From this perspective, it looks like any other village in the Chinese countryside – crumbling in a slow decay, its population reduced and largely elderly. This could be anywhere in China. Yet Zhangbi is unique. Beneath its dusty cobbled lanes and rickety houses is a subterranean fortress linked by kilometres of corridors that date from the Tang dynasty. There are intriguing secret doorways and stairways, peepholes and air vents, officers quarters and even stables. In its day, this was a highly sophisticated defense system, a dense network of rooms and passages designed for stealthy attacks as a form of defense.
Yet to me, this ancient fort, probably the only one of its kind in China, is not the real attraction. What I found more interesting is the village itself whose walls and houses have witnessed the passing of the centuries and the dynasties and miraculously still stands today. Yet untouched by the tourism machine, this place still looks the same as it has for the last thousand years. But by the time you read this, Zhangbi may well be on its way to a cosmetic facelift – and in my book, not necessarily for the better!
The mouth to the beautiful Kurobe Gorge is not easy to get to. It took us two changes of trains and the better part of a day’s journey to get here from Minakami Onsen.
Most visitors do not stay long. This small town is known as a transit point to the real attraction – the dinky little train ride that leads you deep into the steep valleys of the Northern Japan Alps that is the untouched and serenely beautiful Kurobe Gorge. For me, Unazuki Onsen left a different impression. I will remember it for entirely different reasons – for the one of the best kaiseki dining experiences I’ve had in Japan featuring ika hotaku (firefly squid) and the surreal (yes, creepy) experience I had in the hotel onsen.
When I’m traveling, that one indispensable meal of the day for me is always breakfast. From the traditional soft-boiled egg in a cup with iced white coffee (Ipoh, Malaysia) to the continental European fare of simple warm croissants with butter, jam and some tea (Venice, Italy) to miso soup, cold tofu and rice (everywhere in Japan), I’ve had a nice cross-section of breakfasts around Asia, Australia and Europe. But each country or region has its share of great breakfasts too. And some duds too. Check these out. Continue reading
Posted in China, Europe, Japan, Malaysia, Travel with kids
Tagged Australia, breakfast, Hallstatt, Ipoh, Malaysia, Melbourne, Mornington Peninsula, Pingyao, Venice
While Pingyao is well-known as one of China’s best-preserved ancient towns, there are also gems in the Shanxi countryside around Pingyao such as this: the huge sprawling complex of the Wang family courtyard.
This place gives the term multi-generational living a whole new meaning. Imagine living, working and studying together with the entire clan, aunties, uncles, cousins – all sharing the same surname. I don’t know about you but I would find this extremely suffocating and it would not be unexpected to see the rise of petty squabbles, politics, family intrigues and the like as Zhang Yimou showed in his film Raise the Red Lantern.
I don’t have a good impression of Datong. I found it to have a slightly sullen, seedy air. It felt depressing, chaotic and grimy. There was a layer of dust on everything. And the reason for that soon became clear when we cut through the town to stop for lunch en route to the Hanging Monastery. There was construction going on everywhere. They were not constructing new buildings. Rather, they were constructing, or perhaps I should say re-constructing the city walls – the very ones they tore down a couple of decades ago when culture and history didn’t seem to matter as much. Back when ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’ came to Datong, the old walls went and along with them, old neighbourhoods. People lost their businesses and homes – all in the name of progress. Yet now, the reverse is happening. Those who have settled where the walls stood are now asked to relocate – to make way for the ‘new’ walls.
Actually I suspect that even now, reclaiming culture and history may not have been the true impetus to re-c0nstruct. More likely it is the lure of money that the city stands to make from tourism. Having seen the success of towns like Xian and Pingyao (where we were headed next) where old walls encase authentic old townscapes, it must have crossed someone’s mind that Datong could also be a tourist magnet if they could just re-build the old town. And the best place to start? Tear down the new and re-build the old! Continue reading
Train journeys are always a joy in Japan. It’s easy, comfortable, clean and convenient. We took the 7-day JR Pass, which allowed us to move from town to village with ease on the vast network of connections. From Minakami Onsen we headed for Unazuki Onsen, another small onsen town in the foothills of the Japanese alps. The first leg of the train ride on the fast Hakutaka train was a series of showy breathtaking vistas as the train burrowed through hills and mountains, bursting out of dark tunnels to sprawling farm land, villages, water-logged fields and always the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Japanese alps, before hugging the coast briefly.
But that was not the only story that was told. The slow commuter electric train that would bring us on the second leg of the day to Unazuki Onsen showed us an entirely different but equally rewarding landscape – one that is slower, up-close and intimate. To go from shinkansen to neighbourhood train in one day and to see two different sides of scenic Japan is always a pleasure. Continue reading
It only gets 3 hours of sunlight a day. That’s one reason why the Hanging Monastery of Hengshan or in Chinese, Xuankong Si (悬空寺) is still in relatively good shape today despite its 1,500-year history. The faded paintwork aside, one marvels at how the place has defied time and gravity to cling so tenaciously to its place on the side of a mountain for so many years.
Over the centuries, despite the thousands of pilgrims, worshippers and tourists tramping through its corridors and walkways, the structure remains intact in its aerie. And don’t be fooled. It’s not held in place by the thin flimsy pillars either. Those, according to the guide, were just placed to give some reassurance of structural stability to those who look with scepticism, disbelief and awe at the architecture. In reality, it’s really the cross-beams driven deep into the mountain that still supports the weight of the temple. Continue reading