The Exotic Istanbul

Istanbul is a magical city that will quickly cast its spell on you shortly after you arrive.

We started our day visiting the Dolmabache Palace  on the bank of the Bosphorous. While we certainly admired the things we saw in the palace; we were particularly impressed by the serenity of the gardens outside the palace. What a bliss it was, sitting on the benches in the garden, looking through the tall white ornamental fence by the Bosphorous strait; watching ships passing by under a blue sky.

The Blue Mosque acquired its name from the more than 21,000 distinctive blue tiles that decorate the interior. Gazing at the magnificent Blue Mosque , we couldn’t help admiring at marvels of architecture and the vastness of the column free space.. . . . . the Blue Mosque can accommodate 10,000 worshippers. No cathedrals in Europe are able to accommodate so many worshippers. The Blue Mosque seems to have made use of multiple domes and did not try to be tall giving a majestic notion. The cathedrals in Europe, on the other hand, adopt domes sparingly and try to be tall, thereby having to resort to flying buttresses and other features to provide the lateral stability.   In so doing, the amount of column free space inside the cathedrals are reduced.

Hagia Sophia is probably the most famous example of Byzantine architecture in the World. It was built as a cathedral, then it became a mosque and today it is now a museum. It is where you can see Christianity and Islam under one roof. It was amazing to see images of Christianity next to Arabic calligraphy or mosaic.  The spacious  nave of Hagia Sophia is covered by a lofty central dome carried on pendentives,  a device not previously employed in monumental construction. Pendentives make  possible support of the dome on a square framework of four huge equal arches  resting on huge piers. The arches at the east and west are extended and  buttressed by great half domes, while the half domes in turn are carried on  smaller semidomed exedrae.
We sat down on the steps of this beautiful mosque and observe the daily rhythms of life – in this predominantly Muslim yet secular country, the mosques are as much a focal point of social life as they are places of worship.

Wander and haggle through ancient grand bazaars and spice markets was a unique experience. It’s the most mind-blowing and totally new shopping experience you could ever imagine. The Grand bazaar was full of colors; from the lanterns to colored  rugs and scarfs.  It is where you can pretty much buy everything known to man (from jewellery, to figs, to coffee,  to bags, to belts, to furniture and furnishings). Tired, we sat down in a cafe within the bazaar and tried out a Turkish coffee. 

Night life of Istanbul is legendary. When the sun goes down and the lights come on, Istanbul becomes the big scene for nightlife with incredibly various options. The city switches into a vibrant mode of night life action. There was so much night life as we walked down the main street with many pedestrians and trams  running in the middle.

Approaching dinner time, we decided to go to a restaurant where there was belly dance performance. The dance was so lively and attractive that most diners just concentrated on the dance instead on the food. The dance was more of an art than a performance!

There is so much life and so much to see in Istanbul. What has been said for London also holds true for Istanbul; if you are tired of Istanbul, you are tired of life!

Bosphorous – A Strait betweenTwo Continents

Istanbul is a place where East meets West, old meets new; a place of fusion of cultures and a place of strategic historic importance. It was a memorable occasion to cruise up and down on this stretch of water which divides Europe and Asia.  This city has miles of beautiful waterfront and  there was so much activity along the two shores of the continents.

At the moment we left the busy harbour of Istanbul, we knew that it would be a feast for the eyes. There was so much to see as we swinged by summer homes, palaces, ancient buildings, hotels, kiosks, bridges and many different types of ships ranging from container vessels, cargo ships to ferries, yachts and pleasure crafts .

We first passed by the Dolmabache Palace; we were awed by the view the day before in the palace while relaxing on the benches in the palace garden and admiring the sea view, looking through the tall white  iron fence built along the Palace’s waterfront.  The view from the ferry was equally interesting, if not more so.

The modernity of the towers for this suspension bridge contrast sharply with the ancient  Ortakoy Mosque next to it. This is just another example of how old meets new. The Bosphorus Bridge connects the two continents:Europe with Asia. When completed in 1973, it was the world’s 4th longest suspension bridge, but now it ranks the 16th. It is a gravity anchored suspension bridge with steel pylons and inclined hangers. With a total length of 1510m and a main span of 1074m, the aerodynamic deck is hanging by zigzag steel cables from the main cables 64m above the sea. 

This is a busy waterway. The view continued as numerous  boats cruising up and down the Strait on the beautiful turquoise colored  waters. As we turned our way back down the strait, we noticed that a big container vessel heading down south had just crossed under this magnificent bridge.

Have always desired for a summer house by the sea. This is exactly the place where I want my summer house to be. A house close to the sea where you can view yachts, pleasure boats and the daily rhytmns of life.

As we got closer to Istanbul,  the sun had lowered itself westward behind the skyline, turning the Bosphorus into a body of golden waters against the dark silhouettes of the bulbous mosques and their pencil-like  minarets.  The waters of the Bosphorus offers an infinite array of moods. . . . . .I knew it was time to wake up from my ecstasy (from the mystical beauties of the strait and my dream house) and get on with the rest of our journey.

The Greener Side of Hong Kong – the Path Less Travelled

To many visitors,  the impressions of Hong Kong is one of  densely populated city where capitalism is practiced to the extreme. High rise buildings, neon signs, poor air quality and concrete jungle everywhere; people always in a hurry. The truth is that 40% of the territory is designated as Country Park. No matter where you are, within approximately  30 minutes  drive you are out into green environment, some even of pristine quality (for instance, the island with white egrets in the above image).

Today is a busy and interesting day, with the Ruby Sevens, the HK Chief Executive election and horse racing  all happening on the same day. It is an ideal day to be out of town, far away from the maddening crowd; leaving the hustle and bustle of the city behind.

We headed out to our “secret island “which is only 30 minutes drive from where we live; to watch the many egrets on an island and hike from Luk Keng, up the Sir Youde Pavilon and down to Nam Chung in the northern part of the New Territories.

It was a bit hazy. The sun was already out oozing a warm breeze on everyone when we made our accent from Luk Keng. Approaching the end of  March, some of the leaves are still brown, which contrast sharply with a big patch of green flat land left over from an old fish pond.

After an hour of hiking, we reached the Sir Youde Pavilion where we took a rest. Looking down from the pavilion it is hard to believe that we still have fish ponds nestled within the hills and valleys. The fish ponds were bunded by an intricate network of raised footpaths. In the background, we could see the Pak Sin Range (Peaks of the Eight Fairies).

At this time of the year, some of the trees leaves look so young, fresh and green. We passed by this funny old village house, half of which was constructed 60 years ago and the adjoining half (the ugly half) was only  reconstructed in recent years.

No photo would do this tree justice. Over the years, I have always tried to photograph it but have never been able to catch its form or elegance. It leans out so much to the serene waters as if  it is reaching out for something.

Finally, we reached our destination, the A Chau island with many egrets. This island  has always attracted us coming  back; it is enjoyable to watch egrets fishing, wading in the water at low tides, resting on the island, flying alone or in a formation.

There are lots of places in HK which are unheard of by tourists but nevertheless  are green and picturesque. Driving down town, we stepped back into another world. . . . . . a fast-paced city, bright lights, high-tech shops, endless boutiques and glistening skyscrapers . . . . . . . . . .

In Search of Avatar – Zhangjiajie (張家界)

Our search for Avatar began at the “Golden Whip Brook” in Zhangjiajie, Hunan, China. Walking almost 7km along the banks of the brook gave us a sensation of listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 “By The Brook”. It was sheer joy and peace as we walked along the banks; the brook babbling across its boulder strewn bed and the birds singing are the only sounds around us.

For a couple of  days, we journeyed through mist and fog. The mist always brings about a mystical feel. This area is well known for its strange shaped rock formation of quartz-sandstone. Some of these formations seem to have come from out of this world and looked even somewhat grotesque. The combination of the mist and the rock makes the scene surreal.

We have been walking a few hundreds steps up and down the mountains; with mist surrounding us everywhere.  There was a strange feeling that we were walking among the clouds. It was unbelievable that only a few meters away was a platform, topped off by trees,  appeared  to be floating in the air. In fact, dividing between us were deep plunging ravines concealed by the mist.

Soaring fingers of rock seem to have punched through the face of the earth and reaching up up to the sky. These narrow pillars could have been easily 100-200 meters high. They bear the scars of the millennia of weather erosion that created them. We have seen nothing like that before. The rock formations we saw at Cappadocia, Turkey were not as dense, numerous or dramatic.  The setting here comprised of lush subtropical forest from which 243 giant peaks emerge which in turn are surrounded by more than 3000 incredible karst. This is perhaps one of the densest and most dramatic examples of karst mountain scenery anywhere in the world— the fantastical peaks are said to have been the inspiration behind Avatar’s floating islands. The closest image we saw were the numerous clusters of  tall buildings from the Victoria Peak in Hong Kong reaching out for the sky on a foggy day, however, they are man-made.

We finally reached the First Bridge in the World. This is a natural bridge of stone joining two mountain tops. Probably, it was formed when the lower parts eroded away leaving the land bridge. Stories have it that acrobatic planes did fly through underneath the land bridge in a formation.

It was a tough climb, but well-worth it when you stop on top of the land bridge to catch your breath and take in the majestic sights that surround you.

Finally, we found the stone pillar that inspired Avatar. . . . . . . a movie which taught us that everything in this world is connected – the earth, the sky, the water, and life. High up on these mountains we prayed that this interdependency is understood and respected.

Langkawi – Beyond Sun, Sand and Sea

What a joy it was to start the day with a cup of freshly brewed coffee and breakfast outdoor, overlooking the blue sea in Langkawi.

Before it got really hot, we went for a boat ride which brought us through some limestone caverns.

By noon, it was pretty hot.  Lunching at the Four Seasons Hotel, overlooking the beach and clear blue sky was really enjoyable. All you could see was  pristine white sand stretching for miles, overlooking small limestone islands and the blue sea.

More activities in the afternoon. We drove around and took the cable car up the hill top to have a panoramic view of the harbour. Walking along the cable stayed bridge with just one column support in the middle and intermediate lookout platforms clipped to the side of the footbridge was an amazing experience!

Visited the mangrove area by boat, watching black kites diving down for the food. We were keenly aware that a lot of work had gone into making sure the mangroves would thrive but feeding the hawks would reduce their ability to find food themselves.

We swinged by a fish farm. Like any other tourists, we were eager to touch the stingrays in a fish farm tank. Immersing our feet in a tank of small fishes, we had a strange sensation as the fishes nibbled our feet which we were told would improve our skin.

After several hours of driving around visiting more places, it was almost time for afternoon high tea by the side of the marina. While resting, it was relaxing to see yachts and boats.

Strolling for hours, visiting more interesting places, we were tempted by the snacks at roadside cafes.

We were impressed by the appearance of the boutique Spanish style hotel  Casa Del Mar and decided to try out al fresco dining by the sea. Sitting under the gently swaying palm trees, and watching the sun setting was the only thing we wanted to do.

What a luxurious life! We realized how blessed we were and were grateful that we were given such a blissful day.

Chasing the Sunset at Langkawi

For several days, we enjoyed the sun, sand and sea at Langkawi, the island of beautiful sunsets in Malaysia.

On our last day in Langkawi, we were wondering whether we should be having an early dinner; but the sun was setting and it was so lovely. We quickly changed our plan and took a stroll on the board walk fronting the shore, not knowing where this was leading to.

We walked up and down the rocky shores. Amazed at the beauty and serenity of the place, we couldn’t help walking further and further along the shore; in search of even better views.

What a joy it was if we could just take a pause in our life, doing nothing. . . . . .  not thinking of anything ( different from thinking of nothing), meditating like the man in the picture.

All our lives, we have been chasing; chasing buses, chasing jobs, chasing clients; sometimes we were just chasing our own tails;  many times not knowing why we chase for  those things at all.

Are we destined only to chase in this rat race? There must be much better things to do; liking chasing sunset or chasing rainbows.

Some feel sad about sunset as if it were the end of a day, an end of a life journey. But sunset only signifies the beginning of yet another day, perhaps another phase of life.

The sun finally sank below the horizon.

We knew that this was the best part of our trip and this moment was one of the best and memorable parts of our lives.

The Wolf Has It

My gut feeling is that the Wolf will be elected CE in the election! The writings are on the wall.

This is only a logical deduction.

If both the Pig and the Wolf are acceptable to Mainland (which they have already indicated), why don’t they chose one who has more support from the public? This is on the assumption that the Mainland will have influence on the votes; I am sure that they do.

Despite the recent (slight) decline in popularity, the Wolf is still a lot ahead of the Pig. The premier have yesterday indicated that the CE should have majority local support.

This fourth term of the CE will be a tough term. No matter who wins, he will have an uphill battle. The recent integrity scandals have shown  clearly that the Pig was not able to communicate clearly and manage the damage; whereas the Wolf was tactful enough to steer, at least temporary, away from the problem; although he has yet to answer his case.If the Pig cannot defuse scandals relating to illegal structure or unfaithful affairs, there is no hope that he can defuse the more serious social and political issues.

There is also the problem of this City being  ungovernable. The Wolf has demonstrated he has better skills in manoeuvring around; better management and political skills. We do need a strong leader; the Wolf seems to have that quality. The main worry is whether he will be doing the right things rather than doing things right.

The recent airing by Ms Fan and Gordon suggested that they may have changed their support from the Pig to the Wolf. I guess this has been orchestrated from the North, gradually leaking their change in support and see how this City reacts. What is more interesting is that the Wolf even indicated that the Pig could be considered for a position in his cabinet.

We are only about 10 days away from the election; it will soon be clear whether the Pig will be slaughtered and even roasted.

So be ready to dance with the Wolf for the next 5 years, that is,  if he can maintain that long!

Langkawi – The Idyllic Island

We keep coming back to this island not just for the sun, sand and the sea but for the atmosphere and charms we have always enjoyed.  Langkawi is an archipelago of 104 islands in the Andaman Sea, some 30 km off the mainland coast of northwestern Malaysia. The islands are a part of the state of Kedah, which is adjacent to the Thai border.

We hired a car and drove round this Jewel of Kedah. No matter where we went, we found pristine beach with white sand, tropical trees, limestone islands on the horizon and blue sky. While on this beach outside the Four Seasons Hotel, we felt the scorching heat of the sun, the white sands were dazzling reflective when we were out there but the white pavilion looked interesting and inviting.

This island seems to have something for everybody. If you like water sports then it is an ideal place to go. Each single  beach on this island is beautiful and unique in its own way. We have always loved beaches. Perhaps it’s the way the soft sand feels against your bare feet as you walk  along the waves. The sound of the waves brings a feeling of calm and you can  feel the stress fall away. The beach always instills a sort of “getting away from it all” feel.

Listening to the music of the waves as they splash the land is like listening to the beat of nature. The beach at Tanjung Ru was great! What more can you ask, lazing on the beach under an umbrella, while seeping a cold drink as  you watched the blue sea and, with absolutely nothing on your mind.

It was interesting to see that as the tide recedes, a sand bar appeared right before your eyes. The sea water became so shallow that you could wade through it to reach the otherwise unreachable islands at high tides. Have always loved beaches. . . . .  you can swim, bake and even write or draw anything in the sand.

The coastline is dotted with fishing villages too. Each beach has its own characteristics and its charm. For a change, it was pleasing to see the fishing boats and actually talked to the fishermen. Langkawi is traditionally known to be cursed. . . . . . what will it be liked if it is not cursed? A paradise?

We were somewhat fascinated with beaches and drove on to yet other beaches. When dusk finally came, we found ourselves alone on a beach, astounded by the hues of colors around us. We only wished this moment would last forever, at least, forever in our memories.

Autumn in Shirakawa-Go, Japan

If you haven’t heard of Shirakawa-go (白川村) in Japan, then perhaps you should consider making a trip to this UNESCO world heritage site. The Shirakawa-go is located on the Shogawa River Valley in the remote mountainous region between Takayama and Kanazawa. It is  best known for its traditional farmhouses with thatched roof.

Many visitors prefer to visit in the Winter when the whole valley and the farmhouse roofs are romantically covered white with snow. For me, I rather prefer Autumn when there are lots of colors.

Arriving there, we first strolled by the river bank and enjoyed the view of the colored foliage at this time of the year. It was like a rainbow of hues and this never failed to delight us.

Then we have a close encounter of the farm houses. The steep A-frame style of the farmhouses are called “Gassho-zukuri”合掌村, some of which are more than 250 years old. The thatched roofs are supported by logs tied with ropes, without any nails, formed to a shape like Buddhist monks praying with their hands pressed together.

The photo I like best is the one below which shows a small  thatched house and paddy field; a path leading almost to it and with lots of trees of different colors at the background. This is like the first painting I did as a small boy; sheer simple and delightful.

We spent the later part of the afternoon walking around the village unravelling the secrets of the Gassho-zukuri nestled in between the valleys of this  very mountainous region. Not only the houses are beautiful but also the hills, leaves and flowers at this time of the year.

The leaves are incredibly beautiful with all kind of different colors. . . . . . . Autumn Leaves was the song in my heart.

One thing that I found with Japanese Maple is that their color is not quite the same as found elsewhere.

On returning from the trip, I realized that I have missed out some good vantage points for taking good pictures. . . . . . . . . . .obviously, one could have climbed up the nearby hills and have a bird’s-eye view of the whole village. I have some regrets of not having done that;  but this gives me a good reason for going back at least for one more time!

Three Gorges (三峽) – A Brief Friendship

The Three Gorges  dams are built and the hydropower plants are operational, is it too late to take a cruise on this stretch of the Yangtze River?

After much debate, in June 2011, we finally embarked on a cruise that started from Wuhan, sailing upstream to Chongqing as destination. For 5 days, we were on board of the Jenna Katrina, one of the newly renovated vessels.

We first made our way by car through Wuhan to Yichang, stopping at a Chinese Garden黃鶴樓(above). On our way, we passed by  an ancient walled city 荊州古城. While going through the city, we were amused by people cooking and dining just by the side of the carriageway. What a strange sight!

We boarded the vessel at Yichang 宜昌and were happy that each room had a balcony overlooking the river.   Sailing through the Yangtze was like passing through fjords, but after the construction of the dams, water has risen 110m above the original sea level. This made the sight less dramatic.

While on board, we came to know a friend Mr. Au. He was sort of a shutter bug, always carrying his camera with him and taking anything of interest in the whole trip. He was a well-travelled man in his 70s, energetic and sociable. We learnt that he had spent part of his life in Jamaica! For several days, we chatted about practically everything, from travels to families, etc.

Navigating the river when the sun was setting was a memorable event. For very long stretches of the waterway, all you can see were layers and layers of mountains in different shades of the same color on both sides.

The Three Gorges dam was pretty  awesome; it was indeed an engineering feat.

It was a  foggy morning when we arrived at the dam site. All we could see were some portions of the dam disappearing into infinity.

Then this was this monotonous journey going  through a series of double gated locks which successively raised vessels to the higher levels.

Once out of the locks, we sailed through further gorges and made several stops on the way. At each of the stops, we were permitted to go onshore to visit some places of interest. One of the places we went was the Gate of Death ( see Chinese characters below).

It is a Chinese belief that when death comes, we all have to pass through the Gate of Death and interrogated by the guards (see statutes on either side of the steps in the picture above) there to determine whether one is to go to hell ( with 18 levels depending on the degree of purification required).

The trip finally came to an end when we reached the “hill town” of Chongqing. We said goodbye to all the people we met on the vessel and happily made our way home. While our friend Mr. Au continued his travels to Inner Mongolia and then Taiwan, meanwhile keeping in touch with us.

Mr. Au has become a good friend of our eighty years old dad who was with us on the cruise to Yangtze River. In January 2012, 7 months after we met Mr. Au, we learned with sadness that he has passed the Gate of Death. He was diagnosed to have pancreatic cancer in September (like Steve Jobs) and fought a short brave battle. This is indeed a brief but memorable friendship.