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Hangzhou’s Lingyin Temple April 18, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in China, Travel.
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That says 'Lingyin Temple'

The most famous attraction at Hangzhou is obviously the beautiful West Lake that dominates the city.  Having arrived around noon on the first day, and after checking into the hotel and eating a quick lunch at the Ajisen Ramen across the road, we decided to check out an attraction away from the lake — Lingyin Temple.

Lingyin Temple is a Zen Buddhism temple up in the mountains west of West Lake and you pretty much have to catch a cab to get there.  Cars can only go so far, and after we were dropped off, we asked a security guard which way we should head to see the temple (there was basically left and right).

The dude told us that it was a long, mountainous walk, and that we would be better off catching one of the tourist shuttle buses which takes you right to the temple.  I can’t remember how much the fare was, but it wasn’t all that expensive, so we went along with it.

The shuttle bus took on another solo passenger (a local) and departed basically 90% empty.  It went left.  And the security guard was right — it was indeed a long, mountainous path, and we were glad we didn’t have to walk it.  We went past some pretty scenery, a monastery, and spotted rows upon rows of Longjin teal plantations.

Longjin tea plantations

A monastery

The shuttle bus eventually stopped and told us that we would have to walk the last leg.  It wasn’t far, the temple was right in front of us.  The solo traveller went with us, taking photos (mostly of the young school girls nearby) along the way.

As soon as we entered the grounds, I felt a strange wave of serenity sweep over me.  It was indeed beautiful, with pagodas and rocky walls lining a misty lake — the kind that you might see in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.  Further down there were some rock carvings along the cliff walls of buddhas.  Very cool.  We snapped away.  And this was just the outside.

Misty lake...

The famous carvings at Feilai Feng (aka Flying Peak)

To go in, as expected, you need to pay an entry fee.  No worries.  I’m glad we decided to go in, because it was definitely worth the price of admission.  Once we walked through the main arch into the central courtyard, there was a massive temple standing right in front of us, and dozens of people lighting up incense sticks and praying towards it.

To join in on the fun, I went and grabbed/bought (can’t remember if they were free) a whole bunch of incense sticks and went up to the little furnace they had running there to light it up.  It was harder than it looked, and awfully hot.  The little sticks just wouldn’t light.  I was told to take them out and shake them a little, get some air into them.  I must have shook took hard, because the entire bunch of sticks (about 12 of them) snapped right in the middle!  It was embarrassing.  Fortunately, they were still long enough to use.

The crowded central courtyard

After bowing in the general direction (following the crowd) and sticking them in this dusty box where everyone else was sticking them, we walked inside the temple.  Sadly, no photography allowed, but believe me when I say it was awesome.  How do they make such giant buddhas (and his friends)?

We discovered there was a door at the back of the temple and walked out, and low and behold, there was another one, built higher up on the mountain.  And there was another one after that, and I believe there was one more.  Lingyin Temple was essentially several temples built on top of each other.  There was also a small museum of some sort with some interesting artifacts.

Wall carvings inside the temple grounds

In the end, we spent a lot longer there than we had anticipated.  We even went back outside and snapped more photos of the misty lake.  The only downer was seeing the poor beggars hanging around the area, many with only stumps for arms and legs.

When we were finally done, we walked out of the temple grounds (in the opposite direction from where we came), hoping to find a taxi stand.  We didn’t want to walk all the way back.  But as it turned out, a few steps later we were back where we got off the cab.  Holy crap — we realised we had been duped by the security guard.  If we had headed right instead of left, we would have been able to walk to the temple entrance in two minutes.  Instead, we went left on the shuttle bus and took the long scenic route.  I can only guess he was trying to help out the economy.

View from the top

Observations on ‘New China’: Part I – Traffic March 22, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in China, Travel.
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Note: I didn't take this photo, which I grabbed from nileguide.com

[I’m already back from China, but I started to write this post while I was still there…stay tuned, so much stuff is coming soon!  I had the best time there — the sightseeing, the food and accommodation — all top notch…well, for the most part, anyway.  I’m going to be busy blogging about it all!]

My time in China is winding down to an end, but I haven’t had much time to post about it.

I only had time to visit two cities — Shanghai and Hangzhou, both fantastic and fascinating places.  Shanghai is the most populated city in China with a population of over 19 million (the whole of Australia only has 22.5 million), and Hangzhou is, according to several local sources, the number one tourist destination city (though I have serious doubts about that).

Anyway, I had been to China on two previous occasions with my parents when I was a kid. the last time being around 15 years ago (including what may have been a one night stopover in Shanghai during a Yangtze River cruise), and don’t remember much about it.  But what I do remember is that China is completely different to what it used to be.  Less dirty (though still very dirty in some places), less bikes on the streets, wealthy people everywhere and plenty of Western influences.

I’d like to call this the ‘New China’.

Nevertheless, some things seemed to remain the same.  This will the beginning of a series of posts on my observations on New China.  And this first one will be on the traffic.

The traffic in Shanghai is apparently a lot better than it used to be, thanks to the planning work they put in for the World Expo last year.  There’s now a fully functional and highly convenient subway, and you’ll still be able to find special Expo taxis on the streets (which are a lot newer and more comfortable than the normal ones).  The taxis, by the way, are very cheap.  The starting price is 12 RMB (around AU$2) and go up by 1 RMB increments.  And it takes a long time for the meter to jump.  For most taxis we caught we didn’t have to pay more than 12 RMB.

However, people still drive like lunatics in China, and that’s probably never going to change.  After India last year, I thought I’d never see worse roads, but China is different — it might be slightly less congested, but it’s far more dangerous.  In India, the traffic moves at a snail’s pace, but cars still swerve and slow down to avoid hitting people.  In China, they don’t, even when you have right of way, when they have to give way, when you have a green light and pedestrian crossing, when they have a right light.

Seriously, there were times when I had to literally jump out of the way at crossings because cars actually sped up when they were coming right at me.  If you don’t move, you get hit.

One thing I noticed was that cars seem to be able to turn right when the light is red.  Not sure if they do it legally, but they do.  Another thing is that turning cars have the ability to move quickly in unison, so fast and so closely together that cars going straight must stop and wait until the entire line of cars end before they can move, even when the light is green.  Another thing is that driving on the opposite side of the road at high speeds while there are cars coming right at you is nothing to be alarmed about.

Amazingly, there aren’t as many accidents on the roads as I anticipated, which is a miracle, really, considering how fast and how reckless everyone drives.  Every time I sat down in a taxi there would be at least one time where I thought we would crash for sure.

The only accident I witnessed was in Hangzhou, and it was a simple misunderstanding between two taxis.  The car behind thought the car in front was going to do a u-turn, and it followed, but the car in front suddenly stopped, and bang!

Strangely, the guy who crashed into the car in front of him did all the shouting, while the guy who was hit was quiet and appeared apologetic.

That’s all I’ve got for now.  More coming shortly.  And trust me when I say they get more and more strange and shocking.

Travel Update: Prague is Overrated! April 5, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Travel.
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prague-bridges1

Prague can look incredible from afar, but...

[Note: Travel Diary has been updated to include Munich (including Neuschwanstein Castle and Dachau Concentration Camp) and Berlin!]

I never thought I would say this, and undoubtledly it will be heavily disputed, but in my opinion it’s true: Prague is overrated!

When I first arrived in the UK, Prague was near the top of my list of travel destinations.  Not because I knew very much about the place myself, but because every tourism book I read raved about the place and every person I spoke to kept telling me: ‘you have to go to Prague!’ 

Hence when we planned our big anniversary vacation and an opportunity came up where we had a couple of extra days on our hands, I insisted that we go to Prague (even though my wife had been and said it was nothing special, a view that 2 of her sisters concurred with).  ‘But it’s Prague‘, I would say, ‘we have to go to Prague!’  And so we did.

However, out of all 12 cities we went to on this giant trip, Prague was by far the most disappointing.  If asked, I would say it’s ‘okay’ because the place is not without merit, but given its glittering reputation (or at least the reputation I thought it had), I had expected a lot more.  It’s one of those places that look good in postcards and photos and from afar, but when you are there and everything is up close it doesn’t live up to the hype.

Perhaps I don’t really know the city well enough to be making such comments – after all, I did only spend roughly a day and a half there, so it’s really not much more than a generalised first impression; or maybe my expectations were too lofty or unreasonable – either way, these were my main gripes:

1. Appearance – I was very surprised when we stepped off the train at Praha Holesovice station, one of the main stations for international trains.  It was old, dirty and looked incredibly runned down.  Not just on the platforms but even inside the small, no-frills terminal.  I expected that to change when we caught the subway to the central station, Praha Hlavni Nadrazi, but it didn’t.  It was bigger, but still old, dirty and runned down.  When we walked outside, more of the same – the roads, the buildings, the walls.  It wasn’t even in a kind of charming or romantic sort of way.  For some reason, it just felt dull and gloomy.

2. Tourist-unfriendly – the appearance of the city was unexpected but was something you could put down as a different experience.  However, Prague also turned out to be relatively tourist-unfriendly compared to all of the other European cities I’ve visited.  There are very few English signs around and the public transport system, though not dissimilar (to say Germany), was the most confusing.  But that’s not the main problem.  The main problem is the lack of help you can expect to get from locals.  If it were just one or two people I would have put it off as bad luck or coincidence, but pretty much every single person behind a counter we sought assistance from (with the exception of the hotel receptionist) had ‘I’m not going to help you’ written all over their face – and this includes the people from the Information office! 

For instance, when we couldn’t figure out how to purchase subway tickets at the machine (no ticket office), the one guy working there in uniform quickly turned his back on us when he saw us approaching and had to be prompted by his friends to help us.  All he told us was that we had to break our notes as the machines only take coins, then ran off.  Funnily we saw the same guy on the subway asking to check our ticket.  Fortunately we did our research and bought a half-ticket for our luggage, or else we would have been fined!  Strangely, he only targeted touristy-looking people and the locals simply ignored him and the little badge he kept flashing. 

Another example was when we tried to purchase train tickets to Vienna – though the woman behind the window spoke perfect English and we were perfectly polite, she acted as though she was doing us the world’s biggest favour.  If we didn’t keep prodding her with multiple questions, we would have never: (1) purchased 2 tickets instead of 1 despite there being obviously 2 people in front of her; (2) found out what time the trains departed; (3) gotten seat reservations (apparently compulsory for international travel); and (4) found out that the train actually departed from a different station to the one we purchased the tickets from!

3. Attractions – there are a few good attractions in Prague; after all, it does have a tremendous amount of history.  I suppose that’s what attracts the tourists.  However, there was nothing overly exciting about what I saw in Prague.  The number 1 attraction, Prague Castle, was just average in my opinion, but it was probably because I had seen much more spectacular places elsewhere.  The view over the city from outside the Castle walls was worthwhile though.  The next best attraction would be Charles Bridge, with its many sculptures along the sides.  Apart from those 2 I would struggle to find anything else worth recommending, maybe except a quick peek at the Astronominal Clock and Tyn Church.

4. Rip-offs – probably the most irritating thing about Prague is how the locals try to rip off foreigners.  This was something I had read before, but I didn’t expect it to be so prevalent.  All I will say is that when in Prague, you need to be extra careful.  Read every receipt, every bill, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Check prices beforehand and make sure there are no hidden costs or charges.  Ensure, even in what may look like a respectable restaurant, that the waiter has not tampered with the bill, ‘miscalculated’ or added things that aren’t supposed to be there.  Be very wary of ‘service charges’ that magically appear out of nowhere.  We were caught off-guard by that one at this recommended restaurant called Sherwood on Opletalova (food was very salty), where the waiter added a 15% ‘service charge’ to our bill as though it was restaurant policy (even though the amount didn’t even appear on the bill).

We were almost ripped off at Prague Castle too, where we were strongly recommended to purchase the audio guide (which actually cost more than the entry tickets!) because there were no English explanations anywhere (which turned out to be untrue) and because otherwise we would have to wait in line for up to an hour to enter St Vitus Cathedral (we waited for about 1 minute to get in).

I also read elsewhere that train conductors have a tendency to try and intimidate foreigners by pretending there is something wrong with their ticket and insisting further payment or a fine.  I thought it was an exaggeration before but now I don’t find it hard to believe.

On the plus side though the prices were relatively cheap compared to most other European cities I’ve visited, and the food was pretty good in general.

Anyway, that was my first experience of Prague.  Unfair?  Perhaps.  I’m sure there are many out there who absolutely adore the place and with good reason too, but I found the city rather unappealing.  Much of it probably has to do with the local attitude towards the tourists that keep invading their city!  Can’t say I blame them.

A Few Quick Thoughts on Italy and Vatican City March 24, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Food, Religion, Travel.
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Note: Travel Diary has been updated!  Pictures to be added

I’m having the time of my life on this awesome 3-week European journey, and I’ve tried to put in the effort to write as much as possible during this time, even if it’s just to keep the creative juices flowing and so I don’t ever forget this amazing adventure.

However, I’m falling a little behind with my Travel Diary entries.  I just completed my lengthy entry on Rome (still no pictures, unfortunately, but I’ll try and add some soon), though I have been in Switzerland the last couple of days and from tomorrow will be in Germany!  I’ve finished listening to Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing but I’m still yet to write a review (but more importantly,  jot down some helpful tips from King that I’ll want to employ in my own writing from this point forward).

In my last post I wrote about this wonderful little cake store near the Colosseum called Cristalli Di Zucchero.  Anyway, I thought I’d add a few more thoughts about Italy and Vatican City before I forget it all!

Must-see attractions

I visited 4 cities in Italy: Pisa, Florence, Venice and Rome.  I’d say Venice is the prettiest, with its beautiful turqoise canals, clean, narrow streets and lack of modern architecture.  Rome, of course, is a must visit because of its history, the abundance of attractions, and Vatican City.  Florence is very nice, kind of charming and relaxed in its own way, and Pisa is just good for the Leaning Tower.

Of all the places I visited in Italy, my top 5 attractions (in descending order) are:

5. San Marco (St Mark’s Square) – a massive square and a world heritage site in Venice and home to Basilica Di San Marco.  Moreover, the journey through the canals to get there may be as amazing as the place itself.

4. Galleria dell’Accademia – in Florence, home of Michelangelo’s David, a truly magnificent masterpiece.  See it if you plan on seeing just one sculpture.

3. National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II (or Altare della Patria  or Il Vittoriano for short) – in Rome, very close to the Coloseum.  Big, white and not ancient, but amazing to look at nonetheless.  Plus you can walk up all those stairs to the top where you can enjoy the best views of Rome!

2. Vatican City – corridor after corridor of art in the Vatican Museum (and the most famous ones in the Sistine Chapel) and St Peter’s Basilica are unforgettable regardless of your religion.  Just make sure you buy tickets in advance for the Museum if you want to avoid the long queues.

1. Palantine Hill – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum in Rome.  Head around the walls to the North-Western side and look down from above.

Pizza

Pizza is everywhere and we had it at least once a day (fat city).  It’s difficult to find BAD pizza in Italy, but some are clearly better than others.  Prices can also vary significantly, from a couple of Euros a slice in corner stores to twenty-plus in posh restaurants.  Chances are they won’t taste all that different.  The best ones we had were actually from the small shops where you buy a slice and eat it standing on the side.  The worst would be from chain store restaurants that look too neat and touristy.  However, the most amazing tasting ones we had were actually from a takeout joint called Spizzico, at Roma Termini station.

Most pizzas we came across were pretty authentic – meaning tomato base, cheese, and one or two simple toppings such as mushroom, prosciutto or sausage.  None of the crazy toppings you’d find at Pizza Hut or Dominos.  However, a common problem (for me at least) was that they were too salty, especially the tomato base.  It seems they are a bit inconsistent in this regard.  You can get two pizzas from the same place and one could be just right and the other too salty.

Gelato

We (well, my wife) are big gelato fans.  There are plenty in Italy, just about on every touristy street.  The majority taste pretty similar, to be honest, but prices vary.  €2 for a small cone would be a decent price, but some can charge as much as €3.50 for a single scoop.

The best and cheapest we had was at Old Bridge Gelato (address: Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo 5) just around the corner from the Vatican Museum.  The smallest cone is just €1.30 (and the next up is €1.50).  The gelato is top notch and you can get up to 3 flavours regardless of size of cone – plus you can get free cream on top!  Here is a review of the place.

The crepe place next door is very good too.

Coffee

I’m not the biggest coffee fan but my wife likes to look for good coffee places.  There are quite a few in Italy, but some can be quite expensive.  The best one we went to came highly recommended, and it’s very close to the Pantheon.  It’s called Caffé San’ Eustachio and it is quite small and seemingly always crowded.  You order at the counter then give your receipt to the coffee makers.  Most people stand and finish their cup, though a few take them to the limited seats outside.  I found this blog post about the place.

Safety

Before I came to Italy I was warned by family members that it was a dangerous place.  People get mugged all the time.  If you don’t keep an eye on your bags they could disappear any second.  Hoards of kids crowd you in and pick your pockets.  Stuff like that.

Fortunately, I experienced none of the above.  Not even close.  For the most part, I found Italy to be seemingly quite safe.  Of course, I took the necessary precautions, such as not going out too late, keeping my belongings zipped up when I go out, and keep to the main streets.  The street vendors were actually quite nice and polite, totally unlike the thugs we encountered in Paris that try to force you to buy their crap.

Vatican City

Visiting Vatican City was a dream come true.  I’m not a Catholic, but I had always been fascinated by its history, and more importantly, the amazing architecture and priceless art works.  In that regard, the visit was everything I had expected.

What I didn’t expect were the long lines (silly me) and the number of people who tried to push in and sneak to the front.  When everyone’s waiting patiently, seeing people who blatantly break the rules can be frustrating.  So be smart and purchase tickets in advance to avoid the hassle.

Another thing I found disappointing was the over-commercialization of the place.  Sure enough, the tickets were expensive, but I didn’t expect there to be so much merchandise everywhere I went!  And people (I assume mostly the religious ones) were lapping up the over-priced products like Pope pens and pendants like crazy!  Don’t they make enough money from the entry tickets already?  It almost felt like they were exploiting people’s faiths.

Most troubling were the school groups, where the guides would point to various paintings like The Last Judgment and try to scare kids into Catholicism by telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t do this and that.  Surely there has to be a better way to teach religion to children?

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