A Wonderworld of Water – JiuZhaiGou (九寨沟), China

We flew from Chengdu to Huanglong airport which is 11,311 ft above sea level. We were glad that we did not suffer any altitude sickness. The moment we stepped out of the airplane, we realized that we were in a different world. Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟) is a stunningly scenic region in the north of the Sichuan Province in China. The name ‘Jiuzhaigou’ literally means ‘Valley of Nine Villages’, and features nine ancient Tibetan villages where life carries on in pretty much the same way as it always has.

They say a picture says a thousand words, that cannot be truer than Jiuzhaigou. The stunning beauty of the valley makes it impossible to take a bad picture here.

Surrounded by snow-capped mountains and featuring hundreds of lakes, waterfalls, trickling rivers and thick forest, the area is breathtaking (mind you, the air is thin and we have to ascend slowly).

Jiuzhaigou is a world of water. . . . . . water is the soul of the place, giving life to the mountain lakes and waterfalls.

Everywhere, we found ourselves surrounded by water of different colors, flowing at different speeds, in different directions, either gliding along as sheet flows, trickling in small streams, powerful as in waterfalls or placid in the azure lakes.

Jiuzhaigou is just a dreamy wonderland which has an Alpine feel.

The area around Huanglong has a feel of Pumakule in Turkey, except that it is much bigger in extent and has an Alpine setting. The water is crystal clear and there is no restriction to walk on or bath in it. We were a little too early for the colored leaves of Autumn, which usually start to appear in the second week of October.

The water  is so clear that you not only see the bottom of the lake but schools of a special fish ( with very small scales)  and dead tree trunks which have fallen to the lake bed.  Walking into Jiuzhaigou is just like walking into a 3D fairy-tale world of colors.

The water in Jiuzhaigou is crystal clear, yet presenting many colors with  twinkling refractions of the depositions in the lakes from the  dissolved limestone and many minerals.

The colorful placid lakes are the main theme of Jiuzhaigou. The Mystical Colorful Pond and the Five-flower Sea are famous throughout China. The water there exhibits different colors like blue, green, yellow, red and so on. It is said that the color of the water depends on the depth of water, the changing color of mountains and the weather condition. When these factors change, so does the color of the water.

It is a world of birds and other animals, too. Golden monkeys, pandas and other rare fowls and strange animals are living here. Swans and mandarin ducks like this fascinating place……

In many of the lakes, the water is calm and the surface is just like a bright mirror reflecting the surrounding mountains.

We stood in awe on this board walk overlooking the blue azure lake, enjoying the heavenly  sights of Jiuzhaigou to the fullest!

Langkawi – Tanjung Rhu Beach, Malaysia

This 1.5 km long Tanjung Rhu beach in Langkawi is perhaps one of the most beautiful beaches in Malaysia and, indeed, may be one of the best in the world. It is fringed by silvery sands, lush forests, pristine waters and overlooking some dreamy islands.

Situated at the northernmost tip of the island, part of it is a  private beach, offering an ideal spot for a secluded getaway. Some tourists travelled to Langkawi are not aware of such a beach as part of the beach is now guarded. The guards for a contemplated Dubai island type development turn outside people away from  visiting this lovely beach; denying them to the public.

Understand from the locals that “Tanjung” means cape and “Rhu” means casuarina. Apart from coconut trees, the beach is dotted with casuarina trees.  The beach is therefore sometimes also called Casuarina Beach. Those willowy trees whisper the call of a tropical breeze that speaks tenderly to those out on the beach.

It is the tranquility of this beach that calls upon travelers to splurge in natural beauty and calm surroundings. One may also stumble upon some really nice corals on the shoreline. It is also a great place for snorkeling.

While there, I couldn’t help remembering a poem ” A Tropical Paradise” by David Harris.

I wonder how many times we sit at our desk and look out the window on a sunny day, wishing we were on a tropical beach lazing in the sun under a coconut tree watching the sparkling waters as they race up the sandy beach.

Having a lazy day with the sand and sea, enjoying Mother Nature’s beautiful bounty.

 A dream maybe, but a dream to help us through any storms that may weather our lives, giving us hope for tomorrow and the sunny day that might bring.

We look at the blue sky and the odd white fluffy clouds that shape into many things, helped along with warm comforting winds.

Our mind is full of images that build our favourite dreams as we while away a few minutes oblivious to everything.

Daydreaming our fondest dreams before reality kicks in and the opalescent workload on our desk appears once again to take us away from our tropical paradise and implant us back in our reality.
27 February 2009

David Harris
I know I am blessed as I don’t have to go to work anymore. At this moment, all that I care  and enjoy are the coconut and the casaurina trees, the white sands, the sea breeze and the soft murmuring sounds of the gentle waves.

Koh Samui – Islands Hopping

There are many aspects of Koh Samui that entice us. The best ones include its stunning beauty, peaceful atmosphere, views of lovely seas, water sports, white sandy beaches, warmth of the native people. While we didn’t mind staying all week on Koh Samui, we decided to venture out to the other islands, only to discover that they are in no way less beautiful than Koh Samui itself.

We took a speed boat to the Marine Park and were impressed by the very calm and clear water.

The speed boat raced out to the open sea and suddenly accelerated and veered to one side. Our hearts went throbbing and nearly fell out. The boatman was laughing;  he was  trying to show off his steering skills. Then the boatman gave us a very close up view of some of the islands. The rock formations of the island were layered which we surmized was sedimentary rock. 

Then we came to this group of conical islands which were quite unlike the ones we saw. As different to the other islands which are quite bare, these islands have a lot of green cover; with lovely white sandy beaches along the indented shoreline.

Islands come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are columnar in shape, not unlike those of the Seven Apostles in Australia. Standing solitude in the blue sea,  this one is like the James Bond Island we saw in the movie.

This one looks like a monkey holding a babby in her arms. Of course, what you make out of it depends on your imagination which you can always stretch your as far as possible.

On our return trip, I was sitting at the rear of the speed boat. Three rows of tail waves were set up from the three very powerful engines. This was a strange sight when mirrored with the streak of white cloud overhead.


Tojinbo’s Sad Cliffs (東尋坊), Japan

Located in Sakai City, Fukui Prefecture of Japan, this scenic area is known for its stunning beautiful coastline. The rocky cliffs of Tojinbo, which stretches over 1 km, is a popular tourist attraction. It features magnificent pillar shaped rocks created by sea wave erosion. The rock pillars exhibit hexagonal and pentagonal joints which are similar to those at Giant Causeway in North Ireland or those in Norway, Korea  and Hong Kong National Geopark at High Island.

While we were there, we were awed by the surreal and eerie look of the cliffs with its gigantic columnar joint of basalt. There were so many tourists walking up and down the steep rugged cliffs, enjoying the spectacular scenery.  We captured this photo of  a couple walking down the cliffs; it didn’t seem any ghostly to us.

But the Tojinbo cliffs also have a dark side – as many as 25 Japanese came here each year to end their lives by jumping off the 20-30m high cliffs, throwing themselves onto the jagged rocks and crashing waves.

The bigger picture is that  more than 30,000 people in Japan kill themselves every year – Japan’s suicide rate is one of the highest in the world. Depression is the number one cause for suicide in Japan, followed by illness and debt. Frustrated at having pulled so many bodies out of the sea, a retired police officer Yukio Shige, started his one man crusade patrolling the cliffs for potential jumpers. He convinced hundreds of people from jumping and taking their lives.

So, Tojinbo are very sad cliffs but the view is breathtaking. The Japanese sea is much darker than the subtropical seas that I am used to see. It seems more mystical.

The waves at Tojinbo is dramatic. At low tides, pools of vivid green water are created immediately adjoining areas of vivid blue.  At high tides, forceful foamy waves break at the dark coastal rocks. Local legend has it that Tojinbo, a very violent Buddhist monk loathed by his fellows, was pushed out off the cliff to death. His angry spirit didn’t leave the sea and it had always been  incredibly stormy on the day of his death, 5 April, every year until finally his spirit was soothed by the prayers of a master monk.

 In our several hours out there walking up and down the cliffs, we were whipped around by wind and salty water from the waves; although we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  We  braved the wrath of suicide ghosts on these rugged cliffs jutting into the stormy seas.
 On our way back, we couldn’t help thinking of what Mother Theresa said – life is precious, don’t destroy it!


Early Retirement = Early Death?

There are conflicting research results on whether early retirement is a cause for early deaths.

1. On one hand, there are researches which show that one additional year of early retirement causes an increase in the risk of premature death of 2.4 percentage points or 1.8 months in terms of years of life lost.

A study by Shell, which followed their workers for 26 years, suggested that survival for those who retire at 65 are greater. “ Survival rates remained significantly greater for those who retired at age 65 compared with those who retired at age 55,” the researchers wrote. Many people underestimate the importance of their job when they give it up.

2. On the other hand, Dr. Sing Lin in his paper “Optimum Strategies for Creativity and Longevity” dated 2002 pointed to an opposite direction. One of his conclusions is that ” if you are not able to get out of the pressure-cooker or the high-speed battleground at the age of 55 and “have” to keep on working very hard until the age of 65 or older before your retirement, then you probably will die within 18 months of retirement. By working very hard in the pressure cooker for 10 more years beyond the age of 55, you give up at least 20 years of your life span on average.”

See his paper  on link : http://faculty.kfupm.edu.sa/COE/gutub/English_Misc/Retire1.htm

From his actuarial study of the age at retirement vs life span done at Lockheed Martin and at Boeing, he came up with the following paired results of Age at Retirement /Average Age At Death:

49.9/86,   51.2 /85.3,   52.5 /84.6,   53.8 /83.9,    55.1 /83.2,   56.4 /82.5,   57.2 /81.4,   58.3 /80,    59.2 /78.5,   60.1 /76.8,   61 /74.5,   62.1 /71.8,   63.1 /69.3,   64.1 /67.9,   65.2 /66.8

For instance, if you retire at age 49.9, his results show that you may live to 86, whereas, if you retire at age 65.2, you may only have  1.6 years to live and die at 66.8. In Boeing’s numbers, employees retiring at 65 typically received their pension checks for only 18 months (at Lockheed, 17 months).

So, what should one believe?

The Boeing / Lockheed Martin studies did not indicate how big the population looked at and whether they were statistically significant for other types of employment where there are lower work stresses. Whereas, the Shell study may have been influenced by the relatively poor state of health of their staff who (were forced to ) retire early because of their poor health.

As reported in a Telegraph article, “Those forced into early retirement generally have poorer mental health than those who take routine retirement, who in turn have poorer mental health than those who have taken voluntary early retirement” and “Early retirement is generally good for people’s health and well being unless it has been forced on them.”

We tend to build our lives around our work,” an expert Milner said. “When we are no longer working, we can lapse into lack of activity, and that can contribute to bad health.”

So, let’s look at the plus and minus sides of retirement:

On retirement– there is a reduction of job related stress that leads to increased blood pressure and other bad habits that come with many jobs. However, for some, there may be an increase of stress due to worries about not having enough money for the retirement or the lack of identity and purpose of life.

Pre-retirement –  complaining about one’s career and the management might have cost one a decade of life, not to mention perhaps several decades of living. However, for some people, work gives them a sense of purpose and for the rare few, the only purpose in life.

The crucial question is whether you are able to structure your retirement life such that there are more positive benefits than negative impacts.

To be healthy, retirement must be active“, Milner said. In his experience, he said, “retired people who plunged into new activities enjoyed their lives more, and were thus healthier. One study showed “that older adults who volunteer to help others can reduce their risk of dying prematurely by 60 percent,” he said.

So, while generally a reduction in work related stress is conducive to longer living, in our retirement we must not let ourselves  lapse into lack of activity but to remain physically, mentally and socially active. For those who regard work as the only purpose in life and have no activities outside work,  continue working may be better off as they have already achieved their purpose.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; We grow old because we stop playing” – George Bernard Shaw

Trakai – The Fairy Tale Castle in Lithuania

It was our first trip to the three Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. At Lithuania, we stumbled across this sleepy small town of Trakai, which is surrounded by lake Galve. This castle has a stunning setting. Originally built in the 14th century, it looks like it came out from a fairy tale.

We have seen castles located romantically on some Scottish islands but this red colored castle with round towers surrounded by tranquil lakes against a clear blue sky was the most picturesque that we have ever seen.We walked across a timber footbridge which connects the castle to the shore and entered into the castle.

From the outside, it’s a conventional castle of red brick, with watch towers and walls and a keep and everything. In the inner fortress there’s a courtyard with wooden walkways all along the inside and it’s now a national museum.

While my wife was engrossed with all the historical displays in the castle, I sneaked out to take a walk around the island, knowing that the sun would be setting in a short time.

There are two things which I have always liked watching; yachts and castles. Here at Trakai, the two just came together, in a delightful and picturesque manner.

I walked around the island; couldn’t help admiring at the scene as they entered my very eyes. It was just breath-taking. The sky was blue, the water turquoise , a yacht with yellow sail gliding past in front of a neo Renaissance building.

I knew I couldn’t stay too long loitering around, leaving my wife in the castle. So I hurried back to the castle.

Under the light from the setting sun, it was a very pretty and very interesting castle and stepping inside, it was very warm and cosy . . . . . . . . . . . not knowing what time it was , my wife was still engrossed with the historical displays!

The Sun also sets in Koh Samui – Watching Sunset and Clouds

While we were fascinated with the sunset at Langkawai, Malaysia, we were also stunned by the sunset and the low hanging  clouds at Koh Samui, Thailand. The island offers magical skies, breathtaking sunsets and the perfect backdrop that presents an unforgettable experience.

There is no better way than starting a day sitting quietly by the beach while having your morning cup of coffee or tea.

Our crave for beaches is just insatiable. When coming to decide where to go for our vacation, we have always yielded to the 3S formula (Sun+Sand+Sea =Happiness). One of our pleasures is watching the sun set every evening from various beaches. It is the interplay of colors, tones, different configuration of clouds and the sun that never failed to amaze us. On this beach, we were at peace to see birds hopping among the rounded rocks and people waded out to the water as far as you can stretch your eyes.

Life has always been mysterious, full of unexpected twists and turns. The tonality of the beach today seems to be predominantly in blue. So blue, blue, my world is blue.  Like the clouds, they are always changing in pattern, color and tonality. However, for each cloud, there is always a silver lining.

Like Joni Mitchell, we looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down and still somehow, it’s cloud illusion we recalled. We really don’t know clouds at all. . . . .

Watching clouds is one of our pleasures. We take pictures of it, knowing they will never capture a fraction of what we are feeling, or seeing, and that friends will just eventually flip through the photos in a stack (“Sunset… sunset… sunset…”). But to be in this place, being part of the nature, with  glistening water and quiet beach in front of us, and  brilliant sunsets , it is pure heaven.

The storm clouds signifies that we will have rain tonight. It rained heavily and, in the midst of storm and thunder, the electricity in our hotel room was suddenly gone. So for a couple of hours, we were left in complete darkness.

The heavy rain has finally gone. We have started a new day, the wheels of time just roll on. There will be another day, another sunset in Koh Samui. . . . . . . . . . . . . . the world just keep on turning . . . .

The Black and White Impressions of WuYi Mountains (武夷山)

It was a cold winter day when we arrived at WuYiShan  ( 武夷山). Up on the mountains, there was mist everywhere. We were not surprised at all by the mist as WuYi has 200 misty days in a year. Early in the morning, up on the mountains, all we could see were the mystical white mist against a dark background of mountains and trees. The sceneries we saw were impressions of  black and white. We decided to take some B&W pictures as they white offer a mystical feel and seems to accentuate the  depth of the photographs. The recent award-winning movie “The Artist” clearly demonstrates that B&W can be more expressive. We journeyed through back and white Chinese landscape paintings.

The WuYi Mountains ( 武夷山) are a mountain range located in the prefecture of Nanping, in the northern border of Fujian Province and Jiangxi Province, China. The mountains cover an area of 60 km². In 1999, Mount Wuyi entered UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, both natural and cultural. It is the most outstanding biodiversity conservation zone of SouthEast China.

We half expected that we would have mist on the mountains but didn’t expect that the climb up the WuYiShan was that tough. Our first stop was the Tianyou Feng ( 天游峰) which is 410 meters high. It was a breathtaking experience (both literally and figuratively) as we ascended 828 steps to Tianyou Feng for a glimpse of the Nine Bend River (九曲溪) below.

Looking up  the pavilion there were hundreds of tourists climbing up like ants. I was sure that they had the same impressions; we were down below climbing up like ants too. WuYi is well known for its tea. Up on the hills, there were tea plantations. Near to the plantations, we strolled by this hut with stepping stones leading to its entrance.

There is a saying that “If you have not climbed Tian You Feng, you have not been to WuYi mountain!” So, although the climb was difficult, we finally managed to get to the top. Up on Tianyou Peak  ( literally translated as Heavenly Tour Peak) we enjoyed the panoramic view of the surrounding peaks and hills made  of red sandstone (danxia) with very steep slopes and  also the 6th bend of the Nine Bend River below.

We made our descent and reached the river bank; ready for our next thrill and challenge.

Floating down the Nine-Bend River is the most popular cruise. The raft is about two meters wide and eight meters long, it is made of eight to nine bamboo poles with six bamboo chairs affixed to the raft.

This winding river is one of the most scenic spots in Wuyishan. As tourists cruise along for the length of 10 kilometers and enjoy the stunning scenery, the rafter tells stories about the peaks and the river.

On the day we floated down the river, the weather was cold and it was raining quite heavily. The rain and wind were whipping hard on us.

For the whole 70-minute cruise, we went shivering and could not concentrate on what the rafter was talking; only wanting the cruise to end as soon as possible. Nevertheless, the mist covering the hilltops on both sides of the river was most mystical as we glided along the eddying pools and scary rapids.

After the tiring climb and an unforgettable bamboo raft trip, it was time to leave WuYi. We made our way back to town and stepped back into a world of colors.

Phoenix – FengHuang (鳳凰) Ancient City, China

We first learnt of this place through the paintings of the Chinese artist Wong Wing Yuk who has based many of his paintings on his home town Fenghuang or Phoenix City.

Fenghuang is the Chinese for “phoenix”, the king of  birds in legends, which is a good omen symbolizing longevity.

It is an ancient community located on the western edge of Hunan Province. This is like the Venice in the Orient;  an example what a village by a river was like before the date of modernization: timber boats, simple river crossings, Chinese style buildings on stilts, traditional food and tribal people dressed as if this place was frozen in time.

The charm of Fenghuang goes beyond the natural beauty. We first  took a stroll of the city, admiring at the ancient architecture. Some of the streets were paved with cobble stones. To our delight, we found a shop selling preserved pig head, meat and field rats.

We walked around the picturesque lanes and little squares. Then we went up to top of the city wall to have a good view of the Tuo river. The Tuo river was not deep , and the water was very clear. Locals cross the river by walking on a series of stepping stone blocks in the river.

Fenghuang was built  a few hundred years ago and restored quite a few times. It was one of the military outposts of the empire, built to keep the minority people Miao in check. But the most characteristic of Fenhuang are the houses along the river, built on timber stilts, with several floors, balconies and windows overlooking the river. We took a boat trip on the river, viewing timber houses leaning out onto the river, watching the locals doing their washing and cleaning vegetables in the river and all the comings and goings you expect or not expect on the river.

Going up and down the river, we were happy at the revelation of more and more river scenes, each one quite different to the other. We took more photos and were impressed with the covered bridge arch crossings above the water (top photo).

When the moon has risen and the place was almost completely dark, all we could see were the traditional red lanterns hanging from each of the timber houses and the faint outline of the distinctive tops of the buildings. We knew it was already late and we should be heading back to our hotel. We also knew we have covered one of the places we should see before we disappear from the face of this earth.