Date: 11th May 2016
First Impression in Kosovo
(10th January) Kosovo does not spring up on the usual lists of the world’s desirable destinations, nor is it a conventional place that people would first think of. Just mention this landlocked disputed territory, war-torn images of tragic death, fatal bombs, dilapidated buildings and bullet holes overshadowed our mind, not to mention poverty and desperation. Only some inquisitive ones, like us, dare to leave footprints and reveal the mysterious veil of this Balkans place.
The road to Pristina stretched towards the far invisible horizon. Our bus continued trundling southwards, running over the black tarmac so fast that the endless passing of greenery became a hazy blur. “Please be safe. Don’t go wandering around.”, “I will light a candle for you every evening and hope that you are safely sheltered.” Impressive email messages from my friends blinked through my mind when a yesterday’s protest erupted in the capital where protesters threw petrol bombs .to government headquarters. I took a deep breath, gust of cold air chilled my heavy heart that was mixed with anxiety and excitement. What was it to be as a daring pioneer to explore this unknown place, the youngest country in Europe when the others deem it dangerous?
The bus finally stopped, and dropped us on the main centre of Pristina where few historical buildings or monuments are concentrated there, and walkable within half an hour. During Yugoslavia’s Communist regime, Pristina’s old town was heavily modified to build a model city by destroying the olds, thus leaving few major sights nowadays. The Sultan Mehmet Fatih Mosque, dated back to the 15th century, is currently under restoration. The statue of Ibrahim Rugova, who is the father of the nation that lobbied for western support during the Kosovo War, glued near the main square. In the meantime, a bit further down the street, we came across the statue of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, the Albanian national hero who resisted the Ottomans in 15th century. Today, the Kosovo Assembly and government headquarters are located adjacent to the statue of Skanderbeg, with a fence full of photos of perished victims during the Kosovo War.
It was like a haunting reminder of Kosovo’s past, and reminded us how hollowing the scars the country is bearing after more than a decade. As we followed our Albanian guide to walk to the other sides of the city, we saw each varying stall lining with wooden boarder of Albanian tars, fresh fruits, daily grocery and bulky electronics. There also stood outdoor markets of moccasin shoes, saddlers and curriers, among which were from tanning to leather dyeing and belt making. I spot the occasional procession of people wandered in one direction, weaving a little, chatting as they meandered in relaxation despite the turbulent past of their country. Some shoppers headed down to the stall goods, lost in thought and were figuring out what to buy; while cars were trying to squeeze on the narrow road in the midday. Several Kosovar men were standing around, kept staring to us of a young group of Asians in great interest and seemed a bit surprised as we came nearby, asking the euro price of half-dozen of apples.
Back on the main road, to our right, a widely gray pathway leads to the Nena Tereza Boulevard, the main pedestrian drag that stretches for miles, with trendy cafes and clubs that squeezed next to each other. In every few feet away, there would be another food stand where sellers extended a friendly hand of aromatic popcorns and drinks. To grasp a sense of the pace of life, the place deserved much more time to sit back in the outdoor seating area or have a stroll along the boulevard, to feel the energetic vibe of the entire city. At each intersection we were greeted by welcoming sight of waving hands, cordial smile and overwhelming greetings like “Hello, how are you?” in thick English accents. The Kosovars, we found, are more than gracious, and make us feel like a mini-celebrity. Some youngsters in their twenties, looking genuinely interested in us, continued to follow our group by asking where we are from, requesting to take photos with us, exchanging Facebook account and trying to invite us for a coffee.
Despite less photogenic than other European states, we took pleasure in each little discovery in Pristina, and observing small facets of the daily life of Kosovars. Forget the pessimistic comments you have heard and the never-ending associations with war – Pristina is arguably a pleasant place for exploring and feeling the pulse of life in Kosovo. Once you get into conversation, you will soon realise the incredible hospitality by the Kosovars. You are the guest, and you have to be treated as one. ♦
Date: 25th March 2016
Observation on a week in Serbia
“What? You are going to Serbia? Why Serbia and what for?” That was the immediate response of my friends when they knew I was soon flying to Serbia. Serbia, to myriads of us, is merely just a middle-size country located in the Balkan Peninsula, nothing much special. When you asked about this uncommon destination beforehand, our knowledge was only limited to its past presence as part of Yugoslavia, the NATO bombardment in 1999, and also the birthplace of Novak Djokovic for some tennis frantic. Yet, the more the conversations with the locals, the more I discover the fascinating side of Serbia, and the more I would like to share my observation about this actually somewhat unique country.
Nice to Meat you, Serbia… And Say Yes to Cheese!
As we first arrived in the city centre of Belgrade, we were greeted by the aroma of grilled meat on wooden tables in a traditional restaurant. “They are Pljeskavica and Ćevapi, our national dishes. Enjoy!” The waiter smiled when we met our curious eyes, and our mouth watered when he explained to us. Served on a hot plate with flatbread and Serbian soup as side dishes, pljeskavica is made of delicious meat patty, grilled onions and a mixture of ground pork and beef. While the grilled, finger-shaped sausages in front of us were ćevapi that contain juicy minced meat.
Meanwhile, entering inside the Restoran Gros, the most popular restaurant in Leskovac recommended by the Deputy Mayor, I truly enjoyed the traditional appetizers that consist of sliced hams, sausages and varying favours of cheese, with sliced vegetables on the side. The pule cheese and kflice the Serbian cheese rolls, usually wrapped inside the Pogacha bread, both melted in my mouth as if a simple pleasure. No wonder Serbia is often hailed as meat and cheese lovers’ paradise!
Serbian Language: Srpski Jezik & Srpski Jезик
Just stroll on the path that is next to the road signs and brand names, you are bound to see lines of Russian-like alphabets for showing the directions. Pay a visit to bookstores and flip through any introductory book, it is likely you will see pages and pages showing those lively wordings.
“Language, especially the Cyrillic script, is at the heart of our national identity.” Our local guide Maja told us. The Cyrillic script has long been an iconic symbol that distinguished the Serbs from their Croat and Bosnian neighbours that are in use of Latin script. It has been used in Serbia for more than 1000 years, and during the mid-19th century, Russian Cyrillic was adapted to the Serbian language due to linguistic reform, developing an alphabet that had exactly one symbol for each sound. Maja continued, “Serbs would regard you as foreigners no matter how many years in the country unless you learn Serbian.
Even though Serbian is the only official language, due to increasing connectivity under the globalisation, young pupils also study English, the lingua franca, from their first grade. Some, like Filip, a NGO director whom we met, studied abroad and speak fluent English, in hope of grabbing more working opportunities in face of high unemployment rate in the society. Even during the Yugoslav communist rule, from our discussions with a professor at the University of Belgrade, he strived to learn English to catch up with the technological advancements from other countries. Yet whatever purpose of enhancing their English proficiency, they, and most of the Serbians from all walks of life, express their unfailing pride towards the primacy of Cyrillic, their linguistic heritage.
To Survive as a Christian, to Live on as a Christian
“Our Orthodox religion” Maja continued on the bus, “symbolises spiritual unification of all Serbs. We survive, and we withstand at last.” After the founding of Serbian Orthodox Church in 1219, it was tied to the rise of the Serbian state, with Saint Sava as the central figure of the church. However, due to the loss in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbia was on the edge of Ottoman Empire until its independence in 1879. Even so, embracing staunch faith of religion, the church still played a leading role in consequent uprisings against the Turkish occupation. The church’s close linkage with Serbian resistance to Ottoman rule, in preventing the Turks’ influence of Islam, enabled Orthodoxy to endure in this Balkans soil.
Up to now, more than three quarters of Serbians become Orthodox Christians, and place great weight to moral family values that are transferred by religious beliefs. The Church itself is often characterized by the benevolence of the Holy Fathers in images drawn from the family. The Orthodox Church exalts togetherness of a family especially when the fullness of life triggered within the inner peace with couples and siblings. The family is a cocooned institution where the leaven of the faith is nurtured, and where humans first begin to learn and rise to full life in Christ. In embracing the close-knit bonds of families, family represents the basic cell of society and stands in priority of every individual. Love inside, as Orthodox faith advocated, nourished, refined and cultivated, lies merely not in those within intimate periphery, but also steadily extends to brotherhoods and neighbours.
Serbia: an Awakening Eagle
“Belgrade is undeveloped… or is developing”. Filip, who worked as a financial director in Civil Rights Defender, told us. “Strictly speaking, I believe Serbia is still a long way to become functional market economy”. Overall, in his opinion, Serbia is still enmeshed in serious fiscal imbalances and spiralling budget deficit. One of the five people are unemployed, and private consumption is weighed down and contracted by ongoing deleveraging. Only by consolidating structural reforms agenda, and transparency of the rule of law can the country leap with concrete improvements.
Mr. Li, the ambassador of Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, whom we met next day, also shared Filip’s view towards nowadays Serbia’s stagnant economy, but with different reasons and explanations. “Economy in Serbia is now worse than it was 30 years ago, due to 10-year economic sanctions by the West.” Starting in 1992, the United Nations Security Council imposed broad financial sanctions against Serbia (Yugoslavia at that time) for its role in Bosnia War and later Kosovo War. “When China just began its Reform and Opening up in 1980s, Serbia poured much-welcomed foreign capital to invigorate our economy. After 30 years, more prosperous as we are, we are assisting Serbia for further development through our bilateral cooperation.”
As Serbia could become a part of Maritime Silk Road, Ambassador Li is pleased to regard it as China’s vital partner for large-scale joint infrastructure projects. Chinese diverse investments, including the construction of China-Serbia Friendship Bridge, Serbia-Hungary high speed rail, and a new coal-fired power plant, are currently proceeding to deepen regional interconnectivity. “Let’s hope all these developments bloom, for the sake of mutual benefits of both countries.”
… and Amiable People encountered !
To add credit during our stay in Serbia, we have never thought of being graciously invited by Dr. Jovanovic, the Deputy Mayor of Leskovac, and Mr. Nesic, the President of the Committee for Human Rights, to be in Leskovac Assembly during the press conference. After that, without us asking, they accompanied a group of us to the town visit for the entire afternoon, thoroughly explained about Serbia’s socio-economic development and treated us a delicious Serbian lunch in Restoran Gros, as described at the first of this article. While Ambassador Li, surprised by the visit of our large group of Hong Kongers, greeted us with welcoming gesture and hand shaking one-by-one, and spent his busy hour into a fruitful discussion with us. And, let’s not forget the local guide Maja, who showed us unparalleled hospitality all the way, from introducing sightseeing attractions to offering us valuable insights towards the basic Serbian culture.
Time flies. As the glorious sun gradually lost its radiance and drowned in the horizon, myriads of the locals were waving their hands, bidding us a farewell, and wishing us a pleasant journey ahead when our bus fuelled its engine and headed south to Kosovo. Yet the sights and sounds of Serbia, especially the views of significant landmarks, the smiling faces and sincere amiability of the locals, will forever linger in my heart with appreciation. Thank you for making our journey memorable. Hvala. ♦
Date: 28th Feb 2016
Beyond Belgrade – A Day in Novi Sad
After some sightseeing in Belgrade for a few days, the stay still didn’t satiate our yearn for travelling further, but grows within each passing day. In hope of making the most of our journey in Serbia, we decided to head to the north, to Novi Sad, which is the capital of the Autonomous region of Vojvodina. After the bus ride for an hour and a half, the peak of the medieval fortress and the snowy outskirts of this second largest Serbian city passed in the glimpse of our eager eyes.
On a rocky cliff above the right bank of the Danube, there extended an ancient military fort since the 18th century which its 5200-metre-long defence line stretches from the base of Fruska Gora. This Petrovaradin Fortress witnessed the drastic evolutions for centuries: It was first built by the Romans and expanded by Cisterian monks in the 13th century, then captured by the Ottomans in 16th century and the Austrians 150 years later. Refurbished in 1753 and 1776, nowadays Petrovaradin Fortress, though demilitarized in mid-20th century, becomes one of the most complex and best preserved artillery bastions in the Balkans. With the apex of 125m above the sea level, this stunning work of fortification gains its prominence by virtue of its geostrategic location. Of total of over 100ha, the upper Fortress comprises a maze of underground passageways, tunnels and galleries; while the lower one incorporates the officers’ residences, old arsenal and barracks. We meandered through the snow-streaked stairs up to the top of the Fortress, and to grab a thorough look at the scenery from this hailed Gibraltar of the Danube.
I left brisk footprint in the snow every step I climbed. The icy air whistled around my ears, giving me tingling sensations. The white specks of snowflakes, like powder, were pouring down like floating raindrops and caked my boots. The moment when I touched the fluffy snow, they dissolve into tiny droplets that soaked my skin. Wherever I set eyes on, my vision blurred with little white dots. Everything glistening was cloaked by such pure white blanket of snow, highlighting the bushes with an ivory outline of softness. The Clock Tower, in baroque style with Roman numerals, stood in harmony with this magical scene. As a distinctive landmark of the fortress, what makes the Tower unique are its short hand shows minutes and the long hand reflects hours, as opposite from the ordinary clock. Its slender structure, visible from afar, rang for the boatman on the river Danube, and reminded the change of the guards and military order in the past centuries.
Follow the Danube River, the main part of the city extended on the left bank of the river, while smaller part Petrovaradin lie on the right bank. Varadin Bridge, built in 2000, links the two sides after the destruction of NATO bombardment. The panoramic view of the Novi Sad and the ice-shored Danube River, as cloaked by heavy snow, sparkled in glimmering ivory. Snow dazzled in such a picturesque scene and shades of tree-leaves shimmered like tiny diamonds. While in Petrovaradin side, rows of houses fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, just the works of art along with their beautiful roofs. That was how being on top of the city feels like, after a gaze at this foreign land with a mysterious white cover.
As we left the Fortress, snow stopped and we headed to the Liberty Square (Serbian: Trg Slobode) in the opposite side of the Danube River. Liberty Square, as a cultural centre during the Austro-Hungarian rule in 18th century, is nowadays a usual rendezvous point and where focal manifestations were held. On the west side of the square is the Town Hall in Neo-Renaissance style with striking Ionic and orderly Corinthian columns. The front façade stands elegant pillars on the ground floor decorated with enchanting figures of 16 Greek goddesses. While at the top encompasses a tall tower with a bell of St. Florian, patron of the city. Additional to the centre of the square is the marble monument dedicated to Svetozar Miletić, a famous Serbian leader.
But before I got further captivated by those architectural styles in the Liberty Square, what stroked us was the splashy pedestrian thoroughfare that led towards to the end of Bishop’s Palace. One of the oldest lanes, if not the most beautiful, is Dunavska street – there we were ready to be inserted into everyday life and relished in the charm of the city. Interlocking series of vibrantly-hued walls, and the flourish of rainbow colour and whimsical ornaments, were like a treasure blessed with art nouveau items. The ionic façades, ceramic structure and regular geometrical shapes eventually seduced us as if rejoicing in a typical European town of 18th century. As soon as people continued clanking down the cobbled road, so did we wander with the locals in the middle of those two-story houses.
Outside the houses, multifarious open-terrace cafés, bohemian-style inns and brand-name boutiques were all concealing in the courtyards. The sellers piled up everything from daily necessities to fancy gourmets. Metallic chairs were extended along the flowery paths, and stained glass windows were flung open for exposing visually-rich interiors. Smiling shop-keepers, in their welcoming gesture, simultaneously ventilated their linear array of shops. The lingering scent of coffee wafted through the air. While far-off conversations punctuated with laughter, and the vicinity cheers were spilling from craft and pastry shops, adding exuberant atmosphere to this main promenade.
After a long day walking around this refreshingly relaxed city, our cameras already exceeded with images of snow-capped Fortress view, the Square and our smiling faces; while our sensory has been overloaded by the liveliness and well-tended beauty of Novi Sad. Clinging to this city already, until the dusk fell, we continued mingling amongst the youngsters and had a very last drink before returning to Belgrade. ♦
Date: 1st Feb 2016
Evening glitters and New Year vigour in the “White City”
Belgrade, literally translates as the “White City”, matches with its freezing weather during the day we came – around -2ºC with snow flakes. Yet the frosty atmosphere didn’t chill our passion to be immersed in the New Year exhilaration. Such gritty exuberance and the twinkles of evening lights make the city appear to be one of the impressive places in the Balkans. While it anticipates for a rosier future, the statues and varied styles of architecture speak of the past and the steady transformation of this “White City”: the Austro-Hungarian relics blench with the modern cafes and brand shops, and the bygone-era culture coexists with the city nightlife.
Located at the confluence of two major rivers, this is also where the River Sava meets the Danube. After the sun lost its colour and darkness cloaked at around 5pm, I, despite continual fall of snow, meandered along the rivers with schoolmates during the New Year’s day. Follow the golden Branko’s Bridge, you could hear a pin drop except our wandering footsteps and chorus of Cantonese New Year songs, just for feeling less frozen. It stood still, symbolised Old and New Belgrade. I grasped my camera, and captured the glamour of Belgrade’s landscape that can last forever in my lens, while conquering wind howls and overcoming icy sensations at the same time. The crisp air just chilled my fingers soon even with a pair of gloves, leaving me teeth-chattered. Each of these photos, taken from the district of Old Belgrade, was my labour of love. Across the River Sava were myriads of communist-era blocks and modern buildings of New Belgrade. The city lights from those buildings dazzled like diamonds, and splashed like pearls that coloured the dark sky and reflected upon the rivers. The lake glistened, mirroring the luminescence from the bridges, restaurants and infrastructure in the other side. Amid the start of the rule of Federal Yugoslavia, it was the source of pride of the communist government to convert this marshy land into a socialist capital through radical urbanisation. Nowadays New Belgrade, born from the ashes of World War II, gradually thrives as a financial centre with diversifying businesses and multifarious infrastructure. One, the Ada Bridge, which was designed to reduce traffic flow in the city centre and the Gazela Bridge starting in 2004, illustrates the prosperous side of the capital.
As we wondered where the locals were in the first evening of New Year, our bus soon arrived at the Republic Square where the National Museum and National Theatre were located near. Established right after the demolition of the Stambol Gate in 1866, the Square reminded the Serbs of the bloodshed centuries ago about the Turks execution of non-Muslim subjects in front of the place. It was also where the attack on Belgrade occurred during the First Serbian Uprising in 1806. Just beside the Square, the bronze statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic stood still on a horse, with his hand pointing to Constantinople, showing the Turks to leave. It was erected in credit of the Prince’s expulsion of the Turks and liberation of the remaining seven cities in 1867. Today in the New Year, under the beam of light flickering from the lamps, the daring prince looked even more grandeur in front of our own eyes, and stunned us after we comprehended his courageous, powerful character.
Next to the Republic Square, we all took a wander down the Knez Mihailova Street in pleasure, which is one of the city’s most precious monumental complexes. This grand thoroughfare continue following the design of the Roman city of Singidnum. Nowadays, Austro-Hungarian style of mansions are squeezed between the academic-style villas that were built by the wealthiest families at the end of 1870s. Although its original appearance still endures in contemporary days, the purpose of such neo-classical architecture is not the same anymore. Rather than for the upper class’s residential living, it however became a lively pedestrian boulevard filled with sequences of grandiose coffee houses and multifarious sidewalk stalls of sweet snacks and wonderful ornaments. Wooden market houses and shop fronts were a blaze of colour; so too were the smiling people wearing bulky yet well-tailored coat, for their slow stroll with their loved ones. On the main pedestrian zone, the youngsters and the elders were relishing the decorations of the Christmas tree and the laser lights that illuminated surrounding buildings, giving them an over-worldly feel. Some delightfully gathered New Year gifts into their leather bags; some were hand-in-hand, murmuring to each other tenderly without noticing anyone; while others, like us, travelled in groups with friends that altogether burst into constant cheers. Meanwhile, standing under the shade of historical houses were the roadside stall owners, either serving the travellers from different nationalities or promoting their items to the passer-by. Postcards and magnets of the breath-taking city views, as well as hosts of Serbian folk music CDs just caught my glimpse.
When I busily carried my shopping bags, at the heart of the city centre, we took delight in each discovery, little-by-little. With our greetings Screna Nova Godina (Happy New Year in Serbian) to everyone encountered, the impressed locals eventually hugged and wished us a pleasant stay in Belgrade. The next thing that lured us was probably the savour of the aroma of traditional delicacies. The mingling smell of pljeskavica and cevapci began emanating from these restaurants and floating in the air. Potent mixture of onion, spice and pepper, as well as the dishes of dried fish and grilled sausages just tingled my nose. I hold my breath and relaxed my pace, how much those sights, smell and sounds added vigour to this city. What a bliss when the locals were exchanging presents in a frenzy of joy after having a palatable banquet, under the sea of blooming lights and the romance of snowflakes falling.
What highlighted the New Year celebration was the live performance besides the National Assembly of Serbia, which was constructed in the neo-Baroque style with Renaissance elements. As we all waited in line to watch the performance, the stage was already filled with constant flurry of excitement and there was a hum of voices when more people filed in. Rock music, rumbled like thunder, roared through the Kralja Milana Street for miles. Every time the bass drum was deafeningly struck, I could vividly feel the vibrancy of repercussion. The electric air became alive along with our upbeat feelings, and the stage was flashing with the backdrop of kaleidoscopic patterns of beams, pushing the atmosphere to the fullest. No matter the tranquil landscape scenery near to the Rivers or the powerful rhythmic display of rock swirling, they all signified a great start of the New Year, in this diversifying “White City”. ♦
Next post: Sightseeing in Novi Sad, Serbia
Date: 1st Sept 2015
Jingdezhen (景德鎮) – Home of Porcelain Wares
In formal gatherings with senior officials in China, it is always the highlight when foreign diplomats or privileged guests are greeted by the shaking hands and a Chinese gift as a token of appreciation. Though wrapped in lavish at first sight, the gift behind, actually the porcelain wares, more or less contains the toil of labour, the art of cravings and sleepless wait of time. Yet with all these consecutive demands, creators’ endeavour comes to no avail when such Chinese treasure has long been praised as thin as paper, as white as jade, as bright as a mirror, and as sound as a bell throughout the centuries. And there is one typical place, a place where inspiration of those creators flourished and prospective artists nurtured. The home of porcelain wares, beyond doubt, goes to Jingdezhen.
Since Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), Jingdezhen wares have become popular for its wide array of porcelain types including famille-rose, linglong, blue-white as well as color-glazed ones. Nearly every Chinese emperor gazed with amazement by its tone colour and variations, while the western traders earned a big pot of gold through intense trading in bygone days. Even now, just stroll near to orderly lines of semi-finished white teapots, jars and plates, you will see how translucent and jade-like they are with delicate incising and polishing. The process from transforming from clay mold to extravagant decorations is by no means easy but involves craftsmen’s pair of skillful hands and subtle division of labour. After the cooling of half-finished wares, they will soon be coated with the layer of gilding glaze and baked at a thousand degrees with copper, iron or gold as colouring agent. Here, you will be impressed by the unfailing dedication of workers who are burying their head to clay model, placing the work in care for trimming as well as mastering temperature changes, rain or shine. Equally diligent are some counterparts who are firing white-coloured glasses onto plain porcelain, baking them in a kiln or painting patterns of flowers or dragons as decorations. Had it not been for workers’ consistent tenacity and technique innovation, such masterpieces would not be displaced in lines of shops and would not be in vogue among Chinese citizens, and even the senior officials and Chinese leaders.
Tracing back in the heydays of China, time often elapsed with travellers carrying boxes of porcelain wares from Jingdezhen, through ancient Silk Road or sea routes, to the other side of the globe. The lusterless hue and elegant quality of porcelain just lured everyone, including us in nowadays from different walks of life. It is convicted that there lies a promising future in Jingdezhen, a future that is envisioned with craftsmen’s advancement and tourists’ fascination during the making phrases and graceful final products, from the bottom of their heart. ♦
Date: 10th Aug 2015
Mount Lushan (廬山) – A Green Jade blended with History
Here comes a popular saying, “No other mountains under heaven can surpass Mount Lushan”. Located in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province and the southern part of Yangtze River, Mount Lushan is blessed with craggy cliffs, roaring waterfalls, infinite rock formations and cultural artefacts. Such spectacular landscapes, created during the Fourth Glacial age with the rubbing geological movements, are often bathed in the dreamy sea of clouds for around two hundred days per year. Mysterious though it seems, we, speeding through the highway from Nanchang (Jiangxi’s major city), can’t wait to see this horst-style block mountain, a mountain that is hailed as a world-renowned summer resort, from ancient centuries to present days.
After two hours ride, verdant hillsides and lush mountains chains were looming in a nearer distance and soon, we found ourselves to be in the main entrance of Lushan National Park. With weather as steamy as 37°C, Mount Lushan, known with the heavy cloak of fog, was unexpectedly bright and clear under the boiling sun on that day. Under the gentle shade of emerald trees, we, in a line, started trekking on the sun-kissed stairs step-by-step. As the climbing elevation got higher and higher, so was our sweat dripping. Yet we still strolled through the traditional pavilions and arched bridges that were open for panoramic views of large boulders, abundant vegetation, stretching ridges and undulating peaks. Just stop and take a look, the dynamics of rock shape and beautiful slabs of granite intrigued me. Some rose acutely like a giant from the ground base while others look perilously grandeur hanging in the middle of the azure sky. While hosts of Taoist and Buddhist temples (such as Donglin Temple), associated with the spiritual faith of the traditional Chinese, were all coexisted with the forested landscape of this scared hill in harmony. It is admittedly easy to lose oneself in sublime beauty of Mount Lushan.
Not only were we irresistibly enraptured by such breath-taking views, but also numerous Chinese poets including Li Bai and Bai Juyi in Tang Dynasty, as well as Su Tungpo in Song Dynasty. Mount Lushan was also the cultural cradle where pastoral poetries were initiated by Tao Yuanming, with his expression of untamed wilderness and fascination towards the purity of nature. While the Academy of White Deer Cavern, which is resting on this hill that embodied imperative philosophies of Zhu Xi and neo-Confucianism, is one of the four most famous academies in ancient heydays. Even during 1936, alongside being the summer spot of Chiang Kai-shek, it was the venue where he met with Zhou Enlai to discuss a united front against the Japanese invasion and at last in the following year, announced a full mobilization for war against Japan. After the establishment of the People’s Republic, the significance of this hillside endured due to the three conferences of the Chinese Communist Party under the chairmanship of Mao Zedong. This vibrant mountain, alongside its remarkable natural environment, is also endowed with historical value.
On the rest of the upward stairs, we walked on, followed the footsteps of those Chinese poets, and our toil finally paid off after arriving at the Three Tier Spring. Being around the backside of the Five Elder Peaks and at the lower source of the Qinglian Valley, it plummets endlessly along the three-tier cliff for 155 metres, while in the meantime splitting the grand rocks, crashing the cliffs base and converging waters in an irresistible force. Under the midday sun-rays, the thunderous downpour glinted in golden light, as if countless pearls were sliding into the turquoise pool. Its regular tinkling sound, orchestrated like a symphony in forte, lured me to stand in the vicinity to witness the vivid power, deafening roar and the majestic view of tumbling waterfalls that had been praised since the ancient times. Granted, if there is no Three Tier Spring, Mount Lushan is not worth visiting.
Hardly is a natural-cultural treasure so bound to each other as this magnificent mountain. After our leave, my heart still lingers on the ageless wonder, distinguished elegance and picturesque scenery of Mount Lushan. No wonder this priceless green jade is bestowed the title of must-visit world heritage and the first key scenic district of China. Refer to UNESCO’s remark of these shades of emerald green: “With its peculiar style in historic remains, which is melted with remarkable natural beauty, Mount Lushan has formed a highly- aesthetically-valued cultural view closely relevant to the spirit of the Chinese people and their cultural life”. Well-said indeed. ♦
Date: 17th June 2015
Jinli Ancient Street (錦里古街) – an evening stroll
In the midst of the Qing Dynasty, there already stood this slabstone-paved lane in Chengdu, a bustling lane in the Middle Kingdom where bilateral trade of decorative Chinese textile and silk cloth flourished. After its refurbishment during 2004, this Jinli Street seldom loses its alluring glory, but becomes a must-visit tourist magnet and continues to prosper just like its heydays.
Here, even when the sun drowned and darkness cloaked, rarely would the visitors’ enthusiasm be chilled yet instead invigorated by their increasingly crowded gatherings. Being a part of the Temple of Marquis, such 550-metre meandering area is amply fashioned with folklore of the Shu Kingdom starting in about A.D. 220. Crimson columns of antique shops were touting multifarious souvenirs, featuring tempting handicrafts by Qiang minorities, cute panda cushions, traditional paper-cuts and calligraphies, you name it. All those one-of-a-kind products, handy yet intriguing, offered us a fair glimpse of Sichuan’s food and living customs. How could I not purchase a set of appealing postcards of travel attractions for reference? Across the grey brick road, the already buzzing atmosphere was further filled with people’s chit-chat sounds and the aroma of freshly-made food like mapo tofu, red bean buns and rice cake. It was enjoyable to taste some mouth-watering snacks with the laid-back locals, have a cosy seat besides cups of fragrant Chinese tea in the bamboo teahouses or even cappuccino in the wooden Starbucks café. Despite the harmonious coexistence with western elements in the old-fashioned buildings, its real charm still lies in both sides’ romantic scenery. Strolling along this cobblestone lane just like flocks of travellers, you will soon be enraptured by those lines of beautiful red lanterns on each eave of temple-like buildings. Under the presence of hanging lanterns and dim shadows of fir trees, the view of small bridge and clear waters in the classical garden just left us an rosy impression of primitive beauty. All the above glances, with mixture of both original and modern, polish its vibrant images of brilliance and give this area somewhat an otherworldly feel.
With relaxing backdrop of the surge of pedestrians, as well as China’s traditional architecture in the heart of Chengdu, Jinli Ancient Street can be regarded as an ideal paradise to loosen up and chill out after a day of work. There, you will soon fall in love with this colourfully magnificent lane, a lane where you might have seen from the postcard before, but now in front of your own eyes, gazed with surprise and wowed with amazement. ♦
Date:13th August, 2014
Trip to Taichung and Tainan (台中台南之旅)
With only an hour and 15 minutes flight from Hong Kong to Taichung, our 5-day journey from 4th August embarked on a well-known Alpine Lake in Nantou District, named the “Sun Moon Lake”. Regardless of raining cats and dogs on the bus few hours ago, we were so grateful that the pouring rain finally stopped during our arrival. Slowing down the pace and strolling near to the largest lake in Taiwan in the midst of early evening, I find a sense of tranquility while watching the glorious sun steadily losing splendid colour, splashing and drowning its dazzling gold on the far horizon along with those rosy sky and clouds above. Enchanted, this breath-taking scenic is just like a colourful water-painting created by an artist, I am sure no camera can fully capture the genuine romance of this graceful sunset before the dark night fell.
Of course, for city-dwellers like us, it was never simply enough to be in this relaxing paradise with only amid the dusk. In the next day, standing on the hotel balcony with a grand seaview in front of our eyes, here came the lake with its translucent blue all around, set off by the natural colour of the sky. Loosening myself up, my heart immediately lifted in refreshing springs of exhilaration. What a wondrous moment, while bathing in a balmy sunshine and listening to the gentle splashing sound of mist-laden water, to witness the sun rising over the emerald mountains, and remind me the beginning of another beautiful day. With this picturesque scenic, it was admittedly hard to bid a final farewell to this beautiful Sun Moon Lake when I left my heart in this wonderland.
After having a last glance of the panoramic view of Sun Moon Lake by a ship ride and a cable car, here we were, arrived at Formosa Aboriginal Cultural Village. It offered us a rare glimpse to nine major groups of indigenous tribal communities, incorporating their multifarious daily engagements of cooking, sculpting, knitting, and even their unique traditional clothing and housing environment. To create a wow factor in this visit, we were also greeted by those delightful cheer and roars of native performers in the theatre. In the another side of the amusement park, the gorgeous palace, and also the Roman fountain in the centre and clock towers at each corner, were the tempting landmark of the largest European Garden in Taiwan, and surely one of the highlights of the Cultural Village.
The next day, frankly, I hadn’t thought the weather of Cingjing Farm would be that cool before I arrived to the highland and I couldn’t help putting on my long-sleeves during my visit. Glazing to this natural serene environment in an entire amazement, we were just like besides to the Alps in Switzerland, with mist-bathed hilltops, emerald lawns and the accompany of sheep everywhere. Every new gust of soft morning breeze was blowing around my cheeks and trees were swaying along by its rhythm. I drew in deep breaths, inhaled in each of the refreshing air and heard the wild call of nature with a carefree feeling. A group of lovely sheep glinted with excitement and were leaping around while seeing me grasping a packet of mixed grass food, trying to feed them. Running across the highland at ease, touching the comfortable fir of the sheep, being in this cosy open area was just out of this world!
Nonetheless, contrary to the peaceful nature in Cingjing Farm, Fengjia night market in Taichung reflected the diversity of locals’ multi-faceted activities and entertainment. Dazzling neon nights and enticing billboards were being hanged upwards in the commercial area, promoting an assortment of sportswear, beauty cosmetics, popular bestsellers and many more. Sequences of motorbikes, public transport and a swarm of pedestrians made the lines of roads became more hustle and bustle during the rush hours and even near to the midnight. At the same time, the alluring aroma of dan-zai noodles just tickled my nose and watered my mouth, and the cropping up of braised pork rice and Taiwanese oolong tea in my mind made me simply no longer wait to have a taste of both.
After a night of tasting and shopping, we then moved southwards from Taichung to Tainan for two hours by train. Anping Fort, which was built by the Dutch for trade and strategic reasons during their 38-year administration from 1624, and Chih Kan Tower in 1653. Both become class One historical monuments nowadays. The red brick walls in Anping Fort marked as a vivid symbol of the Dutch governance of Taiwan island, as well as a pivotal springboard to foster international business until 1662 after their defeat by a Chinese general Chen Chenggong. In the meantime, the ornate stones, wood foundation, Chinese style architectural structures and elegant garden all enabled Chih Kan Tower to be one of the top ten best destinations for the sunset view. It also came as a vogue for myriads of students, to be in Wenchang Pavilion inside of the Tower, to wish for being high-flyers in front of the God of Literature.
All in all, the gracious amiability and cordial courteousness of the Taiwanese impress me most. They were willing to lend a helping hand to us whenever we were frustrated about the directions. “Xie xie” (thank you in Mandarin Chinese) are often in their mouth in common occasions, such as after the bus ride, gratitude would be expressed to the driver no matter how long they have waited for the bus before (the longest waiting time could be an hour in Taichung and Tainan). It is also worth-noting that tea shops have been set up everywhere and are gaining popularity in Taiwan. When I come back to HK, what I missed most are those fragrance of freshly-made Taiwanese tea. With the combination of clear lakes, high-rise mountains, skylines of bustling cities and friendly locals, “Ilha Formosa”(beautiful island), which was the name of Taiwan by the Dutch in the 17th century, currently is and always will be in my heart. ♦