Turkish Delights including tips for travelling with elderly

28 10 2019

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “if the world was a country, Istanbul would be its capital”. The capital of Turkey, Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits on two continents. The ancient, culturally rich city has a rather unique “traditional eastern feel” coupled with a “modern western vibe”. It is hard to describe unless you experience it yourself.

Being a fan of Dan Brown’s novels, I was fascinated by Istanbul after watching the Inferno movie many years back but held back on the trip due to safety concerns after the Istanbul bombing. After so many years, I have finally mustered the courage to venture into this amazing country and I can say that I am blown away by the hospitality and friendliness of the Turkish. I have met wonderful locals including taxi drivers who despite language barriers, helped me navigate around the country and even gave me free rides when I am lost. So net, if you follow the typical “street smart rules” as you normally would in any country, you will quickly see that safety is a non-issue.

Unlike most of my travels, this trip has been more challenging as I was bring my elderly parents who may have some mobility challenges with me. Most on the information online on Turkey seems to cater to the younger (and physical active) travellers. As I can’t seem to find many information for travels with elderly who have mobility challenges, I will share some tips in this blog.

 

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Istanbul

The historic sites are all located in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood within easy walking distance (most sights can be reached within 5-10 minutes from each other). The Hagia Sophia is one of the most beautiful and historical monuments that catered to both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. To me, this place is a symbol of religious harmony, with both symbols of Christianity and Islam show on the wall due to its history as an Orthodox Cathedral which was later converted into a mosque.

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Opposite to the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque, one of the most photogenic building and an important site in the Muslim world. The mosque is lined with over 20,000 blue iznik ceramic tiles and thus its name.

The Istanbul Hippodrome with the famous Egyptian obelisk sits between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

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For fans of Inferno, you will remember the sunken palace of Basilica Cistern where the bomb was hidden. This is located 5 minutes away from the Hippodrome. Maybe because of the movie, I find the sunken palace quite interesting. Do look out for the Medusa face at the end of the palace, but be warn, you may be turned into stone if you looked into her eyes lol.

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Topkapi Palace where many Ottoman Sultans resided for over 400 years is also not far away and a must-see.

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The Egyptian Market and the Grand Bazaar are interesting markets to visit to buy some local food and souvenirs. Do note that the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.

I will also strongly recommend taking the Bosphorus Ferry that sails along the Bosphorus which connects the Sea of Maramara to the Black Sea, separating Europe and Asia.

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Cappadocia

Many people will say that Cappadocia is on their bucket list and it is not hard to see why once I landed in Cappadocia. Though I have been to a modest number of countries with varying landscape and cultures, I have never seen a place with similar landscape like Cappadocia. Known for the whimsical fairy chimneys and peculiar rock formations, I feel as if I am on another planet.

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My hotel overlooks the Uchisar Castle which sits on the highest point in Cappadocia, offering great panoramic view.

Goreme is just around 10 minutes drive away from Uchisar. The Goreme Open Air Museum is a must see with churches carved into the caves.

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It is good to stop by the Love Valley, Pigeon Valley, Monks Valley for awesome views. If you love hiking, you can also go for a little hike in your of the valleys. The Imagination Valley (or Devrent Valley) is also quite interesting with rock formation taking the shapes of camels, lions, etc.

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I have read mixed reviews on underground cities, with many saying that there is nothing much to see in there. However, I really enjoyed my visit to Kaymakli underground city. I am always interested in history and love to see how people live in the challenging old times. So it is really fascinating to see people back in ancient times with no modern technology can build such an amazing underground city. As I roamed the underground city, crawling at various points through the tight tunnels and alleys, my imagination ran wild on how Christians in the early centuries were staying in such to hide from the Roman Empire and the Arabs. A word of caution though – this place is not for those who have mobility challenges as you may need to bend (and possibly crawl a little at some tight spots depending on how tall you are). There is also another popular underground city, Derinkuyu so you can pick either one.

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If you do get a chance to visit Cappadocia, I will strongly recommend taking the hot air balloon ride. The price is totally worth it and you will take with you an unforgettable experience. I am pretty lucky that I managed to ride on my first day in Cappadocia and got a really great hot air balloon pilot who managed to “chase the wind” and give us wonderful views of this amazing land with beautiful sunrise. Do note that you will need to climb into the basket of the hot air balloon which may be challenging for those who may have mobility challenges. If that’s the case, an alternative to hot air balloon is to view the balloons from the cave hotels in Uchisar or Groeme which also offer very nice views.

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As I only had a week in Turkey, I only managed to visit Istanbul and Cappadocia. There are many other nice places in Turkey such as Ephesus with its well-preserved ancient Greek city and Pamukkale’s Cotton Castle which you can consider visiting if you have enough time.

 

Tips:

  1. For international arrival/flight: The immigration at Istanbul Airport typically has a long queue (line) and takes around an hour or more to clear. If you are travelling on business class or have star alliance gold status, you can take the “fast track” to avoid the long queue. Your airlines will typically give you a fast track pass or it will be printed on your boarding pass.
  2. For domestic flight out from Istanbul Airport: Check-in for business class and star alliance gold is in the domestic VIP lounge and not at the counter. From the lounge, there will be special bus to take you to the boarding gate. However, do note that star alliance gold member can only bring one guest and the other guests will need to pay. So if you are travelling in a group and do not want me to pay for that lounge access for the “extra guest”, you may want to consider whether to just check-in at the economy counter. I am not sure if this would change with the new airport (I only flew out on an international flight from the new airport).
  3. Dress code: Even though the majority of Turkish are muslims, there is no need to wear a hijab or cover up except when you visit the mosque. However, for ladies particularly solo female travellers, it best to dress more conservatively to avoid unwanted attention. If you find the local men overly too friendly, just ignore them and they will soon leave you alone.
  4. Travelling around Istanbul: If you stay in the old town area, all the sights are within walking distance. If you are lazy to walk, taxis are readily available and are not expensive. Alternatively, you can take the metro and buses. Despite all the online comments on the safety of the taxis, I would say that I had very good experience with all the taxis that I took and it is safe. Make sure that they start the meter (you will be able to see the meter in the rear mirror) and you will be fine. Language may be an issue so what I did is to show the driver the name and address of the destination that you want to go. Price wise, taxi is not expensive in Istanbul so if you have 2 or more people, it may be more comfortable and efficient to just take a cab. Also, if you are travelling with the elderly, I will suggest taking a taxi to Hagia Sophia (which is on slightly higher grounds) and then walking from there to the other sites (either flat or downslope).
  5. Getting to Cappadocia: The most efficient way is to fly. It is a short flight from Istanbul to Cappadocia versus a 10 hours bus ride. Most flights go to Kayseri airport which is an hour plus from Cappadocia. Nevsehir airport is slightly nearer (around 40 minutes). I will recommend that you book the hotel transfer as it can be challenging to get a taxi.
  6. Getting around Cappadocia: I will recommend booking a car with driver who can then drive you to all the places that you will like to visit and you can customise your itinerary and the time that you will like to spend at each site. If you have 3 or more people, the cost is about the same as joining the group day tour. If you are travelling with elderly, this is also the best way to move around Cappadocia as the tours have fixed itineraries, some of which require trekking/hiking which may not be suitable for elder folks.

 

Place to stay:

  1. Istanbul: I have broken up my stay in 2 parts – one in the old town Sultanahmet (Double Tree) and the other in the new town near to Taksim Square (Grand Hyatt). This gives me easy access to sights around the region.
  2. Cappadocia: I will recommend a stay in the cave hotel or the fairy chimney. Most visitors choose to stay in Goreme given that it has almost everything. However, if you prefer a place that is a little quieter, I will recommend Uchisar which offers great view given that it is on top of the hill. I stayed at Hermes Cave Hotel that overlooks the Uchisar Castle and I must say that though the room is simple (but comfortable), the view is amazing!

 

Food:

There are a lot of online blogs and also on trip advisor on the recommended restaurants so I will not share the details here. I will just like to highlight some of the interesting food that you should try (and watch-out).

a) In Istanbul, you need to try the fish sandwich (Balik Ekmek) on the fish boat. There are 3 fish boats parked side by side bordering Golden Horn and Bosphorous (along the water front near to the Egyptian Market). The 3 boats served the same type of sandwich. I tried the first boat (picture below) though I see more people at the middle boat. The taste is good. One watch-out though is that the fish has lots of bones so be careful when you eat it (it can get a little messy).

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b) In Cappadocia, you need to try the pottery kebab. Though you can find this in other parts of Turkey, the best is made in Cappadocia. Restaurants that serve authentic pottery kebabs require at least 4 hours notice before you arrive so it’s best to call in advance to make your reservation. My cave hotel recommended Dibek which is a restaurant in a cave in Goreme city center. Apparently, the cave building is 475 year old and you seat on the floor (Turkish style) to dine. Lovely experience and the food is yummy!

 

c) Throughout Turkey, do try the kebab (mainly either chicken or beef). They are cheap and good.

 





Happiness is a Place and it is Bhutan

1 01 2019

Guzusangpola!! This is a common Bhutanese greetings for hello, good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Bhutan, the land of the Dragon, is lauded by many as the “happiest country in the world”. Well, the slogan of its national carrier Druk Air (also known as Royal Bhutan Airlines) is “happiness is a place” and of course, the place is Bhutan. It is not difficult to understand why. Bhutan is one of the rare country where the focus is on Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of GDP. I have watched many travel shows featuring Bhutan with many hosts swearing that they can sense positive energy in this Himalayan country, exclaiming how they found peace and how much they love this country. As a city girl who feel more energized in the bustling cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, New York and Vegas, it puzzled me on why anyone would fall in love with a “county-side country”. But given the big hype in recent years on Bhutan and with family and friends who have travelled there ranting on how much they love this country, I decided to make a visit. Well, this would surely add to my list of countries travelled isn’t it?

 

For those that have read my previous blogs, you will realized that there are a couple of places that I mentioned I have fell in love with. But I must admit that none of those places are able to compare with Bhutan. Bhutan is indeed magical. From day 1 that I landed in this magical country, I have a special feeling – a warming feeling of peace and happiness, not the usual type but something from within which I find hard to describe. The country feels like a power house of magic, I swear it is more magical than Hogwarts.

 

The only airlines that can fly into Bhutan is Druk Air. The Paro International Airport, the sole international airport in Bhutan, lies in a deep valley on the bank of Paro River with surrounding peaks as high as 5,500m. It is one of the world’s most challenging airports to land and only 12 pilots have the honor to do so. If so many places that I have flew to, I would say that this is one of the most spectacular landing offering magnificent view of the Himalayas range.

 

 

Thimphu

The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu which is around an hour plus drive from Paro. Being the capital, you can sense that it is much busier compared to the other cities in Bhutan. One of the key sights is The Tashiccho Dzong houses the throne of the King of Bhutan and one can see the Royal Palace and the Parliament Building nearby the Dzong. Each city in Bhutan will have its own Dzong. The word dzong evolved from phodrang, which refers to the abode of deities in the Buddhist Canon and is a castle-fortress where part of it is a Buddhist temple and the other part is a Government Office.

 

 

Another must-see in Thimphu is the Kurnselphodrang Nature Park with the 169-foot tall bronze Buddha Dordenma Statue offers a panoramic view of the Thimphu Valley.

 

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The National Memorial Chorten is a stupa built by the empress dowager to honour the late 3rd king of Bhutan. It was a great coincidence that I visited when they were having some prayers ceremonies and it was a sight to see tons of Bhutanese and lamas (the monks) were there circling the stupa while chanting and many locals sitting on the around the stupa to get their free meal.

 

 

 

Punakha

Punakha, about 2.5 hours drive from Thimphu, was the old capital of Bhutan till 1955. Located at a lower elevation of 1,200m, it is much warmer compared to Thimphu and Paro. Here, 2 rivers Pho Chu and Mo Chu meet, which makes the Punakha Dzong the most beautiful Dzong amongst those that I have seen.

 

 

Another interesting temple to visit is Chimi Lhakang. This is a temple dedicated to what the Bhutanese called as “The Mad Monk” (which is equivalent to the Chinese “Ji Gong” monk). Legend has it that this monk roamed around Bhutan and performed many miracles including his urine turning into gold! The magical weapon of this monk is called the “Flying Dragon” which looks like the male reproductive organ with a sword. So it is not surprising that this is a pilgrimage site for childless couple and there has been many success stories of couples (including foreigners) getting pregnant after visiting to the temple.

 

 

Mid-way through the drive between Thimphu and Paro, you will reach one of the most beautiful pass – the Dochula Pass with the 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens. The chortens was commissioned by the eldest Queen Mother as a memorial in memorial of the soldiers who were killed in December 2003 in the battle between Bhutan and Assamese insurgents from India. From here, one can see the snow-capped Himalayas mountains on a clear day, which my guide said I was extremely lucky to be able to see the whole range so clearly!

 

 

 

Paro

Unlike Thimphu, Paro emits a more tranquil and resort-like vibe. As you drive from the city to the airport, you will see the Rinpung Dzong with its beautiful cantilever bridge along Paro River with a seven-stories watchtower fortress (Ta Dzong) which is now the National Museum of Bhutan sitting above the Rinpung Dzong.

 

Another temple not to miss is the Kyichu Lhakhang, the oldest monastery in Bhutan built in the 7th century. This temple is believed to have been built in 659 by King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet to pin down the left foot of a devil.

 

The key highlight of the Bhutan trip is the hike up the Tiger’s Nest takes around 2.5 to 3.5 hours (for those with average fitness), with the first 1 to 1.5 hours from the foot to the tea house and the remaining 1.5 to 2 hours from the tea house to the monastery. When asked why the Bhutan Government do not install cable car up the monastery, my guide explained that it is to preserve the environment and also this is a holy site for pilgrimage and the tough journey up signifies that the road to enlightenment is not an easy one and one has to overcome many hardships and obstacles to reach it. It is heartening to see all the visitors trying to encourage one another on the hike up and the guides helping out anyone in need. I find the first part of the hike up to the tea house not too tough, with the biggest challenge being to avoid the horse shit lol. The second part of the hike from the tea house to the start of the stairs where you can see the monastery just on the opposite side of the mountain has a steeper incline though still pretty manageable. The last part is the steps down and then up to the monastery which is the most challenging especially if in rainy or snowy condition. My guide was saying that I was really lucky as it snowed 2 days before my visit and the temple was closed off as it was dangerous to even attempt the flight of stairs. Thankfully the sunny weather has melted away the snow and the monastery re-open to visitors though the last few steps of stairs just before reaching the monastery has a little ice. Regardless of whether you are a Buddhist or a non-believer, the feeling when you finally reach the monastery is magical and if you ask anyone who visited Bhutan, they will surely say that the visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery is the highlight of their Bhutan trip. The monastery is quite big but make sure you see at least the 3 key sites – (a) the cave in which Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) meditate, (b) the temple with the statute of Guru Rinpoche which survived the fire, and (c) the temple with the relics of Guru Rinpoche’s disciple.

 

This breathtaking land-locked Himalayan country offers plentiful means to be happy and content. As I catch the last glimpse of this Happy-land, I prayed that I will have a chance to visit this mystical land again in the future.

 

Tips:

  1. For non-Indian passport holders, you will need a Visa to enter into Bhutan and will have to book a tour (though it can be a private one) with a tour agency. If you are used to free-and-easy travel, I will recommend that you book a private tour through a local Bhutanese tour agency where you can customize the itinerary. You will get a driver and tour guide throughout the trip. There is a minimum spending of US$250 a day (lesser for off-season) and this amount includes hotel, transport, guide, driver and meals so it isn’t as expensive as it seems. For 1-2 travelers, there will be additional surcharge so it is best to travel with at least 3 pax.
  2. Before landing at Paro Airport, you will be able to see the magnificent clear and unobstructed panoramic view of the entire Himalayan range. Do ask for window seats on the left of the plane when flying into Bhutan for the best view.
  3. April and May is the prettiest time of the year to visit Bhutan where the mountains will be blooming with flowers. November and December are also good too as the days are usually dry and sunny offering clear views.
  4. To visit the Chimi Lhaksang, it is possible to get the car to drive down to the valley at the foot of the temple (there’s a small car park) and from there it is a less than 5 minutes walk up to the temple. Alternatively, many guides will recommend to stop at the top of the valley and you will then walk down the valley through the padi fields and Sopsokha Village, pass the car park and then up to the temple. This walk will take you around 20 minutes but involve some downhill and uphill walk. The walk is not difficult at all and is a good way to see the village.
  5. For the hike up Tiger’s Nest, it is possible to take a horse ride up to the tea house but you will still have to walk the rest of the journey up and all the way down. I will strongly recommend that you walk the whole way as it can be quite dangerous riding the horse. There have been accidents and I have witness an accident where the horse fell and threw off the rider, thankfully the rider was not injured. Also, the locals believe that if you take the horse up, you will give half the merit that you will obtain from hiking to the monastery to the horse and you will find your guide trying to advice you against the horse ride.
  6. No photos are allowed inside any of the monastery. Particularly for the Tiger’s Nest, you will have to leave your bag including your mobile phones outside the monastery (but you can bring your wallet with you). For most of us, leaving our possessions unguarded will make us uneasy but rest assured that your belongings are safe. Theft is very rare as the Bhutanese being Buddhist are strong believer of karma (that you reap what you sow) and will not take what is not theirs.
  7. The Haa Valley and Chele La Pass which is the highest pass in Bhutan and offers view of both there Paro and Haa Valley is also a spectacular place to visit. It’s a pity that I don’t have the time to do so. A good reason to return to Bhutan 🙂
  8. Bhutanese believe that displaying “the 4 friends” at home will create a harmonious home. So you may like to get a painting, or keychain or magnet of “the 4 friends”. Do note that you are allowed to bargain and it may be wise to look around in a few stores before you buy.

 

 

Accommodation:

Paro: I stayed at Le Meredien Paro and love this hotel. Situated by the river, this beautiful 5 star hotel is outside the city area and thus offer a quiet night (without dogs barking).

 

Thimphu: Though it does not have the resort feel of Le Meredien Paro, Le Meredien Thimphu is still a nice 5 star hotel in Thimphu for a good night rest.

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Punakha: I choose to do a day trip to Punakha from Thimphu which is around 2 hours drive away. Punakha has a more country-side vibe compared to Thimphu and Paro. If you decide to stay in Punakha so that you have time to see more of this old capital, do note that the accommodation is more basic compared to those in Paro and Thimphu.

 

 

Food:
Bhutanese food is known for its chili and cheese. For a Bhutanese, a typical meal is rice with chili cheese. Given that Bhutan is not as developed as the major cities in many countries, do bring your expectation for food down (though I must say that the meals in Bhutan are quite ok but don’t expect Michelin-star standard). Don’t worry if you don’t fancy spicy food as you will be able to find Chinese and Indian cuisine as well as cafes which offer sandwiches and cakes. Do note that most restaurants serve food in buffet style so you may want to have your meals early otherwise you may only get the leftovers.

The DrukAir flight meals are ok and you have 2 options – vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The breakfast menu from Singapore to Paro (scrambled eggs) is yummy but the dinner on the return flight from Paro (Indian cuisine) can’t compare to even an average Indian restaurant.

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Fancy Dubai

5 12 2018

Fancy architectures, stunning skylines, fast cars and glittering gold, all these are what come to my mind when I think of the “desert land” Dubai. The largest and most populous city in the United Arab of Emirates (UAE), it is really amazing how such an amazing city can be built (and they are constantly building) in the middle of the desert!

You will surely not miss Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure in the world. Located beside the Dubai Mall, this you can get up to the observation deck to take in stunning view of the city. Do remember to book the tickets online in advance to save you some time queuing and be prepared to queue, queue and queue and get up there. The Dubai Mall is also another place that you will likely hang out pretty often during your trip, a good retreat from the desert heat. For the shopping lovers (like me lol), you can really shop till you drop at this mall. Even if shopping is not your cup of tea, the mall has a giant aquarium with an underwater zoo and numerous restaurants that will make you want to go back. The mall also has a fountain show every 30 minutes in the evening similar to the one at Bellagio in Vegas. If you want to catch a nice spot to watch the show, do go earlier to “reserve” your spot. But for those who has seen the show in Vegas, the Dubai’s one may pale in comparison.

The other “must-see” is Burj Al Arab. This 7 stars hotel can only be assessed if you are willing to spurge around USD 2,000 a night for a room here, or to go with the “cheaper” option of dinning in the restaurant at the hotel. For those who are unwilling to dig so deep into their pockets, you can get a good view of Burj Al Arab from the beach or the souk (see tip below).

Another famous site is the Palm Jumeirah. Like the name suggests, this place looks like a palm tree from the air and is said to be the only structure created by man (apart from the Great Wall of China) that one can see from space. The famous The Atlantis Resort is situated at the end of the Palm and is a nice place to spend a day or two for the whole family. See my tip below on how to get there.

The Dubai Creek, the old city and the famous gold and spice souks are also worth a visit. The old Dubai area is a huge contrast to Dubai’s modern and stunning skylines. I will recommend that you start your visit at the old fort (Al Fahidi). From here, it’s about 15 minutes walk to the water taxi berth and you can then take the water taxi for 1 AED across the creek to the spice and gold souks, which are 5 minutes walk from one another. Alternatively, you can take the metro to Al Ras station and walk to the souks.

Also, less than a hour drive from the city center will take you into the Arabian desert where you can ride the camel, do some sand-boarding or go on a four-wheel drive into the desert. I will strongly recommend this even if you have seen other deserts before.

Tips:

1. Getting to/from the airport: The metro connects well the airport and the city. This is the cheapest way of travel though taxi (the most convenient way) is not that expensive compared to the European and US cities. You can get a day pass which allows you unlimited rides on metro, buses and trams.

2. Getting around Dubai: The metro is an efficient and cheap means for of transport around central Dubai. However, the taxi is not expensive compared to Europe or US so for those places requiring you to change to a bus after the metro (eg Atlantis, Burj Al Arab), it may be a wiser choice to take the taxi to avoid the hassle.

3. The best time to go will be during the winter season where the weather is pretty cooling unless you fancy the dessert heat.

4. Dress code: Dubai like the rest of Middle East region is an Islamic Emirate, though it is one of the most liberal of all Emirates. It is advisable that you dress modestly. For women, dress should be below the knees and wear top with sleeves. Avoid tight fitting or revealing clothes. If you are visiting a mosque, you will need to wear a head scarf and ensure your arms and legs are covered up.

5. Getting to Atlantis: Take metro to Damac Properties station and change tram to station 9 (Palm Jumeirah). Thereafter, you will need to follow the marked pathway (through a carpark) to the Atlantis light rail station and take the light rail across to Atlantis. You will need at least a day in Atlantis if you want to try out the rides at the water parks. If you just want to see Atlantis and possibly visit the aquarium, half a day will suffice.

6. You can take in the wonderful view of Burj Al Arab from the beach around it. The one beside it (a private beach of Jumeirah Beach Hotel) is only available to its guests or if you pay a fee to access it. Alternatively, go to the public beach next to Jumeirah Beach Hotel which is free and I will recommend this option if you just want to see Burj Al Arab. You can also catch the view of the building from the soul (which sees the other side of the building).

What to Eat:

Below are my top 3 restaurants (not in any order):

1) Red Lobster at the Dubai Mall – good value for lobsters lover. I love it so much that I dine here for a few meals.

2) The Meat Co – Great quality food with a good view of the Burj Al Arab

3) The Fish Hut – For fish and other seafood lovers, this place serves them well and at a very reasonable price.





Chongqing – A heaven for hot pot lovers

1 05 2018

As a big lover of hot pot, I can’t resist the opportunity to make a “side trip” from Chengdu to the home of hot pot Chongqing. Nestled along the famous Yangtze River, this mountainous city has a pretty unique architecture with the whole city built on the mountainous slope. I knew Chongqing is a mountainous city but unless you visit the city, it is quite hard to visualize what a mountainous city mean. You can enter a building on the ground floor and go up to the 7th floor and yet you are still on street level!

The most iconic landmark in Chongqing is the People’s Liberation Monument (Jiefangbei). Located in central Chongqing, this monument commemorates China’s success during WWII.

Another must-see sight is Ciqikou Old Town (translated as Porcelain Old Town). Away from the city center, the quaint town dates back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties when it served as a port town and commercial center. For those who like to try out some local delicacies and do some shopping, there are many nice small shops in this old town selling food, tea shops, craftwork, clothes and many more.

Many of you may know of the Three Gorges and the controversial Three Gorge Dam that was built which caused many of the towns and monuments along the Three Gorges to be submerged under water. For those interested in understanding more about the project and have a glimpse of what life was before the project, the Three Gorge Museum which is also home to a variety of cultural and artistic pieces is worth a visit.

The night scenery along the Yangtze River is beautiful so don’t miss it. One nice viewing spot is around the Jiefangbie area so why not plan a nice dinner around the area while admiring the night scenery?

Dazu Rock Carvings

If you are an art lover and history buff, the Dazu Rock Carvings about 2 hours drive from Chongqing is a great day trip. Though less magnificent in scale versus the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi province and Longmen Grottoes in Henan province, the Dazu Rock Carving is much more colourful and less crowded, giving one more opportunity to slowly admire the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Fengdu Ghost City

Chongqing is also the most popular place to start the famous Three Gorges cruise down Yangtze River (also known as the Yangtze River Cruise), taking in sights like Fengdu Ghost City, White Emperor City and Three Gorges and many more. It’s a pity that I didn’t have the time to do the Three Gorges cruise but I managed to squeeze in a trip to Fengdu Ghost City, about 3 over hours drive from Chongqing. This mysterious city has also been one of the place that I yearn to visit since young after I watched a documentary about this city. Legend has it that when one passed away, the spirit will come to this city and undergo three major tests to decide where he/she will go in the afterlife. The locals will tell you that it is wise for the living to come here and familiarize with the route and protocols of netherworld so that one can easily pass the tests and get a good rebirth in the afterlife.

The first test is crossing the Naihe Bridge (translated as “Nothing to be done” Bridge). One has to cross the middle arch of the 3 arches and apparently virtuous people will pass over the bridge without obstacle whereas those that are not will fall into the pool below.

The next test is the Ghost Torturing Pass (Guimengguan) where the dead will report to Yama, the King of Hell, for judgment. Next up is the Tianzi Palace which is located at the center of the whole scenic area. This is where the dead will take the third test where he/she has to stand on the large stone in front of the gate on one foot for three minutes. Apparently, a good person will be able to do it while an evil one will not and will be sent to hell. For those who successfully pass all three tests, they can then go to a tower called Wangxianglou (Tower of the Last Glance at Home) to take once last glance home before taking rebirth.

Given that we have to “leave the netherworld and return to our living world”, we will need to cross back the Naihe bridge on the return route but this time not via the middle arch but via either the Gold or Silver bridges to the left or right of the middle arch. The Gold bridge will give one good wealth/fame and the Silver bridge will give one good health/peace so take a pick on what you want. Well I will say that whatever your beliefs are, this trip is rather fascinating and a good reminder that “good begets good, evil begets evil”. Before I leave the city, I was told that by walking through the Ghost city, I will live to 99 years old according to the local superstition haha. Time will tell if this is true but no matter what, I truly enjoy the whole visit and will strongly recommend this site 🙂

Navigating around:

Taxis in Chongqing run on gas so the boot/trunk is very small and can only fit 2 luggages. So if you have more luggages, you will either need to book a private big car/van or split into 2 taxis.

– It is not easy to go to Dazu Rock Carvings and Fengdu Ghost City via public transport as the places are in smaller counties. The best way to get there is to book a car/driver for the whole day as it is hard to get a taxi from there (I didn’t even see one at the sites).

Other nice side trips

– The Wulong Karst Geological Park is also a nice day trip to go hiking. The breathtaking scenic area with beautiful streams, gorges and limestone formations is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

– Chengdu is just a short train ride away. Check out my blog here.

– Emeishan and Leshan are not too far away too. See my blog here.

– I had not done the Three Gorges cruise. Though many reviews said that it is not as magnificent as before the Three Gorges Dam was built, it is still worth doing it with nice scenery and many historic sites. Make sure you pick a good cruise though as you will be stuck on board for a couple of days.

Food

Do try out for famous Chongqing hot pot but be warn that it is extremely hot and spicy! I will say that I prefer the Chongqing “loud traditional and hot” flavours versus the Chengdu “innovative and spicer” version. Well given that the 2 cities are well connected by high speed train, plan a visit to Chengdu too and try out their hotpot and decide for yourself which one you like 🙂

Where to Stay:

Chongqing is a very big city. It is the most convenient to stay around Jiefangbei area for tourists.





Mt Emei and Giant Buddha Leshan

17 02 2018

Fans or martial arts novels written by Jin Yong will be familiar with the “Emei Sect”. I am one of them and have always fantasize on going up Mt Emei, a beautiful and mysterious mountain located in Sichuan province in China.

Even if you are not a Jin Yong novel fan, Emeishan is also pretty popular destination for nature lovers with its verdant trees, splendid waterfalls, cute but super mischievous monkeys, mysterious sea of cloud and many other beautiful sights. The Golden Summit standing at more than 3000 meters above sea level gives one a magnificent view of the vast plain in the east and the snowy mountains in the west and is famous for the four sights of Emei: the sea of clouds, beautiful sunrise, the holy Buddha rays and the saint lamps.

For Buddhist, this is one of the “Four Sacred Mountains” together with Mt Putuo (which is the holy mountain of Avalokitesvara or Guangyin in Chinese), Mt Jiuhua (which is the holy mountain of Ksitigarbha also known in Chinese as Dizang), and Mt Wutai (which is the holy mountain of Manjusri or in Chinese Wenshu). Throughout the mountain, devotees are seen bribing joss sticks in prayer for good luck, with some devoted pilgrims prostrating with every 3 steps they took up to the Golden Summit. It is not surprising that Mt. Emei was enlisted as one of UNESCO world natural and cultural heritage site.

About an hour from Mt Emei lies another UNESCO World Heritage site – the famous Leshan Giant Buddha. This magnificent 71 meters high Maitreya Buddha statute carved out of a cliff showcase the wisdom and perseverance of ancient people’s wisdom. Legend has it that there were frequent incidents of boats capsizing her and thus Monk Haitong decided to commission this remarkable engineering feat to build this Giant Buddha. Miraculously, after the Buddha was built, boats can travel safely along the river. Divine intervention?

Many visitors can choose to walk from the top to the foot via the plant road with nine turns (Jiuqu Zhandao, 九曲栈道) which has 217 stone steps with the narrowest part only 0.6 meter. The park also has a 170 meters long sleeping Buddha statue, the largest and longest sleeping Buddha statue in the world, the Lingyun Temple located next to the Giant Buddha and Wuyou Temple located near the Buddha feet.

Tips:

  • Getting to Leshan and Emeishan from Chengdu is easy via the high-speed train. It takes 1 hour to reach Leshan station and another 20 minutes to reach Emeishan station. You will need to take the taxi (or bus) from the station to the Leshan Big Buddha or Emeishan sites. Note that for Emeishan, the sites are not in the city so ensure that the driver drops you in the mountain area and not the city area.
  • To travel between emeisan and Leshan, there is a long distance bus which costs RMB 11 one way. This is the cheapest way to go to Leshan from emei. Once in Leshan, you can then take the taxi to the Big Buddha site. If you take taxi, one way costs between RMB 120 – 150. You may want to arrange for the taxi to pick you up as it can be challenging to get a taxi along the street.
  • If you want to see the full image of the Buddha, the only way is to take the ferry and view from the river. If you go into the Leshan Buddha site, you will be claiming from the top of the Buddha to the legs but will not get the full view. The climb is rather steep with uneven high steps so it is not suitable for elderly.
  • Mt Emei is divided into various scenic areas. The Baoguo Temple area at the foot of the mountain has one of the oldest temple in Mt Emei. Wannian Temple area and the nearby Qingyin Pavilion midway up the mountain has some of the most scenic sights in Emei for nature lovers. The Golden Summit area is a must-see and if you are lucky, you get to see the famous sea of clouds, Buddha light and Saint Lamps.
  • To get to the Golden summit, you need to take the bus from emei tourist center to Leidongping carpark. From Leidongping carpark, it is around 15-20 minutes walk up flights of stairs to the cable car station. Thereafter, it is a short cable car ride up to the summit station. To get to the Golden summit, it is another 10-15 minutes walk up but this is less tiring than the first leg from Leidongping carpark to the cable car station. You can take the sedan chair too if you cannot walk.
  • Temperature at the Golden summit is typically 15-20 degrees lower than at the foot of the hill so be prepared with warm clothes. You can also rent the warm jacket at Leidongping carpark for RMB 30.

Food:

  • Most of the food can be found around the Baoguo Temple Food Village area. Majority of the eateries serve Sichuan food. If you can’t take spicy food, you can ask for restaurant to recommend less spicy or no spicy food.

Side trips:

– Why not plan a trip to Chongqing? Take a look at my blog here.

– You will likely come to Emeishan or Leshan from Chengdu. Check out what this city has in store for you here.





Chengdu – The land of the kungfu panda

9 01 2018

What is the first thing that come to your mind when someone mentions China? To me, it is the “real” homeland of Kungfu Panda. Indeed, Sichuan province in China with its bamboo forests is the famously known as the land of the Pandas.

So of course, I can’t miss a visit to the Panda center to see these cute black and white animals. There are a couple of Panda centers, the most convenient one is located in downtown Chengdu. For those traveling to Dujiangyan, the Dujiangyan Panda Base is a good alternative (which is the one that I went). One tip though – the pandas do take afternoon nap so avoid going around noon to early afternoon as they will be sleeping. But it is kind of cute to see them cuddle up and snoring away in their sweet dreams (yes they do snore and pretty loudly lol).

Dujiangyan irrigation system is a must-see if you visit Chengdu. Just around an hour plus drive outside Chengdu, this is one of the UNESCO world heritage site. It is amazing to see how an irrigation system with no dam can be so cleverly built 2,000 years ago and how this still remains in use today.

A short drive from Dujiangyan will bring you to Mt Qingcheng. This mountain is divided into the front side of the mountain and back side of the mountain with the front side famous for the Taoist temples and is the origin site of Taoism, a religion originating from China. The back side of the mountain is famous for its scenic spots and trekking though many drivers are reluctant to drive to the back mountain which is another 2 hours drive from the front mountain.

For those who love Chinese poetry, a visit to the thatched cottage of Du Fu, a famous poet during the Tang Dynasty, is a must see. Du Fu spent three and a half years living in this cottage.

Not far from the cottage is the Jinli Street, which used to one of the busiest commercial streets during the Shu Kingdom some 2000 years ago. The nearby “wide and narrow alley” got its name with its wide alleys and narrow alleys. Now it is lined with many bars. Why not get your ears clean too (if you dare)?

If you have read the famous novel “Three Kingdom”, you will be familiar with Zhu Geliang, the famous wise advisor and Prime Minister to Liu Bei of the Shu Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms period. The Wuhou Temple which is a memorial temple for the famous Zhu Geliang.

Once done with the sightseeing, why not head to Chunxi Road for some shopping? 🙂

Tips:

– It is very cheap and convenient to travel around Chengdu by taxi or the subway. However, most taxi drivers cannot speak English so if you can’t speak mandarin, get your hotel to write instructions for the taxi driver.

– There is free transport between Wuhou Shrine and Dufu Thatched Cottage. You just need to buy the entrance ticket for the other sight and look for the free transport sign at the entrance.

– The taxis boot have limited space due to the gas tank in the book. You can only put one 29 inch luggage, one 25 inch luggage and a backpack. So you may want to pack light if you are travelling with a group of four.

– Pandas usually take a nap in the afternoon so if you want to see them playing, go in the morning or late afternoon.

– There are a lot of ancient towns around Chengdu such as Huanglongxi ancient town, Pingle ancient town and Luodai ancient town so if you are interested, head to one of them.

Trips from Chengdu:

– Leshan Big Buddha and Ermeishan are just a short train ride from Chengdu (via fast train). Please see my link here.

– Many tours of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong start from Chengdu so you can plan them into your itinerary too. Note that these places have high attitude so you may want to consult your doctor before going.

– Chongqing is just a few hours train ride away from Chengdu. If you are interested to see the Yangtze River or take the cruise, check out my blog here.

Food:

– Sichuan food is well known for its spices (more of “mala” vs hot which makes your taste bud numb). If you cannot take spicy food, ask for mild spice (or no spice). There is one nice (and very cheap) local eatery opposite the Chengdu East Railway station though the waitress may not be able to speak English (the shop name is in the photo below). They do have photos so you can also point to the dish that you like.

– If you visit Dujiangyan and Mt Qingcheng, do try out at the restaurant called 小轩堂(Xiao Xuan Tang).

– You can’t say that you visited Sichuan if you had not taken the mala hotpot. Most hotpot has 2 soups, one spicy and one non-spicy. So for those who can’t take spicy food, you can still join your family/friends in the mala hotpot feast.





Porto – The land of Port wine

7 01 2018

I love port wine. So since I was already in Lisbon, it will be a shame if I don’t pay a visit to the home of port wine, Porto. Well known for its wine, beautiful Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and yummy seafood, the second largest city in Portugal is well underrated and overshadowed by Lisbon. Given that there is much less tourists here versus Lisbon, Porto emits a more laid-back feel. The colourful city is split by river Douro (translated as the “river of gold”) with many nice bridges spanning across the river, the most picturesque being Ponte de Dom Luis I bridge (or in short Ponte bridge).

The city’s old town lies in the Ribeira district which is a world heritage site. The narrow winding cobblestone streets and churches somehow creates an old-world feel to this city.

The city’s Sé cathedral with its 12th century Gothic rose windows is a must-see. A visit to the famous book shop Livraria Lello Porto which is one of the world’s most beautiful bookstore will not disappoint. For Harry Potter’s fan, this bookstore used to play host to JK Rowling who once taught English in Porto. The São Francisco Church is also another impressive church to visit. Though the exterior may not look astonishing, the lavish design inside this Baroque and Gothic-style church where almost every inch is covered in gold will make you go wow!

For shoppers, Santa Caterina will be your heaven. Just make sure you spare some time for sightseeing and also head to the nearby cafes for the yummy Pastéis de Nata (custard tart) for your in-between shopping breaks 🙂

Tips:

1) For wine lovers, cross Ponte bridge to get to the south bank to the town of Vila Nova de Gaia to visit the famous port cellars.

2) Some spectacular views of the city can be seen from the Ponte bridge and also from the top of the hill (behind the cathedral) where you can catch a nice shot of the river, south bank and the Ponte bridge.

3) Porto can be reached by air and also via a fast train from Lisbon. You can refer to my Lisbon blog here for details.