Archive for the ‘tourism’ Tag

A boat trip on the Huangpu River

For my last night in Shanghai I decided to do a river tour. It was quite an experience. First I went to the ticket office by the riverside. There were three women there, all highly animated and, to be honest, a little on the wired, frantic side, it seemed to me. They said the next cruise would leave at 8.30pm, which at the time was 40 minutes away so I figured there was no great rush, and took myself off for a little walk to people-watch awhile. This was a mistake, because when I returned, just after 8pm, that cruise was no longer available and I had to settled for the 9pm departure. Then it turned out that a 9pm boat departure meant an 8.15pm queuing time as it apparently takes 45 minutes to get everyone on to the boat. That explains why the women had seemed so stressed and hurried when I first went into the office and they wanted to sell me the 8.30pm ticket. I’d obviously have had to rush if I’d wanted to be on that boat. They probably explained this to me as soon as I walked in the office, but seeing as it would have been in Chinese, I didn’t understand it.

No matter. I was the first in the queue for the 8.15 departure. It turned out to be the first of many queues that night, and each of those queues was accompanied by such a bristling, bustling, excited sense of anticipation. “Man, we are so excited to be going on this tour!” is what I imagined they were all saying to each other.

One of our queues to get on the boat

First we had to line up along the wall of the ticket office, and have out tickets checked. Then a man with a little flag walked us across the road, and led us to a big coach. We climbed aboard, and were driven about ten minutes down the road, to what turned out to be the main Shanghai docks. We were dropped off at a street corner, everyone squeezed their way impatiently off the bus, and made another line. The same people kept pushing their way to the front of each line. The same excited energy filled the air. The man with the tour guide flag made an announcement to everyone, then he approached me (the only whitey in the group) and surreptitiously showed me a handwritten note. “Keep going straight ahead. We will board the boat at Dock 5”, it said. I had to laugh, because it was all so thoroughly organised, and so contained, and yet this was a group that simply didn’t want to be contained.

When we were let through the final barrier everyone ran – RAN –  to get on the boat. “Don’t run, don’t run,” the boat attendants said feebly (in Chinese – I assume this is what they said), but no-one paid any attention to them. They all ran up the gangplank, and ran up the first flight of stairs and ran through the opulent chandeliered dining room:

and ran up the next flight of stairs (despite this notice warning again specific types of walking):

then at the top they flung themselves at the barriers and started to exclaim at the sight of the Pudong and the Bund all lit up, and got out their cameras.

One of the photo opportunities

Once at the top there was nowhere else to run to. If you wanted to enjoy the cruise from a plum position (for example, on the birds nest upper deck, or sitting in chairs around the bow of the boat, you had to pay the attendant money. No extra tickets were issued, it was purely cash in hand. It all looked a bit unofficial and not very communist.

Then again, maybe a black market in premium views is very communist. In any case, I stayed with the proletariat and watched them photograph each other against the illuminated changing backdrop of lit-up skyscrapers (Pudong) and lit-up Art Deco (Bund).

There were chairs set out on the main deck but it turned out that if you wanted to sit in these you had to buy something from the cafe. Nobody wanted to buy anything – we were all too damn excited about being on this boat!

Two sisters

On our first day of temple exploration at Angkor Wat we opted to have a guide with us for the day. She had lots to tell us, and we learned many things we didn’t know about the history of the buildings and the stories behind the carvings and bas-reliefs, and the symbolism of the many motifs. However, on our second day we felt we wanted to explore on our own. We hired a tuk-tuk driver, consulted the many guide books to decide where we’d like to go, and headed off at sunrise.

We both loved the Preah Khan site. It covers a lot of ground, with a long central corridor running straight through it, but is not of the same giant height proportions of some of the other temples. As you explore, you find yourself in corridors, courtyards, galleries and sanctuaries. For the most part the paths are well-trodden and it is easy to guide yourself through. But we had read about two very special wall-carvings that were harder to find. The Rough Guide to Cambodia described them as “sublime” portraits of the two wives of King Jayavarman VII (the king who build Preah Khan and lots of other temples during his reign – the Lonely Planet author called him the Donald Trump of the Angkor era). Their names were Jayadeva and Indradeva, and they were sisters.

The Rough Guide suggested they were in one of the tumbledown sections in the northern part of the temple and that they were hard to find without the help of a guide. Fortunately a Russian-speaking guide came along just at that time, and I mustered up the little Russian I could remember to ask him if he knew where we could find the portraits of the two sisters. Fortunately too, he was only guiding a couple of people, because as he led us down a series of narrow, low-ceilinged corridors, we realised that no large groups would come down here as it was just too small. We also realised that there was no way we’d have found it without guidance.

The first of the two sisters is more visible, at the end of an alcove. Local people had lit incense sticks and left flowers.

Then the Russian-speaking guide indicated where we would find the second sculpture: bend down and stoop through a low doorway, into a nook that seemed to be filled with rubble. Then turn your head sharply to the left, look under the fallen lintel, and there she will be.

Both Tiny and I felt excited by the find (even though we had been led to it, and not discovered it by ourselves). We were struck by the fact that these were evidently portraits – both women looked completely recognisable from the carvings. The details in their faces were unique to them – unlike the many apsaras and other female figures that adorn so many of the temples. We stayed in the cubby hole a long time, just looking at one then the other, making way for other tourists when they arrived.

They were such beautiful pieces of art. “Sublime” was a highly appropriate descriptor. If you are trying to find them, the nook/alcove is near the end of a north-eastern corridor. But do ask a guide if you can.

Tiny jams with local musicians

Something that we enjoyed about the approaches to different temples in the Angkor Wat complex was the chance to stop and listen to traditional Cambodian music being performed by musicians who had been injured by land mines. They were skilled performers, and their signage explained that their injuries rendered many professions inaccessible to them. But they loved to play, and performing in these groups gave them a means of earning money to support their families. One group was happy for Tiny to play with them awhile – they passed him a flute and he jammed with them, taking a solo that they responded to with big smiles and nods and presumably Cambodian versions of “Yeah!”, just like you hear here when someone takes a solo.

On one occasion, the audience included a group of monks, and a group of elderly Cambodians. Both groups stopped and listened to the music, clearly completely absorbed by the music. Then one by one, the monks approached, and each took notes from their small carry bags and gave money to the musicians. Then, the elderly Cambodians followed suit. Then we did.

I was moved to see the way the local people allowed the music to touch them, to halt them. So many foreigners listen and smile as they walk past, but often don’t even slow down, let alone stop. As tourists in Siem Reap, visibly ‘not from there’, it can sometimes feel like everything you see beyond the temples has been put there to get you to spend more money (the same is probably true in every place you visit. But in Siem Reap the accompanying exhortations to “buy from me! you buy scarf from me!” can make it feel more in your face, and more difficult to avoid). So we get good at averting our gaze, and not engaging with things or people that are demanding us to spend. And then miss some of the more beautiful and sincere efforts and contributions.

Recommendations from our recent travels

Tiny and I have just returned from a couple of weeks travelling in Vietnam and Cambodia. We only had two weeks free between the Cultural Diversity in Music Education conference that I presented at in Sydney, and the dates set for my workshops for the MSO at ArtPlay on January 30th. Thus it was a bit of a whirlwind trip, and we packed it full. Read on for descriptions of some of the places that we found especially memorable – we’re happy to recommend them to you.

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The good tourist

Today I have been an excellent tourist. In my Roman Holiday afternoon I:

  •  Caught the Metro to the Colliseum, and walked its circumference.
  • Walked through the Roman Forum (amazing. Extraordinary. Up there with Baalbek in Lebanon)
  • Made my way to the Pantheon and did the AudioGuide tour, learning much about this incredible architectural wonder.
  • Walked to Piazza Navona and then along interesting shopping streets, lots of little boutiques with clothes by independent designers and small labels, and some vintage gear.
  • Photographed myself at the Trevi Fountain. Tried to snap photos of people kissing, but none of them kissed for long enough. Only got one. There were loads of people there – at first I thought there must have been a concert going on, but no, it is just the cool place to  be. I heard the fountain long before I saw it. A nice way to approach a landmark, with your ears.
  • Walked on to the Piazza di Spagna – the Spanish steps. They remind me of the steps in Dubrovnik. I photographed myself against this backdrop too.
  • Caught the Metro back to the most excellent Beehive hostel that I am staying in, in time to receive my incoming phone call. All things good today.

Had more fun with Italian trains today. Did I mention that our train from Napoli to Pisa was incredibly delayed? We set off on time, but then proceeded to lose two and a half hours in the journey time, much of it spent sitting in and between stations just a few km out of Napoli. That, along with the ‘soppresso’ train to Taranto from Lecce, and today’s effort of a 50 minute delay for my Eurostar (ie. expensive) train from Florence to Rome, means that all does not seem to be well with the Italian train system. But I wasn’t in a hurry today. And I like catching trains. I hung around the main hall of the station, taking photos of the space, of people staring at information boards, of myself. Digital is great like that. The train eventually arrived and my seat request for ‘un posto isolato’ was also realised, so I had a little seat all to myself, just me and the window. No-one beside me. In general feeling much chirpier today than I have for the last couple of days.

Vigilance in Napoli

Things are moving quickly now. Naples has been and gone, and I am writing this in Pisa. I have just checked into the most perfect Italian pensione – four-poster bed, white damask coverlet, shutters on the windows… I think when I wash my hair in the morning I will sit on the window sill while I wait for it to dry and pretend I am Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room with a View.

Backtrack a moment however. Ah, Naples! What a crazy place that is! It is beautiful, with many grand buildings kind of layered upon each other – a kind of grandeur lessened not by fading but by grime. There definitely seems to be a bit of an issue with rubbish in Naples. There are piles of it everywhere, in every street. Including a particularly impressive pile on the street in front of the hotel we stayed in.

Naples challenged my long-held impression of fun-loving, playful, joyous Italians who are great company and always ready for an exchange of some kind. At first glance the Neapolitans seem quite surly. Hard eyes, staring faces. SB commented quite early on that we were attracting even more attention here than we anywhere else., people watching us for long periods of time, for no apparent reason(ie. we weren’t doing anything in particular).

(This ‘staring’  observation is getting to be a bit of a theme, isn’t it? I hope I don’t sound like I think people are looking at me all the time… but it certainly seems like they are. Maybe it is because of my gorgeous Elkha coat, these days now covered in its own layer of grime, despite a visit to the dry cleaners before I left Paris).

Three days is a totally unreasonable amount of time to build some kind of description of a population, but I did so anyway… I loved the kind of defiant, don’t-care,  determinedly individual and uncompromising energy of the people and the way they interacted with each other. There was a kind of arrogance towards visitors that surprised me. Prices that were so obviously inflated. Sandwiches displayed that contained a reasonable spread of salad and cheese, but when opened proved to only contain a modicum of one and none of the other. (They had been selected from the back of the display case by the salesman – perhaps only the ones at the front have the full fillings, and the others at the back have been made more skimpily… who knows? Strange anyway, it seemed to us, not to take more pride in what you are offering to people).

Constant vigilance! we declared, jokingly. But it was interesting to realise, as I sat on the train to Pisa today, that on every day we were in Naples, I challenged someone on something, or questioned a bill. It gave my Italian skills an excellent boost!

Yesterday we spent the day at Pompeii. It rained… but I am used to that now, after my Parisian drenchings. What a place that it! Of course lots of it was closed (not sure why… after a while we began to wonder if the main office knew how much had not been opened! The burly guys who seemed in charge of unlocking gates in the site seemed more interested in gathering together undercover to talk about the local football team, than unlocking doors. This is the cynic in me talking.)

It was interesting to see and compare with the Roman ruins I saw in the Middle East. In the Middle East we saw temples, amphitheatres, citadels… but Pompeii shows us everyday life. It looked a fine life, too.

I remember years ago, when I was small and the Pompeii exhibition came to Melbourne, seeing a picture of one of the plaster casts of people killed in the eruption of Vesuvius, a young girl, who had been running away but was cowering on the ground when the lava fell on her. It gave me terrible nightmares, and for months and months I harboured a deep fear of a volcano erupting and killing me. Eventually I confided in my father and I can remember him explaining to me about areas where volcanos tend to erupt (Melbourne isn’t one of them), and how before Vesuvius erupted there had been warnings, and how many people had actually managed to escape. I refused to be comforted at first, just thinking how it still might happen, so then I remember him pointing out that it was about as likely as a car driving in through the front window of the house and killing me. Less likely than that, even. So eventually I was able to let it go.

I have to say I liked Naples a lot. It has a mighty spirit. It seems like a difficult place to penetrate. It is in the shadow of Vevius. There are fine sweeping views across the bay. We didn’t get to Amalfi Coast, running out of time after the extra day in Lecce. But also we felt like we had seen enough amazing coastlines in winter after Croatia and Montenegro. There doesn’t tend to be much to do in such places when you can’t just laze around in the sun, so I figure I will save Amalfi for another visit, another year, in a warmer season, when I can share the driving with someone and swim in the sea without freezing.

SB leaves tomorrow. For the first time in this trip I will be on my own. Oddly for an independent soul like me, I am not looking forward to it. I think I am almost ready to come home now. I feel like I have been away ages.

Oh! Small drama today. Leaving the Hotel Zara in Naples I somehow managed to pull a muscle in my calf. I am hobbling around on it, looking a bit pathetic and putting all sorts of strain on my other leg. Yep. Must be almost time to go home, or to stop moving about for a while.

Think I will stay a couple of nights here in Pisa. It is pretty. Feels very chilled. Then make my way to Rome in time for my flight out on Saturday.

Paris walking tour of Unique Things

Regular readers will know of David’s unique, tres charmant Parisian garret, in the upper-most corner of a building on the Place de Breteuil. Today, as he bravely suffered his horrible gastro attack, he proposed for me a walk through Paris that would take me to inspiring shops selling unique objets d’art, curiousities, bric-a-brac and antiques, and other landmarks along the way. I have been following some of the Lonely Planet’s walking tours, which I recommend, but offer this one as an alternative. Here is David sick in bed…

David sick

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Last days in Paris

It’s a bit alarming to realise that I’m leaving for Armenia the day after tomorrow. Thus I have been doing my best to be a better tourist and see a few more of the key sites.

I had an excellent walk through Belleville on Friday, and met S for lunch in Little India; I went to the Porte de Vanves flea market on Saturday morning, followed by a pleasurable wander through the local street market that was set up in Place de Breteuil, right at the base of the building of which the garret flat is at the top (I bought fresh roasted potatoes and some lasagne for my lunch); Saturday evening was interesting as we went to a Democrats fundraiser – but I’ll write about that separately.

Sunday I attempted to get to Bercy village but got a bit sidetracked along the Promenade Plante which is a gorgeous walking track along a disused viaduct that I thought might take me towards Bercy… but as it turned out I walked in totally the wrong direction, towards Bois de Vincennes, (Vincennes Woods) – which is almost off the Lonely Planet map. (Was a bit unimpressed with the Lonely Planet directions actually). Fortunately a passer-by helped me work out where I was. He was an interesting chap – he told me about a trip he’d made to Antarctica to set up a geo-tracking system at the French base there.

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