Monday, September 30, 2013

Happiest Place on Earth

The moment I walked through the gates, I was magically transformed into a little kid, all excited and eager with anticipation of the paradise that awaits me. After all, I am in the HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH - Disneyland!

 The MOUSE that started it all !!!!!

We have all grown up with Disney's characters as long as we can remembered. In fact, I guessed that the first cartoon character that we were ever introduced to from our childhood would very likely be a Disney character. I even remembered drawing and painting so many of them when I was young. When I was about seven or eight, I remembered Caltex running a Disney's character sticker promotion where for a certain value of fuel pumped, you get a Disney's character sticker. Well, I don't have the privilege of getting my hands on any of them but my neighbor has because his father was a nationwide delivery driver for a certain cooking oil company. I remembered vividly the excitement both of us shared everytime his dad came back with different stickers. I remembered the seven dwarfs, Dumbo the flying elephant, Goofy, Pluto, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse of course!

It was early October 2012 and Halloween season. Disneyland was decked with colorful Halloween decorations with bright orange pumpkins all over the place, making it even more magical.

 Walt Disney and his partner who together had given us so much joy and delight

Standing in front of the Main Street USA that runs straight down between two rows of colorful and interesting shops and looking directly at the Disneyland Castle at the end of it some distance away, was a dream come true for me, and I am sure to many who have stood in that same spot. How can one forget that scene of the Castle with all the fireworks and Tinkerbell flying with her magic wand and the catchy Walt Disney's jingle.

 The famous Disneyland Magical Castle, seen here with her clear reflections around
the stream that runs around her

Disneyland, Anaheim is HUGE with so many interesting theme parks, each unique and exciting, filled with rides catering from children to those that will get your adrenalin pumping and definitely not for the faint hearted.

This place is definitely crowded and I would strongly advise that you arrive early, firstly to avoid having to wait in long lines to gain entry, to get to the rides besides enjoying the cooler temperatures in the morning. October's afternoons can be rather hot here although the temperature will cool down somewhat towards the evening and night.

 You can spend the entire day at Disneyland and as the sun sets and the lights comes on, Disneyland presents a different kind of FUN and magic!

Stayed as close as possible to the park and if possible within walking distance to beat having to wait in line for the shuttle buses. We were staying just across the park's main entrance which was only less than 10 minutes walk away. There are some rather reasonably priced hotels which have partnered with Disneyland around the area. Don't expect 5 stars treatment nor furnishings but then you are not here for the hotels nor are you going to spent countless hours in your hotel room. You are here for DISNEYLAND!

 The spectacular fireworks displayed at the Magical Castle on weekends. Be sure to catch this ..

You can never finish Disneyland in one day. In fact, you would need a week if you are to really to appreciate and try everything that she has to offer. I would suggest purchasing the 3 days pass and if you can, and if possible, at least one day in the  weekend. Yes. The crowd would be even larger during the weekend but it will be worth your while because of the weekly night firework display that is simply spectacular and magical.

There are definitely two things that you must not missed. In fact, you should not missing anything at all when you are there but be sure that you catch Disney's Stars Parade along the Main Street USA and the Firework Display at the Disney's Castle. Be sure to be there way before the scheduled time to grab a good spot, which often meant sitting on the pavement for hours even before the event starts. I was sitting patiently on the pavement for both events some 3 hours before the show began but it was worth the while being on the front row!

 Beautiful dancers with colorful costumes of every design and the Disney Stars joined in the Disneyland Parade at night, to lively music and popular and evergreen Disney music scores!

"Chim Chim ney, Chim Chim ney, Chim Chim Cher-ee, A sweep is as lucky as lucky can be .."

The Disney's magic is truly undeniable here. Why? Because I find myself, someone close to fifty, getting all excited when the Disney's famous stars kept popping up, out from nowhere. I find myself chasing after them to grab a picture. And of course there was MICKEY MOUSE in person! WOW!

 You know that you are in the HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH when even your breakfast comes with a waffle in the shape of Mickey Mouse.....

Breakfast with Minnie and her friends is definitely worth thinking about. It is not exactly cheap for the kind of food that they are serving buffet style but you get to meet and hug your favourite Disney character.

After three days, I left with a heart contended, knowing that one of my earliest childhood dreams had been fulfilled and tune of M..I..C..K..E..Y....M..O..U..S..EEEEE....(from Mickey Mouse club show) ringing in my head.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Beauty of Winter

The temperature in Beijing is plummeting the last few days. It was just like yesterday that we just had the hottest summer. However, I was shivering last night sitting outside a café while having a glass of wine with a dear friend. The thought of wearing a sweater never did occur to me. By 9pm, the outside temperature had already plummeted to only 11 degrees and we are currently mid way through autumn. Soon, the cold bitter winter will be upon us again, lasting for the next three months.
 Fresh 4 inch deep snow at a remote village at the Miyun County, at the foot of Wuling Mountains in the middle of winter.
Captured in sub zero temperatures while the sun rises over the mountains, casting long interesting shadows over the vast snow covered landscape. Before this, I could only imagine such scenes in my mind yet, here I was, taking it all in before my very eyes.

For someone coming from a hot and perpetually humid country like Malaysia, experiencing the full cycle of the four seasons was truly amazing. When I came in November 2012, I was just in time to see leaves dropping and the winter setting in. It was a cold cold winter last year with Beijing reportedly experiencing the most number of snowfalls in any winter for the last decade or so. I had a taste of winter before in Europe during my business visits there but nothing beats the chilling biting cold that I had in Beijing last year, with temperatures hitting -15 degrees at night where I had to walk my toy poodle.
Taking pictures during winter is not without it's risk. My son and I was walking all over this seemingly frozen path, only to realize later to our shock when we heard the cracking sound of ice beneath our feet that this is actually a totally frozen stream.
But winter was also something I enjoyed despite the cold. As a keen photographer, I had always admired beautiful pictures of white cold winter Christmas. It has always been my dream to be able to stand knee deep in fluffy fresh snow, capturing vast white winter landscapes or frozen streams.

Although I enjoyed looking at the many historical sites in Beijing, the one thing that I really desire was to capture them with snow capped roofs and snow covered pavements and alleys. Somehow, I personally find a sense of romance with winter.
 Forbidden City captured in February 2013 towards the end of winter and the start of spring, still with snow on many of her rooftops and ancient pavements. Due to the cold, places like this which are often over crowded are now practically deserted, hence, allowing me to enjoy the peace and tranquility of this ancient structures as they were hundred of years ago.
Snow covered old ancient dwelling places of the hutongs in Beijing.

I was glad that part of my dreams has been realised when I managed to go about taking some winter pictures during my last winter. Seeing The Forbidden City with her ancient roofs and pavements covered with snow, or the old boring hutongs in grey, suddenly coming alive as if time stood still hundred of years ago, or the great wall at Jingshanlin, deserted, looking out towards snow covered ridges, mountains and valleys as far as the eyes could see are still images that have been deeply carved into my mind that no words could possibly described their true beauty and awe.
 The Great Wall at Jingshanlin during winter. Deserted without the crowd, she allows herself to be captured in her natural self, peaceful and tranquil, yet majestic and imposing, overlooking every valley from the most vantage points on the sharp mountain ridges. This photography expedition was also exceptional meaningful to me. Seen here is my son, sharing that same passion with me last year.

Captured early spring at Wuling Mountain as the snow and frozen stream began to melt.

With autumn passing, I am gearing up myself for another romantic rendezvous with the coming winter, to immerse in her bitterly cold yet mysteriously mesmerising charm and beauty, to capture her in all her splendour, a living testimony of the awesome greatness of the ONE who presented her to us …..

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ancient Alleys Called Hutongs

This is definitely one place that intrigues me from the first day I landed in Beijing last year. The Hutongs. I was curious what they actually are and from all the descriptions written about them in various blogs, articles and websites, they sounded exciting, ancient, interesting, dating back several hundred years and to a certain extend romantic.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to visit any of these during the first several months until winter last year when my eldest son come visiting from Christchurch, New Zealand. I took the opportunity to take him around the hutongs at Houhai and those near the Drum and Bell Tower.

When we got off at Houhai, we were immediately approached by a dozen rickshaw paddlers offering us a rickshaw tour round the hutongs. Not knowing what and where the hutongs are, we agreed at a price of RMB100 for about an hour ride.  We got into his rickshaw as he carefully unfolds some warm blankets to cover our laps and legs as the air was chilly and cold.
Rows and rows of rickshaws lining up at Houhai, waiting for customers.
As he paddled furiously away, he was screaming on top of his voice, giving us a briefing and introduction of the little alleys and rivers that we passed, unfortunately, in Chinese (Putonghua) which I have just started to learn while my son, a `banana’ has absolutely no idea of what the driver was rambling about. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the scene as we took us deeper into some winding and narrow alleys, passable only by rickshaws and bicycles, with both sides lined with old greyish buildings with faded red wooden doors that had seen better times. He would occasionally points out selective larger buildings and said something to explain that those were residences of some well known figures or officials several hundred years ago.
Many of these dwelling places have been converted to cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops nowadays while those that have not been converted looked almost identical in every aspect. But if your passion is photography, then they offer amble photography opportunities, subject matter and angles, if you only have time to slow down and absorb the atmosphere, something that you would not be able to do while sitting in a rickshaw.
 Old styled hot water warmer, a teapot of Chinese tea on an old jaded wooden stool found at the entrance of one of the houses here during winter in Jan 2013.
Spotted these old tools repairing shoes, apparently they have been there for quite a number of years judging from the writeup they put up at the back at Nanluo Gu Xiang
One of the houses that have been converted to a embroidery shop at Nanlou Gu Xiang.

We made another trip to visit the Drum and Bell Tower a week later and had more time now just to walk among the narrow alleys and slowing down whenever we see something interesting to capture. It was snowing lightly which made the whole experience even more incredible although the skies were gloomy and dull.
 One of the entrance to some of these siheyuans along the hutongs. The gloomy and dull winter with snow tends to bring out the color of some of these ancient red wooden doors.

I must said that photographing the hutongs in winter is definitely much more interesting than any other seasons, because the snow covered roofs and alleys, will bring some nostalgic feel to these ancient structures.
 Snow covered hutongs after a heavy snowfall during winter, near the Drum and Bell Tower

Another interesting and more famous alley along the hutongs to visit in Beijing is Nan Luo Gu Xiang, apparently one of the oldest and most well preserved hutong in Beijing, dating back 700 years. Today, most of these hutongs have been converted to trendy cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs and shops. This is not the place to get that authentic feel of the hutongs but still warrants a visit and dropping by for a drink in one of their cafes and pubs if time permits.

What are hutongs exactly?

Hutongs are narrow streets and alleys and the ancient dwelling places of court officials and commoners around the palace in Beijing. They consist of lines of siheyuan, the traditional courtyard residences joined to each other, forming a hutong. One hutong is then linked to another, creating a maze of inter connected narrow hutongs that gave this place their unique flavour.

All hutongs are built around the Forbidden City and the status of a person is determined by how close his residence is to the Forbidden City. Court officials normally resided on the east and west of the palace, while commoners, wealthy merchants and artisans will live on the north and south side of the palace.

Siheyuan or the traditional courtyard residence consists of a large courtyard in the center with 4 to 5 dwelling places surrounding it, enclosed in a wall. Over time, some of these siheyuans have become living quarters of several families.
 Typical layout of a siheyuan with a courtyard in the center, surrounded by dwelling places within a wall.

Some of the hutongs (alleys) are named after a trade. This is because in the olden days, it is believed that all the merchants of the same trade stayed along the same road (hutong) hence deriving the name.

 Bicycles are a common mode of transportation among the narrow hutongs. Found a couple of these among the snow covered alleys.

Venturing into the less trotted hutongs, which have not been converted over to become a pub, café or shop will give you a glimpse of the everyday lives of a common beijinger making a living in Beijing, a great metropolitan city that can be rather unforgiving to many less fortunate.

All in all, you stay in Beijing will not be complete without a visit here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Nanjing Road Shanghai

Nanjing Road is a premier shopping street in Shanghai which every tourist would end up one way or another. Our tour guide brought us there on our very first night in Shanghai.
Stretching 3.4 miles, it starts from the Bund on the east, ending near the junction of Jing’an Temple and Yan’an West Street on the west. Nanjing Street is reputed to be the first and the earliest shopping street in Shanghai, right after the Opium War (1839-1842).

This street has been mostly rebuild over the years and today is a modern shopping pedestrian mall with trendy outlets lining both sides of the street. You will find all the high end trendy premium outlets such as Dunhill, Mont Blanc and Tiffany that would bleed your pocket and wallet as well as outlets offering a range of other specialty goods. There are also a host of cafes, trendy restaurants and pubs for a meal, a snack or simply a drink.

Be prepared to be `harassed’ by the numerous street vendors, offering all sorts of products and items, many that would definitely be enticing especially to the little ones. If you are thinking of buying some, do not buy from the very first vendor who approaches you and be prepared to walk away if you could not get the price you want. You will be surprised that you could actually buy what you got from the first vendor (even after a hefty 50% bargain, which you thought was superb) even cheaper if you have only waited and walked further down the road.
Nanjing Street is definitely more attractive with all the flashy neon signs illuminating the night and be on a look out for the occasional street performance or music which could be rather interesting.
I, for one, did not find anything particularly interesting about this street. Maybe I am not a keen shopper or maybe my pocket is not deep enough for me to walk into all those high end quality boutiques to grab an LV bag or a Mont Blanc fountain pen. I find this street no more exceptional than the Wangfujing shopping street back in Beijing. It is good for one visit just for the ‘Been there, done that’ reason but nothing interesting enough to draw me back the second round.

Your female other half might beg to differ. So, get that credit card ready.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Palace or Prison

I have visited this particular location three times so far, once in the summer, once in the winter and the last visit was the beginning of spring. The Forbidden City (Gugong), also known as the Imperial Palace is a must visit place when one comes to Beijing and every tour would very likely include this into their itinerary and rightly so, because this place bears the history of the various emperors that have ruled China for hundred of years, 600 to be exact.
Forbidden City, The Outer Court during winter where the crowd is much lesser and the skies are clearer.
This is the center of Beijing literally speaking because all major roads, in particular the famous `ring’ roads of Beijing are built around this one location. The nearest and innermost is the 2nd ring road and then 3rd, the 4th, the 5th and finally the 6th. Hence, it is common for someone who is familiar with Beijing to ask direction based on the ring roads of which one particular place is located.
 Forbidden City during winter which is probably the only season where one could capture a picture of her without the maddening crowd of tourist. This picture almost speaks of the tranquility that must have gone through this structure during winter hundred of years ago where the general public was forbidden to enter, hence the name - Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was the home of 24 Ming and Qing Emperors with a history of almost 600 years (1401-1911), covering a land of over 178 acres, surrounded with 52 feet wide and 30 feet high walls, stretching over 2,428 meters. There are over 800 buildings within the Forbidden City with a total of 8,707 rooms in total.

She was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and due to the wear and tear, a direct result of the huge amount of daily visitors, is currently undergoing a refurbishment project aimed to be completed by 2020.
 A pair of large bronze lions found guarding the entrance of the Hall

Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty moved the then capital from Nanking to Beijing and oversaw the construction of this magnificent masterpiece, the same spot used by the great Kublai Khan 150 years before him as the winter palace. As the largest palace in the world, the Forbidden City stretches 960 meters from north to south and 750 meters from east to west, with a circumference of 3,430 meters. There are four main gates, the Meridian (Wumen) Gate at the south, the Gate of Divine Prowess (Shwumen) at the north, the East Flowery Gate at the east and the West Flowery Gate at the west. All visitors today will enter through the Meridian Gate which is the largest and the main gate and will exit through the north’s Gate of Divine Prowess.

 The Meridian Gate (Wumen) located at the south is the largest of the gates, with five entrance. The center entrance which is also the largest is used solely by the Emperor himself.

Entering through the Meridian Gate, you will be greeted by the Golden Water River with five marble bridges, simply known as the Bridges over the Golden Stream.
 Reflections of the five marble bridges that span across the River of Golden Water once you entered through the Meridian Gate

The entire Forbidden City is divided into two main sections, the Outer Court and the Inner Court. The Outer Court is where the Emperor handles court affairs and ceremonies and consists of three main halls, namely the Taihedian, (Hall of Supreme Harmony), Zhonghedian (Hall of Middle Harmony) and the Baohedian (Hall of Preserving Harmony).
 Taihedian (Hall of Supreme Harmony) where the Dragon Throne is located
The Dragon Throne located in Taiheidian, where the Emperor governed his kingdom and consult his officials on the daily affairs of his subjects

Of these three, the biggest and the most significant is the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian) which is also the largest surviving wooden structure in China. This is where the throne of the Emperor is located. During the Ming Dynasty, this was where the emperor governed his country, discussing daily affairs. The emperors during the Qing Dynasty, on the other hand, used it more for ceremonial purposes such as coronation and wedding ceremonies.
The longest Dragon Pavement in front of Taihedian consisting of carvings on two pieces of stone. The largest is the piece on the north side of Baohedian made from one single piece of stone, making it the largest of such structure in China. The bottom design of the carvings are images of mountains and sea and as the pavement goes up towards the hall, the carvings depicts clouds and an ascending heaven. As the emperor ascends to his throne, it is likened to a dragon ascending to the heavens.
The steps leading up to all the halls, both on the south and north sides are beautifully crafted with a ceremonial centrepiece ramp, also known as the Dragon Pavements with delicate stone carvings. The largest carving from one single piece of stone is the one on the north side of the Hall of Preserving Harmony, measuring 54.4 feet long, 10.1 feet wide and 5.6 feet thick, weighing 200 tonnes, making it the single largest such carving in China.
 Ancient ornaments found on the massive red doors found at the Forbidden City. Just imagine what stories they would tell if they could only speak.

Beyond the Outer Court is the Inner Court and this is the home of the Emperor, the Empress and of course, all his concubines. It was said that during the Qing Dynasty, the emperor could have as many as 120 concubines at his beck and call. To ensure that the emperor (with yang energy) has all it takes to produce a male successor, it was believed that having sexual intimacy as frequently as possible with his concubines (with yin energy) without achieving orgasm was encouraged, to ensure better success rate with his monthly union with the empress. Easier said than done, I am sure.

There are three main halls here, namely the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and finally the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity.

 Away from the main halls and palaces, there are many little lanes and doorways such as those captured above that are also interesting subjects for photography. Besides, can you imagine the types of gossips and conspiracy that could have been whispered along these lanes hundreds of years ago within this huge palace, which to many were nothing more but a massive fortress and prison with no way out.

Of these three, the Palace of Heavenly Purity is of the most significance, being the living quarters of the Emperor as well as his `modern working office’ so to speak. Hanging above his working desk and throne is a tablet with the inscription “Justice and Honour”. It is said that before an Emperor dies, he will write the name of his successor in red ink and placed it into a sealed box that will be hidden behind this tablet, only to be opened upon his death.
 The Emperor's `working desk' at the Palace of Heavenly Purity.

Behind these halls, is the Imperial Garden where the Emperor and his family took leisurely walk to escape the hustle and bustle of governing his vast kingdom.

There is definitely much to see in the Forbidden City. Although all the buildings do look rather similar and alike, understanding their purposes and usage would definitely help you to appreciate them more.

I had to privilege to capture them during different seasons in the year and I must say that the best season that I enjoyed the most was in winter. There were far lesser tourist to start with but seeing the palace covered with white snow in contrast to the colourful structures was something that I had dreamt the moment I set foot in Beijing. The down side of course, is that you would have to deal with the freezing cold and slippery steps. Hence, thick winter clothing and anti slip snow shoes would be of great help.
 The entire Forbidden City as seen from the top of Jingshan Park across the North Gate of the Forbidden City.

I WOULD NOT recommend visiting during summer due to the heat, the crowd and the constant and frequent smog that we experienced in Beijing, hence, rendering all pictures dull and gloomy. If, you are avid photographer like I am, come when it is cold and you will be rewarded with pictures that you would be truly happy with.

The Forbidden City awaits you.