A Whirlwind Work Trip: Summertime in Paris

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

The next part of our trip brought us to Paris where we stayed at Le Grand Hotel, run by the InterContinental. It was indeed a nice hotel with typically Parisian and very opulent rooms. There were soft beds (which my head of delegation didn’t like – oops) and plush carpets. There was also peeling wallpaper and the shower flooded the whole bathroom.

IMG_1877

Something weird happened: as I was settling in, room service rang and set up this elaborate set of drinks and cookies in the room. It was well and good until I excitedly rang my boss and asked if he was enjoying the complimentary drinks. (He wasn’t.) Then I realised that the welcome card had the wrong name on it! Horrified, I called our local representative office who booked the rooms for us to check if that was the name of the secretary doing the booking. (It wasn’t.) So I took their advice to “just whack.” and did exactly that. If you didn’t mind the odd service, the InterCon Le Grand is a nice though horribly over-priced place to stay. Thankfully, we had a free upgrade so the rooms were expensive but not quite horribly expensive for the company.

IMG_1879

We had a while to wander about town and enjoy some cakes at Laduree, which was thankfully still open on a Sunday.

IMG_1881

It’s such an institution there and if you haven’t tried their macarons, you haven’t really tasted one before. Their desserts are all very yummy too.

IMG_1880

Laduree
16 rue Royale 75008 Paris (there are also other branches in Paris, CDG and Versailles)
Tel: +33 (0) 1 42 60 21 79

Thereafter, we went for a bit of a meander through town, passing by the Place de la Concorde and the gardens in the area. There were so many people out in the later afternoon after the shops were closed, simply enjoying the sun. While it was inconvenient for us that we weren’t able to shop in the little time we had in Paris, I liked the idea of life going on in the daytime in spite of the dearth of shopping and commerce.

IMG_1886

I took the requisite touristy photos at what I think is the Place de la Concorde and its obelisk.

IMG_1884

And I grabbed some other pictures of the beautiful buildings sitting pretty in the afternoon sun.

IMG_1887

One of them could be Hotel Crillon, but I can’t be sure. The weather was too beautiful for it to matter.

IMG_1888

On the day with business meetings, it was a rush from stop to stop, with quick photos taken out of the rented car window.

IMG_1896

And this is the only decent shot I got of the Eiffel Tower, taken in the distance.

IMG_1908

When we finally got back from our business meetings, it was only to get a quick round of shopping before the shops closed. One of the incongruous ones I saw was this thoroughly modern Apple shop in an obviously old and well-preserved building.

IMG_1913

We finished off our Paris leg of the trip with a lovely meal at Oscar Restaurant, a favourite of our local representatives. I started with a lovely giblet salad topped with a duck liver terrine. It was typically Parisienne and a much wiser decision than my earlier choices of stodgy food in Milan.

IMG_1918

I was feeling quite heaty from all the travelling and eating (and being stuck in a boardroom for a whole afternoon without getting even a sip of water – poor organisation on the part of the hosts). The beef tartare as a main was very welcome. It was the best one I’ve had, the fresh and tasty raw beef being seasoned just right and not being overwhelmed by the pickle and onion chopped into the mixture. The fresh herbs and side salad helped lots too. By now, my dining companions were looking askance at my rather different choices and wondering what I was going to have for dessert.

IMG_1921

I eschewed the usual chocolate puddings and ice cream and gunned straight for the Faiselle, a type of sweet cheese topped with creme fraiche and accompanied with berry coulis. It was just the right creamy ending to my dinner.

IMG_1924

Oscar Restaurant
6, rue de Chaillot 75116 Paris
Tel: +33 (0) 1 47 20 26 92
Closed for Saturday lunch and on Sunday

Advertisements

July in Vietnam: More Cham Ruins

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

The Cham ruins in the outskirt of Quy Nhon were much more spectacular, particularly because they were set in the rather prettier countryside that the drab concrete town. It was a lovely time of year to visit as the padi fields were in the middle of the growing season, with pretty patchwork fields of alternating green and yellow.

00256

The towers were situated on a hilly outcrop overlooking the fields and a still stream that watered the area.

00253

The good thing about being in an untouristy area was that there weren’t any marked out areas at which to pay entrance fees; the bad thing about being in this untouristy area was that I really hadn’t a clue what I was looking at, just that they were ancient and it was remarkable that they’d been standing for so long.

00234

Still, it was a lovely walk up the hill where there really wasn’t anyone about and I could admire the large expanse of the country below.

00238

I liked the unique barrel-like roof put on a few of these towers and wondered the significance of these barrel-topped ones over the others.

00241

Some of them were already being restored, the sharp lines being made more pronounced with new brick.

00242

The great thing about this place was that I had free rein to walk around and it didn’t appear that the roof was going to tumble down on top of me at any moment.

00244

I took my time, enjoying the views inside and out.

00236

It was nice seeing how the place wasn’t totally restored yet there was still plenty of detail in the unrestored bits. I liked the humour of how the leering toothy face popped out of nowhere in the relief.

00240

There were also other reliefs that looked like table runners or part of a bookmark design. It’s funny how similar designs emerge time and again in different cultures.

00243

As I was all alone, it took  a bit of fiddling with the auto-timer on the camera to get a picture of sorts with the ruins.

00247

Well, not completely alone as I had the company of this little lizard with the rosy body.

00249

August in China: Zhaoxing Town

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

After a whole series of tiny villages made out of clusters of at most fifteen buildings, Zhaoxing was in contrast a village of villages having no less than five large drum towers. It was a bustling town by countryside standards, with several itinerant vendors selling farm produce and wild mushrooms.

cimg2680

We entered through one of the three main gates to the village. This gate bears the sign proclaiming that it was the first village of Dong country.

cimg2688

Like many villages, Zhaoxing straddles a stream that provides water for drinking and washing. Clustered along both sides of the river were many houses. Naturally, there were quite a few wooden bridges dotting the river

cimg26781

Here, bridges were not just meant for crossing. As per Dong tradition, bridges were social places for relaxing, chatting and watching village life go by.

cimg2694

Of course, drum towers were very important too. Zhaoxing is deservedly famous for its five grand drum towers. They each have different designs, according to Dong tradition that requires every drum tower to be different. Unfortunately we were drum towered-out and couldn’t be bothered to check out each one.

cimg2701

It didn’t help that the drum towers were rather deserted because the day we arrived was a festival day. People were either busy with the preparations back at home or milling around waiting for the action to start.

cimg2708

We ended up wandering around quite aimlessly, taking in unusual sights, like this one. Probably the whole village’s shoes were drying against this yellow door.

cimg2690

I was incredibly tempted by the wild mushrooms on sale all over town. Willy was uneasy about it but I was quite taken by the idea of wild mushrooms fresh off the forest floor. It was too bad that our guesthouse lady-boss didn’t want to cook wild mushrooms for our dinner. She said that every year at least one villager would die from eating a bad mushroom. Her family didn’t eat them, so we couldn’t either.

cimg2689

That was just too bad, but no mushroom dinner meant that we had time to have a look at the festival in the village.

August in China: Drum Towers of Northern Guangxi

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

The Dong minority is also very well-known for its drum towers, probably even more so than its fengyu qiao (wind rain bridges). Every village must have at least one of these structures. Rising above each village, it serves multiple functions. It’s a community centre, a meeting place, a town hall, a fire alarm and all-purpose emergency service.

cimg2545

Each of them is unique, a variation on a theme. Count the number of tiers and observe the carvings and you’ll notice that each drum tower is completely different from its cousins in the neighbourhood.

cimg2582

Each is so much a centre of village life that shops open only in the vicinity of a drum tower. Here, they even build a small basketball court in front of the tower. It’s since been converted to a good space for drying rice.

cimg2606

It was lovely to watch how grandparents congregated in the drum towers with their grandchildren. The sandwich generation was away working the fields, or in recent times, had already moved to the cities for work, leaving their children in the care of the elders.

cimg2535

This place was almost like a childcare centre, until we realised that the caretakers weren’t really the grandparents.

cimg25311

It sure looked like the grandparents ran the show, but it was really the TV that got everyone in here.

cimg2532

August in China: Chengyang Bridge

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

In Guilin, I met Willy, a Spanish fella who wanted to go off the tourist loop and see some real villages. We took off after lunch and headed up to Sanjiang (where?) in hopes of getting to Chengyang Bridge before nightfall. It was not to be. The minibuses had stopped by the time we rocked up and we had to take this modified tuk-tuk. It looks a lot sturdier than it feels and of course this photo opp was only possible because of a fuel stop.

cimg2518

Chengyang Bridge is one of the most famous symbols of the Dong minority group. They are famous for their skill in carpentry, particularly in building bridges and drum towers. The bridges are called fengyu qiao (wind-rain bridges) and are very elaborate structures that look like several pagodas joined together. This is the lovely sight that greeted us.

cimg2652

We were lucky to arrive so late because the entrance fee was something crazy like ¥100! For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t know exactly how much it cost. We called our inn on the other side of the bridge and the lady-boss came over to get us. She instructed us not to give in if anyone demanded payment and to tell them that any receipts would be at the inn. I guess this shows that the admission fees weren’t going back to the community!

Nonethelss, the fairy lights on the bridge were magical at night. Thankfully, the lights were switched off at 11 pm so it was relatively good for the environment.

cimg2654

The bridge was also pretty darn good-looking in the day time. It was charmingly rustic and weathered. It was too bad that we couldn’t walk back across the bridge for fear of having to pay the dreaded entrance fee on the way back.

cimg2527

Luckily, the complex of villages was on our side of the bridge and there was so much else to explore. We walked across several equally impressive bridges, none of them demanding entrance fees. However, all of them asked for a small donation in exchange for having your name carved on a stone tablet as a benefactor. Posterity for ¥10 sounded like a good deal, but since Willy had walked ahead and declined the offer, I didn’t bother and didn’t have the chance to ponder the consequences of donation and stone tablet.

cimg2544

I thought this bridge was especially spectacular. It was a lot quieter and rose majestically above the fields. I guess it’s less famous for the simple reason that it was further away from the main road.

cimg2557

One of the bridges led to the market and of course this was the most popular with the locals, especially the elders. It was a great place to hang out as it was breezy and there was a good view of the river. Some people played cards and dominoes while others just snoozed. What a great lifestyle choice.

cimg2561

On this bridge I found a little niche housing the gods of the bridge. It was pretty old but well-tended. Cute.

cimg2560

Quite serendipitously, we met this man who asked us what we were up to and invited us to his house for a cup of tea. Turned out that he was a great bridge builder who had done many projects in the big cities and even as far as Shanghai and Beijing. He showed us cut-out newspaper features on him and sheaves of architectural plans of bridges he’d drawn. He had shelves of models of bridges and drum towers all over his house. It was too bad he didn’t allow us to photograph those because he had plans to set up a museum featuring them. He was quite pleased to oblige us with a photo with him though.

cimg2556

November in China: The Wrong Side of the River

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

I visit Shanghai once a year. Each time I’ll stay with my parents who live on the wrong side of the Huangpu river.  Real Shanghainese only like being on the Puxi side. The irony is that these “real Shanghainese” people are invariably migrants from the rural Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, and those who’ve lived on Shanghai land for centuries are the farmers from Pudong. Many of the original Shanghainese of vintage cheong sam and period films had largely fled the country when the Communists took over.

With its ever-competing skyscrapers built one after another in a Babel-esque race to the heavens, Pudong is hardly a louche part of town. As Jin Mao Tower and the IFC Building tower over their competition, it’s hard to believe that the other buildings are already taller than your average skyscraper.

On an unusually fine day, I went across the river to Puxi and returned by the incredibly cheap ¥0.50 ferry from Dongmen Lu on the Puxi side to Dongchang Lu at Pudong. It was perfect weather to take a panaroma or two of the buildings, just that a bit of patience was needed to wait for the advertising ferry to pass. These ferries go up and down the river at all hours showcasing brightly lit advertisements to both sides of the river.

dscf3044

Mum calls the Jin Mao Tower the “bottle” and the IFC Building the “bottle opener.” The Pearl Tower is now relegated to one corner of the skyline. You can just about spot its spire in the extreme left hand side of the photo below.

dscf3038

As we drew closer to shore, the Pearl Tower came into view. Sadly or not, depending on your views on ghastly architecture, this Shanghai icon is slowly being literally obscured by the new buildings coming up around it. It is gradually being replaced by the IFC Building as the prime destination for tour group visits.

dscf3058

Dodging motorbikes and bicycles, I scrambled off the ferry and headed over to what was once the tallest building in the world. At the moment  I visited in November 2008, Taipei 101 was the tallest. As I write, the Burj Dubai has already caught up. Looks like the race will continue wherever the new money is. Look carefully at the top of the IFC Building and you’ll see the bottle opener part of it. Legend goes that the rectangular hole was supposed to be a perfect circle. It was changed to the current design because of fengshui reasons. Another legend goes that it was designed by the Japanese and the shape of the building is meant to be a katana in the heart of the business district. A circle at the top of the building would allow the sun to shine directly through, far too reminiscent of the Japanese rising sun for comfort.

dscf3062

Rumours or not, this building is incredibly imposing, especially right at its foot. It’s near impossible to get the whole building into one frame. I must have craned my neck till it was almost 90 degrees to my body!

dscf3191

It’s expensive to go up the tower. I found it a bit too cheesy to do it this time because I’d just concluded a hardcore backpacking trip in the region. Going up would blow pretty much what had been a whole day’s budget. It was just as well that the weather turned bad. Mum told me that on bad days, the top of the building would be swathed by clouds and groups going up would pay the same prices but see absolutely nothing. Buyer beware!

dscf3192

[edited 5 Mar 2009 7.50pm: Mum pointed out that the ferry price was and, at the point of writing, still is ¥0.50, not ¥2.]