearing the word 'BOMB', the security team activated the emergency procedure, locked down the area and detained the family for interrogation and a detailed search.  The family's holiday was ruined.

Very often we do not say the right things and/or use the right words.  This is a case of a person not using the right words at the immigration.   This person was sent on a business trip by his company to its subsidiary in Denmark.  The immigration officer asked him what was the purpose of his visit.  He dutifully replied, 'To do some work.'  On hearing the word 'WORK', our innocent visitor was invited to a special session with the immigration officer and I believed he was eventually turned back!

Yet there was this case of a colleague who was visiting our company in Shanghai.  She wrote on her health declaration form that she was 'coughing'.  At the immigration, she confirmed with the officer that she was coughing.  She was duly led away by immigration officers and people in white coat.  I found out later that she was given a free medical examination.  Satisfied that she was no health hazard to the country, they eventually let her in. But she got a fright of her life and precious time was wasted.  She did in fact had a slight cough, a throat irritation that a cough drop would have done her good, not SARS or HxNy!  (I say 'x' and 'y' because I have lost track of how far the numerals have run.) But we Singaporeans are very honest people.  When you have a cough, you declare that you have a cough.  You cannot say otherwise.

There was one trip when I arrived at the airport in a East Asian country and was proceeding towards the baggage claim area.  Then I noticed an immigration/customs officer approaching a lady who was brandishing a copy of the Lianhe Zaobao in her hand.   The lady was duly whisked into a room for a chat with the officer.  Well you might not be aware that in many countries, you are not allowed to bring in foreign publications!  This lady has certainly violated a customs regulation.  So, please don't bring with you those complimentary newspaper you read on the plane when you alight.

Oh, yes, before I forget, please remember that while you are queuing up for immigration clearance, DO NOT use your mobile phone or take any photographs.  It is STRICTLY PROHIBITED.  Don't incur the wrath of the very powerful person/persons.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Travel tip #6 - What's for lunch?

Many Singaporeans when travelling overseas will invariably asked for chilly during meal time. Some want chilly sauce, some want cut red chilly, some want cut green chilly, some even ask for samba chilly.  And of all places, in western countries.  I think the restaurants and so on must be finding us very difficult to serve.  Anyway, I am not talking about this today.

When I travel overseas for holidays, I usually skip having lunch.  What I usually do is to take a couple of musli bars and down it with mineral water especially when I am on the road for the day.  If I do take lunch, it will be a light one or something I feel relatively safe, such as KFC or MacDonald.  Yes, I know even MacDonald or KFC may not be safe in some places.  It just goes to say that if KFC and MacDonald are not safe then what about the others?

Think of it, if you take a full lunch even in a restaurant, what if you have stomach upset after that and you are a 4-hour bus journey or somewhere up the mountains?

Monday, 20 April 2015

Travel tip #5 - Making sense of travel tips

I came across a couple of articles in the newspaper last week teaching people what to bring on their travel. I cannot help but cringe at some of the recommendations.  Let me point out what I think is not right or useful.

1) First, it recommended 'take enough of clothing to wear for a week'.   Now, what is enough for a week? To some people, that is half a wardrobe.  Then it recommended that the traveller should bring a few T-shirts and jeans.  Jeans?  Do you know how long it takes a pair of wet jeans to dry?  How heavy are they when they are wet? Jeans are out these days, please.  And cotton T-shirts do not dry easily.  These days we have quick-drying fabric!

3) It recommended bringing diarrhoea medicine, medicine for allergies and medicine for motion sickness.  Diarrhoea medicine is correct.  I bring that too.  But what type?  I bring 'charcaol'.  Medicine for allergies?  Hey, there are a thousand and one kind of allergies.  Medicine for motion sickness?  You either have motion sickness or you don't.  If you are not susceptible to motion sickness, then why bring?  Now, one very common medicine that is so useful and yet the article made no mention of it; PANADOL!

4) It recommended bringing a book to read, a thick one to last you through your whole trip.  Now, I don't think that is a wise thing to do.  If you are killing time at the airport or train station or bus stop, or cafe or restaurant, please do not read. It is a dangerous thing to do.  You need to be specially alert at these places .  You have to look and observe what is going on around you.  And what is your objective of visiting a place?  To look at things and people there, not to read a book.

5) It recommended bringing a mobile phone with you.  Oh, come on, who doesn't leave home without a mobile phone these days?  What is useful is to remind people is to bring the charger and universal adapter.  If you have a power vault, bring it along too but do not put it in your check-in luggage. It is NOT ALLOWED!

I really wonder how many times writers of such articles have travelled before they started giving advise.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Travel tip #4 - Get your mapping right!

We live in a small country.  We have our unique perspective with regards to spatial dimensions.  If you live in Ang Mo Kio and work in Shenton Way, you say your place of work is very far away from home.  If you work in SGX Centre (in Shenton Way) you would only go to Lau Pa Sat for lunch because any other place further than that is too far.  That is what we mean by far and near.

Now apply this perspective when travelling overseas, the likelihood is that you are going to get into trouble.

I had my first taste of perspective disorientation when I first visited China some 25 years ago.  I was staying at the Shangri-La Hotel Beijing located at the Haidian district in Beijing.  Over the weekend of my stay, I decided to visit the Beihai Park, 'near' the Forbidden City.  I looked up the tourist map and decided to take a slow leisurely walk there as the route looked pretty straightforward.  You go straight along Zhizhuyuan Road, then continue on Xizhimen Road and Pinganli Road; somewhat like walking from Orchard Hotel to Botanic Garden.  I was right in one aspect.  The journey did turn out to be a slow walk.  After two hours, I was still on the road. For sure I did not lose my way except that the road just never seemed to end!  I had to make a decision; to push on or turn back.  I decided to push on because turning back meant that I had to walk another two hours and yet not reach the Beihai Park.  Perseverance paid off.  Eventually I reached the Beihai Park after almost 3 hours of walking.  25 years after that 'epic journey', I measured that distance between Shangri-La Hotel and Beihai Park on a scaled map; it is some 10 km as the crow flies.

After reaching Beihai Park, I was too tired to explore the park. I have little recollection of the park then except that I saw someone fell into the lake and I had a bottle of 'Micky' Cola. It was so delightful though it tasted like cough mixture.  Today, we drink the real stuff; those days there were only imitations.  (I have subsequently revisited Beihai Park two more times over the years.)  Before you think that I must be darn stupid not to take a taxi, you must understand that during those days, Beijing was very different from what it is now.  There were no taxis plying the road.  As a matter of fact, there were very few cars on the road.  Visitors did not use Renminbi but Foreign Exchange Certificate (FEC), something that a lot of Chinese today don't know what it was.

The moral of the story is; be careful with tourist maps especially if they are not drawn to scale.  Find out the actual distance and don't made assumptions based purely on what we see.  Remember that our perspective is distinctively Singaporean.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Travel tip #3 - How safe is the safe?

Some years back, during one of my trips, I kept my passport in the safe in the hotel room; something that I occasionally did during those days.  On the last day,  I checked out of the hotel, boarded a taxi and headed straight for the airport, all in a swift.  Oh dear, after 10 minutes I realised that I didn't have my passport with me.  It then dawned upon me that my passport was still in the hotel room's safe.  I immediately turned back to the hotel to retrieve my passport.  Fortunately, I discovered it early enough. Had I discovered it nearer the airport, I would have certainly missed my flight.  The airport is some 45 minutes travelling time from the hotel.

From then onwards, I always make it a point to keep my passport in the pocket of my trousers.  Sorry, I don't know what to advise ladies except that putting it in your handbag is not advisable.  I also put my passport in a plastic bag first.  This is particularly important if you are on a hiking trip.  This proved to be the right thing to do during my Mt Fuji trek.  It was raining on Mt Fuji and I was completely drenched at the end of the day.

With regards to hotel room safe, try not to put anything in it if you can avoid doing so.  This brings to mind another encounter I had with hotel room safe.  I had checked into this hotel room and was trying to use the safe.  After fiddling with it for a while, I found that there is no way I could not lock it.  So I called housekeeping.  Shortly, the housekeeper came and she also could not lock it.  Then she said, "Don't worry, I will change the safe for you."  She then hauled up the safe and lugged it away with her two bare hands.  Amazing, isn't!  She did bring me another safe which she demonstrated to me could be locked safe and tight.  But I was very sure I did not need it anymore.  So, the next time you want to use the hotel room safe, make sure it is not one of those mobile ones.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Travel tip #2 - What is that round your waist?

I can never understanding why so many people like to put on a waist-pouch when they travel overseas.  Aren't they telling all the crooks, "Hi, I am a tourist.  All my valuables are in my waist-pouch here! Please help yourself to it.".  Some time ago, there was a case of a Singaporean tourist who was kidnapped overseas and when the kidnapper was finally arrested, he confessed that he identified his prey as a foreigner because of the waist-pouch he was putting on. The point here is that when we are overseas, we should try to melt into the crowd and not stand out amongst the locals.

Talking about melting into the local crowd, a friend once told me that he was walking on the road in Guangzhou, China, with his friend when they noticed they were being stalked.  As both of them are Cantonese speakers, they started talking to each other loudly in Cantonese and spicing up their conversation with typical Cantonese vulgarities. Their stalker left.  Vulgar language does have its usefulness!

Let's come back to the waist-pouch.  The waist-pouch tourist will tell you that he needs the waist-pouch because he needs to carry his wallet with all his cash and probably with a NTUC Passion card in it, his passport, his airticket, his hotel voucher, his sun glasses, his reading glasses, his Tiger Balm, his Axe brand medical oil, his sour plum (very useful in case he gets motion sickness), his tissue pack, a foldable umbrella, a bottle of mineral water and so many other things that he cannot leave home without.  Oh, yes, not to forget something very important; toilet paper!  Mr Waist-pouch heard that toilets overseas don't provide toilet paper.  He is right on the spot for this.

Coming to passport.  I realised that a lot of Singaporeans also bring their identity card along when they are overseas.  Whatever for?  A more useful thing to do is to make a couple of  photocopies of your  passport and keep it at separate locations.  Please leave your identity card at home!

Travel tip #1 - How high up are you?

There are always people giving travel tips and travel tips and travel tips.   Most of these I find are pretty common, obvious and mundane, for example, remember to check your passport, don't forget to bring sunblock, make sure you have your medicine with you and so on.  I am not saying that these are not important. I would prefer to call these 'reminders' rather than travel tips. A 'tip' is a piece of useful advice that should be based on the experience someone had gone through.

Now, here is one lesson I learnt recently and would like to share it here.

Very often when we stay in a hotel and when we find that it is too cold, we turn off the air-con. When I was in Lijiang recently, I was staying in a reasonably good hotel there.  As it was a reasonably good hotel, the air-con in the room was working reasonably well, that is to say, it was rather cold.
So, I turned off the air-con before I went to sleep.  Then in the middle of the night, I found myself gasping for air, an experience I never encountered before.  I thought I had fallen sick.  After an extremely uncomfortable night, I realised in the morning that I had turned-off the air-con.  It then dawned upon me that Lijiang is located at an altitude of 2000 m above sea-level! The oxygen level at 2000 m is thin.  By turning off the air-con in my room, I had cut-off the air-flow in an already oxygen-thin environment and aggravated the oxygen deprivation level.  That was why I was gasping for air.

So, the next time before you turn-off the air-con, think how high up you are first.  Oh, I mean the altitude of the location you are at, not which floor you are on in the hotel.

I will share more tips as I go along.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Seeing is believing. Or is it? A Copenhagen experience.

I used to have the following two photographs hung side by side on the wall in my office and I had often asked visitors who bothered to look at them what they thought of them.

Photo A

Photo B

These two photographs were taken using a Nikon Coolpix 4100 which has 4.0 effective megapixels. Yes, 4.0 megapixels!  This camera could probably qualify as an antique by now.   I used it recently and it still works.

These 2 photos were not displayed for their technical or artistic merits. So, I wasn't disappointed when nobody commented on those aspects.

Invariably, it did not take any observer much difficulty to say, 'Ah, it's the same place.'  'Yes', I said, 'But what else?'.  The observer would scrutinize the photos further, ponder a while and said, 'Yes, I know the difference; one was taken in summer and the other in winter!' And they were pretty sure about that.

The place in the photographs is Frederiksberg Have in Copenhagen, Denmark.  (So, don't say I only blog about travel in China.)

The observers were right to say that the two are of the same place.   However, they were WRONG to say that one was taken in summer and the other in winter.

Both photos were taken in springtime, April 2008.    More specifically, the second photo with snow on the ground was taken the morning after the first one.  So, it surprised a lot of people that green grass could be covered with snow overnight!  But that was exactly what happened.  I went to Frederiksberg Have, a nice serene park in the suburban area of Copenhagen one Sunday afternoon and took the first photo.  Then that night, heavy snow fell over Copenhagen.  Next morning, the snowing had stopped and I immediately took a train and rushed to Frederiksberg Have to roughly the same spot as the day before and took the second shot.  Frederiksberg Have was totally transformed into winterland.  When told that transition from photo A to photo B took place overnight, many people expressed surprise and some,  disbelief.

I like to use these two photos to illustrate the following learning points:

1) We should not use our conventional understanding based on familiar notions to look at things.  In the photos above, the conventional notion is that when there is green grass, it must be summer or spring.  When there is snow, it must be winter. Wrong!

2) For us living in the tropics, we cannot imagine such a transition could happen in so short a time.  But to the Danes, this type of transition is probably not uncommon.  Therefore, when dealing with matters across different culture, environment and context, we should look at things with respect to that context. Actually, in tropical Singapore, we do frequently experienced sudden transition from bright sunny sky to heavy downpour.  Changes can happen suddenly.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Moods and Expression

Photographing people is difficult.  The following are some of my attempts.

This shot would be good for a literacy promotion compaign.  Shot in Myanmar.
Fire-eating Miao woman.  Shot in Hunan, China
An Andy Lau-lookalike; a perfect shot for cigarette advertisement.  Shot in Xinjiang.

Ah Ma looking forward to another day.  Shot in Fujian.

Cigar chomping Ah Ma deep in thought.  Shot in Myanmar.

Wide-eyed innocence.  Shot in Sapa, Vietnam.

The blue sky of Beijing

Blue sky of Beijing! Can that be true?  Yes.

We have often heard horrid stories of pollution and hazy sky in Beijing, the capital city of China.  But that's not always the case.  See the beautiful sky over Beijing in the photos taken by me below.

Sunset over the Beihai Park, Beijing

North-west corner of the Forbidden City, Beijing

Tiananmen, Forbidden City, Beijing

North gate of the Forbidden City, Beijing

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Have a laugh!

Over the last few years of my travelling , I have collected some funny 'sign languagues'.  Let me share them with you here and have a good laugh.

The following were found in a public toilet in China.  Unlike most public toilets in China, this one was surprisingly clean (by Chinese standard).  Perhaps, the signs did work after all!  For friends who do not read Chinese, you may like to know that the original Chinese text is actually pretty well conceived and constructed linguistically.

No laughing matter

The following sign found in a leading departmental store in Orchard Road in my very own country is no laughing matter:

Friday, 20 March 2015

8 Views of Buchon - Coming soon

I had hesitated writing this blog on Buchon for while.  Everybody who goes to Seoul heads direct to Myeondong.  Who would be interested in Buchon, an enclave of hanok (Korean houses) in the city of Seoul?

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

My Great Wall Adventure

Mutianyu Great Wall

Many people have visited the Great Wall of China these days.  Most would have gone to the touristy sections like the popular Badaling segment near Beijing where the Wall was built or rather rebuilt majestically. 

I first visited the Badaling segment of the Great Wall of China in 1995.  On 22 June 2012, I embarked on an 'epic' journey travesting the Great Wall (GW) from the eastern end to the Western end. I believe this is a path few Singaporeans have trodden.  Of course, I did not actually walk the 10,000 km all the way. 

The segments of the Great Wall I visited are Hushan, Shanhaiguan, Jiaoshan, Jiumenkou, Badaling, Mutianyu, Huanghuacheng, Jiankou, Han segment in Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Yangguan and Hanging Great Wall.  There are some other interesting and historical segments which I hope to cover at some other time in future.

Starting from the east

It is frequently said that the Great Wall starts at Shanhaiguan in the east.  That is incorrect.  The Great Wall starts at the Chinese border with North Korea in the city of Dandong in Liaoning province.  Dandong is separated from North Korea by the Yalu River which at its narrowest is merely metres apart.  The Chinese calls the spot ‘Yi Bu Kua’ which means ‘over in one step’.  There, next to the Yalu River is a hill called ‘Hushan’ (Tiger Mountain).  The Great Wall there today is a reconstructed segment of about one km up the mountain. The photograph below was taken on the Yalu River in North Korean waters with the GW on Hushan in the background.  

The Yalu River with the Hushan GW in the background
The starting point of the GW in the east
From Dandong, I took a train to Shanhaiguan, the point where most people says the GW starts. One can understand why this misunderstanding.  This is the point where the GW enters the sea at what is called Lao Long Tou (Old Dragon Head).   Anyone at this location can see clearly that there is nothing beyond except the sea. Hence, the misunderstanding that the GW starts from here.

Lao Long Tou at Shanhaiguan
This is what used to be part of the GW at Shanhaiguan
The Great Wall across a river

Not too far from Shanhaiguan is the Jiumengkou (Nine Gates) GW where the wall crosses the Jiujiang River.  Well, what I saw was a very well built or rather re-built river-crossing GW but historically, that was the way too.  From Shanghaiguan, I then took a train to Beijing.

GW at Jiumengkou
'One isn't a hero until one reaches the Great Wall'

At the 8th Tower of the Great Wall at Badaling, there is a stone inscribed with the quote 'One isn't a hero until one reaches the Great Wall' attributed to Mao Tze Tung. (The inscription is of course in Chinese.)  Tourist guides always tell visitors that Mao said that when he climbed the Badaling Great Wall.  There is no official record of that.

The quote ‘One isn’t a hero until one reaches the Great Wall’ came from one of Mao’s poems which he wrote in Oct 1935 on the Long March.   The Red Army had reached the Great Wall at LiuPanshan in Ningxia Province. There, they fought a fierce battle with the enemy and won heroically.  

The Cinderella's Castle of China

There is no doubt that the GW at Badaling is impressively built or rebuilt rather.   It is so touristy and so fake that one feels that this might be Cinderella's Castle.  Climbing the Badaling GW is still an experience though.  But even that experience can be taken away by the cable car service that transport the visitor almost to the top.   The cable car system next to it is a spoiler,  totally incongruent with the grandiose of the monument. (See photo below.)

GW at Badaling
Other than Badaling, there are several other segments of the Great Wall near Beijing.  They are Jinshanling, Simatai, Gubeikou, Mutianyu, Huanghuacheng and Jiankou.  I visited the last three during this trip.

Is RMB10 worth it?

Getting to the Jiankou Great Wall is no walk in the park.  The Jiankou Great Wall is a stretch of unrestored wall standing atop the mountain ridges.   When my driver pointed to me the mountain ridges wherein the Jiankou Great Wall lies, I was not completely sure that he had brought me to the right place.  I could hardly see any walls on the mountain.  Nevertheless from that point onwards, I trekked for more than 2 hours up the mountain, eventually reaching the Jiankou Great Wall.  The trek up the mountain is no walk in the park especially at the upper reaches.  At some point, one literally has to go on all four for the climb.  My climb up was guided by 2 directions; a villager’s advise to keep to the left all the time.  However, I soon found the second and more reassuring way is to follow the rubbish trail.  

The view on top the Jiankou Great Wall was breathtaking. Before my eyes stood an edifice of human ingenuity, madness, sorrow and cruelty all rolled into one.   The Wall itself is completely unrestored and crumbling.  I was the only soul on top the historical marvel other than a local who collected RMB10 from me and had the audacity to ask me if it was worth it.   I did not trek any further on the Wall which was not without its perils as it was already getting late in the day.

Jiankou GW

Solid evidence - my backpack on the Jiankou GW
The Wild Great Wall

The Badaling GW is too fake.  I want to see what the Chinese called 'the wild Great Wall'.   I got my wish granted at the Mutianyu Great Wall.  However, to see that, you have to go beyond the 'No entry' sign as seen in the photo below.

Go beyond this to see the real GW
The real stuff at Mutianyu GW

The real stuff at Mutianyu GW
Huanghuacheng GW
The Mutianyu, Huanghuacheng and Jiankou Great Walls are all around the town called Huairou.  To get to Huairou, one can take bus service 916 at the Dongzhimen bus station in Beijing.  Take the express service and you will reach Huairou in under an hour.  When you reach Huairou, tell the driver to let you alight at the North Street bus stop.  There are drivers there offering to take you to the above for 60 RMB flat one-way (price as at 2012).  The travel time to Mutianyu and Jiankou is about 40 minutes and Huanghuacheng a bit longer.  Considering the distance, 60 RMB is not unreasonable.

From Beijing to Dunhuang

From Beijing, I leapfrogged to the western end of the GW by taking a flight to Dunhuang. There, I saw the vestiges of the Han (Dynasty) GW in the desert waiting for me for 2000 years.  After Dunhuang, I took a train back to the east along the Hexi corridor of the Silk Route stopping over at Jiayuguan before eventually getting back to Beijing.

The Han GW 
Ruins of the first tower of the Han GW