Tag Archive | ethnic

The last leg- Mexico City, DF

After our wonderful time in Oaxaca we nevertheless had to move on, so as to be in Mexico City (referred to locally as Distrito Federal or D.F) for our flight home. We decided to spend a week seeing the capital city of Mexico ( with its mere 9 million inhabitants). I was slightly nervous about it, since many people had warned me that it’s very dangerous, lots of crime, etc. Even Mexicans said that we should not wander out at night, and that some neighbourhoods are out of bounds. Of course this is the case in many large cities in every country.

It transpired that the lovely Airbnb that we had booked was at the back of the American Embassy, the securest location in the whole city, judging by the number of armed police surrounding it. The neighbourhood, called Cuauhtémoc, is one of the most pleasant and safe in the city, and we had no problems at all walking  along the main boulevard the Paseo de la Reforma at night, eating and drinking there. It is near to the amazing Museum of Anthropology and the Chapultepec park and  had wide tree- lined boulevards and lots of lovely statues. On Sundays, the road is blocked off and filled with people on bicycles, skateboards, dogs and runners. It was a delightful place altogether, and far removed from what I had been expecting. However, we only went on the metro once, as it was incredibly crowded, and we actually saw two people fall out onto the platform once, when the doors opened. We took the bus once, which was easy, and otherwise walked everywhere. But we did not really go out at night except in our neighbourhood of Chapultepéc.

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Runners on Paseo de la Reforma on Sunday

Of course, as with any large city, the problem is deciding what to see without running around crazily and exhausting yourself. We had a few top sites we didn’t want to miss, and the first of these was the Frida Kahlo Museum. I also wanted to see some works by Frida’s husband Diego Rivera, and to see the Museum of Anthropology, which my cousin had told me was a ” not to be missed” attraction. We were also lucky enough to have some local people to meet up with, the lovely Francisco, whom we had met through Servas, when he was studying Hebrew in Israel, another couple from Servas, consisting of an Israeli called Anna and her husband and daughter), a girl called Cynthia, who is

a travel buddy from the now defunct Virtual Tourist, and a Couchsurfer called Sima, a Mexican who had lived in Israel for some years.

But we started off with a lovely day at the Chapultepec Park, a huge expanse of green in the heart of the city, which contains the Chapultepec Castle, several museums and lakes and other wonderful things. We didn’t manage to see the Castle, but we very much enjoyed walking around the lakes, and people watching in the park. You could spend days in this place as it is truly a relaxing and lovely spot. We especially enjoyed the secluded relaxation corner, which has benches for reading and  plays a different style of chillout music  for each day of the week.

The next day we ventured down to the Historic city centre where most of the big tourist sites are located. Here you can find the Zocalo, as in all the other Mexican towns we had visited, but here of course there is more of everything- more galleries, more churches, murals, theatres. We took a free walking tour with this company, which was extremely enjoyable, even if the guide did sometimes stand in a spot where we couldn’t hear her because of the traffic, it still introduced us to some sites that we decided to revisit at our leisure later on. The tour begins every day outside the Cathedral at 11am, and although it is 100% free,you are invited to give your guide a tip at the end if you are satisfied.( we were)

One of the tips that we got on the tour was where to have lunch. The restaurant on the walking street in the Sanborns department store, called Casa de los Azuelos,(House of Blue Tiles), had already been mentioned to me by Sima the Israeli- Mexican, and it looked like an amazing place to try, so we went there, and although the food was not the most amazing we had eaten in Mexico, the ambiance of the place was really something unforgettable, with a live piano and violin performance.

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Casa de los Azuelos

We went to see Frida Kahlo’s House the next day, and didn’t manage to book online for technical reasons. However, lining up outside, we were approached by an employee of the museum who asked us if we were over 60. When we admitted that we were, she queue jumped us inside, and also charged us only 50%, something which had not been clear to me from the website, so it was all good. You pay an extra (small) fee if you wish to take photos inside. The place is stunning, and well worth the wait, although many things are not labelled in English. There is a great video about Frida’s life and death (which you will probably know about if you have seen the movie) but it was still fascinating and intensely moving, especially for me the part about Trotsky, who stayed in the house while on the run, and which reminded me of the brilliant Barbara Kingsolver  book The Lacuna. The whole place was just fantastic.

After this we messaged Sima, who said that she lived nearby in Coyoacán district and would come and meet us in a restaurant. We waited for her for a long time in the restaurant, by which time we were starving, and not sure what had happened to her (traffic) so we had a soup and finally she arrived, declined to eat anything, poured out her long and involved life story to us, and took us on a walking tour of Coyoacan, which was great, especially the food market.

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Sima and D in Coyoacan market

In DF we saw murals by Diego Rivera, Frida’s husband, in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (with another couchsurfer called Miguel Noguera) and also in Tlalpan, an area of the city far from the centre, which our friend Francisco took us to by car. It seems that the whole city is full of artwork. It’s quite overwhelming. But we also did some more prosaic sightseeing, or so we thought. The market of Sonora, was in fact very weird. At first it looked like any other market, but at the back there are some stalls that sell witchcraft and voodoo items, which we were not supposed to photograph, but I managed anyway (hope I am not jinxed now)

One of the highlights of Mexico City, although everything was pretty wonderful, was the aforementioned Museum of Anthropology, which was our last day in DF, and appropriately took us back to Chapultepec Park, as on Day 1. I cannot emphasize enough how amazing this place was. We spent about 5 hours there, and could have spent another 10. It is just too amazing for words.So I will just leave you with a few photos.

And there endeth our 6 weeks in Mexico. Please feel free to comment- I love getting blog comments! And now to plan the next trip.. destination as yet unknown.

Up the Mekong to the Thai Border

We decided to leave Luang Prabang by slow boat- we had travelled down the bumpy Lao roads by bus and taking a slow boat up to Huay Xai over two days seemed like something worth trying.After a short research project I found there are basically 3 ways to do this- public boat,private VIP boat or Luxury boat.There is a fourth way called speed boat otherwise known as sudden death or suicide mission.The thought of hurtling through the water very fast with no safety,a roaring engine and no crash helmet did not appeal.So regarding the other options- the public boat is apparently crowded, noisy and you chance ending up seated on the engine on a hard wooden seat for two days.The two other options seemed much the same except that the Luxury one costs twice as much,and the only difference is you overnight at Pakbeng (the halway point) in a fancy hotel.This didn’t seem to justify the expense so we plumped for Nagi of Mekong, a well publicised outfit which boasts long boats with about 50 padded bus seats, tables, a toilet and lots of room to walk about.Since we were going off season and upstream (most people go the other way) the chances were the boat would not be full.As it happened Adisak,the owner answered me promptly by email and replied to all my questions, and booked us on with just our passport numbers and contact info at the hotel.We would be picked up at 6.15 and depart the pier at 7.00. It indeed turned out that we had tons of room as there were only another 3 guests on the boat (a Canadian couple and their lovely 12 year old son) and the crew of driver,guide ,cook and boss lady.So we had lots of room to lie down and sleep, read, eat and walk about during the 2 day trip.

 

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Our long boat

The price of the two day trip was $150 each which included breakfast and lunch and the overnight hotel stay in Pakbeng,plus a visit to the Nam Ou Buddha caves, a steal as it turned out.

The next two days passed like some mesmerizing dream.The boat was cool when it was baking hot outside, comfortable and relaxing.The gorgeous scenery drifted by and we saw kids swimming,fishermen, water buffalo, cattle grazing on the river bank, people washing their clothes, and even an elephant.It was like being in a National Geographic movie at times.

On the first day we stopped off at the Pak Ou caves,with their thousands of buddha statues. The next day we visited a small very remote village which had no electricity  or water and no school. Most of the inhabitants were out working in the fields, leaving the grandparents and small kids at home. Pigs and chickens ran around and kids gawped at us as if they had never seen outsiders before. The overnight stop at Pakbeng was nothing amazing- it’s just a small place all the boats stop off halfway between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai with just backpacker places and restaurants.

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Buffalo along the river

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Village kids

Along the way Khae our guide told us various things about the places we saw, and answered all our questions.He told us about his ex wife who wasted all the money provided by the sale of 4 buffalo his father had given for their wedding, and told us things about his ethnic group,the Yao.

It is hard to convey in words how wonderfully relaxing this trip was, how the scenery glided quietly by,how the rhythm of the boat lulled us into calm.This was really only brought home to us as we left the boat and arrived at Huay Xai. Khae helped us board a tuk tuk which took us over the Friendship Bridge and back into Thailand,where we spent the night in Chiang Khong,the Thai town over the border. Here too we saw the Mekong from our guest house balcony- but it was all different.

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The beautiful Mekong (0ur Mother in Lao)

Off we go again- Hong Kong,Chiang Mai, and … LAOS!

We have finally had our last goodbye party and taken our last goodbye photo in Xiamen.We have returned our house keys and our teachers’ cards and boarded a bullet train to Shenzhen.After a couple of days there we crossed over to Hong Kong and after a couple of days there and a bit of sightseeing we boarded a flight to Chiang Mai,Northern Thailand,with a slight bit of trepidation due to the recent military coup and curfew there. However on arrival in Chiang Mai all was well despite the lack of tourists and the restaurants shutting down very early. We felt safe,even though we saw soldiers stationed at the city gates.I will kind of catapult the trip from Xiamen to Laos, since there is so much to write about in Laos,I don’t want to bore everyone with minutae,especially since we have visited both Shenzhen and Hong Kong before.

Chiang Mai is a well-known tourist destination,full of attractive Buddhist temples, massage salons and lovely really cheap restaurants. We did take one trip from there to the Tiger Kingdom,which is definitely a must see.According to the internet it it not one of those places where tigers are subdued with drugs.The tigers there are genuinely placid as they have been reared there from birth,and are not capable of hunting in the wild.They are sleek and well-cared for,and you pay a price to stroke smallest,small or big tigers for about 20 minutes.It is an amazing experience,rather hard to describe.You walk into a cage full of tigers (and the small are pretty large!) together with a handler,who reassures you.You leave your bag outside and enter only with a camera.You must not touch their paws or head,just tickle their tummy and you can move their tail and sit next to them,and even lie down next to them and put your head on them if you are feeling really brave.It is well worth it in my opinion.I was overawed by being so close to such a beautiful creature.

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Stroking a tiger at Tiger Kingdom- yes it’s real and alive

 

From Chiang Mai we took a minibus package with a few other people which picked us up at our hotel,and drove us via Chiang Rai to the border with Laos,and helped us cross the border,including do all the visa paperwork and deliver us onto the bus from Chiang Khong (the Thai side) to Huai Xi (the Lao side) and then get a Lao bus to Luang Namtha. On the way we stopped at the beautiful Wat Rong Khun,or White Temple in Chiang Rai.This temple was damaged in a recent earthquake and has since been restored.

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White Temple,Chiang Rai,Thailand

When we arrived at the border,we just had to fill in a couple of forms and [ay $35,add a passport photo and board a shuttle bus to cross the 4th Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River into Laos.On the other side we were dropped off at the Bus station for the trip to Luang Namtha.This was rather longer than we thought and the bus was a bit ramshackle and the road very bumpy and primitive compared to the Thai side.We finally arrived it Luang Namtha,northern Laos at 9.30pm.The bus station was in the middle of nowhere,and there were no taxis or tuktuks in sight.Eventually we asked a guy to help us by borrowing his phone and calling our guest house.They thought we wanted a room,and said they were full.Finally we explained somehow that we just wanted to reach the place and had no transport.They didn’t really understand.The man with the phone pointed at a minivan which was loading local people and goods,and said he could take us for 40,000 Kip (about $5).The man said he knew our guest house.So we climbed on and at 10pm reached our guest house.The main street of Luang Namthat was just one long strip of  backpacker guest houses,restaurants and tour companies.THere was very little else there.The scenery was stunning.After discovering that our guest house had no hot water we moved the next day to a neighbouring one called the Zuela,which is without doubt the best bet in Luang Namtha, a  gorgeous log villa,with hot water,clean rooms, a/c, a downstairs restaurant, tour operators and intermittent wifi connection.

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Zuela Guest House,Luang Namtha

After spending a day strolling around Luang Namtha and discovering its very basic charms. we opted to take a one day tour to see ethnic hill tribes in the area by tuktuk, near the town of Muang Sing. There are some beautiful treks around that area which you can do if you are looking for something more challenging, most include a homestay with some ethnic peoples. During the wet season (when we were there) trekking is more strenuous,due to the mud and the hilly terrain. We took the trek with Elaine, a Californian who had spent 5 years teaching in SHenzhen,China and now lives and teaches in Indonesia. The tour was wonderful.Our guide,Hak, from the Black Tai minority was wonderfully knowledgeable and charming with a great sense of humour and excellent English. He took us to various ethnic minority villages. We began at the Muang Sing market,about 3 hours driver from Luang Namtha. The road was pretty bumpy and rough in places.IT was also muddy so you had to watch your step. We took lots of photos and of course asked people before we did this. Most were happy to be photographed,although some younger women were very shy. WE then saw some Hmong, Yao, Lolo and Leu. There are many ethnic minority groups in Lao, some originating in Tibet,others in Vietnam but most have been there for a few hundred years. They speak Lao language but also their own language which is very different, and each group cannot often understand the others’ language. They are mostly Buddhist,but some are also animist.One very intersting part of the trip was a long chat we had ( with the translation of Hak) with a lady who does hand embroidery. She provides pieces for an NGO which sells her work in the capital and abroad,and gets paid over $100 for most pieces,as her work is very fine,and often takes more than a year to complete. She said she has a brother living in Santa Barbara, and has visited him there, and she produced photos of her visit there,and also of her two sons at university,one here in Laos and one in Guangzhou,China. IT was hard to imagine her travelling abroad let alone to the US whilst seeing her squatting in the mud hut of the village,surrounded with ragged children….

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The girl said it wasn’t her baby

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Temple wall drawing showing punishment for gossip and lying

 

We had lunch in one village house, and ate sticky rice (with our hands,rolled into a hard ball) ,spicy pork and chicken,bamboo shoots and spinach.IT was delicious but rather spicy. Dessert was a small very sweet banana. We also saw a village temple,with some amazing wall pictures,highly ornate, depicting the fate of those in the afterlife who have gossipped or lied about their neighbours.IT reminded me somewhat of Hieronymous Bosch. Towards evening we drove back again over the bumpy road back to Luang Namtha,which suddenly seemed like a throbbin metropolis in comparison to the tiny villages around the area.

The next morning we boarded a bus at the Luang Namtha bus station to travel to Luang Prabang, the famed UNESCO heritage city of North Laos.I had been anticipating this city very much and was afraid to be disappointed. After a 9 hour extremely bumpy bus journey the risk of anticlimax was pretty high. The bus journey itself was pretty great. The air conditioning consisted of travelling with the door open. There was a mix of passengers, locals, foreign backpackers – young Americans and French, a Chinese guy from Shandong who works in Shenzhen,and  a couple of very well-travelled Liverpudlians.At one point,it being rainy season, there was a landslide on the road,and we had to get out of the bus and wait for the road to be cleared by bulldozer.There were several food and toilet stops on the way in some tiny rural villages. The view was stunning all the way- thick jungle, tall mountains swathed in mist, river valleys of the winding Mekong and its tributaries, rice paddies complete with picturesque buffalo – all you could ask for in  a South East Asian travel video We finally arrived in Luang Prabang at around 6 pm and very easily got a tuktuk to the hotel,glimpsing a tantalizing view of a gleaming gold Wat on our way there.

More about Luang Prabang later. IT is an amazing town.

Will continue later as internet here is a little intermittent….

Please leave comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Macau City of Dreams and Shenzhen Shopping Heaven

We flew back to  Hong Kong and from there took a ferry straight from Hong Kong airport to Macau.This was as easy and straightforward as other travelers on the Internet described as you bypass customs and immigration in Hong Kong and your bags are transferred directly to the ferry boat. It is only one hour by ferry and then there was a special line in Macau for oldies of over 65 and they let me go through with D so all was well.

On arrival at Macau ferry terminal we wanted to take a free shuttle but were too tired and the bags were too heavy so we just cheated and got a cab to our hotel the Metropole, in the Old Town, not on the Cotai strip where all the casinos are.The hotel was lovely except for one thing-it was being renovated and it was rather bizarre to look out of the bedroom window and see a workman with a yellow hard hat standing on bamboo scaffolding! The noise was not so bad but we couldn’t open the window or really relax in the room.So that was a bit of a bummer. Nevertheless we went out into Macau Old town to sample the strange mix of Portuguese and Chinese cultures. Next thing we notice-cars drive on the left? Why is that ? We have been to Portugal and it was not the case there. Macau old town was delightful- clean and lively with the streets still decorated from the Chinese New Year.

We saw the ruins of St Paul’s which was beautiful and just strolled around town and had a great Portuguese style meal.Then we took a bus to the Cotai area where all the huge casinos are and looked around the kitschy Venetian like the one in Las Vegas. It is a mockup of Venice complete with fake gondolas and fake painted sky, lots of casinos of course and also very luxury shops.

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Ruins of St Paul’s

THe next day we had intended to do a bit more sightseeing before moving on to Shenzhen but as it turned out the shuttle to the port was at 11.30 so we decided to go with that and take the 12.15 sailing to Shenzhen. It was a quick trip but the sea was a bit bumpier than on our arrival.ON reaching Shenzhen we took the subway straight to our hotel,the Sunon Villa which was great,slap bang on the pedestrian mall of Shenzhen where you can buy anything and everything. We walked around a bit,bought a few things and went back to rest in the room. Then went out to eat and had a great day.Next morning we got up and took the subway to OCT (Overseas Chinese Town) to visit Splendid China,which is a sort of Mini China-all the famous sites of the country in miniature.

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Fake Mosque for Xinjiang ProvinceIMG_2792

Minority group show-Va people

IT was also kitschy but endearing especially the people-watching and waving and taking photos with mums,dad,grandparents etc. We especially enjoyed the mockups of the ethnic Chinese villages,with their folklore shows. We saw three of these demonstrations of minority group customs and the highlight was the Mongol battlefield show complete with costumed riders with lances and other weapons reenacting various battles and horses jumping over flames and other obstacles.I found it thrilling and almost felt I was 6 years old again watching it.

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Splendid China Kitsch

Next day we flew back to Xiamen and got here early in the morning ready for our new semester which will begin on Monday.

Trip to Yongding- the Hakka Tulou villages

Trip to Yongding Hakka Earth houses (TULOU)

 

This was a trip I had been wanting to do for ages,but which got postponed because of the hospital trip(see previous post). We decided to go with two student friends of ours Sue and Echo who don’t study at our university but are English majors from nearby Jimei University.

We met up with them at the BRT station to go downtown to the Hubin Nan Lu bus station where we got a bus to the village of Hukeng,a trip of 3 and a half hours through progressively more picturesque scenery hillsides dotted with villages, persimmon trees,and tea terraces. On arrival in Hukeng we were met by Stephen,the guest house owner who was holding a sign with “DAN” written on it!

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inside the guest house

Stephen explained that we had to buy entrance tickets to the village,which is a preserved Unesco heritage site,and then took us on two motorbikes (3 people on each) to the village and his Fuyulou Changdi Inn where we had booked two rooms. The guest house building is 130 years old,and built in traditional Hakka style. There is a central courtyard surrounded by rooms on three levels.This would have been shared by several different families. There are apparently thousands of these houses in the area,but nowwadays many of the Tulou houses (made of earth) are empty,or inhabited by only one or two families who maintain them as the children have moved to the city. The whole of the surrounding area is used for cultivating tea,rice,persimmons,and other different fruits and vegetables.

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Tulous from above

After checking in,Stephen gave us a map of the village. The plan was to walk around the village for the rest of the day and the following morning we would have a car and driver to take us to visit the surrounding villages and see different styles of Tulou houses. Some are round and some square,but the basic idea is the same,an earthen house with several floors and shared by several families,who use the communal area in the middle to cook,sell stuff and generally hang out.

The village was serene and relaxing,with the houses dotted along the length of a river. There were many tea houses, and huge fat chickens running around everywhere. After eating a great lunch of local Hakka food at the guest house,We walked around the village,and found a temple area where the girls explained the important families had tombs. We also went to a tea house where we sat for a long time with the tea grower who filled and refilled our cups. His great grandfather had originally built the house,and had been a fighter in the Kuomintang. We also bought something which Sue described as a “tea pet”.I thought she meant “teapot” but she was insistent. Itis a small animal made of artificial jade (mine is a frog) used to check if the tea water is hot. When you pour water onto it,it changes colour.

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Hukang village and countryside

In the evening we saw dancing outside in a square,returned to to the guest house where we met a group of Russians from the far eastern part of Russia. One said his grandfather was Jewish,and another said he was Jewish himself ,from Birobidjan,and that his brother was a teacher of Yiddish in New York.

We went to bed as we had an early start in the morning.

The next day we set off at 7.30 in a minivan with 3other people and the driver Mr. Wu, to tour the area.

The other people were Mike,a young guy from Hong Kong and a retired couple from Beijing whose names we don’t know as they didn’t speak any English. We drove to a number of different tulou villages and admired the scenery. It was very peaceful and pleasant. We stopped to pick persimmons on one hillside. The whole day was highly relaxing and enjoyable.Some tulous were huge,and some smaller. All had the same basic design of tiered floors made of wood,walls of earth and a central area. We had lunch in a village restaurant, in the traditional Chinese way of sharing all the dishes,and we shared the bill to treat Mr Wu the driver. We saw the last “King of Tulous” which I found disappointing and overcrowded,full of tourists and too many people selling trinkets. It had cost an extra 25RMB each,and I would recommend skipping it. Its supposed attraction is that it has over 200 rooms .But I found other tulous more atmospheric and interesting. At 3pm we got the bus station to return to Xiamen which dropped us at a different bus station but fortunately Sue figured out how to get to the BRT station to go home.

Old lady inside Tulou