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, 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 

Xiapu, the most beautiful mudflats in China and maybe in the world

As I walked out of the Xiapu train station one early afternoon in the spring of 2014, my guide Xiao Zhang, immediately identified me from amongst the throng even though we had never met before. Later, he told me he was able to do so because of my dressing.  I took that as a compliment because I was putting on a Northface windbreaker with a Lowepro backpack on my back.

(Learning point #1 – Be alert, Singaporeans do stand out amongst the Chinese.)

Xiapu, the 'city', is the county city of the coastal Xiapu 'county' located at the northeastern end of the Fujian province in China.  Dotting the coast of the county are numerous  fishing villages and mudflats that are reputedly the most beautiful in China if not the world.

It was a cold spring and the weather along the eastern coast of China was foggy and rainy.  Xiao Zhang told me that our itinerary for the next few days would have to be adjusted according to the weather and the tide.

(Learning point #2 – The best period to shoot the mudflats is the few days around the 15th of lunar month.)

(Learning point #3 – It is important to get a guide that understands photography and adjust the itinerary according to weather and tide best suited for shooting.)

That afternoon we started shooting at the XiaQingShan bridge.  This is a long concrete bridge straddling across the bay with scarcely any traffic. But one needs to be alert of the occasional speeding vehicles.  Below the bridge on both sides are fish and oyster farms.  From that location, one can shoot sunrise, sunset as well as moonrise. As it was a foggy day, the shots that I took of fishing boats and poles look better in B&W. I went back two days later for my sunset and moonrise shots.  Yes, moonrise.  This was possible because the bridge runs from north to south.

Shot from Xiaqinqshan bridge

Sunset at Xiaqingshan bridge
Scheduled departure time for D2 was 6 am. The high point of a photo shoot at YangJiaXia must the classic staged shot of the silhouetted farmer and his buffalo under the old Banyan trees with the sun ray piercing thru’ the tree top.

But it was drizzling that morning. So, no farmer, no buffalo and no sun ray for me; only the old Banyan tree.  Nevertheless, we proceeded to Yangjiaxi hoping to catch the mist floating on the river.  Yangjiaxi means the Yang family’s brook, so named as it was the place where the legendary Yang family female warriors of the Sung dynasty once stayed. The walk along the brook that morning was refreshing and serene.

The morning mist of Yangjiaxi
As it would take place everyday over the duration of the trip, the morning shooting session would start at 5 or 6 am, then return to the hotel just in time to catch breakfast.  The afternoon session would start at 2 or 3 pm and return to hotel after the sunset shoot.  It’s siesta from 10 am to 2 pm.

The next day, Xiao Zhang checked the weather forecast and the tide before we set off for the sunrise shoot at Huaju. He would do that every time before we set off.  We were quite happy because we could also see the stars that morning.  On reaching Huaju, we climbed a little slope in the dark and found a good niche to position ourselves for the much anticipated sunrise shoot.  But alas, the sky never seemed to brighten up and soon it opened up.  That morning was a total washout.  I did return to Huaju another day and got the following shot.

Sunrise at Huaju
The afternoon was a saving grace.  The following shot was taken on the rooftop of a school in Shajiang.  This view has been the subject of many prize winning shots by photographers.

The famous S-curve at Shajiang
Everyday we would start with a sunrise shoot and end with a sunset shoot.  By the sixth day, I had difficult remembering the name of the places I had been to. Fortunately, everything was captured on ‘film’ or more appropriately, in bits and bytes.

The afternoon sessions at Xiaohao East and Xiaohao West saw some very good subjects.  At Xiaohao East, I managed to capture some interesting patterns of the mudflat.  The contrast would have been better if there there had been more sunlight.  As a matter of fact, the mudflats produced a lot of interesting patterns.

Mudflat at Xiaohao East
At Xiaohao West, I got onto free rides of the staged shootings of other groups.  I told Xiao Zhang that the next time I come, I would like to have my own staged shootings so that I can get close-up shots.  But the free rides were nevertheless quite interesting subjects.

Fishermen on the mudflat at Xiaohao West
Soon came the sixth day with a morning shoot at Beiqi.  At noon, I left Xiapu on a bus to Fuzhou.  I told Xiao Zhang, I shall return. 

Morning at Beiqi
Most of the shots of the mudflats, sunrise and sunset were taken from high vantage points such as rooftop of buildings and the hillsides.

(Learning point #4 – A telephoto lens of at least 300 mm is a must.)

(Learning point #5 - Try to get a guide who is a photographer who knows what makes a good subject.  There are many guides in Xiapu who are not photographers.  Xiao Zhang's father is a well-known photographer in Xiapu.)

(Learning point #6 – Never go on a photo trip in Xiapu without a reliable local guide.  You will never be able to find and access those vantage points.)

(Learning point #7 – Last but not least, Xiapu is a great place for photographers but not much of a place for holiday makers and non-photographers.)

In August, 2014, I returned to Xiapu for another shoot.

Getting there and away:

I took a train from Hangzhou in Zhejiang to Xiapu.  The county of Xiapu in Fujian province is just next to Zhejiang.  The train journey was about 4 hours long.  I left Xiapu by taking a bus to Fuzhou.  The bus journey took about 2 hours.  I could have taken the train from Xiapu to Fuzhou but did not do so because the Fuzhou train station is quite far away from the city.  

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Two ancient towns and the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Let me start with my most recent trip make in February 2015 to Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan, China.  Dali, Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge are popular tourist attractions in Yunnan which many Singaporeans have been to.  So, I do not want to talk about things you can find in most travel brochures and reviews.  The highlight of my trip was a trek along the Tiger Leaping Gorge which I understand not many Singaporeans have done.

A comparison of the two ancient towns

First, I would like to do a comparison between the two ancient towns, Dali and Lijiang.  Dali is smaller, more rustic, and more like an ancient town.  Lijiang (the ancient town itself) is bigger, well refurbished, much more touristy, looking more like a shoppers' pedestrian mall you can find in many places in China. So, Dali has more character.  Anyone who wants to soak in the atmosphere of an ancient town should spend more time in Dali.

Fig 1: Dali ancient town

Fig 2: Lijiang ancient town

Seeing through a scam

Tourist's traps are aplenty in both towns.  Every other shop is selling silverware/jade and Chinese herbs/tea.  Every local is trying to sell you the wonder Chinese herb, Maca.  In one instance, as I was walking close to a store selling Chinese herbs, almost immediately out of nowhere, a tanned man with dark glasses on appeared next to me and demanded the staff manning the store to show him some superior Maca.  He claimed he is a Chinese physician from the Shandong Chinese Medical Institute and pulled out a pass to prove his credential.  Although he was supposedly talking to the staff manning the store, he made sure that I could see his proof of identity.

I told myself that this is a scam.

1) His approach is too well-timed.
2) His accent is typically local Yunnanese.
3) His complexion is typically local Yunnanese.  As Dali and Lijiang are on higher altitude, the UV light is strong and hence, the locals are quite tanned.

So, I walked away.  Almost immediately, the 'Shandong' Chinese physician also walked away.  When I  walked past the same store half an hour later, I spotted the same 'Shandong' Chinese physician waiting for his prey.

So, please resist from buying any silverware/jade, Chinese herbs, tea or anything expensive.

Another scam

In Lijiang, I had booked a taxi, a proper licensed taxi, to Jade Dragon Mountain.  The driver a middle-age woman, duly arrived to pick me up on time at the hotel.  By the way, many taxi drivers in Lijiang are Naxi women.  The driver told me that Jade Dragon Mountain is too cold in the morning and I should go to Lashihai first.  I was not keen in going to Lashihai, a lake and wetland just outside Lijiang city as I had read that Lashihai is not worth visiting. But it did sound logical that the mountain is cold in the morning so I relented.  On reaching Lashihai, I was brought to a kiosk and introduced to a horse riding/tea drinking/boat rowing package that costs RMB1300 (one thousand three hundred).  Then I fully realised why the driver was so keen in bringing me to Lashihai.  I refused and walked away.  Then my taxi driver and the Lashihai guy entered into a conference.  I was then offered the package for RMB240.  Yes, two hundred and fifty.

So, please don't go to Lashihai.  If you want to go, make sure you pay RMB240 and not RMB1300.

Trekking the Tiger Leaping Gorge

The key attraction at Tiger Leaping Gorge is the Tiger Leaping Stone. Most tourists will take a ride by car to the spot to view it, take photos and then go back.  On 7 Feb, I started my trek at the Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge (TLG) at Qiaotou, went up the mountains, spent a night at a mountain lodge and reached Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge the next day.  As a result, I got to enjoy an exhilarating experience and the breathtaking views.

Fig 3: A view from the top at Upper TLG

Getting there and away

From Kunming to Dali - I took a bus from the Kunming south bus station.  Travelling time was supposed to be about 4 hours.  However, there was a 1 hour traffic jam on the highway due to an accident.  The bus station and the train station in Dali are located at downtown Dali which is some 20 minutes travelling time away from Dali Ancient town.  There is no reason why anyone should stay in downtown Dali since the attraction is Dali Ancient town.

From Dali to Lijiang - I took a bus from Dali Ancient town station which is just 5 minutes outside the the Ancient town.  The travelling time to Lijiang is about 2 hours.  One can also take a train from Dali downtown to Lijiang.  However, that is not advisable because you have to travel 20 minutes to downtown and the train departure is not as frequent as bus.

From Lijiang to Kunming - Originally, I had wanted to take an overnight train with a travelling time of about 10 hours.  However, I found out that the cheapest flight departing at 1 am with a travelling time of under 1 hours costs only RMB350, barely RMB100 more than a soft sleeper on the train.  The only problem was that I arrived at the hotel in Kunming at 2.30 am.  Fortunately, the hotel gave me a room at 6 am without charging me extra.  The hotel is Lake View Hotel.

Monday, 9 March 2015

What am I going to blog about?

I have decided to blog about my travel experiences.

Over the last 35 years, I have travelled to quite a number of places for work as well as for leisure. These included a trip around the world in 8 days (which could have been 7 days instead if not of a certain incident) which I will share in future.  Each time I come back from a trip, I believe I have learnt something.  I want to document and share some of these experiences with anyone interested in reading.

There are many travel reviews one can find in glossy magazines and newspapers that make for interesting reading but unfortunately not all of them are always useful.

I hope to make this blog not only interesting but also useful by sharing useful information and experiences.

So, this is me, Loke, looking at the world. Hence, the name of this blog.