Into Africa: Nairobi

DC and I were on a very special holiday (I shall leave you to decide what we had to celebrate). We decided to forgo our usual dive trip and go for a safari. Our first stop was Nairobi, Kenya and I was excited to be in Africa for the first time. On strong recommendation from good friends, we stayed at the Fairview Hotel. It was a charming garden hotel on sprawling grounds.


There was a swimming pool on the new wing, but it was too cold to go swimming. Nairobi being high up on a plateau had a big change in temperature from day to night. In the hottest noon, it hit the high 20s (and I count in Celcius). At night, it could drop to the low 10s. There’s no need for airconditioning here, especially since the weather is rather dry. Even the hottest early afternoon was quite comfortable for us lowland equatorial dwellers that we were in long sleeves most of the time. There was no way we’d go swimming in this weather that was cold for us!


The hotel also had little apartments, presumably for long-stay guests…


… and bizarre bronze sculptures of strange mammals. Nonetheless, the garden setting was a lovely rustic difference from the polished 5-star hotels in Asia. If you’re ever in Nairobi, be sure to book ahead as it fills up really quickly. We very much enjoyed the satisfying breakfast buffet, so do make an effort to wake up for that before heading out to safari.


Before heading out into the wild, we spent a day in Nairobi acclimatising and sightseeing. We went to see the Karen Blixen museum in the suburb of Nairobi named after her. Karen Blixen was a famous Danish author who wrote books such as “Out of Africa” under the pen name Isak Dinesen. I hadn’t a clue who she was and had only vaguely heard of “Out of Africa”. As I walked down the driveway to her house, DC was very excited that we were at Karen Blixen’s house. I, however, was oblivious and was more taken with the pretty flowers on the way!


And here I am outside her house. It’s a beautiful manor surrounded by old trees and plenty of greenery. No wonder she thought it’d be a good place for a coffee plantation when she moved here.


See how red the soil is here! Even cacti grow into trees in such soil.


It was a pity that the plantation failed as coffee somehow didn’t grow well here. Left practically destitute by by the failure of both crops and love affairs, she returned to her native Denmark. The experience was not to be wasted as she started writing about Africa. And then the fame. It’s all full circle now as the whole plantation is now part of the museum and they even kept the coffee carts in the garden.


What is a holiday without the food? Knowing that the quality of food on safari wouldn’t be as good, we headed out to one of the best restaurants in Nairobi as recommended by Chris. Talisman, like most of the Karen suburb, is set in a garden. It’s very cosy with both outside seating and inside seating by a fireplace. If the weather is good like how it was on the day we were there, do sit outside and enjoy the garden.


I’m sure if you ask nicely, they’d arrange for you to picnic in the garden too. But we were happy to sit at proper tables and enjoy the good food.


I had tree tomato juice to start off the meal. It’s quite like tomato juice – a tart yet sweet and slightly earthy version of tomato juice, almost as if a little beetroot was added. DC liked it so much he had more at breakfast the next morning.


On to the coriander and feta cheese samosas. I was a bit sceptical when the waiter enthusiastically recommended this starter as my idea of samosa involves potato curry filling. Nonetheless, the idea of fusion samosas intrigued me and boy was I rewarded. It was perfect with crisp, light pastry that wasn’t too oily, and rich, oozing cheese coming out. The tomato-chilli jam (not hot at all!) was simply gilding the lily.


DC had these massive grilled prawns (who knows where they shipped them inland from!) which were fresh and nicely charred from the barbecue. Yummy!


I was feeling the slight nip in the air (it felt like a beautiful summer day in the UK) and ordered something slightly more stodgy – calf livers in red wine sauce. It was the first time I had calf liver and it was very smooth-textured, not quite like pork liver, perhaps an intermediate between duck and pork liver. It was lovely with the rich sauce and buttery mash. With the weather and food like that, I had these moments of disorientation where I thought I was in the UK!


This was a gentle start to our holiday with the bucolic charms and great food. More soon!


July in Vietnam: Quy Where?

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Quy Nhon (pronounced “wee nyon”) is a slightly industrial and not particularly pretty fishing town midway between Hoi An and my next stop, Mui Ne. It had charmless concrete buildings lining the street and not a great deal in its favour. Yet I was willing to stumble into town at 2am, taking the only available bus in. After a botched attempt at going to a place I’d booked ahead at (the people were fast asleep and no amount of doorbell ringing, door banging nor phone calling would wake them up to let me in), I managed to find a place at a hostel and not get ripped off or abandoned to die on the streets. It’s true, people did seem to get more hospitable as I went further south.


The only interesting thing along the way to my destination was the way they sold goldfish and fighting fish in tightly shut plastic bags that sparkled in the sun. Pretty, but poor fish!


Now the reason for going to Quy Nhon was to see the Cham ruins and how the city just built itself round them. It was so oddly out of sync how the concrete and electric wires stopped just shy of the ruins, still much inhabited by colonising plants and creepers.


Inside one of these Cham towers was a lingam, still looking so little weathered that I wasn’t sure if it was a reconstruction or an original ruin. It was still used in active worship by the locals.


While the main towers are further in the outskirts of the town, there was a Cham museum in the area, with rather interesting exhibits on show.


Although the main building was closed, there were enough artifacts scattered in the courtyard to be worth a happy picture-taking session, just like this dog guarding the entrance. I really liked its toothy grimace and its pretty two-tiered decorative collar.


Then there were these naga-like carvings that looked like they used to be part of a wall. It looked almost like a modern interpretation of Hindu art.


And the same for this lion-like creature. I enjoyed the little details like the little whorls of hair on its head.


The town has a nice beach with a great view of the curving bay.


Too bad it wasn’t in any condition to swim in, the strong fishy smell put me off any notion of getting into my swim gear.


You see, this town had part of its livelihood in fishing and there were plenty of pretty nets further out that somehow helped to net the fish. These nets were of course responsible for the stench.


The fishermen went to and from the nets using cute little circular boats. It was a wonder they managed to get anywhere.


It was lovely to be in this town with few tourists and no touts at all. I blended in fairly well with the locals (as long as I didn’t open my mouth) and enjoyed being on my own for a few days.

March in Laos: A Stroll Through Luang Prabang

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Luang Prabang is a lovely little town quite deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status. Despite the many tourists, it retains a peaceful atmosphere augmented by the frangipani trees lining the main street.


The architecture was fairly simple with graceful curves reaching to the sky.


We went into the Royal Palace Museum where the beautiful side halls were offset by coconut palms.


There was a rather strange Soviet-inspired statue of (most likely) King Sisavang Vong, the longest ruling monarch of Laos. In fact, his rule was so long that he was only surpassed by King Bhumibol of Thailand in 2001.


Pardon the poor photography, but I think you get the idea of the pretty vista leading up to the main hall.


The main reason to visit the museum is to see the Pha Bang, which is what Luang Prabang is named after. This Buddha image cast in gold and finished with precious stones is believed to protect the city and give legitimacy to the ruler in possession of it. Too bad no pictures were allowed. It was pretty though rather smaller than I expected.


The rest of the museum wasn’t particularly interesting bar a rather impressive sword and weapon display. I liked the ornate door panelling at some of the halls too.


Next, Siamese Cat and I climbed up to That Chomsi, the golden spire at the top of Luang Prabang hill. It was a pretty strenuous hike up the many stairs. Good thing there were lots of signs proclaiming the number of steps to the top.


The spires can be seen from most locations in the town. It’s especially pretty seeing it up close at the top.


The main reward for reaching the top was the fabulous view. You could see the settlement stretching out along the neatly laid roads…


… and the Mekong curving through the city on its way south.


August in China: Xian the Grey

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The overnight train journey to Xian was rather uneventful. I took a middle bunk in a hard sleeper carriage and went to sleep after slurping up the pot of instant noodles I bought at the train station. When I awoke, Xian greeted me in an embrace of grey smog.

I met up with my parents who’d flown in from Shanghai. We started out viewing the few sights in the drab city. The first was the Big Goose Pagoda, apparently built by Journey to the West’s Xuan Zhang for the precious sutras he brought back.


Next, we cabbed it to the Small Goose Pagoda where we climbed up an endless flight of stairs to reach the top. The 15 storeys seemed like they would never end as we circled up and up. Unfortunately, the view was so awful and underwhelming that I didn’t even bother snapping a photo.


The rest of the grounds made up for it. There was a lovely garden with ivy-covered archways and a rather impressive museum too. It made a pleasant diversion for the parents in the afternoon and a good break from my usual frenetic pace.


One thing that perked up the greyness of Xian was how domestic tourists loved to play dress up in the squares. At first I thought there was lots of bridal photography happening that day, but it turned out to be Victorian damsels and Tang dynasty maidens on a fun day out in Xian.


The main thing that made up for the drabness of the city was its food. Xian, being at the beginning of the ancient Silk Route, has lots of Muslim and Central Asian influence in its food. Here, the cuisine is dominated more by wheat and bread than rice and noodles. There is a large Muslim population and pork is far less common in this area.

I apologise for the poor quality pictures as I was too taken by the food to take any shots of the really good stuff. Below you’ll see the stall selling what looked like pulled pork burgers. The filling is made of waxed beef, wind-dried in lots of fat and similar to how Cantonese lup cheong (sausage) and lup ngap (waxed duck) are made. It’s then stewed and pulled, then slapped into white disks of dense wheat bread. It’s greasy and salty and I’m sure it’ll hit the spot just right as a late night snack.


There were also some misses of course. Something I just couldn’t understand was the ma hua porridge locals seemed to love for breakfast. Now I really dig the ma hua in Tianjin and Chongqing: the curls of sweet deep-fried sesame dough are so addictive because they are so crunchy and moreish. When they soak it in water and boil it into a kind of salty porridge with starch, I really don’t understand. Note that the picture below shows me before I tried it.


I just didn’t get the lumps of soggy greasy dough sitting in a starchy goo topped with crispy fried bits and lots of pepper. It seemed like an exercise in incorporating as many types of wheat as possible into the dish without resorting to bread or noodles. Bizarre. Even more bizarre is how they save on washing up by wrapping the bowls in plastic bags first, then slopping the brew into it.


If you’re at the Muslim Quarter, do try out the fabulous barbecue restaurants. You can either order from the menu of pick from the spread outside. I loved the perfectly charred bits of anise-flavoured lamb skewers and the same done with whole fish.


I loved the various types of rose-flavoured desserts. There was one called jing zi gao (mirror cake) made of steamed rice flour with rose and red bean filling. It’s a bit like kueh tutu, except miles better. Another one is like a cross between a tangyuan and a donut: glutinous rice dough filled with rose-flavoured red beanĀ paste and then deep-fried. Amazing stuff. No pictures because I gobbled it all up before remembering I had a camera. Next trip maybe.

August in China: Sanxingdui Museum

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Sanxingdui Museum is a bit of an oddity in the Chinese museum scene. It’sĀ  a spanking new and beautifully curated non-tacky place smack in the middle of nowhere. The site itself is close to where a neolithic jade piece was found by a ditch-digging peasant, and is thought to be the site of the ancient Shu capital.

This lovely reconstructed bronze sculpture and panel greeted us as Mr Bunglez and I entered the main building of the museum. Later we found that the designs were true to the originals. I was gobsmacked by how fine and sophisticated these were and how it didn’t seem in the least primitive, as would be expected for something from the neolithic age. A lot of these could possibly pass off as modern art even.


No photos allowed in the dark galleries filled with awe-inspiring bronze masks with impressive motifs of all-seeing eyes. You’ll have to go there to see it for yourself. What I could get a picture of is a reproduction (the original I saw in a darkened gallery) of a fantastical bronze tree adorned with mystical birds and flowers. I stood in front of both original and reproduction for ages, simply gawping at the refinement and beauty of the sculpture.


It was overcast when we emerged from the museum, but this didn’t detract from the majesty of the (reproduction of, guess where the original was?) only complete bronze human statue found at the site. The figure must’ve used to hold a sceptre of some sort. As it was Olympic season, they cleverly fashioned him holding an Olympic torch for the promotional material. I’m glad they had the sense not to put one on this permanent exhibit though!



Here’s a closeup of the statue. Notice how he’s got pierced earlobes. How cool is that?

August in China: Chongqing

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Chongqing is a big city and it has a big museum to match its size. Most things in China are upsized, like this brand new museum square.


It’s a nice bit of public space, and isn’t too bad for taking wedding photos either!


On the opposite side of the museum is the People’s Concert Hall modelled on the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Too bad it wasn’t free entry for visitors, unlike the Chongqing Museum. All I needed to do was to queue at a little booth to show my passport for a ticket. Considering it was free, I wonder why so many people asked if I’d get a ticket on their behalf. It’s only one per person, so I couldn’t help them. Were they just forgetful people who left their identity cards at home or is there a deeper problem involving whether or not people get issued these cards at all?


The Chongqing Museum was very impressive, especially considering it was free. (It may have only been for 2008 and the Olympic period, but I have no complaints!) Aside from ancient artefacts unearthed nearby, there were works of art like this screen depicting Zhang Fei, one of Liu Bei’s generals in the San Guo (Three Kingdoms) era.


There was also this cool statue of Guanyu, another famous general well-known for his uprightness. We were obviously in the thick of San Guo country.


I’d earlier wanted to go on a cruise of the Sanxia (Three Gorges) region, but I heard so many reports that the flooding from the dam had obliterated most of the best scenery and that it was so difficult to get there independently, I gave up the idea. It’s not easy to travel independently in China and buying a seat on a tour bus is expensive and too touristy. The model of the Three Gorges Dam in the Chongqing Museum is the closest I got to the Three Gorges.


August in China: Guangzhou’s Nanyue Tomb

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In terms of tourist attractions, Guangzhou is a bit like Singapore. While there are lots of little things here and there, there aren’t really a whole load of interesting things to see. Sure, there are some historical sights and lots of parks, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a theme to the place and not much really stands out as a must-see for a foreign tourist. Guangzhou is more a place to be experienced by walking through the streets and observing life as the locals live it.

The only place billed as a tourist attraction that I really liked and felt was worth the entry fee was the Nanyue Tomb. This place was discovered, as per the typical case, by excavations for a spanking new skyscraper. It was not to be when they found the 2000-year old tomb of Zhao Mo, the grandson of the founder of the Nanyue kingdom. The tomb was pretty much intact and there were loads of precious artefacts and (gulp) skeletons of concubines and servants buried together with the ruler.

The imposing front edifice of the place had some odd carvings probably copied from the tomb. It was a nice non-tacky touch, quite atypical compared to other museums I’d been to.


Unfortunately, they couldn’t resist references to Egypt and I.M. Pei. This is as good as it gets.


The tomb itself wasn’t too impressive because it was pretty much empty. All the articles of note were put in the adjoining museum and only little scraps put behind glass were left. Not surprisingly, it was rather claustrophic and had lots of little side chambers. The most chilling bit was how the side chambers contained the remains of real people with real functions, even for the afterlife. There was a kitchen section with skeletons of the cooks and kitchen workers, and there was a concubine section where at least three wives were identified from their jewellery near their remains.


In the museum proper were lots of beautiful things, from jewellery and musical instruments to weapons and religious symbols. It was all pretty cool. The best part of the museum was the burial suit consisted of lots of little jade pieces stitched together to form something like full body armour. It was obviously custom-made, all the way from the hands and feet to the little paunch for the emperor’s spare tire. (The red thread was also a modern reconstruction.)


This place was so good that I spent two hours there and left reluctantly at closing time. I’d definitely have spent longer there had I known what was inside.

November in China: Shaoxing’s Most Famous Son

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Aside from its wine and stinky tofu, Shaoxing is especially famous for the writer and intellectual, Lu Xun. The whole historic quarter of the town is devoted to his memory. Here, the boats in the canals form a pretty backdrop to the various Lu Xun museums dotting the area.


Just by showing our passports at the ticket office, we got a free combination ticket to see all the various museums. They were pretty much a few houses with exhibits showcasing the different aspects of Lu Xun’s life. One of them displayed various portraits of Lu Xun’s family.

Here’s a rather depressing charcoal of his father.


And a dour facsimile of his paternal grandfather.


His mother, from whom he takes his pen name, looks very kind and maternal.


Sadly, I can’t say the same for his scary dragon-lady lookalike grandmother.


Here’s Lu Xun’s badly maintained bedroom. Shame on them for leaving the room to bare wire and damp floors. I couldn’t get close enough to get a good photo, the hordes of tourists kept pressing in around me.


And out we popped into the open, where there was a singer performing Cantonese opera, of all things. Of course, everyone had to take photos and I certainly wasn’t an odd one out here.


The domestic tourists came in packs and there really was no fighting them. Just go with the flow and all will be well. Take copious photos just like the rest of them.


Children are well-pampered here, especially if they’re out on a trip with their family. Here, this little boy poses for a picture, channeling Lu Xun as a child. He sat at his grandmother’s feet listening to her many folk tales. Some of these stories subsequently went on to influence his works.


It’s just as well that entry was free. It took us about two hours to finish the entire complex, then we went off to search for more food to eat and more wine to buy (and drink).