Monday, January 20, 2014

Wuzhen at the Breaking of Dawn

"You should catch the sunrise here tomorrow morning from one of our bigger bridges." the restaurant owner said. "It is beautiful and much better than sunset." he added.

"What time does the sun rises nowadays?" I asked.

"Around 6 to 6:30 am." he replied.

With that information, I told my son to set the alarm at 6 am the next morning and went to bed, hoping for a spectacular sunrise over the ancient water town of Wuzhen.

It was cold when the alarm went off at 6 am. What do you expect since it is right in the middle of winter. My son rolled over after switching off the alarm. He is definitely not an early riser and no amount of sunrise is going to get him off that warm bed. I was struggling too and almost dozed off when my wife reminded me that it was already 6:30 am and I better get my ass off the bed if I ever wanted to catch the sunrise.

I picked up my gear, put on my winter jacket and ventured out into the cold misty morning. Any hope of getting that perfect sunrise was dashed when I walked onto slippery wet walking paths as it has been raining the night before apparently. The sky was gloomy and downcast and more rain was forecast for the day. I was somewhat disappointed but as I stood on one of the stone bridges looking towards the two rows of houses lining the water canal and a mist covering the rest some distance away, I realized that I was presented with a different perspective of this ancient water town in the morning. One that is cold and damn, sleepy, quiet and tranquil, and that was exactly what I was feeling right that moment, standing on the bridge.

The wind has not picked up and the water was calm. At 6:45 am, before the harsh sunlight breaks through, I could still get decent long exposure shot without using any big stoppers to cut down the light.

I did not manage to get a lot of shots during the day when we first arrived the day before with two little toddlers tagging along, although I did managed to capture what I wanted to see at night. Being alone now, with just my camera and my gear and without having to rush through every shot, I could go about checking each shot through different angles and settings.

The town was practically deserted at this hour. Most of the overnight visitors were still in their warm bed. I guessed none was as crazy as I am, braving the chill and the freezing temperatures just hoping to get some good pictures. Many, I guessed, just as I was, initially, thought that there were no opportunities to catch a good sunrise with the gloomy weather and hence gave up the idea. Whatever their reasons were, I was glad as I get to have the entire town almost to myself.

As I took shot after shot, from this bridge to the next, I began to realize that these are scenes and atmosphere that I wanted to capture of an ancient water town. Not just the bright lights and their reflections on the water, but the dreamy feel of a sleepy ancient water town, without the commercialisation, in all her serenity and tranquility, allowing your imagination to go back hundreds of years.

The "Bridge In Bridge" during the day with both bridges in view as well as their clear reflections on the calm waters.....

As day brightened, this sleepy town started to wake up with some residents getting their shops ready for the day. Workers started to arrive, bringing along their breakfast for yet another busy day, hoping that the crowd would be larger since it is a weekend.

As the day brightens, I caught this little boat starting his round to start off another day down the river .....

By 8 a.m. the rain had started to drizzle, signalling me that it is time to head back to the hotel. As I walked back, I saw more tourists now, coming out from the hotels, taking a walk among the wet walking paths, taking pictures here and there. I had my fair share and I would like to believe the better parts too.

By the time, we walked over for our breakfast around 9:30 a.m., the slight drizzle has got heavier and so has the crowd, both from those staying overnight and those arriving for the day, all decked in raincoats or umbrellas, jostling around the narrow alleys and bridges for their pictures.

I walked past them with a grin and a smile on my face, knowing deep inside, I am a contended man and having had the best moments of a misty dreamy Wuzhen, an ancient water town of over 1200 years history at the breaking of dawn.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wuzhen at Night

Sunrise and sunset are termed as the golden hours for any landscape photographers because the light is not direct and harsh and the often times, the multi color skies added with some dramatic clouds formation, sometimes accompanied by a round red or orange sun captured made almost a postcard like picture.

I was hoping for the same, as I hurriedly walked about Wuzhen to find a right spot where I could spot the sun going down, checking the direction constantly with my iPhone compass. However, the downcast skies during the day and the clouds obscure any chance whatsoever to see a dramatic sunset for the day. I was lucky that at least, it was not raining as the day before or the day we left Wuzhen. But sunset is not all about dramatic colorful skies or bright perfect orange sun, as I found out here in Wuzhen. As dusk approached where the sun had already set, this ancient water town was cloaked in a shade of yellowish orange light and a slight mist in a distance, with almost perfect reflection of the houses on still and calm waters adds a dreamy feel to this historic town.

Dusk falling upon this ancient water town of Wuzhen ..

Calmness and tranquility at dusk ...

But the real beauty of Wuzhen is when the lights come on at night. That was the whole reason we ended up in Wuzhen. We were supposed to visit another ancient water town somewhere else, nearer to Suzhou but when I specifically told my guide that I wanted to take night photography, he recommended Wuzhen instead and insisted that we must stayed a night. His recommendation was spot on.

As the night approaches, the lights began to come on, one after another, and the entire place takes on a totally different feel. In fact, it comes alive ...

As the night sets in, the lights came on and the entire town takes on a different perspective, feel and atmosphere. It comes alive. The crowd began to swell, bearing in mind that it was winter with temperature in low single digit and it was a weekday. 

I just got my D610, my new Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 lens and my new tripod just before I made this trip and I was eager to try them out for the long exposure shots.

Wuzhen is a string of islands all connected with stone or wooden bridges, some small and some magnificent ones like the one below. Capturing them with their reflection on the water below was something that I was hoping to do when I first decided to visit an ancient water town.

An almost symmetrical reflection of the bridge and building on the water below ....

If you are visiting Wuzhen, I would highly recommend that you insist on staying for a night. There are many day tours who might include this into one of the places you might visit from Hangzhou but to truly appreciate the beauty of this place and to experience her tranquility and atmosphere, an overnight stay would allow you to walk among the narrow streets and alleys and admire the beauty of the reflections of these ancient structures on the water. If you an early riser, you might even catch the sunrise the following morning before the rest of the crowd wakes up. (More of that in my next post ..)

This is the famous Bridge in Bridge where at a certain angle, one could see another bridge through the arch of the first. Here, you can catch a bit of the second bridge on the left hand side of the picture. This two bridges are the Tongji and the Renji Bridge which apparently has been rebuilt 5 times over the years....

The beauty of night photography of an ancient water town lies in the mesmerizing reflections on the water such as the ones below :-

Every corner offers a different feel and look at night ....
Located near the Bridge in Bridge, is a street lined with pubs, cafes and bars where one could sit down to listen to some life music while enjoying your favorite beer or drink.

Wuzhen offers more than just reflections of the lights on water. Walking along the narrow streets and alleys, lined by old wooden souvenir shops, guest houses, cafes and shops that offered local delicacies that are delicious is an experience by itself.

The streets themselves offered delightful opportunities for night photography especially if you have a tripod set on longer exposure. Deeper into the night, when the crowd thins, you might find yourself alone along a lonely stretch of narrow alley, lined with old wooden shops that have closed. There is a eerie sense of quietness surrounding you and your ears suddenly becoming ultra sensitive to any `funny' noises as you go about taking that one picture that you hope is worth all efforts.

A view of a shop opposite the other side of the river, captured here, between two walls with creepers ....

A window in one of the dead end walls with overgrown creepers ....eerie ....

The almost abandoned streets ....

Besides the streets and the river, there are also other interesting historical sites that literally glow in the dark such as those below :-

The old post office .....

By the time I finished the above pictures, it was closed to 9pm and we have not had our dinner. Most restaurants have close by now and the only shops that remained opened are the pubs and bars. We gave the owner of the shop we had our lunch earlier a call and asked if his is still opened. 

"I was waiting for you guys to return" he said "..and I was surprised that you didn't turn up till now ..."

"Well..we are coming right now .." we told him. We have little choice as there are no restaurants that were still opened by this time.

There were no regrets. We ordered a few other dishes, and they were just too eager to serve us. The food was delicious and hot. As we attacked the food with vengeance, the owner's wife was there chatting with us and sharing about their lifestyle and how the restaurant were being run. The bill came to RMB156. 

With our stomach filled, we made our way back to our hotel and settled in for the night. Both my 5 years old boy and my 2 years old daughter was fast asleep by this time.

Tired but satisfied, the alarm was set at 6 the next morning as I was eager to go out early in the morning, hoping to catch the sunrise over the ancient stone bridges, reflected on the clear calm waters....

....but that was not to be .......more in my next post ...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Amazing Ancient Water Town of Wuzhen

We made a trip to Suzhou a couple of days ago. Our first stop over was Shanghai for a night before we made our way to Suzhou for two nights with our driver that we engaged in Shanghai.  I have always been mesmerized by the beauty of ancient water towns in China, such as the one I visited at Zhujiajiao about a year ago and I was always thinking that the best ancient water towns would be those found in Suzhou or so I thought.

But my driver cum tour guide, Mr Loh, suggested otherwise. An experienced guide, he explained that Suzhou is renowned for her delicate and unique gardens though there is still a fair amount of water towns to see. When I told him that I am interested to photograph the ancient water towns at night, he suggested us to visit and stay a night at Wuzhen (乌镇) instead. 

Xi Zha (West Sector) of Wuchen ...

"If you have been to Wuzhen, you would never have to visit another water town ever again. " he proudly proclaimed.

We did some research on the Internet and made a booking for a night at one of their 'so called' 5 stars hotel, known as Tong An Hotel, reputedly the largest hotel there. The rates are by no means cheap. A standard room will set you back RMB830 (with breakfast). A lady at the front desk at Marriott Suzhou who incidentally have worked at Wuzhen before, even suggested that we take the cheaper guest house for the local feel. However, since we were traveling with kids, we opted for the larger Tong An Hotel.

The drive to Wuzhen from Suzhou is approximately 1.5 hours and the journey was pleasant. In fact, it would take only 45 minutes drive from Hangzhou which is nearer.

Wuzhen, an ancient water town boasting of an almost 2000 years of history, is located at the north the Zhejiang province and is part of the Beijing -Hangzhou Grand Canal, very much like Suzhou. Life at Wuzhen has been pretty idyllic and hence, much of the ancient lifestyle and uniqueness of this historical water town has been well preserved.

Dong Zha (East Sector) of Wuchen. The old houses and structures are well preserved. Clearly a different view as compared to Xi Zha (West Sector) which has been rebuilt ...

There is two distinct sections of Wuchen, known as Dong Zha (East Sector) and the Xi Zha (West Sector). Dong Zha is smaller and consists of most of the original ancient houses and structures, many with the original residents while Xi Zha is larger, rebuilt with many guest houses, hotels and restaurants. 

The main canal at Xi Zha (West Sector). The place is almost deserted during the day when we arrived as it was a weekday and it was winter, just the way we like it ...

Entrance tickets are required for both sections. RMB130 for Xi Zha and RMB100 for Dong Zha or a combined ticket for RMB150. (We purchased the combined ticket). Our hotel is located within Xi Zha since this is reputed to offer very interesting photography opportunities at night.

Xi Zha apparently is a string of small islands connected with historical stone bridges. Upon arrival, we were ferried a short distance across to the nearest island on a single oar ferry.

We checked into our room with a balcony view of a smaller canal. The room was basic and clean but definitely not the international 5 star treatment that one would expect nor the price we have to pay. In fact, we had a problem with water clogging in the bathroom when we took a bath resulting in the entire bathroom being flooded. We were later told that there is a design flaw with the drainage system in most rooms. The breakfast was nothing to shout either and service is forgettable. 

Our room at Tong An Hotel that cost us RMB830 ..clean but basic 

After dumping our luggage in the room, we went out, ready to explore this ancient water town, along the narrow alleys and the shops lined up along the river front.

Xi Zha (West Sector) comprises of hotels, guest houses, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops, some hidden among the many narrow alleys while others along the river front.

Besides hotels, guest houses, restaurants and cafes, there were also some museums of depicting some former craftsman and business here or well known people who grew up within this ancient township.

Yichang Foundry Workshop with their largest cauldron forged in the world. Yichang was started by a blacksmith from Hangzhou in the 16th century by the name of Shen Ji and was the only forge in the western Zhejiang Province.

Food is still preserved traditionally here and fish, sausages or pork can be seen hanging to dry by the windows of restaurants or along the corridors of some guest houses.

Fishes being hung to be dried ....

Pork being dried in the cold winter air. We are so not eating this after we see this hanging in the open air ....

There is definitely plenty to see and explore here and without the usual weekend or summer crowd, one could walk leisurely among the narrow alleys, exploring all the restaurants, cafes, museums and occasionally stopped to buy some finger food to munch along the way.

It was way past lunch time, when our growling stomach reminded us that we have not had lunch after our heavy breakfast at Marriott Suzhou before we checked out. We started to scout around for a restaurant for our meal and chance upon this guest house. We walked in not knowing what to expect but the friendliness of the owner, his wife and his aging dad who helped to run his business made us feel so at home that we went back for our dinner later that night (he actually served us specifically although they were officially closed, since it was well past 9pm) and again for our lunch before we left.

The place was small with only two tables but clean. Not knowing exactly what to order, we took most of the dishes that were recommended with absolutely no regrets.

We were quickly served with a pot of hot chrysanthemum tea which was perfect drink during the cold winter ...
 Our first dish was the fried river prawns. Absolutely delicious but the only setback is that they were not really large. Although the shell is soft and can be eaten whole, I had to peel the skins off for almost the entire plate for my wife and two kids who absolutely adore this dish ....
Braised Mutton which was out of this world ...
A simple lcoal vegetable stirred fried with bean curd. We ended up ordering this for all our three meals here...
Chicken soup with Siow Bai Chai, especially for the children....yummy.
Local river fish simply with soy sauce and some chopped chives...good to the last piece....
Even the plain rice taste good ....maybe because we were hungry or maybe because we were made to feel so at home ...

It was definitely a memorable meal for us, not only because of the food but probably more because of the hospitality and the friendliness of the innkeeper and his dad who served us. The bill came up to about RMB230 (RM115) including a bottle of Tsingtao beer and we were well fed.

With our stomach filled, we were ready to continue to explore this ancient historical site. The sun was ready to set even though the clock showed that it was only just a little past 5pm since it was winter.

I was excited not only anticipating sunset over this ancient water town, the canals, the old antique structures but also hoping for a fruitful night photography opportunities with great reflections of these structures on the calm waters.

And I was NOT disappointed....more pictures of this charming place at night in my next post, coming right up....

Monday, January 13, 2014

Autumn charm at Po Feng Lin

Autumn is a beautiful season, with mild weather and the air getting cooler by the day, a big relief from the hot, dry and dusty summer in Beijing, made more beautiful as the leaves changes color from green, to shades of yellow, amber and red.

The lovely mountains and valleys at Po Feng Lin

I don't believe that there will be no one out there who would not be enchanted and mesmerized by the beautiful artwork, crafted and painted by nature.

Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to see red leaves within Beijing city center and hence, many will throng to several well known places to witness the changing color of the leaves and one such place located near to the city center is Fragrance Hill just next to the Summer Palace near Haidian. Unfortunately, due to her popularity, getting there and back meant braving massive traffic jam and getting squeezed by hundreds if not tens of thousands of local tourists, all eager to have their pictures taken with the sea of red leaves.

We are not talking of one or two of hours of traffic jam to get into the park. We are talking of stand still jam that could be as long as three to four hours during the peak of the season, with no guarantee of getting a car park and another three to four hours to get out from the park in the evening. We were stuck at the highway interchange for over an hour one weekend, on the way to the Botanical Garden located next to the Fragrance Hill due to the massive crowd going to Fragrance Hill. We made a wise decision to detour that day because the news over the TV later that evening reported a jam so massive that it took over ten hours for people to go in or get out.

So, where could we go to experience a red leaves autumn near Beijing then without getting ourselves stuck in a traffic jam so bad or having to brave the local crowd.

Po Feng Lin (坡峰岭) is one good and still relatively unknown alternative. Located approximately 50 kilometers from Beijing with an altitude of 6000 meters, this is still currently one of the many hidden gems to see the beauty of autumn, but I believe not for long.

Unlike Fragrance Hill which has been overly commercialized due to her popularity, Po Feng Lin is still relative cheap both in terms of entrance fees and food at the foot of the hill. The air is clear and fresh and the view of layers of mountains beyond is beyond words.

One of many 'illegal taxi' driver cum friend, Seow Fei who recommended us this place took us there early November. The journey took about an hour from our apartment near Chaoyang Park. As we approached the site, we were greeted with layers of towering hills decked in colors of late autumn. There were patches of red here and there but unfortunately, we were a little late this year as the best window to view the red leaves had just past a week or two ago and most leaves had dried up and had started to fall.

We got our entrance ticket which was relatively cheap compared to some of the prices we paid elsewhere, we started our climb. The climb to the peak we were told would take approximately 3 hours or so but with my 5 year old son tagging along, the hike up would be almost impossible. To start with, I was not even sure how far he would climb before he would want us to carry him which will make the trip more difficult. Surprising, he hiked and walked over 1,000 meters of the trail up which was no small feat for a 5 year old boy.

We could go no further beyond this, as he was already tired and it was already way past noon at this point in time. However, we promised ourselves that we would be back next year (if we are still in Beijing) in late October without the kids and make the hike to the top to admire the beauty of autumn, painted by GOD ALMIGHTY Himself.

At the foot of the hill, we stopped by the rest area and ordered some noodles for our lunch. Surprisingly good and inexpensive (less than RMB5). It was indeed an experience having your meal and a bottle of cold Tsingtao beer with a clear view of the Po Feng Lin mountains right before your eyes, in a very traditional Chinese settings.

The resting place to stop for a hot bowl of traditionally prepared noodles with a view ...

Noodles being prepared the traditional way. Dough placed into the wooden contraption and being pressed into thin slices of delicious noodle, right into the boiling and steaming hot water in a big pot below ...
My huge bowl of noodles that costed less than RMB5 as at now ...
We called this fruit "Chi" in Cantonese. Back in Malaysia, all these were imported from China and extremely expensive. We can also get the dried ones. Here, we see them still hanging from the branches without any leaves due to the fast approaching winter ..
As I have mentioned earlier in one of my earlier post, photography is just only confined to the main character, which in this case, the magnificent landscape, but also the supporting casts which can be found all over the place, which offers some interesting photography opportunities too ...

All in all, we definitely believed that this is a place worth a second trip and longer drive out from Beijing to experience autumn in China.

However, given a few more years and judging from the increasing crowd that I was told, this place will soon be packed too. Hence, it would be a good idea to visit this place before that happens and gets all tainted by the tens of thousands of loud local tourists, all eager to get a piece of autumn to bring home.