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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category
Tags: China, Hangzhou, West Lake
Tags: High Line Park, Hong Kong, Kai Tak Airport, manhattan, Meat Packing district, New York
Hong Kong is forever in a flux; in a constant need to replenish and re-engage its outer casings. The latest, at least I visited it few days back, is the perky changeover of the former airport Kai Tak *and its surroundings.
The runaway has been converted into a cruise terminal and the three levels no-trims attached building features passenger and service areas including drops-offs, waiting halls, concourse and an elite shopping area awaiting footfalls of cruisers. On the ground floor level are fascinating snapshots of the airport through the ages and on the rooftop another iconic symbol, a gleaming ‘golf ball’ radome.
The highlight of this 23,000 square meters revamp is a rooftop garden reminding me of the 1.45-mile-long High Line Park in Manhattan, (Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, between 10th and 12th Avenues) on the elevated section of the disused New York Central Railroad spur or the West Side Line. Redesigned as an aerial greenway and rails-to-trails park it is an intoxicating cultural and relaxing hub amidst the bustle of New York City.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, loosing our way and mix-ups on distance, but the crabbiness vanished on sighting the luminous cruise liner against the harbor vista. ‘The Old Hangar’ ambiance of ‘a cool industrial/vintage chic space with high ceilings’ was tempting as refuge from afternoon sun, but, we preferred the open spaces, the flora and fauna lining the concrete pathways, the strategically placed benches, temptations to laze well into moonlight or starlight, the closing time is 11 pm, and an interesting way to end the day.
*Kai Tak or the Old Airport made way for a new International airport on Lantau Island on 6 July 1998 after 77 years of service.
Address: Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, 33 Shing Fung Road, Kai Tak, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Tags: Ailsa's travel theme, Feast, food, handmade
Aisle’s Travel Theme…Handmade
Handmade wedding feast…… near Taizhou, China
Tags: Aga Khan Palace, Alphonso Mangoes, Banyan Trees, Film Insitute, Khadakwasla, Koregaon Park, Mahatma Gandhi, Peshwas, Pune, Shivaji, Travel, Vada Pav
“A city that comes together in diversity and versatility, offering up sounds, tastes and sights of a wide palate.”
1971…Pune City, the ‘Queen of the Deccan’, a quiescent suburban town of wide leafy roads showcasing famous landmarks: the Aga Khan Palace where Mahatma Gandhi had spent few years as house prisoner; the Osho Ashram in Koregaon Park; the Film and Television Institute catering to Bollywood, Tollywood and all the other cine woods of the country; the Armed Forces Medical College and the National Defense Academy at Khadakwasla; the forts, temples and parks. To next-door neighbor, Mumbai, the city is a ‘releaser of tensions’ and to the locals, a bastion of Maratha culture and legendary Shivaji* and celebrious Maratha warriors, the Peshwas, who had challenged the mighty Mughals and the English army.
This was my first visit to Pune and the thrill of traveling in an ‘officer’s carriage’, allotted to my brother posted at Bhusawal, Central Railways, spilled over onto the city of wannabe film stars (Film Institute) and spiffy services cadets (NDA). It was a two-day trip and while my brother did his work, we (mother, youngest brother and me) visited the landmarks of this laid back town.
Subsequent visits exposed different facets of the city and the 2015 Pune is a constantly expanding suburbia. Mushrooming high-rises, pubs, boutiques, lounges, malls, hotels and industries shadow the green luxury. In Koregaon Park we are greeted by a barricaded Osho Ashram and the opulent Starbucks, more of a ‘decor’ lounge than a middle end coffee shop that one finds in the USA. The congested labyrinth of Camp area, choking with shops, roadside stalls, disintegrating colonial structures and proliferating education centers embracing narrow lanes are giveaways of the concussive new face of Pune.
The one constant are the abundant nebbish roots of the majestic Banyan trees. The trees are an intrinsic part of the city and at odds with the present of multitudinous ‘steel ants’, mopeds and two wheelers, mapping Pune’s narrow lanes and arteries. The influx of professionals and businesses has increased footfalls and traffic snarls with width of roads stuck in time.
A Punaite will argue that despite the people onslaught the city has retained its elegance and charm typified by the ‘dragon fly’ energy and attitude of a scarf covered face, with only eyes visible, slicing through traffic. This unique sartorial style is the ‘silent’ approach towards ‘girl power’. Altaf Tyrewalla, a ‘Pune Mirror’ columnist, writes that the city is guided by the young’s choice in clothes, entertainment and cuisine.
The city is swarming with the young, thanks to the flourishing educational institutions, IT industries and closeness to Mumbai. One has to live in a city to know its corners and warts and in twenty-five days we did manage to experience the banyan-tree resilience of Pune.
April is the month for Alphonso mango, piled up along roads, lanes and market stalls. This year the fruit is expensive due to recalcitrant weather but it does not stop the mango mania invading thalis (platter of assorted dishes), desserts, ice creams and shakes adding color to the city’s food spreads. We try the Marathi ‘thali’ (platter) and find that it is a platonic love affair and one needs to develop resilience for a sustainable relationship. Friends insist that home cooked Marathi food is not ‘so theekha (spicy) or clone-y’ and one can order specific Marathi and not a blend of Marathi, Rajasthani and Gujarati. I relish the Vada Pav from a roadside stall, somewhere in Camp area, as my friend’s driver insisted that it was the best Vada Pav* in town. Our neighbors, a young IT couple insist that we try Irani tea and ‘Maska’ Pav and I get a taste of the functional at a Wanowari tea stall. A Pav (burger bun) is a Pav whether served with Vada (potato fritters), Maska (butter), Misal (spicy curry) or meats…a case of pedestrian with exotic.
The 2015 trip is more of fresh air and discussions about ‘polluted’ Delhi vying with Beijing for top honors in air quality. There are no trips to Amanora Mall, the new shopping address in town, forts or temples. I sit in my little corner of a hill under blue skies, a rarity in Gurgaon, and watch the ubiquitous water tankers toil up the steep hill road of NIBM, Khondwa. Another Pune…
*Shivaji – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shivaji
* Vada Pav…. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vada_pav
Tags: Beijing, Bonsai, Grand Canal, Grandmas tea Drinking, Hanshan Temple, Marco Polo, Master of Nets Garden, Pinging Road, Shanghai, Shantang Street, Shide and Yong Bridges, Su Embroidery, Suzhou, Suzhou Institute of Embroidery, Tiger Hill, wedding street, Yangtze River Delta, Zhenfeng Bridge, Zhouzhuang
WATER TRILOGY – 2……….Suzhou
From the mysteriously prosaic Shanghai we drive to Soochow or Suzhou cocooned in shimmering silken legends of antiquity and a refreshing introduction to a different face of China.
The drizzle-y weather fails to dampen the two-hour car journey along panoramic green fields speckled with occasional farm hands and blue motorized carts, as we enter Suzhou, situated on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (Yangtze River Delta) on the shores of Lake Tai, guided by the setting sun through haphazard traffic and congested lanes. This is Suzhou in its present incarnation, a center of industry and commerce and one of China’s fast developing industrial cities. From our hotel room window, Holiday Inn Youlian Hotel, located close to the old town of canals and pagodas and the new of industrial parks and hi-tech zones, I see roofs of communal housing, blue and muted, lifeless and faceless.
Suzhou’s past splendor is everywhere — in once-grand houses lining centuries-old canals that make their way under still-existing 6,000 stone bridges, and in the many gardens, temple and markets. Marco Polo, the intrepid Italian traveler had described 13th century Suzhou as “Heaven on Earth”, referring to the 6000 bridges ‘such that one or two galleys could readily pass beneath them and where the citizens of this city, men of enormous wealth and consequence hobnobbed with philosophers, the literati and physicians schooled in nature’. *
The best way to unravel the antiquity of Suzhou is to move around on foot, in a rickshaw or to glide down its canals. With time constraints we had no choice but to move around on four wheels and our introduction to ‘ancient’ Suzhou began with Tiger Hill Garden, a massive treasure hunt set in 4000 acres. Su Shi, the famous Song Dynasty poet had said “It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill’. I suppose his advice being followed verbatim down centuries, as Tiger Hill is a popular tourist destination with visitors flocking the gardens, the stony pathways leaving poetic and calligraphic evidence on rocks and pillars.
From a distance Tiger Hill takes on a shape of a crouching tiger but legend has it that a white Tiger had appeared on the hill to guard the burial spot of King Helü of Wu and hence the name Tiger Hill. We followed our Guide and the crowds via the Wanjing Villa showcasing pot plants and Bonsai shrubs/trees, a specialty of Suzhou, covering an area of about 1,700 square meters; the Sword Pond (Jianchi) the watery hiding place of the treasured swords of Helu and past more selfie-clicking tourists to the famous landmark, the 1000-year-old Yunyan Pagoda or the Leaning Pagoda.
This is Suzhou’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa of Italy, and according to travel brochures is taller and predates the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The 48 meter tall brick pagoda with seven stories and eight sides dates its existence to the Five Dynasty and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960) when Wu was one of the rulers. The Tower, completed in 961 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), started to lean during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). This symbol of Suzhou is a stone replica of earlier wooden pagodas and the existing wood brackets and lintels are mainly decorative.
On way to our next tourist stop our Guide pointed out the ‘Daughter Tree’ and I still have to figure out the English name of the tree. More than the tree it was the story associated with it that was interesting. The tree, synonymous with birth of daughter, was planted in the family courtyard and nurtured along with the new-born. With successive years the growing tree was visible from over the walls and people knew that there was a daughter of marriageable age in the family. Proposals from boy’s families would follow and once marriage fixed the tree was cut and the wood used to make cases and caskets to be given to the girl. I was really impressed by the convenient and unobtrusive way of finding matches, especially, in comparison to present day Indian matrimonial columns and dating sites. The few ‘modern’ courtyards we passed were bereft of the ‘Daughter’ tree.
From ‘Daughter Tree’ the talk veered towards Silk embroidery and in particular Su embroidery. Possibly in continuation to romance of marriages, girls embroidered presents to please their future mothers-in-law and would spend hours bent over pieces of silk. We visited the Suzhou Institute of Embroidery and could have stayed all day watching the end products slithering out of artistic fingers transforming squares, rectangles into works of art. The patience of each stitch, the technique, and the skill was a needle stroke of excellence. One can buy embroidery pieces from stores and workshops on Embroidery street, but this was the particular Su style of embroidery, double-sided embroidery, where one single piece of cloth displays the same subject or picture.
The visit to Suzhou silk factory was an unraveling of silk production and we watched fascinated the entire birth sequence, from pupae feeding on delicate mulberry leaves, wrapping themselves in cocoons and the unraveling of the strands to produce shimmering silk fabrics and lightweight duvets. We picked up silk scarves, soft and graceful, as keepsake.
Silken threads continue to mesmerize as we gawk at the wedding gowns on the fairytale ‘wedding’ street at foothill of Huqiu or Tiger Hill. The entire street and surrounding alleys and lanes are devoted to wedding gowns of different shapes, sizes and colors from 500 RMB onwards to cater to different tastes and pockets.
Chinese landscaping is a blend of art and nature and in 13th-century Suzhou landscaping art reached its zenith. There are more than 200 gardens, private as well as public, representing the garden styles of the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The reason for the profusion of gardens was that the region south of the Yangtze River had produced some of China’s most refined scholars, painters and poets and the gardens were their personal property and their refuge from life’s disillusions and also place to create art, poetry and music. We have time for only one, the Master of the Nets Garden designed during the latter part of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
The Master of the Nets Garden or the ‘Ten Thousand Volume Hall’, was assembled in 1140 by Shi Zhengzhi the Deputy Civil Service Minister of the Southern Song Dynasty government. The story is that the owner of Master of Net’s garden was grateful to a fisherman for saving his daughter from drowning and named the Garden after him. A more prosaic version is that the owner, a bureaucrat, got disillusioned with his government job and proclaimed that he would rather be a fisherman than a government official.
Whatever the reason, nature lovers are grateful for this ‘miniaturization of the larger universe’ with rock formations, placement of trees, ponds, pavilions and resting areas and the immaculate zigzag tile patterns, intuitively one does not stomp, that give an impression that one has traversed great distances. The rockeries, waterfalls, paths and corridors are perfectly placed amidst shrubs, trees and flowers, including the Longevity Bridge, a miniature arched bridge in the Central Garden. Our Guide made us step up and down to increase the years in our lives.
One can sit for hours in the quietness of the pagoda in the courtyard lulled by the peaceful ambience of the Garden. I look around at groups and solitary artists engrossed in capturing the scenes in their note books and wonder what they must be thinking. Or like me imagining the jeans and skirts and sneakers transform into silken robes with feet encased in silken embroidered shoes, flitting between trees, pavilions and rockeries.
The 5,400 meter garden is divided into three main sections: the Residential Garden, the Central Garden and the Inner Garden. The buildings, such as the Hall for Staying Spring, the Ming Scholar’s Studio, the Peony Study, the Watching Pines Studio and the Appreciating Painting Studio are easily accessible from the garden. The high point of the Central section is a lotus-filled pond, the Rosy Cloud Pool set amidst a limestone “mountain” and the poetically sounding ‘Washing My Ribbon Pavilion’. The name resonates with a fisherman’s song… “If the water of the Canglang River is clean, I wash the ribbon of my hat. If the water of the Canglang River is dirty, I wash my feet.” This is another China, of history, memory, and even nostalgia.
A brief stop for tea at the gift shop and we stepped out of a masterpiece into reality of gift sellers hawking mementos.The best time to visit is during April and May when blossoming flowers add color to the greys and browns or during Fall for a different take on the canvas.
From the Garden to the Temple was in natural sequence of events and Hanshan Temple or Cold Mountain Temple, a Buddhist temple and monastery in about 10,600 square meters did not disappoint. The temple, located near Fengqiao about 5 km west of the old city of Suzhou, owes it fame to a poem, “A Night Mooring near Maple Bridge”, by Zhang Ji, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet. The Bell of Zhang Ji’s poem had disappeared a long time ago and the present bell in the tower is a re-modeled version. Every year on New Year’s Eve in China’s lunar calendar, the bell is tolled to pray for the happiness and safety of the coming New Year.
A quick walk around the Grand Prayer Hall, the Sutra-Collection Building, Bell Tower, Fengjiang Pavilion and Tablets Corridor and the symbolic 42 meters Puming Pagoda, a five-storey Buddhist pagoda erected in 1995. The other historical relics in the temple are the statues of the Buddhist patriarch Sakyamuni in the Grand Prayer Hall and of the three eminent monks, Xuan Zang, Jian Zhen and Kong Hai.
Any visit to Suzhou is incomplete without sashaying down the canals of this ‘Venice of the East”. There were no shades of Venice in our matter of fact boat ride and instead of prolonging the agony of the boatman preferred the colorful 3.2 kilometers pedestrian/cultural Shantang Street or Baigong Di along the meandering Shantang River. This street, flanked by ancient temples, ancestral halls, memorial arches and guildhalls, was the gift of BaiJuyi, a Tang Dynasty poet who wanted to connect the street with Tiger Hill. This “First Street of Suzhou’, boasting of 1100 year, history retains its original character transforming itself into a roulade of gleaming red lanterns and music wafting from the eateries, pubs and residences. The famousBantang Bridge is the divider between the eastern section, fromDuseng Bridge inChangmen, showcasing old residences and shops and the West part, from the Tiger Hill, the scenic area.When we left, at 5 p.m. the street was already filling up with young and old, families and companions for a slice of the exotic.
A major disadvantage of conducted tours is time packaging and China towns require prolonged visits to know more about their antiquity. Suzhou belongs to this category.
2. Mid-way between Shanghai and Suzhou we had stopped for lunch break at Zhouzhuang, a water town straddling the Yangtze River Delta. The blatant commercialization with gated entrance, ticket booths and accompanying amenities takes away the aquatic feel of this Qing and Ming dynastic throwback.
Busloads of tourists, locals and visitors, pour in at regular intervals to relax or appear bored at the contrived natural settings disbursed for a 100 RMB ticket. Avoiding the frenzied sellers we walk along the waterfront, mesmeric picture postcard scenery of loopy willows and bobbing boats and daily life rituals.
It is a small town dominated by mansions and canals and our first stop is a refurbished Shen house, located to the southeast of Fu’an Bridge on Nanshi Street, constructed by one Shen Benren, a wealthy merchant,in 1742 during the Qing Dynasty. The mansion, encapsulated within five archways, seven courtyards and more than 100 rooms of different sizes, is a brick and mortar wealth impression put together in an area of 2000 square meters and built along both sides of a 100-m-long axis. The connecting courtyards are surrounded by dwelling quarters and to reach the inner most courtyard a visitor had to pass through 5 gates and winding corridors. The house is a maze and one can imagine the tiptoeing around of the inmates, the servants and minions, conforming to societal restrictions.
Lunch was in one of the old family restaurants along the river, and on the next table I could see a family enjoying the famous Wansan pork shank, a specialty of Zhongzhuang. The dish, named after Shen Wansan, was once the prerogative of the rich. The Wansan Pork Shank is prepared by slowly stewing whole pork shanks (thighs, or upper legs) in large crockery pots flavored with special spices and herbs for nearly 24 hours till the flavors infuse into the meat. The meat is then sliced, garnished with fresh herbs, and served on platters as the main dish of the banquet. Listening to the Guide talk about the pork and pastries had certainly made me hungry.
Another unique Zhouzhang custom is tea drinking referred to by various names: “Grandma’s Tea Drinking”, “Spring Tea Tasting”, “Full Moon Tea Drinking”, “Pleasure Tea Drinking”, and ” Tea Talking”, all of which belong to the tea drinking custom of “Sado South of the Yangtze River”. (Sado being a reference to the very refined and highly ritualized Japanese tea ceremony sometimes spelled Chado.) The’ Grandmas tea drinking’ was an elaborate ritual involving collecting rain water, instead of tap water, in large, free-standing ‘dragon’ water vats placed permanently in the courtyard. The collected water was then tapped into special crocks and brought to a boiling point over an open-air wood fire. The boiled water was poured over the tea leaves in an urn and made to ‘sit’ for some time and then the tea transferred into a pre heated teapot.
Lot of hard work for a simple cup of tea but I suppose it encouraged social interactions between different age groups. One could see the special Zhouzhuang tea sets, brightly glazed blue and white porcelain on special lacquered, trays in the shops.
The high spots of this water town are the stone bridges spanning the river and the waterways. The prominent one’s are the twin bridges, Shide and Yong, constructed between 1573 and 1619 and referred to as Key bridges as each bridge has one square and one round opening similar to ancient keys. The other bridges from the Ming and Qing dynasties are the Fu’an Bridge, a 1355 single arch bridge with towers at each end, at east end of Zhongshi Street across Nanbeishi River and the Zhenfeng Bridge spanning Zhongshi River and connecting Zhenfeng Lane and Xiwan Street.
Our next stop is Hangzhou….another legendry water town set amidst tea gardens and lakes.