of elephant rides and river rafting in the mountains of chiang mai

chai lai river rafting
chai lai ellie ride
chai lai ellie

her back was cold, coarse and leathery as expected, with a few coarse spikes of hair at the crown. with one hand tightly in the mahout’s palm, i clambered on unsteadily, throwing one leg over the elephant’s neck while keeping my other foot firmly on the wooden platform i had climbed up on earlier. it was a safety anchor, and i would have gladly stayed in that position but this was not an elephant sitting session but a sunrise ride.

i had signed up for the amazing mountain adventure offered by chai lai orchid, an eco-resort that shares riverside jungle space with phutawan elephant camp in mae wang, a mountainous region approximately 55km from chiang mai. meaning ‘beautiful and strong’ in thai, the resort’s moniker also hints at a bigger purpose: it was set up and managed in partnership with non-profit organisation daughters rising, which supports the empowerment of women from nearby refugee communities – mostly karen hill tribes who had fled from neighbouring myanmar – who are at risk of being sold into sex slavery.

meaning ‘beautiful and strong’ in thai, the resort’s moniker also hints at a bigger purpose

daughters rising provides education and training, equipping the women with skills that enable a future in the hospitality industry. as employees at the resort, they earn decent wages and learn various aspects of its running. the women are also taught english, basic computer know-how, and are made aware of their rights and other relevant issues. by spending your tourist dollars at chai lai, whether as a staying guest or day visitor, you contribute to this humanitarian effort.

the other cause that chai lai promotes is that of responsible elephant tourism, an issue that has been widely debated, with the ill treatment of these animals at the centre of it and rides frowned upon by many. the resort points out that while all elephants should ideally be wild, asian elephants have long been domesticated, including most of those found in chiang mai today – including at puthawan – and are therefore not suited to be returned to the wild. shrinking natural habitat poses another problem.

chai lai river
chai lai villa

at phutawan, each elephant is cared for by a dedicated mahout, whose job is relentless as he has to tend to his assigned brood all day, feeding, bathing, cleaning and interacting with them. the mahouts live on site as they usually start work by 6am and only call it a night after the elephants’ last feeding at 10pm. man and beast thus develop an intimate bond that’s akin to family, the connection particularly strong between elephants that were born at the camp and have been under the care of the same guardians since birth.

lati is one of the young mahouts at phutawan and has two elephants under his care: tong wan and her baby, tang mo. the former was my ride that cool, misty morning and after i had stabilised myself on her back, lati gestured for me to lean forward and place my palms just behind tong wan’s ears. that seemed to be the signal she had been waiting off as she ambled towards a pile of sugarcane (her breakfast) with a rather nervous me on her back, praying silently and willing my body to adapt to the uneven rocking. i clenched my inner thigh muscles – thank god for regular pilates workouts! – and let my legs hang loosely. every time tong wan moved, shifting from one front leg to the other, my hips mimicked the motion.

with tang mo by her side, mother and daughter munched on the stacks of sugarcane, curling their agile trunks around the sticks and lifting them into their mouths in one swift gesture. lati then instructed tong wan to start moving towards a hilly bamboo forest at the back of chai lai where a well-trodden path winds past thickets and the resort’s rustic villas, which range from quaint thatched huts to riverside suites with spacious balconies where you can have a thai massage.

tong wan barely seemed to notice me on her back; she moved at her will, stopping occasionally to nibble at the bushes or feed tang mo, and straying off the trail at times. lati, who walked next to us, would shout out a command in thai and guide her back on course. i had a feeling tong wan is a bit of a cheeky one, and her relationship with lati is like that of a petulant child and a strict but loving father.

chai lai ellie bathing
chai lai food

sitting atop tong wan, i enjoyed an elevated view of the surroundings, taking in the stillness of the morning as the sun slowly lit up the sky. the air was crisp and fresh. we pass a reservoir where the elephants drink from and sometimes take a soak in. tong wan kept things interesting, alternating between leisurely strolls and quick trots, which meant that i had to constantly watch my balance to accommodate the changing pace. i realised that this was her time, her daily ritual, and i was a mere hitchhiker. the key was to go with her flow and not fight her rhythm so that as i rode bare feet on her bare back, she and i were one.

as my ride ended, it was time for tong wan’s and tang mo’s river bath. the water chilled me to my bones but evidently not theirs. lati filled a pail and splashed the duo while they frolicked and soaked. a second breakfast followed, with more sugarcane disappearing by the stacks and into their huge stomachs – an elephant consumes up to 190kg of food daily! – supplemented by bananas, which they grabbed from my open palm.

while the elephants munched on their rations, i went to get mine at the resort’s riverside cafe. communal tables at an alfresco deck lets you dine to the views and gushing sounds of the river. breakfast is a simple spread of fresh local fruits, yogurt pots, breads, pastries and eggs any way you like. riverside grows some of its own vegetables and herbs, and other fresh ingredients are sourced from farms that lie within several kilometres from the resort.

the lunch and dinner menu lists a mix of local flavours and western dishes, with a good number of vegetarian options thrown in. of the latter, the chinese kale leaves with chopped lemongrass and herbs, and toasted peanuts was a highlight. simple but flavoursome, it was a wholesome starter that preceded another meat-free delight: raw cabbage wraps with rice noodles, thai basil, coriander and a minced tofu salad. well-flavoured yet delicate on the palate, they both made for a refreshing departure from the typical thai repertoire that leans heavily on spices.

the second portion of my amazing mountain adventure commenced after breakfast. my guide singh is a karen of burmese origin and lives at a nearby village. taking tourists around is one of several jobs he takes on to make a living. he learned english from visiting farangs (foreigners) and while his vocabulary was limited, he spoke with a slight american accent.

chai lai weaver
chai lai village
chai lai bridge
chai lai cooking

for the rest of the afternoon, singh led me on a tour of several small karen villages about half an hour from chai lai, where living conditions are sparse and almost primitive – houses are little more than thatched bamboo huts, cooking is done over open wood fire, and there is no modern plumbing. while the men work away from home, the women look after their young ones and sell shawls and clothes that they weave and sew by hand. sharing their culture with tourists on guided experiences such as the one i was on is another way these villagers earn extra income.

singh and i walked to a river behind the villages. on the opposite bank and reachable by a bamboo bridge, thatched pavilions serve as food and souvenir stalls, and open kitchens where several karen ladies prepared our lunch. they chopped, minced and stir-fried away while i soaked in the river and watched village boys snorkel for fish. these folks may own little by modern living standards but they also have some of the most precious things – pristine surrounds, lush greens, unpolluted air – that the rest of us wish for.

after a simple meal of stir-fried noodles and watermelon, we trekked past small farms and swathes of forest before arriving at mae wang waterfall, a popular spot to cool off from the dry heat. daredevils often jump off the top of the wall to the amusement of visitors below, and then head to the nearby flying fox station to gather more adrenaline.

chai lai village lunch
chai lai fields
mae wang waterfall

my adventure was to be a lot more relaxing – bamboo rafting down the mae wang river back to chai lai. the rafts are simple but sturdy contraptions, measuring about 12ft in length and spanning 10 bamboos width wise. tired from the hike, i reclined on the slightly submerged raft and let the cold water bathe my back while the handler expertly manoeuvred it along and over rocks of varying sizes. 

it was a public holiday in thailand, and the river was a hive of families and groups of friends, rafting like i was or having floating picnics on anchored rafts, with music blaring. food and beverage kiosks have also sprung up on the riverbanks, with in-river seating no less. some offered open pavilions to dine and rest at while others simply placed stools in the river, where customers sat with drinks in hand and their legs half-submerged in the water. what a wonderfully relaxing way to enjoy that mid-afternoon cuppa!

back at chai lai, the raft handler deposited me at the shallowest part of the river where tong wan and tang mo had enjoyed their morning shower, completing my amazing mountain adventure and bringing my day to a full circle. i sat at riverside cafe to wind down and rehydrate with a thai iced milk tea. my day may have come to an end but the river was not done. raft after raft floated past elephants taking turns being bathed by their mahouts and excited tourists – it’s difficult to tell who was having a better time.

3 of taipei's most popular side trips

the taiwanese capital is a whirlwind of shopping strips, street food and night markets – not that different from other major cities around the world, really. so where does one go to absorb its alternative offerings? these three popular side trips from taipei is your chance to immerse in its culture, tradition and natural wealth.

shifen floating

shifen: letters to heaven

covered with thoughtfully written wishes, prayers and hopes, the colourful domes rise as little glowing orbs, floating above shifen old street and slowly disappear towards heaven. or at least that is the belief behind the sky lantern practice, a tradition that began as a means for men working in the surrounding mountains to communicate with their loved ones back home in the villages. today, it is a thriving commercial venture for lantern vendors as scores of tourists find their way to this short stretch of old wooden shops to pen and send their messages to the gods.

the lanterns are made of layers of coloured paper wrapped around thin frames, and each shade represents a specific auspicious meaning. after you’ve paid for your chosen colour, the vendor will unfold the thin layers of paper and clip them to a steel frame so the lantern is displayed like a canvas onto which you can paint – using chinese calligraphy brushes dipped in black ink – your wishes. when you’re done, the vendor unfurls the lantern into its proper shape, lights it up and lets you hold it above your head for a souvenir snapshot before you release it.

shifen folded lanterns
shifen hannah
shifen lanterns railside
shifen lantern release

adding to the hive of chatter and camera clicks is the occasional appearance of the pingxi line train, whose track cuts right in between the two rows of shops. for the few minutes that it trundles through, it renders all lantern flying to a complete stop as everyone gets out of the way and retreats to safety. once the train is out of sight, the buzz resumes.

early evenings are shifen’s busiest hours (and the gods’ too), with tens of lanterns taking turns to speckle the atmosphere. but that’s nothing compared to the sight that delights visitors each year during the lantern festival that’s celebrated on the 15th day of chinese new year: hundreds of sky lanterns are released at the same time, obliterating the darkness of the night and turning the sky into a spectacular chandelier.

shifen lantern display
shifen mini lanterns
shifen x

other attractions while the sky lanterns are meant to be released, visitors can take home miniature lanterns to remind them of shifen and the wishes they made. handmade from printed paper, the decorative pieces are also fashioned into key chains and some are fitted with led lights for additional function.

getting there (train) from taipei railway station, take the train to ruifang station. at ruifang, switch to the pingxi line and alight at shifen railway station. (bus) from taipei, take bus number 15 at muzha mrt station.


beitou thermal valley
beitou valley entrance
beitou thermal val

beitou: hope springs eternal

you’d think that a lake that reeks of sulphur would keep people away but not at the beitou geothermal valley in beitou, a district of taipei situated about half an hour from the city centre. here, the unmistakable smell wafts from jade-emerald waters that fill a volcanic crater and yet the crowds keep coming. with temperatures averaging 80c and reaching 100c at its most scalding, the spring liquid is also highly acidic with a concentrated amount of sulphate minerals, rendering it completely unsuitable – and hazardous – for human contact. one used to be able to dip eggs in to cook but unfortunate mishaps led to the local council fencing up the crater’s perimeters with wooden railings.

from behind those safety markers, visitors can take in the sight of thick steam rising and curling from the translucent waters that earned the valley a ranking on the list of taiwan’s eight great natural beauties during the japanese occupation between 1895 and 1945. at times, the misty effect is so thick that it engulfs the whole area, leading to it being nicknamed hell’s valley.

to soak in the heavenly bliss of a hot springs bath, seek out the many public baths in town where for a nominal fee, you can soak in the healing qualities for several hours. one of the most popular is beitou outdoor public hot springs, which you will pass as you walk from xinbeitou mrt station towards thermal valley. there are joint men and women pools set around the beitou stream that runs through it, or if you simply want to immerse your feet, you can also find a comfortable spot by the open sections of the stream. better facilities and privacy are afforded at the countless hotels around town, where rooftop hot springs bath are part and parcel of the experience and many are open to non-staying guests as well.

beitou onsen
xin beitou station
beitou river
beitou train

nearby attractions located along the same walkway that leads to thermal valley are three other spots worth making time for: beitou library, a handsome architectural gem built of recyclable materials that’s not only taiwan’s first green library but also one of east asia’s most energy efficient and environmentally-friendly buildings. browse through a comprehensive collection of books or simply take in the view of surrounding beitou park from the balconies.

just a hop and a skip away is beitou hot spring museum, converted from a red brick mansion that was once, appropriately, a japanese-style bath house while across the road, the ketagalan culture centre beckons with its colourful facade and invites you in for a look at the lives of the local indigenous people. the name beitou was derived from the ketagalan word for ‘witch’, as the people believed that the sulphuric waters in abundance here were a sign of witchcraft.

beitou thermal valley is open from 9am-5pm, tuesday-sunday; closed on mondays admission free getting there (mrt) from taipei, take the danshui line to xinbeitou station. the town’s main attractions are within walking distance from the station. (bus) from taipei, take any of these buses to xinbeitou mrt station: 216, 217, 217, 223, 266 and 269.


nefertiti
yehliu coast

yehliu: as wild as your imagination

turkey’s cappadocia region is one of the most extraordinary places on earth, where vast tracts of dusty land are punctuated with geological formations of myriad whimsical, eye-catching shapes. like mother nature’s showroom, it’s where she shows her might and artistic inclinations, whipping volcanic tufa rocks into stone animals, mushrooms and meringues.

taiwan’s counterpart (albeit on a much smaller scale) is the yehliu geopark in wanli district of new taipei city, a special municipality that surrounds taipei city. sitting on a cape measuring just 1.7km that is said to resemble a turtle when seen from above, the geopark is a buffet of sandstone-limestone formations, sea caves and potholes that display different effects of erosion by the sea and other environmental elements: honeycomb textures, lattice patterns, weathering rings and shallow basins are among the photo-worthy motifs.

the shapes of the rocks are another conversation point, and each is named as they appear. there’s the pineapple bun that resembles the famous hong kong pastry; gorilla rock looks like a large crouching primate; dragon’s head rock is where people pray for blessings; drumstick rock could have come from a gigantic kfc fryer; camel’s rock sports an unmistakable hump while fairy’s shoe is not unlike a single toe-strap slip-on supposedly left behind by an ethereal creature sent to earth to teach a cheeky turtle elf a lesson.

yehliu guard
yehliu crowd

the most famous and photographed among the rocks is the nefertiti or queen’s head, which bears a striking similarity to the profile of the legendary egyptian queen. there’s always a long line of visitors waiting to take their souvenir snapshot with this royal icon and to keep the crowd in order, a security guard is always stationed here – and often ends up playing photographer.

nearby attraction just outside of the geopark is yehliu ocean world, taiwan’s first marine centre where you can walk through an undersea tunnel while some 200 species of sea creatures swim above. at the 3,500-seat stadium, sit back and be entertained by well-trained whales, dolphins and seals.

yehliu geopark is open from 7.30am-5pm daily, with extended hours from may to mid-september getting there from taipei, buses are available from the national taiwan university in da’an district every 15 minutes from 7.30am-10.10pm. you can also take kuo kuang bus no. 1815 from the taipei west bus station, which runs every 20 minutes starting from 5.40am on weekdays and 6.30am on weekends

 

this article first appeared in the malay mail online and crave, sunday mail

 

 

the perennial palace

it was built as a summer getaway but there are good reasons to visit the summer palace in all seasons, where it is said that all of china shows itself through art, architecture and its people.

sum pal main
sum pal boats

everything is bigger in china. drive along the multi-lane streets or boulevards of beijing and as you crane your neck to look up at one mammoth structure after another towering high-rise, you will realise another inevitable truth: that despite the ever-growing built environment of colossal proportions, there are still expanses of space waiting to be filled. to be precise, the world’s second largest country covers a total area of 3.7 million square miles divided into over 20 provinces and more than 600 cities, while supporting a population of 1.3 billion and counting.

in tourism-speak, china is a bottomless treasure pit with something for every wanderer, whether you’re an art lover or architectural enthusiast, budding historian or nature sightseer. even the most ardent of traveller, however, could not possibly traverse every inch although you come pretty close to it at one of the country’s biggest crowd pullers. as the saying goes, “see the summer palace and you will have seen all that china has to offer in art and architecture.”

just 15 kilometres north-west of central beijing, this was where the royal family would go to seek respite from the unbearable summer heat. in today’s road conditions, it’s a trip of 30 minutes or so by car, a fraction of the day-long foot journey it was centuries ago when the imperial escapade was first completed. the empress dowager cixi, who ruled behind the scenes for much of the qing dynasty, was to have none of such a strenuous road trip and so she commanded the construction of a canal that connected the forbidden city and the summer palace by a three-hour dragon boat ride.

sum pal toboggan
sum pal trees

the canals have long closed but boat cruises are part of the attractions at kunming lake, the focal point of summer palace that covers about three quarters of its total land area. like hangzhou’s west lake that was its inspiration, it is fringed by willowy trees, pavilions crowned with intricate roofs and bridges that range from simple wooden frames to dramatic stone arches.

where the west lake has the six harmonies pagoda presiding over it from a nearby hill, at the summer palace, it is the 60 metre-high longevity hill that’s the coveted vantage point, its summit home to grand halls and buddhist temples. they make up the more than 3,000 manmade structures found on the palace grounds that represent every known chinese architectural style.

the seventeen-arch bridge, for one, combines the aesthetics of beijing’s lugou bridge with suzhou’s baodai bridge and is marked by more than 500 marble parapets that are each crowned by a stone lion. at both ends of the bridge sits a carved figurine of the qilin, a mythical chimera-like creature that portends prosperity.

along the northern shore of the lake, the 728-metre covered long corridor is adorned with details consistent with both ming and qing dynasties, while vibrant paintings and frescoes tell of famous legends. step through this world’s lengthiest corridor and you will know what makes a truly long story. it is also believed that lovers who stroll this walkway together will end up in happy matrimony.

sum pal bridge
sum pal aman corridor

less joyful an ending but equally majestic an achievement is the marble boat, moored near the western end of the corridor and resembling a paddle steamer. marble only by name and appearance – it’s actually constructed from wood but painted to look like the metamorphic rock – it was destroyed during the second opium war and then rebuilt under the orders of empress cixi.

legend has it that upon its completion, the empress invited the craftsmen to a celebratory dinner that turned out to be their last meal; she wanted to make sure there would be no replicas of the boat anywhere else in the world.

more of a pavilion than an actual sailing boat, although it is equipped with a drainage system, the marble marvel sits lakeside, looking out to the waters that’s a hive of activities in warm weather as a daily melee of visitors descend upon it from day break to day’s end.

lovers who stroll this walkway together will end up in happy matrimony

in the thick of winter, when temperatures dip below -10°c and the wind beats incessantly against the face, the lake freezes to solid ground. you can walk on it, sled across it, carve a hole and throw a line in, or do like the locals and take a dip in the frigid waters first thing in the morning. all around, the scenery takes on a sentimental, almost romantic vibe as trees lose their foliage, their bare branches forming a wispy silhouette against cloudy skies. once-green lawns take on the same colourless, opaque appearance as the lake and together with the white stone bridges, blend into a monochromatic landscape. vessels that were left bobbing in the lake before the cold hit become extensions of it, rendered immobile and unmoving like the surface water.

it may be frozen in all appearance but the summer palace never stops. the crowds continue to throng through its three main entrances and more interestingly for these visitors, locals go about their routines just as they do in other seasons. it’s the older folks who make the most of this regal surrounds; local ladies brisk walk or jog, making their rounds along the hilly terrain and winding past pavilions where groups of men gather to play a round of chess or perform a traditional orchestra, and cut through old courtyard buildings that once played prominent functions when the royal family was in residence.

sum pal blader
sum pal musicians
sum pal walking on lake
sum pal marble boat

at suzhou street, a promenade filled with souvenir shops and fuss-free eateries that is a flattering imitation of jiangsu, it’s business as usual, even for the calligraphist who wields a gigantic brush that he dips into a small pail of water and with a few easy flicks of his arm, writes out phrases or names of countries – he likes to corner tourists and ask where they’re from – on the stone floor tiles in elegant hanzi. he puts on an entertaining show, for free, before trying to persuade you to buy one of his regular ink-on-paper scrolls.

in all seasons, the summer palace lives up to its promise of showcasing all of china in one breathtaking site, not only through its architecture, natural landscape and more tellingly, the people who make it a part of their daily lives. but it’s the grandmother rollerblading happily at one of the many ancient pavilions while clad in fuzzy ear muffs and a rainbow of leg warmers who best epitomise that essence – anything goes and you’ll find it all at the summer palace, even in winter.


aman summer
aman summer snow
aman summer suite
aman summer pavi

this story first appeared in the edge review

 

 

 

 

falling for karuizawa

when temperatures dip and the leaves begin to fall, tokyoites pack their weekend bags for karuizawa, to feast on the colours and pleasures of autumn.

karui yellow
karui kaleidoscope
karui red bush
karui lake house

soft morning sunlight peeks through uneven gaps in the canopy of rich yellow and amber leaves. reflected onto the still waters below, they form a postcard-perfect showcase of autumn’s richest colours. it doesn’t stop there. encircling komuba pond are more maple and larch trees bursting with dark pink, rich red and fiery orange foliage while below them, the damp ground is carpeted by fallen leaves in the same hues.

you can cover the periphery of the pond in just 20 minutes on foot, but most visitors will take at least twice as long, stopping often to admire the vistas. some spend hours here: families with young ones enjoying the crisp air and serene surrounds, couples walking their pet pooches, and artists attempting to capture the scenic beauty in watercolour.

it would take serious talent to do justice to the breathtaking landscape at this natural pond, one of karuizawa’s most popular attractions. this resort town in the nagano prefecture is just over an hour from tokyo on the bullet train, and draws city folks as well as tourists year round but mid-october to early november are the best times to visit if you want to experience the best of fall.

karui painter

affluent influences traditionally, the japanese enjoyed summering in karuizawa as its altitude – it sits at an elevation of about 1,000 metres – delivers temperatures that are at least 10 degrees lower than in the city. it was also considered a status symbol, like the hamptons is to new yorkers, with many prominent figures owning holiday homes here. karuizawa’s most famous guests have included reigning emperor akihito, who first met empress michiko at a tennis court in this town over 50 years ago.

karuizawa’s esteem had, however, been cemented long before that. the founding of this town is credited to canadian missionary alexander croft shaw, who arrived in 1886 and finding many comforting reminders of his scottish hometown, built his summer villa – the town’s first – two years later. he introduced karuizawa to people in tokyo and before long, the town’s reputation was established.

shaw’s villa is preserved as the shaw memorial house and next to it is the town’s first chapel that he built and where he delivered his sermons. both sit in a tranquil forested area in kyu-karuizawa, a part of the town known as karuizawa ginza as many of the famous tokyo shopping street’s high-end stores had outlets here, though it’s more fondly referred to as old town due to its nostalgic aura.

the main street is lined with specialty stores, restaurants, galleries and cafes housed in low wooden buildings that boast traditional japanese architecture. venture into the small lanes and you will come across shinto shrines and century-old cathedrals. occasionally, you might spot a traditional jinrikisha, or rickshaw, ferrying tourists on sightseeing rides. cycling is also a popular way to explore the town and you can pick up a rental for less than 1,000 yen a day.

karui old town 1
karui vintage suitcase
karui booth
karui church
karui red tree
karui shop

this version of ginza may not have the glitz and international brand names of its tokyo counterpart – those can be shopped at the sprawling karuizawa prince shopping plaza outlet mall near the train station – but there is a good variety of japanese goods worth dropping some yen on. gorgeous furoshiki cloths that can be used as gift wrappers or tied into simple carrywear make interesting gifts for those back home; pick up a few pairs of japanese chopsticks, carved from wood and daintily decorated.

epicurean enjoyment it’s a good idea to shop on an empty stomach, so you can leave room for food sampling at the gourmet produce stores that are a galore of local seasonal specialties. handmade fruit jams are among the town’s best offerings, said to be a legacy of christian missionaries who spent their summers here teaching farmers the art of preserving fruits. sawaya is the most famous name for jams, particularly popular for their strawberry variant.

karui bike
karui house in the woods

hankering for some good pure, natural honey? sample hachihige ojisan’s many floral varieties and other honey products at their standalone shop. founded in 1936, they harvest the nectar from their apiaries in the foothills of nagano where more than 1,000 hives are home to some 40,000 bees each.

when you’re ready for a proper meal, karuizawa presents you with countless options. to dine like locals do, start with the zarusoba, cold soba noodles made from locally-grown buckwheat. at the train station, you can pick up a kamameshi, rice with vegetables and meat cooked and sold in small earthenware pots.

you can also find a good array of international cuisines and light bites, from russian piroshki to hotdogs sandwiching plump german sausages, or do like john lennon and savour flaky pastries at the french bakery. the late ex-beatles and yoko ono were frequent visitors to karuizawa, usually staying at the historical mampei hotel and often breakfasted at the bakery, where a photograph of lennon still decks the wall.

karui coffe
karui ice cream
karui polka

finish off on a sweet note at mikado coffee, where there’s always a line for their velvety mocha soft ice-cream made from specially selected beans. lesser known but perhaps more charming is akaneya kouhiiten, which sits at the end of the main street in an all-black boxy building. their menu, like their signboard, is written in white kanji on a block of wood and lists just seven items, including drip coffee, black tea, grape juice and cheesecake. everything is priced at 735 yen and hot beverages are served in one of the many teacup sets that adorn the wall behind the counter. the more prized among their collection, including fine china pieces by wedgewood, are for the eyes only.

natural relaxation japan’s volcanic landscape has blessed the country with many natural hot springs and if you ask the locals, any time is a good time for a soak in the onsen. in autumn, after a day out and about in chilly climes, there is nothing more comforting than to surrender to the molten heat and let it warm you up while you wind down.

head to hoshinoya, a secluded resort that houses guests in stunning water and hillside villas luxuriously appointed in japanese decor. just 20 minutes via free shuttle buses from the train station, it is part of a forested area that’s known for wildlife diversity, with its most famous natural residents being the flying squirrels that soar silently among the trees at dusk. 

karui wedding
karui suits

at the resort, a special light and dark bath experience awaits staying guests while day visitors can pay to access the communal onsen. autumn is the season for the shinshu apple, a nagano specialty that’s loved for its crispness, juiciness and sweetness.

the indoor bath will be filled with these soft pink orbs, their natural fragrance scenting the air. as you breathe in the soothing aroma and your tired limbs loosen up in 42c water, you can imagine the appeal of this mountainous town that first drew europeans and the japanese elite. now, as it was then, karuizawa is a place to retreat, relax and revel in a leisurely lifestyle.



getting there from tokyo, you can get to karuizawa on the jr nagano shinkansen within 80 minutes. buses depart from tokyo’s ikebukuro station and take almost twice as long.

 

 

 

 

 

48 hours in barcelona

forget about taking a siesta; spain’s second largest city is a hive of attractions, activities and architectural gems that will keep you riveted day and night. to soak in the essence of barcelona, here are the landmarks you should not miss — and you can cover them all over one weekend.

 <day one>

mercat st josep de la boquiera rambla, 91 opens 8am-8.30pm, monday-saturday http://www.boqueria.info/

start your day surrounded by the freshest spanish bites at the best market in the world, as awarded by the 2005 world markets congress. with a long history that dates back to 1217 when it started as an open-air bazaar, boqueria market is still today the city’s go-to place for choice ingredients, both fresh and dry, or to attend gastronomy events and cooking classes at the culinary classroom upstairs.

the market proper is spread out over the ground floor, a maze of over 100 stalls including many specialty providores who each sell just one type of produce, but offer astounding varieties of them. at the eggs stall, for example, suitably decked out like a barn complete with wooden sculpted chickens and ducks, your choice extends well beyond the usual poultry variety to include gigantic emu and ostrich eggs. the mushrooms stall is like a fairytale garden of delights with all manners of fabulous fungi sold by weight while the candy shop will make willy wonka turn green with envy with its plethora of colourful sugary creations in whimsical shapes.

don’t leave without breakfasting at bar pinotxo, a ferran adria-recommended stall that’s an establishment in itself, known as much for its silky cafe con leche (thick milk coffee) and catalan delights like cigrons (garbanzo beans with blood sausage, pine nuts and raisins) as it is for the owner, the always-smiling juanito. to find this 14-seat kiosk, look for its namesake pinocchio hanging above the counter.

la rambla 

boquiera is located along the 1.2km-long boulevard, with a big section closed to vehicular traffic, that’s lined with trees and populated by stunning period buildings tenanted by fashion brands, restaurants and cafes. all manner of street art can be seen here, from a joan miró tile mosaic on the ground near the liceu theatre to caricature artists and various sculptures. but take a closer look at the latter; many of them are actually human statue artists in elaborate get-ups busking for a living.

 

plaza catalunya 

stroll the length of la rambla towards the north and this sprawling square is where it actually begins, as do eight other main streets in the city. designed by puig i cadafalch, the same architect behind gothic castle casa de les punxes, the square came into being circa 1925 and is to barcelona as trafalgar square is to london. this popular meeting point is the ideal spot to take a breather and people-watch, shaded by trees that block out the frenzied traffic around and with benches placed near the centre to rest on.

if you want to take in all of the square and the city in one view, head to el corte inglés, spain’s answer to selfridges that was founded in madrid and has stores across the country. the outlet at catalunya is the largest and from their ninth-floor la rotonda restaurant, you can look out over parts of the city. grab a coffee while you’re here and find a spot on the roof terrace.

 

la pedrere de caxia catalunya
passeig de gracia, 92 opens 10am-8pm dailyhttp://www.fundaciocatalunya-lapedrera.com/

recharged after that coffee and views, it’s time to hit the streets again — unless you’ve been distracted by the shopping at el corte that is. leg it about 15 minutes from the plaza and you will reach this antoni gaudi masterpiece, designed as a private residence and completed in 1912. also known as casa mila, it’s a cultural centre of sorts that captures the life of barcelona’s bourgeois in the early 20th century by way of a fully-furnished recreated apartment, an auditorium and reading rooms that promote barcelona culture through concerts, workshops and film screenings.

the attic exhibits the surrealist architect’s many works in detail but it’s the roof deck that’s not to be missed — a playground of the wildest imaginations, where alien-like “heads” crown stone columns and are linked by curved bridges to large honeycomb-patterned “bells”, and there are surfaces covered by ceramic pieces. join the night tours to discover “secret pedrera”, with options to include dinner at its in-house cafe and in summer, end your evening with a jazz concert on the roof.

 

le sagrada familia carrer de mallorca, 401 opens 9am-6pm daily, october-march; 9am-8pm, april-september; 9am-2pm, 25-28 december and 1-6 january http://www.sagradafamilia.cat/

if you like what you see at casa mila, you’ll be positively bowled over at this roman catholic church that’s also on the gaudi trail and is still at various stages of construction — a process that has taken a staggering 132 years to date and has an estimated 12 more years to go. every single feature of the colossal structure reflects catholic elements, from the 18 towers of differing heights (12 for the apostles, four for evangelists and two dedicated to mary and jesus) to sculptures and scriptures decorating every square inch of the facade.

awarded unesco world heritage site status in 1987, some sections have been open to visitors for a while now, including a gift shop, museum and some of the towers which are accessible via a ticketed lift; you can descend on foot afterwards to access unique vantage points. the parish church held its first mass in 2010 and now holds daily services.

 <day 2>

picasso museum montcada 15-23 opens 9am-7pm, tuesday-sunday; free admission every thursday from 7pm-9.30pm; closed mondays except public holidays

pablo picasso may have lived most of his life in france but barcelona was where the father of the cubism movement considered his home. the artist himself initiated the idea of establishing a gallery of his pieces in 1960 and three years later, an early incarnation of the museum welcomed its first visitors. but the musee picasso as it is today only opened in 1983, a full decade after picasso’s passing. more than 3,000 pieces of his works are showcased in a permanent exhibition, which makes it one of the world’s most extensive collections of picasso’s art under one roof — or actually, five. the museum is spread out over five stone mansions built in the 14th and 18th century. come early to beat the queues and yes, there’s always a long one.

 

underground art

barcelona’s subway system is fairly well-connected, placing you within easy reach of the city’s top attractions. the metro stations themselves are often worth a second look, dressed in striking contemporary designs or doubling up as galleries for various works of art.

along the new l10 line, for example, you can view photography installations by ramon parramon while the drassanes station is a sleek showcase of organic shapes and furnishings that mirror the subway cars. there are three stations near musee picasso but it’s liceu that will place you on the right track to your next destination.

poble espanyol avenguda francesc ferrer i guardia, 13 opens 9am-8pm, monday; 9am-12am, tuesday-thursday and sunday; 9am-3am, friday; 9am-4am, saturday http://www.poble-espanyol.com/

barcelona is definitely a holy grail for architecture aficionados, who not only worship at all the gaudi landmarks but also make a beeline for this open-air gallery that was designed as an iberian village filled with replicas of 117 buildings, streets and squares from around the country and that showed off the various architectural styles. like plaza catalunya, poble owes its conceptualisation to puig i cadafalch and was initially meant to last only six months — that was the duration of the barcelona international exhibition 1929, for which this village was built. it proved itself so popular that its demolition never took place and it stands today as the city’s fourth most-visited attraction.

 

magic fountaion of montjuic placa carles buigas show times every half hour between 9am-11pm, thursday-sunday (30 april-30 september); every half hour between 7pm-9pm, friday-saturday (1 october-30 april)

from poble, a short walk will take you to this eye-catching landmark that, like poble, was also built for the exhibition. join the crowds in the evening and be mesmerised by the coloured lights, music and water ‘acrobatics’. the fountain pumps about 2,600 litres of water per second and performs up to 30 choreographed arrangements. it’s a true spectacle and a great way to end your day, and wrap up a whirlwind weekend in barcelona.

 

this article first appeared in crave/themalaymailonline on 19 oct 2014

 

a whirlwind tour of the windy city

when the winds blow through chicago, located on the south western tip of lake michigan, there’s little to obstruct their assault on your skin as the gusts flow uninterrupted in between the skyscrapers that line up along a neat grid system. many thus agree with its popular nickname, windy city, although that moniker actually has more political than meteorological connotations – windy being a metaphor for the talkative and boastful rhetoric of early local politicians, who were known for their long-windedness.

these days, this third most populous american city is better known as the adopted hometown of president obama, the former base of talk show queen oprah winfrey and for its o’hare international airport, which regained its position as the busiest air hub in the world this year with more than 500,000 flights taking off in the first seven months of 2014. if you’re among the 15,000 travellers who land at its international terminal on average each day, here are 10 spots around the city that you should not miss.

 

lakeshore drive

known as the most beautiful urban parkway in america, the 24km-long shoreline is flanked by lake michigan on its east and the city on its west, where commercial buildings and luxurious residential projects are dotted with parklands. the drive itself is home to several attractions, including the lakefront trail where city folks converge on weekends to jog, brisk walk, skate, spend quality time with their children or pets, or simply sit back and enjoy their time off.

at the museum of science and industry, you can explore a coal mine and german sub or watch dolphins and whales put on a fine show at shedd aquarium, part of the museum campus that sits on a manmade island on the lake. in the evenings (from april to mid-october), feast on the coloured lights and water dance of the buckingham fountain, then dine at popular restaurants at navy pier or lincoln park, which is also home to a 1,200-acre zoo.

 

the bean

from navy pier, it’s a five-minute drive to millennium park, where british artist anish kapoor’s cloud gate has become a beloved icon since 2006. more than 160 stainless steel plates were welded to create this legume-shaped sculpture with a seamless, shiny surface that projects mirror images of the surrounding buildings. affectionately called the bean, it can, with a stretch of the imagination and childhood wonder, symbolise a modern-day urban incarnation of jack and the beanstalk. the same reflective skin wraps around the underneath of the bean, which visitors can access by walking through its 3.7m-high arch and stand surrounded by refractive images, not unlike being inside a kaleidoscope tube.

 

pritzker pavilion

adjacent to the bean is the frank gehry-designed pritzker pavilion, a music venue that can seat up to 11,000 and plays host to events like the grant park music festival – the only free outdoor classical music series in america. the pavilion is equipped with a sophisticated sound system of acoustic design that mimics the audio quality and sensorial experience of an indoor concert hall. fitted across a trellis network that fronts the stage area that’s crowned by gehry’s proprietary brushed stainless steel headdress, the pavilion is really more a work of art than mere concert venue.

 

the magnificent mile

across millenium park is a 13-block avenue known as magnificent mile, the pulse of the city with over 400 boutiques, some 60 hotels, more than 250 restaurants, a good number of art galleries, theatres and watering holes housed in majestic buildings that boast of classic architectural styles. among the most recognisable icons are the tribune tower, where a portion of its facade contains stones from more than 150 global landmarks, including the great wall of china, taj mahal and the berlin wall. at the northern end of the mile, the drake hotel’s cape cod has consistently ranked high for its fresh seafood offerings and famous for its wooden bar, where famous guests like marilyn monroe and joe dimaggio carved their initials.

 

the loop

you would have seen enough of chicago’s towering skyline from the ground by now. for a change of pace and scenery, view the iconic buildings from a closer perspective – from on board an l train, the city’s elevated rapid transit system. complete the loop circuit, which covers nine stations around an elevated quadrangular loop in chicago’s downtown and whizzes you past some of the city’s most iconic buildings several storeys off the ground.

 

john hancock lounge 875 north michigan avenue, chicago www.360chicago.com and www.signatureroom.com

for even loftier views, head to the john hancock center and be prepared to hear your eardrums pop as you take to escalator to the 94th and 95th floors of the 100-storey tower, home to 360 chicago and the signature room, respectively. the former delivers on its name, affording 360-degree views of the city – there’s also an open-air skywalk – from 1,000ft above ground level. for after-dinner drinks, the latter offers an extensive list of cocktails and classics while you take in the sparkling panorama and see for yourself why it served as part inspiration for batman’s gotham city. the upcoming batman vs superman: dawn of justice, is currently filming in chicago’s uptown area.

 

uno pizzeria & grill 619 north wabash avenue www.unos.com

for all the fine dining, world-class restaurants that chicago offers, sometimes nothing beats the culinary comforts of a pizza – especially when it’s a deep dish pizza, invented by ike sewell in 1943 at his restaurant, uno. now a global empire of more than 140 outlets, it was at this outlet at the corner of ohio and wabash that he served the first numero uno, with its nearly two inch-tall buttery crust holding a generous amount of sausage, pepperoni, onion, pepper and mushroom swimming in a chunky tomato sauce topped with mozzarella and romano cheeses. the menu and options expanded as its fame grew; you can now choose between a traditional or nine-grain crust, and even customise your toppings. if you can’t get a table at the original uno, head across the road to its sister outlet, pizza due.

 

super dawgs 6363 north milwaukee avenue opens 11am-1am, sunday-thursday; 11am-2am, friday-saturday www.superdawg.com

five years after pizza uno first delighted chicago with its indulgent italian concoction, a more american comfort food took roots when then-newlyweds maurie and flaurie berman set up a hotdog cart they called superdawg, inspired by the comic superheroes of the 1940s. aside from a secret recipe, the bermans planted a pair of 12-foot hot dog icons – a male and a female, representing the couple themselves – on top of their stall, complete with flirtatious winking and blinking eyes to attract customers.

from a summer-only endeavour, superdawg grew into a profitable business that fed their family of five and from a simple stall to a drive-in restaurant, developing into a much-loved chicago icon. besides superb hotdogs, their other bestseller is the fantastic crinkle-cut superfries, the result of a precise four-step cooking process to ensure every potato stick is golden and crispy. in 2009, a second superdawg opened in milwaukee, modelled after the original.

 

 

the blue man group 3133 north halsted www.blueman.com/chicago/

they deliver cheesy slapstick routines, make music out of pvc pipes and they’re blue. the blue man group was an instant hit when the show debuted in 1987, its three bald founders performing an unspoken repertoire while covered in striking body paint. besides chicago, the production is a mainstay in new york and boston, and has also presented in las vegas, orlando, berlin, tokyo and on board the norwegian cruise line. if you like 80s-style comedy, this is pure mindless entertainment that may involve you getting soaked.

 

harpo studios 1058 west washington boulevard

countless famous faces and respected personalities walked through its doors while fans gathered outside hoping to catch a glimpse of the celebrities or shop for merchandise at the oprah store. the talk show queen and her harpo studios were based in chicago from 1990 till 2011, when she decided to move her company and show to los angeles. her popularity and the prominence of harpo helped gentrify the once-gritty area where it’s located, leading to former mayor richard daley to declare the street outside the studio as oprah winfrey way. the studio is still in operation although the shows are no longer filmed there, and die-hard fans still turn up for a look.

 

 

australia to germany in 30 minutes

hahndorf street
ye older creamery
hahn pretzel
hahnorf walkabout
hahn horse carriage

the distance between australia and germany spans thousands of miles over sea and land, with air travel taking up nearly a full day. but when you’re in the south australian capital of adelaide, germany is a mere 30-minute drive away along the southern eastern freeway and towards the green lung that is adelaide hills. amidst refreshing highland air and the rich colours of nature, a slice of bucolic charm presents itself in the form of hahndorf, the country’s oldest surviving german settlements that is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year.

popular among locals seeking a weekend getaway and tourists curious about this european gem on the other side of the hemisphere, hahndorf attracts close to 1 million visitors each year. the town’s key attractions are concentrated along main street, where century-old elm and plane trees stand side-by-side with fachwerk buildings, one of the oldest architectural styles in central europe that was widespread in west germany.

these timber-framed buildings were once the private residences and small farmsteads of hahndorf’s first settlers, german lutherans who arrived here in 1838 on board a ship called zebra that was captained by dirk hahn. captain hahn helped the immigrants settle into their new lives and they, in turn, honoured him by naming the town hahndorf (hahn’s village).

the buildings have been carefully preserved and now house a variety of small businesses, eateries and pubs including many that uphold the town’s heritage by selling german specialties (birkenstocks sandals included) and cuisine. here’s a guide to soaking in the old-world charm of 19th-century europe in this living time capsule.

hahn academy
hahn old irons
hahn old postbox
...rooms modelled after typical homes back in the day and are faithful to the last vintage detail

hahndorf academy 68 main street opens 10am-5pm daily; closed on christmas day and good friday http://hahndorfacademy.org.au

built as a school and taking on many incarnations later, including that of a maternity hospital, betting shop and dentist’s clinic, it was in 1960 that it was transformed into an art gallery and museum. while keeping to its original name, the academy is today a regional centre for arts and heritage. the art gallery is south australia’s largest and houses, among many masterpieces and temporary exhibitions, sketches of hahndorf by sir hans heysen. the famous landscape artist moved here with his wife in 1908 and produced a great number of drawings over a 14-year period, a selection of which he donated to the academy and now forms part of the permanent display. the german migration museum under the same roof re-enacts the lives of the town’s pioneering families, with rooms modelled after typical homes back in the day and are faithful to the last vintage detail.

 

st michael’s lutheran church corner of church street and balhannah road www.stmichaels.com.au

australia’s oldest surviving lutheran congregation was established under an old gum tree and worshipped there for a year until they built their first church, a mud-walled building with wooden shingles, in this very spot. as the congregation grew while the building became worn by time and the elements, a new building was erected in its place in 1859, where it still stands and serves. extensions were added over the years and some necessary changes put in place, but what has not changed is the church’s tradition of tolling the bell at noon for each year of a recently deceased member’s life on earth.

 

beerenberg farm mount barker road opens (shop) 9am-5pm daily; closed on christmas day

the paech were among the pioneering families of hahndorf, who built their farm on the eastern end of the town and grew traditional crops such as strawberries, corn and vegetables. over the years, beerenberg farm’s reputation for quality food produce has grown beyond hahndorf and even australia, and their brand is now widely available in various parts of the world. on their bestselling list are a variety of fruit jams, pickles, chutneys, honey and sauces. from october to april or may, you can pick your own strawberries fresh off the vines at their farm or breathe in the sweet scent at their rose gardens – the flowers are harvested for their rose petal jam.

 

misty hollow fantasy cave 56 main street

stuffed animals, magic tricks, streamers and twirlers that place the rainbow right at your fingertips are the delights that you greet you upon stepping into this mysterious-sounding store. no more than a toy shop at first look, the real attraction lies behind the store, in a fantasy world built over a stream. modelled after the village in wind in the willows, an audio reading of the well-loved book plays in the background to accompany your exploration of the colourful dioramas.

 

german village shop
hahn otto bakery
IMG_6069.PNG
hahn sausages

the german village shop 50 main street opens 9.30am-5.30pm daily

www.thegermanvillageshop.com.au

there’s no fantasy here but a good dose of traditional german artistry in the form of hand-carved cuckoo and grandfather clocks that are made in black forest. you’ll be mesmerised by the intricate wooden beauties that come with 12-year warranty each. an assortment of other german gift items makes up the rest of the store’s offerings, including hansel & gretel figurines, and local mementos that range from kitschy to tacky.

 

otto’s bakery 9 main street opens 7am-5.30pm, mon-fri; 8am-5.30pm, sat; 9am-5.30pm, sun

friendly service and a spacious dining area – you can also choose to sit on the verandah – makes this family-style cafe and bakery a popular stop for a light meal. german breads, rolls and biscuits are made fresh daily along with savoury pastries such as pies and quiches. but regulars will tell you that it’s their german cakes that are worth a road trip from the city. their vanilla slice constantly gets the thumbs up, with some even going as far as to hail it australia’s best. coming in a close second is the bienenstich, a melt-in-the-mouth concoction of almonds, honey and cream custard, while their oversized doughnuts grab your attention first and then your taste buds.

 

taste in hahndorf 35b main street opens 9am-6pm daily

sample and shop the finest local gourmet produce at this premium food store. get your fill of cheeses, fruit jams, honey, dried fruits and olive oils sourced from all over south australia that make great souvenirs for food-loving friends back home. make sure to leave room in your luggage for german sausages, a huge variety of which is available here, including jerky, salami and the mighty popular spicy mettwurst.

 

udder delights 91 a main street opens 9am-5pm daily www.udderdelights.com.au

opened in 1999, its funny – and punny – moniker belies just how seriously they take their cheese here. the factory is located a distance away in the town of lobethal and is not open to visitors, but their cheese cellar here welcomes dairy aficionados with a range of handmade goat’s and cow’s milk creations as well as a hot food menu featuring their most popular items, with suggested wine or beer pairings. they also serve high tea in their underground cellar.

flowers hahn
hahn misty cave
udder delights
IMG_6059.PNG

chocolate @ no 5 5 mt barker road opens 10am-4pm, mon & thu; 9am-5pm, fri-sun & public holidays; closed tue-wed

it may not have the vaunted history or german lineage as most of its neighbours, but this chocolate lounge that’s housed in a rustic stone cottage didn’t take long to find its place among food enthusiasts visiting hahndorf. chocolatier sarina waterman draws inspirations from european chocolate artisans along with a variety of sources – including movies and books – to create her delicate cocoa delights using the finest and freshest butter, fruit purees and cream. their belgian waffles are a must-try, best paired with a mug of their velvety hot chocolate.

 

hahndorf sweets 54a main street opens 9.30am-5pm daily www.hahndorfsweets.com.au

step into this old-fashioned sweet store for a saccharine-filled blast from the past. occupying one of the oldest buildings in town (the quaint cottage was built in 1853) this is a treasure chest of sugary childhood memories. from colourful, patterned boiled candies to chocolate frogs and delectable homemade fudge, there is something to satiate every sweet tooth.

this article first appeared in crave/themalaymailonline on 9 nov 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hidden shanghai

up till about seven years ago, tian ze fang (tzf) was still largely a hidden gem known mostly to shanghai’s artistic and expat community, its entrance from taikang lu barely noticeable. “look for a sign that says lane 210,” was the typical directions given to those on the hunt. the sign was a small white plaque with red lettering tacked onto the peeling wall of the row of shoplots that fronted tzf and hosted a motley selection of local businesses – from tiny mom-and-pop eateries to hardware shops and other trades that the regular visitor to china’s most progressive city would barely pay attention to.

step in and you would first have to walk through a maze-like labyrinth (nongtang in shanghainese) of shikumen, traditional homes with walls of stones and exposed bricks that still housed many local families. its palette was a muted grey, punctuated by patches of exposed bricks. bamboo sticks hung between windows bearing colourful laundry. bicycles and motorcycles were parked along the walls, children play in the narrow alleys in between homes, watched by doting grandparents.

depending on the time of day, you might hear the raucous cheers coming from a circle of men gathered around a game of chinese chess. further along the semi open-air walkway, a seamstress might have parked her sewing machine and be working on orders, while customers stand around and chat. hang around and you could see more everyday scenes of local residents going about their daily lives.

 

then when you turned a corner, more shikumen come into sight but in place of homely scenarios, you would be greeted by workers and customers moving about among shops, cafes, boutiques and bars. there was a decidedly european feel about the place, from the goods and services offered to the visiting clientele. art galleries, photographers’ studios, fashion boutiques featuring upscale local labels, specialty stores of artisanal crafts and souvenirs fill up the other converted shikumen.

at kommune, a tzf stalwart that was one of the first to open there, english-speaking wait staff took orders from tourists who read off a menu of wholesome western dishes. guests would sit under the shade of large umbrellas in the courtyard, surrounded by shops such as shirt flag, a local cult label that’s loved for its edgy t-shirts bearing propaganda-inspired motifs and is particularly popular for its hi panda series. shirt flag has since moved out and was replaced, very quickly, by other trendy boutiques.

kommune is one of the pioneers that have remained, along with photographer deke erh’s art centre that showcases his stunning snapshots of shanghai as well as books about the city that he authored or co-authored. at lane 248, you would find cafe dan by following your nostrils; in the mornings, owner taka niuya, a former engineer from japan, was often at his coffee roaster churning out batches of imported raw beans. the aroma would waft through the open window and permeate the surroundings, drawing caffeine lovers to step inside his three-storey cafe. taka has sinced moved his roaster to another unit but the cafe continues to serve fine coffee along with a menu of japanese eats and desserts.

if you had visited on a weekday, you would practically have had the whole place to yourself to enjoy a solitude that’s rare in this populous city of 26 million. you certainly wouldn’t have thought that behind the unassuming shoplots and past the bucolic scenes of local lives, was a bohemian paradise and a sanctuary from the city’s well-documented mad bustle.

that was then. it didn’t take long for tzf to build up a following. fuelled by mentions in independent guidebooks and travel blogs, the crowds began making their presence felt, even on weekdays. more of the residential shikumen began to make way for retail and dining outlets. in fact, each time one visits, it feels bigger in size and variety. the main entrance, once a non-descript stone arch, has been made more prominent with a humpty dumpty-like statue greeting visitors.

on weekends, the narrow lanes feel even tighter as the city and its tourists flock here for a slice of the hype

today’s tian ze fang is more of a sightseeing and shopping spot than a bohemian haven, where shops peddle mass-produced souvenirs that are designed to be whimsical over cultural and where every tourist wants to visit but are not quite sure why they should except that everyone they know has been or told them to. there are some gems among the warren of generic shops: specialty stores of artisanal goods through which the original spirit of the place lives on.

on weekends, the narrow lanes feel even tighter as the city and its tourists flock here for a slice of the hype; be prepared to be pushed, jostled or have to walk with your back against the worn walls. in other words, it’s an authentically shanghai experience. its atmospheric serenity may be a thing of the past as it is a hidden gem no more, but it is a vibrant section of the city that continuously feeds new interests. as the popular sobriquet yeh shanghai denotes, this is a city that never sleeps.

getting there tian ze fang is at 210 taikang road near sinan road in the french concession area, the parallel street is jianguo road near ruijin road. the city’s taxi drivers know the place well. if you prefer to take the metro, get off at dabuqiao (dabu bridge) station and tian ze fang is about five minutes’ walk away.


 

 

a bucolic side of hong kong

i dragged my luggage over the sloped walkway, its four rotating wheels that usually serve me so well rendered useless by the hard, bumpy surface that’s clearly not designed for any big or heavy piece of travel gear. after all, the ferry that’s waiting at the end of pier 4 is intended for lamma, a small outlying island of hong kong – at just over 13 square kilometres, it’s second largest after lantau – located about 3km off its south west coast that’s visited by few tourists.

it’s a world away from the main hong kong island, where shiny steel towers crowd the skyline while a cacophony of cars and people form an incessant congestion on the ground. there’s a lot to take in but little space to breathe. lamma is on the other extreme; with a population of just several thousand and mostly concentrated in the fishing villages where few bother to lock their front doors, it is quiet and bucolic. its narrow winding roads are meant to be traversed only by foot, bicycles and small motorised carts nicknamed vv for village vehicle. lamma’s most famous son is actor chow yuen fatt, who grew up in the village of tung o and still visits from time to time.

that peace and quiet is what draws locals to make a day trip of it, or rent a holiday apartment for the night. my travel buddy and i had decided on a private apartment instead, the occasional weekend home of an expatriate couple. lamma has always been popular among hong kong’s expatriate community, who either own or have long-term lease on properties here. some prefer to make this island their home, commuting to the city only when necessary.

this is hong kong, i had to remind myself, even though it felt like anywhere but

the owner met us at the pier in yung shue wan village, one of two docking points for ferries from hong kong and from where it’s supposed to be a 10-minute stroll to the apartment.  except it took us twice as long, with a lot of huffing and puffing along the way, as we navigated the weekend crowd along the one main road in the village where low buildings – nothing over three storeys is allowed – house seafront restaurants, cafes, pubs, grocery shops and specialty stores offering souvenirs, dried seafood and gourmet produce. a lively, almost festive atmosphere hung in the air; it was noon and day trippers were milling about, deciding on where to lunch or waiting in line at the more popular restaurants. reflecting its residential make up, a variety of western cuisines is as readily available as seafood restaurants dishing up the freshest catches, cantonese-style, and the ubiquitous char chan teng.

just as we were about to melt into a puddle from the noon heat, we arrived at the apartment, housed in a block of walk-up nestled on a quiet lane off the main road. i caught my breath from the balcony, which looked out to flowering shrubs in the garden below and beyond the road we had walked in from, a sliver of the sea.

this is hong kong, i had to remind myself, even though it felt like anywhere but. to begin with, the two-bedroom apartment cost just a little more than a standard hotel room in say central, but offered what would be a rarity there: space. with more than enough for two and homey to boot, it’s almost surreal. altogether, it’s a refreshing departure from the hong kong i had previously encountered. i wanted to see more, and to find out how lamma fares on the food front compared to the culinary heaven that is the main island.

we headed back to the hub of shops we had passed earlier, the walk a lot more enjoyable this time and began to notice more of yung shue wan’s charms. makeshift stalls lined the way, with vendors selling everything from artistic jewellery to homemade pastries, kitschy souvenirs to traditional sticky cakes. it was like a large open-air flea market that only takes place on weekends. ancient banyan trees that gave the village its name stand imposingly, their aerial roots dripping onto thick trunks and their canopies spreading out to cast wide shady areas underneath.

underneath one such tree, we spied a food stall with a sign hanging above that says ‘thai thai food’ offering spicy delights like tom yam soup and minced pork with basil. with the sweat on our back and the sun still beating down on us, the thought of eating chilli was a bit daunting so we decided on something to cool down with instead: green mangoes, which the proprietor told us were imported from thailand.

ancient banyan trees that gave the village its name stand imposingly, their aerial roots dripping onto thick trunks and their canopies spreading out to cast wide shady areas underneath

delightfully crunchy and a lovely balance of sweet and sour, they put us in the mood for something fresh and green – like the vegan fare at bookworm cafe, a shrine to hippie chic. shelves of books on spirituality line one wall while parked against the other are booth seats salvaged from old bing sutt (traditional coffee shops) and given a lick of green paint. rainbow-hued cushion covers, handwritten chalk boards and a motley vintage decor items make up the rest of the cosy interiors. on the menu are organic teas and fruit drinks, and a good variety of non-meat fare. i dug into my vegan salad bowl, a generous serving of raw greens and nuts that would have been mere rabbit feed if not for the garlicky hummus.   

foregoing their homemade cakes, we skipped next door instead to hunt for some healthy sweets at justgreen organic convenience store, stocked to the brim with all manners of superfoods, nutritional supplements and freshly-baked breads. i had my eyes on the freezer of happy cow ice cream, a home-grown artisanal brand that churns their icy concoctions from coconut cream, the sugar from coconut tree flowers and other plant-based ingredients. i went for the original coconut flavour and was rewarded with a silky, milky cup of happiness that satiated my sweet cravings without being cloying.

a few doors down, lamma gourmet beckoned with chillers of cold cuts while platters of salads and vietnamese spring rolls sit alongside freshly baked loaves and house-made hummus on the shelves. their roast chicken is popular too; pick up a salad and a bottle of wine along with it and you have a complete dinner.

we walked further up, towards the pier we had arrived at. on our left, a slew of pubs and seafood restaurants make the most of their seafront location to offer meals with views.  but we were more excited by the farm harvests at the market stalls ahead: luscious tomatoes on the vine, leafy vegetables with plump stalks, sweet corn bearing fat kernels in an intense shade of yellow that were simply begging to be transformed into a gratifying meal. that was it, dinner was settled – we would cook our own. after all, we had an apartment with a fully-equipped kitchen and not just another hotel room. why not make use of it to make ourselves completely at home and pretend, even if it’s only for a few days, that we’re not just visiting lamma but living here?

a run through the small but well-stocked grocery stores in the vicinity completed our haul, while a quick stop at the dried seafood goods shop yielded a pungent salted fish preserve and dried mantis prawn snacks. we also picked up some bottles of chinese herbal teas to help beat the heat as well as a packet of earl grey cookies from shelly cake express. the latter is a tiny cafe that specialises in cheese cakes, coffees and other baked goods. the cookies were light and crumbly, with a good amount of earl grey tea infused into the batter.

we headed back toward our apartment to drop off the goods, in the same direction that visitors take if they want to go to hung shing yeh beach. at about the halfway point, most will stop and join the queue at kin hing ah por (grandma) tau foo far, a local institution that’s little more than a stall under the shade of trees and tarpaulin sheets. grandma herself, a sprightly lady with her greying hair in a tight bun, stands at the stall preparing orders. you only have to choose between hot and cold. she will scoop the smooth, airy pudding into bowls and then pour over a mildly spicy ginger syrup from a big kettle. grandma’s stall is said to have been around for over two decades now and the long queues – and newspaper clippings from over the years, displayed on a board by the stall – speak for themselves. 

the beach is also called power station beach because it overlooks hongkong electric company’s plant that generates electricity for this and the main island. located at one end of the rocky beach, the cluster of grey buildings with three tall chimneys stick out like sore thumbs from the rest of lamma’s landscape. it is, perhaps, a reminder to the city folks soaking in the sun-dappled sea and basking in the idyllic atmosphere that while lamma may be a stark contrast to the city’s madness, it’s really not far from it.

we dried off on the flat rocks on the shore while a slow evening breeze brought the temperature down a few notches and the sun began its descent into the horizon. waves wash to shore just as surely as we felt ourselves awash in a calm, peaceful state of mind. solitude and serenity in hong kong – who would have thought?

we headed back once darkness fell, a stroll of under 10 minutes that gave us plenty of time to prepare dinner before hunger hit. the corn is boiled with salt to bring out its sweetness; the tomatoes halved, seasoned with salt, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and served with fresh basil leaves. the salted fish preserve is stir-fried with steamed rice, served with a fried egg and sprinkles of spring onions.

it was a home cooked dinner enjoyed in the comforts of a home, and it set the tone for the days to come. after the weekend vacationers had departed, it felt as if we had all of lamma to ourselves – to immerse in its idyllic pace, to cool down in the shade of the yung shue (banyan tree) and watch more sunsets from the beach. this is hong kong, not the one i knew from before but one i would like to get to know more about.


this article first appeared in crave and the malay mail online on 7 sep 2014