Friday, January 31, 2014

Tips and Tricks : Lijiang

If you're landing via Kunming Changshui International Airport, aside from Kunming itself, you may venture to another of Yunnan's famous destinations, Lijiang.

A glimpse of the interior of the Kunming Changshui Internal Airport
Lìjiāng (丽江) is a prefecture-level city in the northwest of Yunnan province, People's Republic of China. Heading there from Kunming, you can either take a flight, or as how we traveled, a late night soft sleeper train. It costs around 226 yuan (Approximately USD 36) from Kunming Station to Lijiang, and it takes about 10 hours, ample time to sleep in the train (depending on how tired you are, we were basically that tired that we barely noticed the multiple stops the train made along the way).

Be at the train station at least an hour earlier before your scheduled departure as the trains are fairly punctual (you can board the train 20 minutes before departure time). The tickets corresponds to your passport numbers, it is imperative that you do not lose the ticket!
Arriving in Lijiang in the morning, it is COLD (it's autumn during January), i mean like, for someone who comes from a tropical climate country, we basically froze ourselves from the station to the car (we opted for a private tour). The shops in Lijiang doesn't open that early, so if you're an early breakfast kinda person, you might want to opt for McDonald's or something along the way if you can find them.

If you have the whole day in Lijiang, and if you don't wish to hike up the Tiger Leaping Gorge (which is beautiful, but we opt for a lazy day in the Old Town instead hahaha), you can try to follow the itinerary we had over there.

We first made our way to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山), a mountain massif in Lijiang. The snowy mountain backdrops the another famous tourist spot in Lijiang, the Black Dragon Pool (黑龙潭, Hēilóngtán).

Cable car with a view!
We boarded the cable car up to the Spruce Plateau (otherwise known as the Splendid Vale), a large meadow that gives different vibe and shades of colour as it evolves through the seasons. If you are lucky enough, you may encounter yaks and mountain goats around to feast on the fresh grass/vegetation around. 

The Naxi people regarded this place as the 'entrance to heaven'. Oh, legend has it that the Naxi version of Romeo & Juliet happened here, where young lovers came here and die together when their love and marriage were rejected by their family or society status. Oh well.

Natives can be seen with their vibrant ethnic clothes and with songs and dances accompanying. Oh, if you wish, you can snap a photo in their ethnic fashioned clothes and/or with animals such as eagle and llama. 

The mountain backdrop is surreal, and really brought me back to the mountains I remembered when I was in NZ. Snap snap snap. 

After the morning walk, we made our way to the Baisha Murals. Located around 10km towards northwest of Lijiang old town, quaint ancient villages can be found, including Baisha. Here, the most famous fresco, otherwise known as the Baisha Mural can be found. It is said that the murals were created during the course of the Ming Dynasty through the Qing Dynasty (a span of around 300 years) and it was a massive collaboration from the local Naxi Dongba, Taoist, Tibetan Lama, Han and other unknown painters. 

Replica of the original mural
The complexity of the mural paintings is said to depict the different religious cultures of Buddhism, Lamaism, Taoism, and Naxi Dongba religion and the walks of life of the myriad of people that lived through the era of rapid economic development, mutual acculturation of multinational culture, national solidarity and the growth of religions of the area. Due to the collaboration of the multiple painters, the type of skill applied and the materials used to produce the murals are hard to replicate, and in the case of the Baisha Murals, it is rather impossible for its restoration process. Photos are strictly prohibited at this area, so it is only possible for us to soak in the national treasure when we were there.

Black Dragon Pool

We then made our way to the Black Dragon Pool, where it was said that the pool dried up until June 2013, until they pumped the water back in (by how, it is a mystery to me) and thankfully they did, otherwise we would be sorely disappointed, haha. 

Overall, aside from the pool, it is kind of a recreational area for the locals as well, where you can see the local Naxi aunties dancing under the sun, old Naxi uncles playing Chinese chess, and young couples dating. Oh, how I wished I could snap the iconic picture of the Pool with the Snow Mountain as a backdrop, but I'll just settle with what I have. 

Cobblestone Streets of Old Town Lijiang
Lastly, the Old Town of Lijiang (丽江古城), a Unesco World Heritage Site. The town has a bustling history of being the tea horse road trade area, and has abundant of orderly waterway and bridges system. The attractiveness of the town, although named the 'Old Town', it is more like a slightly more happening place compared to the likes of Bukit Bintang, due to its charming old buildings with cobblestone streets (cars are prohibited to enter the old city). 

Traditional Lijiang Pancakes & Meat Skewers
Foods are abundant here, don't worry. Although you may need some acquired taste, and some gastronomy courage to try some of the local cuisines, including the yak meat. 

Oh, your fluency in English? You don't really need them here, most of the signage will leave you puzzled of what it really means (it helps if you can read Chinese). 

Small sausage wrapped by big sausage = E.package of small intestine
Also, you may notice the wide usage of the pictograph motives around the town, pictographs were used as communication medium of the local Naxi people.

Iconic spot for photos? The water wheel at the entrance of the Lijiang old town, the panoramic scene of the old town (just look for your way towards Wenchang Palace) and the Mu Residence (southwest of the Old Town) which gives you a feel of the ancient Chinese imperial palace, and the Town Square, where you get to ride on ponies/horses around town. 

I really want one of these birds! Like really! 

Water wheel of Lijiang

Some of the places here are a little hard to find as the entire town is like a labyrinth of old shops, identical cobblestone streets and bridges left right centre. Having said that, it is the joy of walking around, and the sense of achievement when you finally found where you intended to go (Mu residence was our biggest challenge then, made it anyway ahahaha). The locals may not be much of a help (if you can't speak Mandarin) and the maps are your only saving grace. It is an adventure, I tell you. 

Mu Residence

At night, this town may be transformed into some happening clubbing/drinking place, local style, beer joints can be found as well here. Seriously, this Old Town was really beyond my expectation. And oh, some of my favourite shots when I was there below :)

Panoramic view of the Old Town

Ran out of ideas of what to eat? McD , KFC and Pizza Hut in a row for you?
That is Lijiang in a day, and a small piece of what Yunnan has to offer. Next trip over here, I would tackle Dali, Shangri La and hopefully Kunming (was supposed to visit the Stone Forest but due to unexpected traffic stand still on our last day in China, we did not manage to). Future adventure to look forward to.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Lone Survivor (Movie Review)

I must admit, I am normally not a big fan of war film but Lone Survivor really hit me from the emotional point of view. There are no corny lines that I can recall, the dialogues were kept simple. Thumbs up for the acting, non-brain-frying plots, stunning visual (the filming took place in New Mexico depicting Afghanistan, awesome location nonetheless) and the battle scenes. And the oh so painful scenes (the stunts that they put up really make me think that the SEAL are made from iron).  I wouldn't penalize Lone Survivor for making it more on the action scene rather than focusing on the character development, I felt that the formulation of the film was made just up to what I would preferred. 

The biggest spoiler that I can provide is the title itself, what else do you think the Lone Survivor could mean? 
Summing the 2 hours long movie short, it is about the doomed mission of the US Navy SEAL mission Opt Red Wings team that was tasked to stop the tyranny of the Taliban. Again, 'Lone Survivor'. Everybody dies but one. The movie is based on the book, Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell (character played by Mark Wahlberg) and Patrick Robinson. 

Courtesy of Nuffnang
Lone Survivor opens in Malaysian cinema nationwide on the 14th of January, 2014.
Running Time : 121 minutes | Director : Peter Berg
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig

Side Note : How on flying f*ck does the Talibans move at Godlike speed, puzzles me. Also, you may want to skip Hercules if you're planning to watch it, watch this instead. :)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Discovering Kyoto - Arashiyama & Kinkaku-ji

If you're around Kyoto, it is good to venture out the outskirts, particularly Arashiyama (嵐山, lit Mist Mountain). The natural setting of the pristine river with the scenic mountain that backdrops it makes Arashiyama a popular tourist district. We went there about a week too early to see the more vibrant autumn leaves, but it was still very breathtaking non the less.

The most iconic landmark in Arashiyama is the Togetsukyo (渡月橋, lit Moon Crossing Bridge). Spanning the Katsura River, this wooden bridge is one of the best place to enjoy the spectacular views that Arashiyama has to offer.

We met up with one of my friend's friend's mum (hereon known as okāsan) for lunch. We headed to Nishiyama sōdō (西山艸堂, lit Western Hill Church Cottage?) for some Kyoto tofu dish. To those carnivores, sorry to say that this place specialized in only tofu and vegetarian dish, up scaled to atas level that is. Vegan paradise to say the least. 

This rustic Japanese restaurant allows you to enjoy the luxuriant greenery views of the garden while seated on traditional Japanese cushions at the dining area. One should not underestimate the servings of the tofu. Despite them all being veges, one can be quite contented with the dishes served, at least for me that is. It values up to approximately 3150 yen per person, probably the dearest tofu I had in my life, ever. (Special thanks to okāsan :D )

Our next stop was Arashiyama's famous bamboo groves, the Sagano Bamboo Forest. Noted as one of Japan's national treasure, this 15 km² area of bamboos invokes a certain tranquility along the walk. You may want to choose a weekday to venture this area, as this place is quite packed during the weekends (both tourists and locals alike).

Arashiyama offers a lot of the other attractions, such as the Tenryū-ji (天龍寺), Iwatayama Monkey Park and Katsura Imperial Villa, which we did not cover due to time constraint (autumn, despite the more photogenic, vibrant colours, we lost out on daytime), we opted to Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺, lit Temple of the Golden Pavilion) instead. 

Designed based on the Muromachi period garden, this minimalist themed landscape is a National Special Historic Site of Japan. The Golden Pavilion, is one of Kyoto's most photographed building, contributing to the large number of visitors annually. They do have small shops that sells charms and fortune telling around as well (it's towards the exit, you can't miss them).

Getting from Arashiyama via Kyoto Station, takes approximately 50 minutes (depending on traffic that is), so make sure time is planned wisely for to and fro journey (check Google Maps for route suggestion). I would suggest a full day in Arashiyama, but if you want to slot Kinkaku-ji in the day as well, it is an hour journey (suggestion by Google Maps). 

All in all, it was a good day, despite moving at a very fast phase, Arashiyama did not fail to disappoint. Despite reaching Kinkaku-ji almost towards its closing time, we were in awe by the perfectly crafted Golden Pavilion, worth the effort of rushing towards here. I'll admit, better time planning should be done by our end, but non the less, that's what makes traveling much more fun than being 100% schematic, no?