Thursday, July 31, 2008
One of the worst things about travelling alone is dining alone – but not when I find myself at The Carousel Buffet Restaurant in the Chinese city of Guangzhou.
Situated on the 30th floor of the Garden Hotel, it takes two hours for the whole seating area to revolve 360 degrees. Which means that I get to experience a sunset and city light show from up in the sky while enjoying the buffet dinner.
Every time I get up to fill my plate, I find my seat next to a different part of the buffet which even includes newspapers and magazines just in case the view is not entertaining enough.
After finishing some sashimi, nigiri and do-it-yourself miso soup, I am now standing in front of a selection of ready made dishes. It includes Oriental delicacies such as teriyaki chicken and deep-fried shrimp balls (not to be confused with the pig’s trotters right next to it!) as well as a selection of fish, prawns and Italian style cauliflower.
All that and I haven’t even reached the highlight of the buffet: a selection of seafood, beef cuts and vegetables prepared to my taste, right here in front of me. I opt for fresh Chinese mixed greens sautéed with garlic and soya and some grilled fillet with teriyaki sauce. The hostess insists that I try at least half a lobster as well. I nod against my stomach’s will and end up with a feast enough for three on my table for one.
There are still salads, oysters and a host of desserts but I feel completely satiated. As I end my meal with some Chinese tea I notice that the only stars in the night sky are the ones reflected in the window from the restaurant roof. Outside in the smog, the closest it gets to stars are the lights of the planes coming in and out of Guangzhou’s brand new airport.
Before I prepare to leave, I walk up close to the floor-to-ceiling window, high above the panorama of city lights. The sensation almost tops the meal. Wow, from here it really feels like I can fly.
Read the full review on www.iafrica.com
Friday, July 25, 2008
My morning amble takes me from Nanjen-ji to Tetsugaku-no-michi (the Path of Philosophy).
I sidestep into a small craft shop and marvel at some handmade tops and jewellery while having a glass of cold water with the jovial craftsgirl herself. Many of the houses along the tourist trail sell handmade products from their doorstep. The fact that these souvenirs are unique, make them precious.
Tetsugaku-no-michi is a walking trail that follows a tree-lined canal. Along the way Japanese artists are painting the dragonflies, drooping leaves and tiled rooftops in the distance. Moms stroll here with their prams, while lovers make romantic memories which would probably be even more so in Spring, under the cherry blossoms.
Eventually I reach the sign for Honen-in temple (established in 1680) and walk through the bamboo groves to the thatched gate - which is supposed to be especially beautiful in autumn, when the maple leaves start glowing. I’m not really sure whether it’s the amount of steep stairs or the sight that took my breath away.
Just around the corner from Honen-in is Gingaku-ji Zen temple (established in 1482), one of Kyoto's 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and a perfect crescendo to my stroll.
Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa spent his whole life building Ginkaku-ji, formally known as Higashiyama den. It is designed to capture the beauty in each season. The path through the raked and shaped sand, bonsai, ponds and villas is draped in crisp green today.
This is a place of peace and balance. I stay for a while and try to absorb as much of it as possible, until my heart becomes very still.
My flight from Dubai to Osaka was a nightmare, since I was in close proximity to a very hateful person. That’s the thing about aeroplanes: you can’t go anywhere and you can’t choose who you’re in there with.
Hence I decide to spend my morning in Kyoto exploring the Zen gardens and temples in Northern Higashiya. Fresh air has the ability to put me on a high, probably since I am spending so much time in planes.
After sorting out my shoe problem, I head for the old railway tracks outside Keage train station. The maple trees are a shiny green and provide some shelter from the sun.
From here I follow a windy path past the peaceful rock garden at Konchi-in temple (founded around 1400). The garden was created by master landscape designer Kobori Enshu and features a lotus pond with colourful carp that is highlighted by the clear light of this day. I follow the path to the main road and enter Nanzen-ji, an old retirement villa which Emperor Kameyama dedicated as a Zen temple in 1291.
Nanzen-ji covers a huge piece of land with all its gardens, sub-temples and shrines. I have an inside tip from one of the nicer people on the plane to follow a walking trail into the mountain beyond the Sosui aqueduct. So I leave the tourists behind and head into the woods. Ah, nature seems to absorb negativity and fill me with positive energy the same way it turns carbon dioxide into oxygen.
I reach a shrine built around a waterfall, which is what my source recommended as a magical site. Indeed the cherry red bridge, the praying Buddhists and the powerful waterfall weaves a spell that removes the dark cloud from over my head.
All the travelling must be messing with my head because by the time I get to Kyoto I only have my Ugg boots and a pair of high heels in my suitcase. So much for walking around in the soupy heat…
I spot a pair of reflexology slippers at a 100 Yen shop and promptly decide that it would be heavenly to go and discover the temples and Zen gardens while having a walking foot massage.
Well, woe is me. Two hours into my day the pressure points are getting dangerously sensitive and the sun is burning down by now so going barefoot is not an option. I approach two daintily dressed Japanese ladies and use hand gestures to ask for a shoe shop in the area. Their facial expressions don’t look very encouraging. They stop a man on his bicycle to get a second opinion. He seems more positive and gestures for me to get on his bicycle.
I pass the ladies a questioning look, ‘can I trust him?’. ‘Go on,’ they beckon with bright smiles. Just a few days ago I was writing about kindness and here it is again – a helping hand when my feet need it most.
Soon I am riding a stranger’s bicycle through the little back streets of northern Higashiya in Kyoto, while he is running ahead of me in the steadily increasing heat. After about ten minutes we reach a small alley where I buy simple clogs for 1000 Yen (about $9). Not the most comfortable walking shoes, but so much better than any other option I can think of.
“Arigato,” I keep saying to the bicycle man with the dishevelled hair and the missing front tooth, "thank you".
He makes sure that I know how to find my way back to where I started and when I look again he is gone. A true act of kindness asks for nothing in return.
I walk out into the sunshine and beam my thanks out into the sky. ‘Arigato, arigato, arigato’, for my shoes, my feet and the ability to walk around this spiritual place.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
The first and last thing you notice when passing through Beijing international airport is the impressive new terminal (see top picture).
To me it looks like a turtle, although Norman Foster’s design has been likened to a dragon and meant to represent two boomerangs placed side by side.
The International Herald Tribune said on Monday that China’s “fierce embrace of change has left Western nations in the dust”. It is indeed true that the exciting new architecture in Beijing has boomeranged the city into a creative space that bypasses anything that is being done elsewhere.
Besides the airport terminal there is also Paul Andreau’s egg-like National Theatre as well as the CCTV headquarters by Rem Koolhaas which the International Herald Tribune places “amongst the most imaginative architectural feats in recent memory”. With this building Koolhaas plays with the perception of scale, as it looks small from certain angles and gigantic from others.
Then, of course there is the Olympic stadium (see bottom picture) which is the brainchild of Jacques Hertzog and Pierre de Meuron. The elliptical shape resembles a bird’s nest and is a symbol of hope. It’s barely visible through the smog, perhaps a suitable expression of the dream that is the Olympics.
This stadium and the National Aquatics centre, which looks like an oversized cloud-cushion, has been given an honorary place on the ceremonial axis of Beijing which extends from the Forbidden City. This makes the Olympic village part of a selection of ancient and modern buildings that define Beijing.
Yet, in spite of all the historical and the visionary architecture, Reuters reported last week that although five star hotels are 77 percent booked, four star hotels are only 48 percent full. The lower cost hotels are looking even emptier for the Olympics, which starts early next month.
The reason for the lack of tourists are said to be “tight security, difficulties obtaining visas and terrorism warnings”.
“And why should they come?” says a fellow traveller, Alex, “China has no respect for their national resources, condemns the holy man who speaks of world peace and has no problem with letting their citizens eat tainted food. I don’t care what they build, I would rather spend my money somewhere else.”
Often the small kindnesses that we encounter along our way are exactly what we need to fulfil our destinies.
I am reminded of this while taking a walk along the Long Corridor at the Summer Palace in Beijing. It's an open air walkway with a roof to keep out the summer drizzle. From here the scenery changes from lazy boats and water lilies on my left to traditional Chinese palace buildings on the right. It is the largest painted corridor in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records - and a lovely place for reflection.
The locals seem to think so too, judging by the amount of Chinese spending the day here at leisure. It's possible to watch shows in some of the palace buildings, go for a boat ride and have Chinese food and drinks at the market style outlets. Again, the prices are not inflated, which makes even the tourist experience here so much more authentic.
The Long Corridor paintings are fascinating. I stop to read up about them in a book that I found at the souvenir shop. The painting right above me depicts the story of Han Xin who became one of the founders of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). When Han Xin was young, he was only committed to studying and practicing martial arts. Apart from some fishing he had no real means of earning a living. A laundry lady shared her meals with him freely for as long as he needed her kindness. Later, as the Marquis of Huaiyin, he went looking for this old lady to repay her kindness with a thousand pieces of gold.
There are over 8000 paintings to be found on the Long Corridor, which is 728 metres long. Some of these cover history, myths and legends while others are delicate or whimsical depictions of birds, flowers and pristine landscapes from a bygone era. The Summer Palace was first built in 1750, then burnt down during British and French invasions before being rebuilt in 1886. So much history and yet this age old story reminds me of how many people played a role in helping me find a way to live as a writer and traveller.
Have I said thank you to the people who helped me along? Perhaps not enough. Let me start with you – 'xièxie' (Mandarin for 'thank you') for reading and for leaving comments on this blog. Your growing interest and support is worth a thousand pieces of gold.
Friday, July 11, 2008
“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called present.” – from the movie ‘Kung-fu Panda’
I think about this as I am walking through the Forbidden City in Beijing. It’s easy to live in the past and the future, but to really appreciate the present can sometimes be a challenge.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, the Forbidden City is an extensive collection of preserved wooden structures. It is an exhausting excursion: 720 000 sqaure metres of halls, squares and almost nine thousand rooms makes it the world’s largest surviving palace complex. The palace was built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and used as the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties.
It’s hot, my colleagues are irritable after a tough day and although there are picturesque corners in this endless complex of structures it seems that we are walking and walking and not really getting enough visual rewards.
Not all the rooms are open to the public and only a few of them hold treasures and art. Apparently Puji, the last Emperor of China, sold many of the original treasures to finance his extravagant lifestyle, while other valuable items were simply stolen.
What’s more; a part of the former collection is now hosted by the Palace Museum in Taipei. That doesn’t leave very much for the visitor to see here, especially since this complex is so large and so much walking needs to be done to see it. We’re trying to do it in half a day, although setting aside a whole day would have been wiser.
Interestingly enough, the locals enjoy hanging out here with their children, sitting around on benches in the squares, walking through the gardens and having lunch. Spending the day here at leisure seems to be the status quo. The food prices are not tourist orientated and it seems that the Chinese really do relish their cultural heritage.
The Forbidden City is called such because no one could enter or leave without the Emperor’s permission, which meant that many people lived out their whole lives within these palace walls.
I am counting my blessings, for my past, my future and the honour of being here, now, free.