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If You Can't Beat the Scooters in Vietnam, then...

Ancient Cham Ruins, Da Nang, and Hoi An

sunny 92 °F

Scooters rush across the Dragon Bridge in Da Nang, Vietnam

I'd planned my Vietnam trip dividing my time between the north, center, and south equally. After Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, it was off to Da Nang by plane. Distances are huge in this north-south oriented country. Given a choice of a more than 12-hour train or bus ride, or a one-hour flight, it was an easy decision. What's more, domestic flights in Vietnam are very affordable, at less than $100 a piece. I do have to say my fight from Hanoi to Da Nang was the noisiest I have ever been on in my many decades of flying. Tons of kids, and passengers that shrieked every time we hit an air pocket, made me put in the ear buds early and try to tune out my fellow passengers.

A couple dragons carved by the ancient Cham people in the Cham Architecture Museum

A quick taxi ride to my hotel, and I unpacked for my three days in central Vietnam. The only real sight I'd planned for Da Nang itself was the Cham Architecture museum. I had only an hour left before closing time, so I hopped a cab there to maximize my time. The Cham are the cousins/enemies of the Khmer, who built Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat. The statues and stone carvings in the museums are very similar to what I'd seen in Angkor years ago -- and you may have seen Angelina Jolie dodging around in the movie Tomb Raider. I would see similar carvings the next day when I visited the ruined Cham temple complex at My Son.

A line of asparas -- Hindu dancing priestesses -- in a Cham carving

I wandered around the museum, snapping photos at depictions of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahman (Hindu gods), and their assorted colleagues and servants, such as the great bird Garuda, water snake Nagas, and temple lions. Halfway through, I did a Homer Simpson and remembered my tripod allowing better shots in the museum's low lighting. The museum director was getting interviewed by a TV crew. The camera man laughed when he shook hands with him and joked, "Ho Chi Minh." The director did indeed have that Colonel Sanders of KFC appearance. I saved the gift shop for last as I'd glimpsed some pretty cool looking statues in there while wandering the museum. I thought they'd be ticked off since I was shopping 5 minutes before closing. On the contrary, the two ladies were eager to sell, and cut the price of the aspara statuette (Hindu priestess dancer) that I wanted in half. I could even pay by credit card, which for me always makes the deal better.

Da Nang's colorful Dragon Bridge

On the way back to my hotel I wandered along the riverfront. Da Nang's riverfront was the first true pedestrian-friendly place I'd strolled in either Vietnam or Taiwan. Joggers, parents with babies in strollers, and families all enjoyed the wide brick pavement, river views, and pretty slanting, late-afternoon sunlight. I wandered out onto the Dragon Bridge with its gaudy yellow stylized dragon snaking its way along the bridge's uprights. Colorful boats were lined up along the opposite bank, which are used for evening river cruises. Returning to the river walk, I came upon a half dozen clusters of men encircling paired chess players in friendly competition. At first I thought it was checkers, but it was later explained to me the flat disks represent chess pieces. Another interesting difference was they use the intersections of the board's grid -- not the inside of the squares themselves -- for placement of the pieces. A friendly Vietnamese college student wanted to practice his English, so offered to walk along with me and explain what I was seeing. He pointed out the modern marble and glazed ceramic statues, and identified each and recounted the story behind them.

Men crowd around one of the board games going on along the river walk in Da Nang, Vietnam

I was the beneficiary of an even more generous offer by a local the next morning. Learning of my plans to purchase a tour to My Son ruins, Van offered to take me there (and my planned destination for that day, Hoi An) for free. She said shed always wanted to visit My Son, and if I paid her entrance fee, she'd shuttle me around. Plus, her friend -- an American Vietnam War vet who'd married a local and lived in Hoi An -- could join us when we got to that town. One thing holding me back was the prospect of buzzing through Vietnam's chaotic traffic on the back of a motorbike. Traffic lights are few and far between, and routinely ignored where they do exist. Imagine every intersection in town is a four-way stop -- without the stop signs, and everybody thinking it is their turn -- and you have some picture what traffic is like in Vietnam. It works, though, because drivers defer to interlopers once they get a nose in, unlike in the U.S. where there'd be more T-bones than in a Brazilian steak house if anyone tried that.

Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam

So, should I? I decided that part of international travel is experiencing another culture. And the scooter is definitely part of Vietnam's culture. Countless other travelers have hopped on the back of a motorbike and survived the experience. I figured I liked the ring of "worldwidemike" better than worldwidewimp, so decided to take Van up on her offer. She assured me she was a good driver, not the type to barrel along recklessly. There were definitely dome butterflies when we took off into Da Nang's whirligig of traffic, especially when we made left turns in the face of an onrushing phalanx of cars, trucks and scooters. Van proved true to her word, driving as cautiously as I could have hoped for during our day of her taxiing me around.

More Medieval Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam

My butt was pretty sore, though, an hour and a half later, when we finally pulled up at the visitors center in My Son. I should have popped a couple of the Ibuprofen I'd brought along on the trip beforehand. My 51-year-old body and my previous herniated disk meant anything after the first half hour on back of the bike was distinctly uncomfortable. It wasn't sharply painful, just a nagging wish to be able to stretch my legs from their position. So, it felt good to wander the museum at the visitors center, and then walk down the path of paving stones to the ancient ruins.

Cham statues carved into the face of ruined temples at My Son, Vietnam

Although not as sprawling or as intact as Angkor Wat, the temple complex at My Son was much bigger than I'd expected. You walk from the various groupings of ruined temples as opposed to driving between them in Cambodia. Some of the temples are merely vertical piles of the reddish bricks the Cham used to construct their temples between the 4th and 10th century A.D. Others are semi-ruined shells with sandstone carvings of Hindu gods, demons, and animals from their mythology lined up on the outside. Still others are fairly intact, with interiors you can enter and gaze upward at their corbeled vaulted ceilings. Lines of apsaras, those lithe priestess dancers, cavorted in sandstone and brick in rows along the exteriors. Pacing from temple to temple was often shaded from the bright sun by the encroaching forest, but it was still muggy and hot. Sweat sprung out from every pore on my skin, it seemed, but the humidity defeated my body' attempt to cool itself. An occasional breeze was a welcome respite -- more welcome than the swigs of my by now lukewarm water.

Crumbling Medieval brick temple at My Son, Vietnam

I hate keep comparing My Son to Angkor, but they are similar. This site is also a UNESCO World Heritage one, but does not have as much of that strangling, vine and tree-covered feel of a lost city being reclaimed by he jungle. The temples are more in forest clearings, and sunlight strikes reddish fire from the bricks. The richly-carved temple exteriors are highlighted in bold relief by the sun's rays. My favorite exterior carving was the row of growling, befanged dogs guarding Temple Complex G. A couple of the complexes are more ruined than others, though. The cause of their destruction is mostly bombs that were dropped by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. One of the several tour groups paused nearby at one of these sites, and I listened in on the guide's English commentary. It struck me as a distinctly one-sided view of the events. Van wondered why anyone would purposely destroy a historic sight like My Son. I cautioned her that there are two sides to every conflict, that it takes two to make a fight. Does the fault lie with the combatant who dropped the bombs? Or does the side who made the conscious decision to shelter amidst a historical treasure share the blame? I drew a parallel to the Iraq War, where America had the initial policy to not target mosques. The insurgents seized upon that to store weapons and hide there. Whose fault is it when subsequent air strikes are launched against those mosques? She said my point made sense.

My favorite carvings at My Son, Vietnam

We concluded our visit by watching a local group perform a few traditional Cham dances. It was interesting to see the asparas I'd seen in the museum and at the site come to life in the form of slender costumed dancers. Their movements exactly mimicked the poses of the carvings I'd seen. Van was amused more by the male dancers who tried to match the young girls' grace. I thought they did well, except when they tried to conclude the performance by hoisting one of the girls high in the air. Their struggles proved they needed either needed a little more practice or some additional protein in their diet!

Like temple carvings come to life, locals perform traditional Cham dances

My backside wasn't looking forward to getting back on the motorbike. So, I actually welcomed the brief rainstorm that forced us to take shelter in a cafe for about 15 minutes. Van had made the trip to Hoi An on her scooter many times, but never from My Son. She made a wrong turn or two and added a bit of time to the trip. It was no biggie, though, as I was getting used to riding on the back of her bike. Or numb. One or the other! We arrived at Hoi An as the sun was coming out in the early afternoon. This is another -- you guessed it -- UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of the ancient ports of Vietnam, and the Old Town is well preserved with intact homes of 17th century merchants, temples, and charming covered bridges. I mentioned to Van that we may run into the Australians from my Ha Long Bay cruise, as they were staying here. Sure enough, within 5 minutes of entering the Old Quarter, I spotted them having lunch in a cafe. We connected and shared stories a bit. Then it was on to our own exploration of Hoi An.

The river is at the heart of the ancient port town of Hoi An

There were plenty of tourists -- including Western families with young children -- exploring the streets, as well. It was relaxing to stroll the streets, shop a bit, check out the historic homes, marvel at an ornate temple, and stop for a cold drink when it grew too hot. Van's American friend, Richard, wouldn't be able to join us until dinner. So, we killed time while I took pictures of the houses, riverfront, and colorful temples. Once I met him, Richard proved to be an amazingly informative insight to Vietnamese culture. He teaches English at a handful of local schools and maintains a friendly relationship with his former students, which include Van. Not only has he married a Vietnamese lady, he has built a home for his in-laws, and fully immersed himself in the culture. We talked on and on, and it became obvious to me why he is so well loved by his students. He is a caring leader, who consciously sets out to improve the lives of those around him.

Flower-lined streets are a feature of the charming Old Town of Hoi An

Our night ride back the short distance to Da Nang was uneventful. Vietnamese love to decorate their bridges, Las Vegas style, with neon lights. It made for a colorful kaleidoscope of a ride back to my hotel. Van and I joked about the looks the other locals on scooters gave us. She said they probably thought I was her uncle teaching her how to drive a motorbike. I wondered if they were thinking I was some old, Western dude fishing for a young, Vietnamese bride, instead. The little kids waved when they saw my Western face, while the young men honked their horns and grinned. I thanked Van as I creakily dismounted for motorbike, and handed back her extra helmet. I was tired and sore. It had been a full day, though, and it was glad I accepted her offer and took the risk of a day of sightseeing in Vietnam on scooterback.

Sun sets on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An

Posted by world_wide_mike 09:47 Archived in Vietnam Tagged my son river walk bridge vietnam dragon scooter hoi an cham da nang Comments (0)

Hanoi's Test

A lesson in traveling to big cities

sunny 88 °F

Hanoi, lit up at night, around Hoan Kiem Lake

I'm not the type of traveler who lives for the vibe of a big city. The crowds, the hustle, and the urban landscape is not a draw for me. Give me a smaller historic town, a scenic area, or something more manageable, and I'm happy. Part of the reason I'm traveling north to south In Vietnam is to put off the teeming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City till the end. Of course, Hanoi is no slouch, either. A city of 6.5 million, it has its crowds and bustle, too. I was staying in the Old Quarter, too, which is probably the most chaotic area in the city.

So, my first night in Hanoi I was determined to walk around and get a feel for its rhythm. The first thing I discovered is it is Taiwan's twin on using the sidewalks for everything except walking. Mom and Pop restaurants set up tables and chairs, racks of merchandise are pulled out onto the sidewalk, and of course, scooters park there. I took it easy on myself and simply walked one direction on my street until I found a cafe that looked nice. After a drink, I walked back. It was pretty crazy, with people, bicycles, cars, and scooters all in motion. I'd read that to cross the streets you simply walk out into the street at a steady pace. The traffic will flow around you. I cheated a bit on that and waited until one direction was clear, and then made my move. It worked, and I felt fairly confident crossing the little side streets after my first evening of walking.

Hanoi's outdoor vegetable markets

My second day in Hanoi was after my Ha Long Bay cruise had dropped me off around 430 pm. I wanted to squeeze in some sights in the later afternoon and evening, and maybe in the morning before my 1 pm flight. Back home, I'd made a list of things I wanted to see, but you know what they say about how plans survive contact with the enemy! The only things still open after 5 pm on my list were the Don Xuan covered market and Hoan Kiem Lake. I would be doing more than just walking back and forth on my hotel's street today, so I studied the map. I took a wrong turn almost immediately but realized it and adjusted on the fly. I was able to find the market with no problem. My guidebook said it stayed open till 6 pm, but at 530, most of the stalls were closing up.

The Hoan Kiem Lake temple at night

The challenge would be to navigate from the market (which was maybe 5 minutes from my hotel) to the lake. The lake was a good 20 minutes away, through twisting turning streets that sprayed forth a never-ending fountain of scooters. So, how did I do? Remember, I consider myself to have a relatively good sense of direction. To use my 7th graders' terminology, it was an epic fail. Don Xuan street was supposed to be a straight shot to the lake, but every block it did a slight jog. By always veering left on those jogs, I ended up going east instead of south. When I ran into an elevated roadway that was obviously impassable on foot, I gave up. That's when the Hanoi Humbling began. The Old City's streets are not on a squared grid pattern. They are a geometry teacher's dream, with more angles and diagonals than you would think possible in 360 degrees. I proceeded to spiral in towards my hotel, going first north, then west, east, south, west again, until I'd probably drawn a Spirograph of rings around it. I always felt I was one last turn away from my street. Like the mirage of the water patch on a summer freeway, it kept receding into the distance. Of course, since I am typing this, I did eventually find my way back. I am not still wandering out there in the Old Quarter today, like a modern day Captain Ahab hunting the elusive white hotel.

The most amazing thing to me, though, was after refreshing myself with a cold drink in my hotel room, I was ready to regroup and try again. I picked out a new route and was determined not to be defeated by Vietnam's streets. Yes, I could have hopped in a cab and said, "Hoan Kiem Lake, Jeeves..." The point was to get my bearings, to hope for serendipity, to find not just my way around, but the lay of the land. And this time, I was victorious. Along the way, I stopped and purchased a couple souvenirs for my friends Allen and Joel, but within 25 minutes, I was walking along the shores of the lake. It was dark by that time, but that was a bonus as it gave me a chance to get some shots of the city lit up at night. There is an island in the center of the lake with a temple, and it was floodlit a rich golden color. I set up my mini tripod as curious Vietnamese watched me. Joggers, walkers, and strollers all circled the path running around the lake. I looked at the restaurants, cafés, markets and such in the area and realized this was the area I should have stayed in. It is a perfect mix of amenities and sights. I double-checked my map and plotted a new route back to the hotel. My favorite moment came when a group of French tourists were hovering nervously on the street corner, unsure when to cross -- like wildebeests wary of crocodiles lurking in the river. I sailed past them, and could hear their voices murmuring as the traffic flowed around me while I crossed to the other side. It was hard not feeling smug, but I admit I'd did. A little. And I would pay for that tomorrow morning. My minor league victory would soon meet a major league challenge In Hanoi.

The Don Xuan covered market

My hotel said I should head to the airport at 11 am, so that gave me a few hours to see Hanoi's sights the next morning. Most opened at 8 am, but the Temple of Literature (what middle schoolteacher could resist?) opened at 730 am. I decided to do taxis for the most part to save time. At a few dollars a pop, there's not a lot of reason NOT to use them in Hanoi. The air conditioning and no chance of getting lost is an added bonus. The temple complex takes up a huge city block, with a brick wall around it and a series of courtyards going from the front progressively further back. It is dedicated to the great teacher....Confucius -- not me -- in case you're confused. It was peaceful and used wide pools and gardens to add to its air of tranquility. Not only Confucius was honored, but a number of acclaimed scholars and even three kings who'd supported Confucianism and embodied his ideals of a ruler taking care of his subjects like a loving father had monuments or shrines in their honor.

The Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Military History Museum looked a short walk away on the map, so I got my bearings upon exiting the temple, and headed that way. While walking alongside the walls of the temple complex, Vietnam sunk to a new low, in my book. Seeing the traffic jam ahead of them on the street, a steady stream of scooters drove up on the sidewalk to crowd towards the intersection..I was sorely tempted to clothesline a few, but figured a tangle with the police could cause me to miss my flight. But seriously! Where do you draw the line if you're going to take away the sidewalk and make it simply another lane? It is arrogant and rude, considering your own personal schedule more important than the safety of others. It is too easy to fall back on being "tolerant" of other cultures, and say, "Well, that is just the way they do things..." No. Were scooters part of Vietnamese culture in the Middle Ages? During Chinese rule? Heck, during French rule in the early 20th century? No. The Vietnamese need to simply say "enough is enough" -- like they are currently doing with drunk driving -- and stop it.

Next to the Military History museum is a tower built to honor the country' s defenders

Okay, I warned you that I would have a "Major League" test crossing the street. It happened when I got to that jammed packed intersection they were driving on the sidewalks to get to quicker. It was a big intersection...wide -- about six lanes, back in the States where there ARE lanes. But that's when I saw it: my first crossing signal in Vietnam! A little red lit guy telling me to wait. I thought, "Maybe this won't be as hard as I thought..." The little guy turned green and it was as if Poseidon had open the gates and released the Kraken of all traffic. A veritable torrent of scooters, cars and buses poured across my little white striped crosswalk. The little green guy seemed to be shrugging his shoulders at me, saying, "Sorry, dude..." There was no waiting for a gap -- none was in sight. I thought of those French tourists watching me cross last night. I could almost hear them snickering, "Where's your silly American bravado, now? I taunt you a second time!"

So, I took a breath. Then I stepped into the intersection. I moved steadily across the street, hesitating only once to avoid walking into a motorbike. I would estimate I crossed a dozen streams of intertwining traffic before I stepped up onto the sidewalk on the other side. What a rush! It worked...reading those guidebooks and watching travel channel shows had truly prepped me for a test I would have failed otherwise. Damn! I wished I'd gotten that on video! I could hear my fellow teachers at Orange Middle School cheering, "WorldWIDE!" Ha, ha! Seriously, that is half of the addiction of travel. You set challenges for yourself, strange new cultures, exotic lands where you don't speak the language, grueling hikes to see places of wonder...all of that is a test for yourself. Can you rise to the challenge? The confidences that overseas travel gives you is one of the benefits few people talk about. It is there, though, and I felt it as raw adrenalin-fueled triumph surged through my veins as I stepped up onto that curb.

The Military History Museum in Hanoi

I had braved the Hanoi traffic for its Military History Museum. It turned out to be a confusing, sprawling complex of buildings. As expected, it focused on Vietnam's struggle for independence from the Chinese, Mongols, French, Japanese, and it's war against the "puppet regime" supported by the United States. You could easily spend a full day here, if you're the type to read every caption to every exhibit (which were in Vietnamese, French, and English). I'm not, though that may surprise some. The best part was the collection of military equipment outside on the grounds of the museum. These included a Soviet jet fighter, armored vehicles, artillery, missile batteries -- you name it! I took more photos than I would for the benefit of my friends, who are at times even bigger military history buffs than I am.

Soviet jet fighter at the Military Museum

My last stop in Hanoi was the prison where U.S. POWs were kept during the Vietnam War. I had not realized it was also the place the French kept Vietnamese rebels ("patriots" is what the museum called them, fairly enough). There was definitely some propaganda going on. The Vietnamese prisoners were depicted in shackles, being tortured and starved, and generally mistreated. I believe that happened, of course. That is the French colonial track record. Read up on what they did during the Algierian revolution. It became propaganda when the U.S. prisoners (which include Sen. John McCain) are portrayed decorating Christmas trees, playing volleyball, and generally enjoying a country club atmosphere. We all know that wasn't the rule. We learn no lessons when we distort the truth.

It is a somber experience touring the cells in the "Hanoi Hilton" where U.S. prisoners were kept

A quick cab ride back to the hotel, another shower, and it was off to Da Nang. Will Hanoi end up being my favorite part of the trip? Of course not. I think I will never forget that feeling, though when I waded into that intersection full of traffic. Equally, I will always remember the exhilaration when I stepped up onto the curb on the other side. The big city had tested me, and I had embraced its challenge.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:05 Archived in Vietnam Tagged military temple history museum hanoi hilton literature pows Comments (0)

Peace and Beauty on Ha Long Bay

Week and a Half in Vietnam Starts with a World-class Sight

semi-overcast 86 °F

Sunset on Ha Long Bay

It is peaceful, now. I'm sitting on the top deck of my boat looking out over the calm waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. A breeze lessens the stuffy humidity as I listen to the whir of cicadas and the distant chugging of a motorboat fading away into the distance. The waters are a jade green, deeper in the shadows of the massive limestone islands called karsts, which jut up all around the bay. Each karst looks like the rounded, jungle-clad peak of a mountain looming tall above the waters. Where vegetation hasn't sprouted, it's exposed stone faces are a mix of khaki, gray, and dark cracks rippling across their surface. The other six passengers, Aussies and Irish --guarantors of an enjoyable time, are still sleeping off yesterday's fun. Several of the crew silently practice tai chi on the deck, their graceful movements seemingly in harmony with the scenic beauty all around. The smells of breakfast drift up to me and I remember yesterday's sumptuous meals, as we were plied with more and more exquisite food until we could take no more.

Although there are plenty of peaceful moments, you are never too far from other cruise ships on Ha Long Bay

It isn't food that draws travelers to Ha Long Bay, though. The striking beauty of the wide green expanses of water, dotted with almost 2,000 jungle-clad islands, summons millions from around the globe each year to Vietnam. The scenery prompted UNESCO to declare it a world heritage site in 1994. The seven of us (all of us backpackers at heart) arrived on the boat yesterday around noon, and were wowed by the accommodations, which were luxury class. We had the added bonus of a more than half-empty boat, so the crew of the Marguerite Garden was waiting with a smile whenever your drink was empty or you needed anything. I'd booked my cruise on the internet through Halong Best Cruises (www.halongbestcruises.com). They were quick and responsive to all my questions and requests. I paid a deposit for my cruise through a web invoice, and after the cruise was over, I paid the balance when I was dropped off at my hotel in Hanoi.

Our cruise ship, the Marguerite Garden

Our guide, Tien, entertained us with stories and information from Vietnam's past on the four-hour minivan shuttle from our hotels to the dock. He taught us a little formula he'd created to remember the different phases of Vietnam's history. He was flexible with our schedule, too, adding more to our itinerary due to our small group. He wanted to make sure we enjoyed ourselves first, and worried about how much time we were taking second. I'd read reviews on the internet about Ha Long Bay guides who barked at passengers if they strayed from their side. Tien was the opposite, and laid back. He saw that we were all experienced travelers who didn't need hand holding. In my case, that meant he never frowned when I often lagged behind while taking dozens of photos of the gorgeous views. He was always waiting with a smile on his face, catching me up on anything I may have missed. Later, he and I discussed history, and he seemed genuinely interested in tips from a teacher on how to make the past more relevant and interesting to his groups.

Close up of the limestone karsts that make the scenery of Ha Long Bay so special

My cabin aboard the Marguerite Garden was sparkling, spacious, and more than you could ask for aboard a relevantly small ship.I had windows that looked out on both sides of the ship, the most comfortable bed I've had yet on this trip, and a super-clean and cool-looking bathroom that exceeded Western standards. The air conditioning was cranking when I arrived, and it was a welcome blast of comfort in the muggy afternoon. Since it was only a two-day, one night, sailing, I unpacked only a bit of my things. I could feel the ship get underway almost immediately, so I snagged my camera bag and went up on the top deck to enjoy the view. One of the things that struck me immediately on our transfer to our cruise boat was the sheer number of ships plying Ha Long Bay's waters. Tien told us that 2 million visitors come to experience its majestic scenery each year, and that more than 500 boats are registered to accommodate them. Most of the 200 that do overnight cruises seemed to be smaller three dockers, like ours. Some were much larger, though, and I was happy we had only our seven passengers to offload onto our tender, not the hundred or so I saw others dealing with. That also meant we had a much more intimate visit to all of the sights, such as Suprise Cave, kayaking, and more.

Magnificent scenery in Ha Long Bay

We were greeted with an amazing lunch by the gracious Marguerite staff (www.tonkincruise.com). Halong Best Tours had queried me for dietary requests ahead of time, and Tien had confirmed them as he'd picked each of us up at our hotel. I told them seafood made me ill, which although technically not an allergy, is the truth! We also had a vegan, vegetarian, and a chicken allergy on board and the kitchen and wait staff never made a mistake on what food they gave us. We were plied with course after course, and sometimes that meant three different offerings for each course to suit our requests. The food was fresh and tasty, and gave me the added legitimacy of trying local, Vietnamese dishes. I tend to have to force myself to do that on my trips -- Anthony Bourdain I am not! The best dish of them all, in my opinion, was the chicken curry we had for one course in that evening's dinner.

Surprise Cave -- our first stop on our sightseeing list

Our first sightseeing stop -- besides simply cruising through the jade green waters admiring the incredible scenery -- was Surprise Cave. It lived up to its name, being a series of three caverns that are progressively and dramatically larger. They are covered in stalactites and stalagmites, and artfully lit up with orange, green, and blue lights. A paved pathway leads through the caves, slick with the drip of water seeping through the limestone ceiling. Tien explained that more columns are being formed by this process all the time at a rate of one inch per year. When I'd read in the description of the cruise about a cave visit, I had no idea how impressive it would be. Although it wasn't as massive as the Skocjan Caves I'd visited in Slovenia, it was an unexpected scenic bonus...one could say a "surprise" (which is indeed how they got their name).

Everywhere you look in Ha Long Bay, boats and beautiful views!

We filed back on our little diesel tender, which ferried us from the ship to all of the sights. Our next stop was an island which had steps leading to its summit, which we would hike to, and then a beach to go swimming in to cool off. The views going up and down the steps were spectacular, with a half dozen ships clustered attractively nearby in the bay. Although I'd been hoping for clear blue skies to enhance Ha Long Bay's scenery, we had a somewhat overcast day, instead. Nevertheless, it was not raining and miserable, like it had apparently been for several days before. It was incredibly muggy and hot, though. The water on the beach was not the clearest or cleanest, but it was refreshing. While we were treading water, I spotted a group of monkeys further down the beach. Me and the Irishmen, Will, went over shortly to investigate and get some photos. Turns out they were Golden Monkeys, and had been drawn to a sack of rice that had broken open and was scattered on the ground. A dozen tourists snapped photos of them eating, cavorting, and doing the X-rated things monkeys tend to do.

Golden Monkeys happily tear into a spilled sack of rice

Kayaking was next. I had not been in a kayak in more than a decade, so I was glad I was paired up with Tien. I took the risk of capsizing and brought my camera along, and am so glad I did. Some of my favorite photos from Ha Lomg Bay were taken while paddling on the water, including a couple sunset ones I'll treasure. I also took some good photos of my shipmates. Not being a master at kayaking skills, I managed to soak myself with repeated drips from the paddle. That was a small price to pay for the peace and calm of gliding through isolated coves in Ha Long Bay, far from the chugging of diesel motors. We watched a falcon glide through the air, keeping a sharp eye out for fish to swoop down upon. A few of us spotted immense jellyfish floating listlessly along, a patch of pink amidst the jade green waters. By the time our kayaking was done, my body was rudely reminding me of my 51 years. Kicking and screaming is my preferred method of accepting my age, but this is one battle I may concede. My airline back injury combined with being in my sixth decade of life (hmm...I do NOT like how that sounds) is telling me kayaking may not be my cup of tea -- despite it being a beautiful and enjoyable experience.

Two of my Aussie shipmates enjoy our kayaking

With the setting of the sun, our first day on Ha Long Bay was drawing to a close. The shower felt wonderful, the meal was sumptuous, and the company of my shipmates was jovial. As darkness fell, we camped out on the top deck in cushioned lounge chairs. All around us, the other boats lit up their lights. We could see the blacker bulks of the karsts looming over us set against the midnight blue of the sky. We all felt like we were staying up late into the night, swapping stories, but everytime one of us looked at our watch we remarked how early it still was! I was glad to hear them say it, as most of my companions were still in their 20s. We were all happy we were on the Marguerite Garden, though, instead of the neighboring ship blasting out karaoke. It was way before midnight when we all retired for the evening. Will vowed to stay up to watch the World Cup soccer game in the bar, but admitted next morning he fell asleep at halftime.

Nightfall in Ha Long Bay

I think I was the first one up the next morning. When I peeked out my cabins windows, I saw some blue sky. So, I figured I'd better get up and about before it disappeared. It was only the tiniest slice of blue when I went up on deck to take photos. However, the sun would seem to try to break through all day long. After breakfast (only slightly less massive), we boarded the tender again to go explore a hidden cove in a rowboat. We got to be "lazy boat people" -- as one kayaker was overheard describing us -- while our Vietnamese rower glided us along through a cave-like overhang and into a pool of calm. The circular cove was about 100 yards across, and tropical vegetation grew from the shore up the slopes of the surrounding island like a giant green bowl. Equally green was the perfectly still water, disturbed only by the sluice of our rower's oars. It was a lazy start to our final morning in Ha Long Bay.

Rowing through what appears to be a cave entrance but is actually a way into a hidden cove

Next, it was back to the boat, which was soon underway and threading its way through the dappled pattern of karsts in the bay. We took a sinuous route that maximized the scenery, and I remained on deck nearly the entire way back, taking photo after photo. We never did get that clear blue sky, but I have a feeling that it is hard to have bad views on Ha Long Bay. We passed by a number of the floating villages, where fishermen have made their homes. Some cater to the tourist business, but most retain their traditional lifestyle of fishing for a living. Tien and the tour representative, "Mr. T," described their method of staking out nets at high tide and then letting the falling water level trap fish, crabs, and other sealife for their meals. We saw the families in their boats, on the shores of the karsts, and repairing nets aboard their floating shacks, going through motions their ancestors had for generations.

Rowboats approach the floating homes of some of the traditional fishermen of Ha Long Bay

As an appetizer for lunch, we were taught how to make spring rolls, and then given a demonstration by the chef on how to carve vegetables into decorative flower shapes. Our final meal on board was the equal of all the others, and then we gathered our things and said goodbye to the crew. I would highly recommend the Marguerite Garden to anyone looking for a boat to sail on Halong Bay. They were friendly, accommodating, and such gracious hosts that we never felt unwelcome. Tien was a great tour guide, too, and any future cruisers would be lucky to draw him as a leader. To give an example of the devotion he puts into his job, he wakes up at 3 am in the morning to study Spanish, so he can better serve future guests. He changed the drop off point for my Aussie friends without any hesitation to better ensure they made their flight that day to Da Nang.

Traditional fisher families work and sometimes live on the shores of the limestone karsts

It was sad to say goodbye to the Aussies, though we may meet again in Da Nang later this week. It was also tough to say goodbye to our boat, too, and the brilliant jade waters of Ha Long Bay. As the humped backs of the karsts faded into a shadowy, blue distance, I tucked away the memory of a peaceful morning on the deck of my boat. Next time I hear the whir of a cicada, I won't think of an insect in a tree. Instead, I'll remember wide jade waters and jungle-clad limestone peaks sharing the moment with me.

Beautiful views greet the traveler to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:43 Archived in Vietnam Tagged cruises vietnam best cave garden bay long halong ha surprise marguerite Comments (0)

A Curtain of Rain to Close Out Taiwan

Finishing up in the capital of Taipei

rain 85 °F

Scenery in Taiwan rushing by my train window

In the week leading up to my trip to Taiwan, I'd checked the weather every so often. Every day showed rain, which made me worried about what would happen once I got here. Luckily, it had been sunny virtually every day. For my final day, I took the High Speed Rail from Kaohsiung to Taipei, the capital. I had only this day do sightseeing, which I realized didn't really do the city justice. Then again, does only one week enable you to really see the entire island? I decided to sacrifice relatively expensive Taipei and reduce it down to one day's worth of sightseeing.

I transferred from the rail station to the metro, and finally to a taxi to my hotel. It took me awhile to embrace taxis in Taiwan, but with the average trip costing only US $3 or so, it makes more sense when looking for an unfamiliar place with all your luggage. The Hotel Imperial was gorgeous, but my room would not be ready for two hours, unfortunately. I checked my luggage with the concierge and headed out the door to visit Taipei's UNESCO World Heritage sight, the Bao'An Temple.

Wall paintings at the Bao'An Temple in Taipei, Taiwan

My guidebook raved about the wall paintings and the overall quality of the decorations. It was impressive, but then again, I'd seen lots of cool temples during my week in Taiwan. I focused in on some high quality decorations, and snapped photos of them. Worshippers crowded the various shrines in the temple, bowing, kneeling, and lighting joss sticks as offerings. here and there, you heard the clatter of moon stones being tossed to foretell futures.

Gorgeous mask in a shrine at the Bao'An Temple, Taipei, Taiwan

Returning to my hotel, I checked into my room and did a very abbreviated unpacking. My flight for Vietnam left at 8 am, and after weighing my options, decided to arrange a taxi for the 30-minute drive to the airport. The alternative was a bus that got mixed reviews on the internet. And considering my own lick so far with buses in Taiwan, I decided to go by the "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" philosophy. If I had done more research ahead of time, I could have booked a later departing flight, which would have allowed me to use the high speed rail and shuttle transfer to head from Taipei to the airport.

Exterior of the Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

When I went back outside, I saw that'd it had begun raining. The spell of good weather was broken. It would rain off and on for the rest of my day in Taipei. Honestly, though, it was perfect timing. Next up was an indoor attraction and Taipei's premier sight: the Palace Museum. This massive collection of the artwork from China's long and interesting history, is housed in a huge, three story complex. For all its space, the exhibits are often thronged with a staggering number of tour groups. My guidebook had warned me about it, so I went in mentally prepared to be jostled, elbowed, and nudged aside by large numbers of tourists from the Chinese mainland. Speaking of which, this collection of imperial Chinese treasures is in Taiwan because the Nationalists lugged it with them during their retreat from the Communists during the post-WW II struggle for control of the country. You have to wonder how many of these priceless treasures might have been destroyed during the excesses of Chairman Mao's cultural revolution. The world (and Chinese culture) probably owes the Nationalists a debt of gratitude for taking the trouble to secure these links to their civilization's past.

Bronze charioteer helmet in the Palace Museum -- one of the few photos I took before if fin out it was forbidden

I'd been keeping my eye out for signs about photography. I hadn't seen any saying it was forbidden, despite museums like this usually being adamant about it. I saw others snapping pictures with their cell phones, so I discreetly began to take a few shots. I felt awful when a young lady, watching me do it, took out her phone and snapped a shot. She was immediately accosted by a worker who threatened to take her to the office and make her delete all the photos shed taken. She was obviously mortified. To her credit, she did not rat me out, and I was able to come away with a whole 3-4 shots from the museum's exhibits. I think my favorite part were the landscape paintings. I've always loved those minimalist images with their delightful details of mountains, villages, travelers, famers, and all the little snippets of rural Chinese life they depict. It got me thinking how cool it would be to decorate a room of my house with those as a wallpaper or something. I'll probably never get around to doing that, but it would be very atmospheric, I think,

Elsewhere in the museum, the massive bronze cauldrons, statues, and weapons were cool, too. The exhibit on ivory carving had a number of magnifying glasses set up so you could see the amazingly intricate details. I had to chuckle when I saw the unfortunate photographer again. She was looking through the magnifying glass at one ivory carving of a tree with individual leaves. When a face was pressed up against hers to also look, she thought it was her boyfriend's. Her look of amazement when she turned to see a random, elderly tourist cheek to cheek with her was priceless.

The displays on European style snuff boxes and the Jade exhibit did get a little old after a couple rooms, though. My hours there went by quickly, though. Before long, it was closing time. I half expected us to be shouted out of the facility by harpies like the anti-photography enforcer. It was very civil and low key, though. From there, I took a taxi back to the nearby metro station (I ignored the guidebook's recommendation of a bus). I hunted around and found a place for dinner. Yes, I "ate local," and did not wimp out like the night I had KFC in Kaohsiung. My Yunnan spicy chicken and rice was good. The bean sprouts that came with it were so-so, the tofu chunks unappetizing, and I have no idea what the sticky orange stuff was. I wasn't going to try it...were you going to try it? And my name is even "Mikey" -- for those who remember the Life cereal commercials.

Taipei lit up at night from the observation deck of Taipei 101 -- the tallest building on the island

My last sight for the trip was to ascend Taipei 101 -- the island's tallest building for a chance to view the city lit up at night. For the world's fastest elevators, the very short line seemed to take forever. The view from the indoor platform (the outdoor one was closed due to the weather) was nice. The rain clouds that drifted in beneath us from time to time obscured the view. However, when it cleared, it was neat to see the metropolis all lit up with colorful lights. Taipei is no Las Vegas with its neon colors, but it was worth seeing. The exit though the jewelry store was a tad forced, I thought. I saw only one unfortunate man with his wallet out and a resigned look on his face, as his wife seemed insistent on buying.

The metro ride back to my hotel went smoothly, and I called it an early night. With an 8 am flight, my wake up time began with a "4" -- never a pleasant number to see on vacation in the morning. My week in Taiwan had been very pleasant, though. Before I decided upon going, I had no idea how much natural beauty the island has. The central spine of its mountains, cloaked in their dense green vegetation, makes for an exotic landscape. Throw in some amazing temples to light up your sightseeing with gold and smoky gilded interiors. And finally, organize it all with prompt, modern and efficient public transportation (well, except for maybe the buses...), and Taiwan becomes quite the nice package for an enjoyable week or more.

Photo of the night market in Kaohsiung, which I didn't mention in my previous entry

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:29 Archived in Taiwan Tagged night temple palace museum taipei taiwan 101 bao'an Comments (1)

Patience, Grasshopper...

An entertaining account of what happens when Worldwidemike "loses it"....

sunny 90 °F

Looking across Anping Harbor towards Tainan, Taiwan

I wanted to start off this post talking about patience. Not preaching, just discussing. From time to time, I hear, "Oh, you teach middle school? You must have a lot of patience!" Yes and no. I feel I am pretty accepting of other viewpoints -- especially when it comes to travel or understanding other cultures. I also believe everyone has a right to their own views on religion, politics, and right and wrong. My patience wears thin when it confronts inefficiencies, though, and those who aren't putting forth much effort at their job, school, work, life -- you name it. So, what do I do when I lose my patience? How does worldwidemike blow his top? Well, today would be a great illustration!

Anping Fort nowadays -- my main destination for today's travels

Remember what I said in the previous two entries about buses? Well, today, I was headed to the historical enclave of Anping. This is where the Dutch colonized Taiwan, and is not far (I thought) from yesterday's destination of Tainan. In fact, I retraced my footsteps, taking the train to Tainan and ducking into the Tourist Information office. They recommended I take the special tourist shuttle #99 from Tainan to Anping. I decided to make an exception to my bus bias and headed to the stop. I must have just missed it, as the attendant there recommended I get on bus #88 (which was also listed as a tourist shuttle on the map of Anping I'd been given). I hopped on, paid my 20 New Taiwan dollars (67 cents), and sat back to enjoy the ride.

Now, I normally have a good sense of direction. And it became clear to me pretty quick we were heading every point on the compass -- not just west to Anping. It honestly seemed to me we would head down one street, make two right turns, then head back up in the opposite direction. I began to pay attention to street signs and saw many familiar names from yesterday's walk in Tainan. It became clear we were just slowly looping back and forth. Any westwards movement to Anping was on a gradual basis. If we were in a race west with a glacier, we'd be falling behind. A half hour later, I looked at a temple we were passing that seemed familiar. It was Tainan's Confucian temple...where I'd STARTED my sightseeing yesterday. In 30 minutes on this bus, I had gone the distance it had taken me 15 minutes to walk yesterday. Plus, we made a turn and were headed back East towards the train station.

Renaissance era Chinese cannons

It was then I blew my top. Now, I'm sure you're all dying to see what Mr. Patient World Traveler does when he blows his top. This is especially interesting in that a key concept of Chinese culture is "face." You lose face when you lose control of yourself in public. So, ranting and raving would be viewed extremely poorly. Plus, is it really the bus driver's fault his managers designed an idiotic route? If I lose my patience, I tend not to take it out on someone else. I decide on a course of action which punishes ME more than anyone else. Think of it as my monastic self-mortification -- the hidden medieval flagellant in me. Those of you who are one step ahead of me, here, have probably narrowed it down to three possible courses of action. All three involve getting off the bus, of course, which I did immediately. In order of sensible-ness, the choices would be:

(1) Take a taxi to Anping
(2) Say "forget this!" and leave in a pouty rage
(3) Walk to Anping

Banyan trees taking root on the almost 400 year old, crumbling, brick walls

Which did you choose? Well, remember the self-mortification part. Of course, I decided to walk to Anping. In the 90 degree heat. The only problem was I had a map of Tainan which didn't show Anping, and a map of Anping which didn't show Tainan. There was a common street, so I knew I could get there by heading west on Mincyuan Road. I just had no idea what the distance was between the two. I found out, though. One hour. Of course, considering the principle of the Taiwan Two-Step, the actual distance is probably less than my walking pace times one hour.

The brick walls of Fort Zeelander -- today's Anping Fort

Okay, so here we are, five paragraphs later and I haven't described a thing...well, except for how much of an idiot I can be at times...! So, why was I going to Anping? I wanted to see Anping Fort, which when built in the early 1600s, was called Fort Zeelander by the Dutch. Eventually, I arrived there, drenched in sweat. I paid my admission and was given an English pamphlet. I found a shady spot with a nice breeze and took about 10 minutes to read through it, I also knew I needed to recover my calm, and find my patient middle school teacher self, again. Zen achieved, I jumped up and headed to the fort museum. It took only about 10 minutes to go through it. I then began to explore the fort grounds, taking pictures all along. The inner citadel is in fairly good shape, but the outer walls have deteriorated quite a bit. In fact, their ruination is somewhat colorful in parts where banyan trees are literally sprouting out of the walls, their roots crushing the bricks in an "Angkor Wat" type embrace.

Dutch powder horn used to charge their matchlock muskets

A smattering of Renaissance era Chinese cannons that have been mounted here and there in the fort. The three-level, inner citadel is the most scenic part, and is accentuated by a modern watchtower, flowering bushes, topiary, and a statue of our old friend, the deified Ming General Koxinga, who defeated the Dutch in a three month siege here and chased them off of Taiwan. From a military historian's perspective, I wish there were more details on that siege. The fort museum has examples of Chinese and Dutch weaponry (as you can imagine, it was Dutch Renaissance era matchlocks vs. Medieval Chinese melee weapons and bows). Or at least that is how they portray it. They do say when the Dutch Governor-General returned home he was tried and court martialed for losing Taiwan. They don't really say how the Chinese won, though. My guess is that, with a three month siege, the Dutch were simply starved out and had no hope of relief. Koxinga was victorious, Taiwan returned to the Chinese, and the General was eventually made into a god, of sorts.

Chinese tombs in the style of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

Next, I walked through the neighboring Anping Matsu temple, one of the oldest in Taiwan. My heart wasn't really in it, though, as I'd had my fill of temples the last two days. I moved on to the nearby graveyard to check out the hundreds of ornate tombs in the style of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The graveyard itself was overgrown, but the tombs seemed fairly well kept up. Had it not been for modern photo-etching of the occupants on some of the tombs' stonework, I would have guessed they were all centuries old.

After the graveyard, I checked out the one of the ruined coastal artillery batteries, and one of the 18th century European merchant houses. It was getting late in the afternoon, though, so I decided to call it a day. I hailed a taxi and paid about $7 for a quick, 10-15 minute ride back to Tainan's train station. I didn't know whether to chuckle as I retraced this morning's footsteps (but in air conditioning), or feel ashamed of my pig-headedness. Did I learn a lesson, today? I guess I did. I learned that I lean towards a kind of masochistic, self-mortification when I get angry. The one who suffers when I get mad is usually myself. I'm not sure who I am "showing" by treating myself brutally. I guess it is better than taking it out on others, though. I mean...heck! Heaven forbid I lose face! Lose patience, sure, but face...?

Anping Fort -- was it worth the grief? Sure....especially if you're a military history buff like myself!

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:16 Archived in Taiwan Tagged fort tombs taiwan tainan anping zeelander Comments (0)

A Hot New Number: the Taiwanese Two-Step!

Day trip to Tainan and lots more temples!

sunny 89 °F

The historic city of Tainan, and a perfect place to practice the Taiwanese Two-Step!

One of the reasons I chose to stay in Kaohsiung was that it is a regional transport hub. It would be easier to take day trips to a variety of destinations. When I travel, I don't like to spend just one night in each city. Packing up each morning, finding your next hotel, and then unpacking is such a pain...and a time waster. I feel you get a better experience if you can unpack and spend at least three nights in one spot. It is not as stressful and a place begins to actually feel like "home."

The top day trip I wanted to do out of Kaohsiung was to Tainan -- the island's former capital and a historic city. Trains left from Kaohsiung's main station -- a convenient 5 minute walk away from my hotel -- every half hour or so. The journey takes anywhere from 35-45 minutes, depending on how many stops the train makes. When I got off my train, I found the station's tourist information booth and got a better walking map than I had. They pointed me in the right direction to begin my WALK (no buses today!) to the sights I'd picked out. Actually, my library copy of Lonely Planet's "Taiwan" had a nice, step by step, city walk. So, I followed that, supplementing it with the new map to help with directions.

Early organic version of the Taiwanese scooter

An interesting thing about walking in Taiwan's cities is the sidewalks. You see a lot of people walking on the hot pavement in the streets, holding up an umbrella to ward off the sun beating down on them, instead of the shaded, much cooler sidewalks. The sidewalk floors are often tile, plus you get the occasional blast of air conditioning from doors opening to the fancier shops. So, why don't Taiwanese walk on their sidewalks? Because the danged scooters use them for parking, that's why! Or, shops encroach and set up their business on them! Often, there is just a narrow, one person wide path on the sidewalk because of the row of scooters parked there. And if the shop is a scooter repair one, he disassembles the bike he's working on right there where you need to walk. Also, you may have to dodge a scooter driving down that narrow little row to park! I christened the dance you have to do if you try to walk on the sidewalk the "Taiwan Two-Step." It is mainly because you have to take two steps for every one you want to go forward with all the weaving in and out of obstructions. No wonder the Taiwanese walk in the streets!

Tainan's much more simple Confucian Temple

The Confucius Temple was my first stop. It was the first one built in Taiwan, and is more provincial and less ornate than the one at Lotus Lake. Like that one, though, it wholeheartedly adopted Confucius' role as the great teacher and uses the temple as a museum to teach visitors about its rituals. I met a retired devotee in the Edification Hall who was eager to chat. He sells decorative sheets of Confucian sayings in Chinese calligraphy written on cloth paper. He asked me to pick one out and explained what it said and how that illustrated Confucian ideals. Then he gave it to me as a gift and said I should frame it in my home so I could pass on the teacher's wisdom. I think I'll go him one better and hang it up in my classroom!

The not so Great South Gate of Tainan's old city walls

After that, I walked to the Great South Gate, the remaining bit of the old city's defensive walls. It had a number of cannons (painted red?) on the walls and by the thick, double wooden doors. It would have been more atmospheric if the inside had not been converted into a cafe. They were blaring modern pop music, which for me made it kind of cheesy and ruined the experience. The two bored workers seemed to agree, judging by their expressions. I like old fortifications (I hear your sarcastic, "Really...?"), so was disappointed with this stop.

The pleasant little Wufei Temple belies its grisly back story

The next item up was the Wufei Temple, home to one of the grislier temple histories. When the last claimant to the Ming Dynasty finally surrendered to the conquest of the Manchus, he decided to commit suicide. He urged his concubines to flee and take up new lives. However, they decided the honorable thing to do would be to hang themselves from a beam in the palace. This tugged at the heart strings of the Taiwanese, and a temple was built to honor their example of right behavior. The temple itself is tiny, and is set amidst a well-tended garden.

Keeping an eye out -- all three of them -- for demonic intruders at the Fahua Temple, Tainan, Taiwan

Next stop was -- wait for it -- another temple! If the last one had a grisly story, this one had some disturbing statues. The Fahua Temple was originally built in 1684, but was reconstructed after being bombed in WW II. It was silent -- almost deathly so. For most of my visit, I was the only person there. The creepy statues are of the Four Heavenly Kings in full-on punishment mode, getting ready to slash, stab, or otherwise crush any demonic (thankfully not Demanic) intruders. One neat thing was the use of an occasional, tiny MP3 player to project Buddhist monastic chants. It really added to the atmosphere, and gave the emptiness the feeling that I'd visited while all the monks were out on lunch break or something. I took pictures of some of the decorations that caught my eye, then wandered out. I really need to remember to bring my iPhone for times like this, so I can use its voice memo function to record the sounds of my experiences.

I needed a break for the heat, so ducked into what I hoped would be an air conditioned restaurant for a cold drink. It wasn't, but the fans were blasting at full force, so it was pleasant to sit and look ahead at the rest of the walking tour. One of the workers has a sister who was an exchange student in Ohio. I seem to be running into Ohio connections left and right. On my Taroko Gorge tour, a woman said her husband graduated from OSU and remembered Columbus fondly.

Ming General Koxinga is now worshipped at his very own shrine in Tainan, Taiwan

Have you ever wanted to be worshipped as a god? Well, if you're Chinese, it is a possibility. You have to do something pretty amazing, of course. And there is a small catch: you have to be dead before they build the temple to you. Ming General Koxinga retreated with his army to Taiwan in 1661, planning to regroup and have another go at the Manchus who were taking over the Chinese mainland. While in Taiwan, he worked diligently to improve the lives of the islanders. He built infrastructure and improved the island's economy. He even chased out the Dutch, who had begun colonizing the island amidst 40 years before. The plan to retake China never went into action, though, but Koxinga was remembered as a great man. Two hundred years later, the Chinese emperor passed an edict dedicating a shrine to Koxinga. In front of the temple, an immense white stone statue portrays him heroically mounted on a horse. Inside the shrine, a life size statue shows him calmly seated amidst various Chinese deities. His shrine is located in a pleasant garden, with a meandering pool with a spouting fountain, various humongous goldfish begging for handouts (honestly, the see your shadow and cluster towards the surface), and well-tended shrubbery.

The lady shows some fire...that's the goddess Lady Linshui hurling a fireball and chasing off demons

If you duck out the back gate of the garden, you come to the temple of Lady Linshui, the goddess the locals sacrifice to for their children's protection. This is another elaborate, colorful temple bedecked in gold, statues, and rich in carvings. The lady was getting a makeover when I visited, with workers in one room repainting the ceiling. There are many depictions of her, seated reigning serenely, beckoning worshippers, and my favorite, hurling a fireball at four beast men with the heads of tigers, monkeys, and horses! That's one way to protect the city's children: rout demons with magic that Gandalf would be proud of...!

The God of War poses in front of a lit up row of tiny miniature versions of himself, proving an old god is perfectly willing to learn new tricks

I don't know if you, my reader, are suffering from temple burnout at this point. Much to my surprise, I was actually beginning to lose my enthusiasm. With the afternoon heat wearing on, I kind of breezed through the Dongyue Temple (the murals of Hell were overrated) and the Official God of War temple. I wondered if that temple was an early example of commercial sponsorship. You've heard, say, the Rose Bowl brought to you by Citi. Was this an attempt to copyright the war god's temple so they could sell official logo merchandise? Maybe the sponsors were responsible for the Taiwanese fighter planes whose flight path repeatedly passed right over the temple. Either way, it was very cool to be in the god of war's temple and watch flight after flight of F-16s scream overhead.

And here's a close up of that wall of miniatures behind the God of War

I ended the day with a change of pace -- the Chihkan Towers. This was originally a fort built by those Dutch colonists in the 1653. You have to squint to see the fort in it because it has changed hands and been renovated a number of times. The walls at the base of the two story buildings are brickwork -- a Dutch colonial trademark. Otherwise, it looks like a Chinese noble's house, with the classic flayed roof with dragons on the corners. If you pronounce "Chihkan" like it looks in English, you get "chicken." Or at least I do. So, it seemed appropriate to have a collection of statues to our good old deified friend General Koxinga receiving the surrender of the Dutch Governor-General. This was one of the first colonial outposts that the Ming general bagged from the chicken Dutch, which culminated in the surrender of Fort Zeelander in nearby Anping.

I know...the Chihkan Towers didn't look like a fort to me, either...

After trooping through Tainan's streets all day, I was ready to surrender at this point, too. Maybe the Dutch weren't beaten, after all. Perhaps they just wanted to give up on Taiwan's sticky summer heat and go back to Europe! That is what I did, in effect, hopping the train back to my air-conditioned hotel in Kaohsiung. It had been an interesting day, and I tried to focus on unique aspects of the places I visited rather than simply say, "Look at the cool temple!" I was glad to get back "home" to my hotel room, though, and unwind from a second day of temple gazing and encore performances of the Taiwanese Two-Step!

"Did somebody say 'Two-Step'?" A Chinese door god -- these fierce images were often painted on the doors of temples to guard them

Posted by world_wide_mike 03:41 Archived in Taiwan Tagged towers south great lady scooters gate taiwan confucius ming tainan wufei fahua koxinga linshui chihkan sidewalks Comments (0)

A True Lotus Does not Wilt in the Heat

A full day of sightseeing in sunny, humid Kaohsiung

sunny 90 °F

Kaohsiung, Taiwan's "second city"

I had decided to base myself for a few days in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city, for a number of reasons. There are a handful of nice historical spots in the area that I could visit as day trips. It is a transport hub, and hotel prices are roughly half of what they are in the capital, Taipei -- where I planned to wrap up my trip. I would find using Kaohsiung's metro, trains, and high speed rail a snap. I've always liked these forms of travel because they are clearly labelled and it is easier to gauge where you are and when to disembark.

Lotus Lake and its temples on the shore and surface of the waters

My morning destination illustrated how important that last bit truly is to finding your destination. I was headed for Lotus Lake, on the northern edge of the city. It is a small lake ringed by a number of interesting temples. Some are even built out over the surface of the lake. The metro would deposit me less than a half mile from its shores, by looking at my guidebook's map. However, the lady at the visitor information desk was insistent I needed to take a bus to get from the metro to the lake. I was incredulous, just as she was by my suggestion of walking. Yes, it was another blazing hot, humid day. But seriously? I had half a mind to ignore her suggestion, but dutifully tromped out and found the correctly numbered bus. The problems with buses, in my experience, is you can't always tell when you are supposed to get off. If you don't know the area or recognize your stop, you're likely to drive on past it. Or -- as would be my case -- board the bus on the wrong side of the street and head the wrong direction!

I knew fairly quickly it was taking me back into the city -- not towards where I was supposed to go. I got off, and began to retrace my steps. Asking directions didn't seem to be helping, so eventually I said "forget this!" And waved down a cab. It cost me 100 New Taiwan dollars (a little more than $3) to be taken in air-conditioned comfort to the lakeshore. And yes, had I known the way, it would have been a 15 minute walk!

the facade of the Ciji Temple at Lotus Lake

I began my exploration at the Ciji Temple, at the southern end of the lake. The exterior is richly carved in brightly-painted scenes of dragons, horsemen, and robed men -- the colors shining in the morning sunlight. Four carved gray columns are intertwined with dragons and support a facade telling stories from Buddhist mythology. The roof is a riot of carved dragons and other animals. The sheer amount of decoration continues as you enter, overwhelming your senses in the dusky stillness of the interior.

Bad luck! You are supposed to enter through the dragon's mouth -- not the tiger's!

Outside, the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas seemed simpler and almost cartoon-like in their decoration, by comparison. Two seven-story towers rise up from the lake and are reached by a zig-zag walkway above the surface. The entrance to each tower is in the form of a comical, 40-foot long dragon or tiger, one for each pagoda. You actually walk through the creature's gaping jaws into a passageway of colorful relief figures to reach the pagodas. It is supposed to be lucky to enter through the dragon's mouth and exit from the tiger's. A spiral staircase whirls its way up the center of each pagoda to a nice, breezy panorama of the lake. Below, you can see the water around the pagodas choked with lotus blossoms. Looking across to the opposite pagoda, your eyes are dazzled by the bright oranges and yellows that decorate the two pagodas. Each sports a number of fierce statues of its namesake tigers or dragons.

The zig-zag pier leading out to the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas

Continuing north along a shady brick pathway along the lakeshore, you come next to the Spring and Autumn Pavilions. Both were encased in scaffolding during my visit. It was possible to skirt around the construction, though, and make my way out onto a pier extending almost a hundred yards out onto the lake surface. At the end was the temple to Guandi, the god of war. Yellow paper lanterns lined the bridge every few feet, swaying in the gentle breeze. Although it was the least decorated of the Lotus Lake temples, it's position in the center of the lake made it a great vantage point. Climbing up to the second floor, you can look around and see the other temples spaced out along the shore. Behind them, stores offered drinks, and across the lake, an office building or two edged towards the shore. Further back, green hillsides rose to shelter the lake from the rest of encroaching Kaohsiung.

The pier leading to the temple to the God of War

Returning to the shore, you see rising up the largest and most impressive of the lake temples: the Temple of Enlightenment. This three-story temple gleams with gold, red, and yellow. Like the Ciji Temple, every inch of the walls, pillars, and ceiling seems to be encrusted with a carving, statue, or painting. Various aspects of the Buddha and other divinities gaze down at the worshippers who bow, pray, and light joss sticks (incense), as part of their devotions. I paced slowly around the temple, trying to be discreet as I took it all in, and snapped photos. On the second floor a fountain sported a half dozen dragons playfully squirting water towards each other. Although the lighting should have been dim, it was reflected and redoubled from every gold surface.

The three-story Temple of Enlightenment[/b

[b]Worshippers pray at the Temple of Enlightenment at Lotus Lake

The atmosphere was of stumbling upon a dragon's hoard of gold in a smoky cavern, with the light from your torch being tossed back at you from a thousand surfaces. On the steps out front, two fierce temple dogs gripped massive stone spheres. The demonic look in their eye recalled the demon dogs from the movie, Ghostbusters. I wouldn't want these curs to come to life, though, and want to play a game of tug of war with a random body part!

"If there's something weird, in your neighborhood...who ya gonna call...?" - Ghostbusters-like temple dog

Next came one of my favorites of the day: a more than 70 foot tall statue of Xuantian Shang-di at the end of a 50-yard, statue-lined pier. Xuantian is the Emperor of the Dark Heaven and mythological guardian of the north. He sits enthroned, sword in one hand, and a massive foot resting upon a turtle and dragon. Very colorful, with a stern expression, he looks out over Lotus Lake as if it his own private realm. The guardian's army was what I enjoyed most, though. Every ten feet or so, on both sides of the pier, is a different stone statue of some mythological warrior or demon. They are all mounted, some on horses, others dragons, deer, and even a swan. Some brandish weapons, still others hold squirming men or babes that they appear ready to either devour or rip limb from limb. They'd make an amazing chess set, or line of miniature warriors (David McBride, I thought of Splintered Light Miniatures when I saw them...if anybody could do this army of fierce guardians up right, it'd be you!).

It's good to be the Emperor of the Dark Heaven...

One of dozens of statues spaced along the pier and guarding the Emperor Xuantian Shang-di

The final temple was one to Confucius. I was curious to see what it was like, as I teach my students a bit about Confucius. One of the things we discuss is whether Confucianism is a religion or a philosophy. So, to see a temple built in his honor would give me more information to make my own judgement on the matter. Whereas the Buddhist and Taoist temples I'd seen earlier today had seemed crammed and almost claustrophobic, this one was spacious and open. After passing through a towering, three-portal white stone and tile gate, I entered a courtyard through a set of wooden double doors. I was greeted by two attendants who eagerly had me sign their guest book. They handed me an English pamphlet about the temple. The courtyard had a roofed gallery extending all around it. Most of the decoration was stylized geometric patterns, with the only figures being outlines of dragons. Compared to the others I'd seen, the Confucian temple was sparse and elegant. And consistent with Confucius' role as a teacher, the temple had placards in both Chinese and English explaining the instruments and equipment. It was as much a museum as a temple. Most of my 7th graders will tell you they view Confucianism as a philosophy -- with its emphasis of establishing a harmonious society --rather than a religion. However, after reading about how sacrifices and dances are made in his honor and that of his chief disciples, now I'm not so sure.

The Confucius Temple at Lotus Lake

One thing I was sure of, through, was after several hours in the sun and humidity, I needed a break. I headed back to my hotel, chuckling at the ridiculously short cab ride to the metro station. If only I had known which direction to walk! Once back in my hotel room, I relaxed in the air conditioning, sucking down a cold iced tea. Ahhhhhh! I considered showering before heading out again, but figured that within five minutes I'd be drenched in sweat again. Instead, I planned my afternoon excursion, referencing between my guidebook and the internet.

The Dome of Light artwork in the Kaohsiung metro

My first stop was a brief hop off of the metro to look at the Dome of Light. This colorful glass artwork decorates the Formosa Boulevard metro station. I continued on to my stop, the Sanduo Shopping District. No, I wasn't going shopping in the mall located above the stop. Instead I was headed to the nearby, 85-story Tuntex Sky Tower. The building is the 13th tallest in Asia, and the second in Taiwan. There is an observation deck on the 75th floor, and I was headed up for a Birdseye view of Kaohsiung. I was mildly disappointed that it was all enclosed and that you couldn't go outside, but the windows were tall and faced out in all directions. After about 15 minutes of soaking up the view, I headed back down and returned to the metro.

The view from the 85-story Tuntex Tower

My next stop was the Love River, which winds through the city from its harbor mouth. There is a bike path and parks along it. There is even a fleet of solar-powered boats that run short cruises up and down the river. I took some photos and decided to board one of the "Love Boats," even though I knew the commentary would be in all Chinese. A tour group shared the boat with me, and politely laughed at the guide's jokes. They eyed me nervously when I got up to take a few photos, so doubtless I'd been warned in Chinese to stay seated. One of the men in the tour group got up to take some video, and his wife hissed at him to return to his seat. Another example of Western corruption....sigh.

Solar-powered "Love Boats" cruise the river in Kaohsiung

The river has a number of cafés set up along its length, selling food and drink to passers by. I decided that the occasion called for a beer, as the sun was going down and I could think of no better way to watch it than to sit by the riverside and drink it in, so to speak. The food looked tempting, too, but I had spotted a better place for dinner on my way down to the river. Another Western-looking man was tucking into some food, though, at the next table. As I ordered a second San Miguel (Philippine beer), he went for the ice cream, we fell into conversation, and it turns out he is an airline pilot on a layover. We talked for an hour as the sun set and darkness fell. Turns out he is Colombian and flies for a Japanese carrier. It was good to swap airline stories for awhile. We had a lot in common, and it is always good to have a nice conversation with another Westerner when traveling alone.

Ahhhh, that is how you end at terrific day of sightseeing!

On my way back to dinner, I stopped to take a few nighttime photos of the riverbank and the buildings all lit up colorfully. I always carry a min-tripod in my camera bag for these types of photos. The photos turned out nicely. This, along with a good dinner, put me in a satisfied mood for the day. It had been a long, hot day of sightseeing, but truly a great one. I know my sightseeing schedule would seem like too much work for a vacation to some, but it is simply the price you pay to see what you want. If you want a mountaintop view, you have to climb up it, right? The same goes for a day of sightseeing in the summer's heat in Taiwan. You have to pay the price in sweat to reap the reward of the amazing sights I saw in Kaohsiung that day.

Kaohsiung's Love River lit up at night

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:55 Archived in Taiwan Tagged tower lake river pagodas light love dragon tiger dome taiwan lotus tuntex Comments (0)

Taroko Gorge -- don't nap and miss this in Taiwan

Days 1-3 of my Taiwan trip

semi-overcast 84 °F

temple lions rock,and so does Taroko Gorge in Taiwan

It seems odd that after three days in Taiwan, I feel like I've had only one real day of sightseeing. That day, though, made up for it. Through my hotel, I purchased a full-day tour of Taroko Gorge -- a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was amazing, and I'll tell you about it shortly. The other two days really weren't all that bad, involving scenic train rides along the East coast of Taiwan. My base for visiting Taroko Gorge was Hualien, which is the biggest city on the East coast. That isn't saying much, though, as this coast is Taiwan's back country. A better comparison to the United States might be "highway 1" coast of California. It is very scenic, with the deep blue Pacific contrasting with the steep green mountainsides of Taiwan's central backbone. Of course, you have to throw in rice paddies and more green and lush vegetation to get a more accurate picture.

Okay, so enough comparisons, "Worldwide" (as some of my coworkers haven taken to calling me). How about describing what you've seen and done? After more than 24 hours in transit from Columbus, Ohio, I finally arrived in Taipei, Taiwan, more than two hours late. I'd previously decided to bug out of town immediately, and head for a smaller (read: cheaper to stay in) town immediately. Catching the train was a snap, but I didn't get to my hotel until after midnight. The next morning I was up bright and early, catching my first train ride along the East coast. Amazingly, I did not doze off, and drank up the scenery eagerly. The crash -- thankfully NOT of the train type -- was coming, though. Just wait for it. I'd booked all of my hotels ahead of time through hotels.com, and I have to say I recommend it wholeheartedly. I'd picked out one that some of the many positive reviews had mentioned that the hotel will pick you up at the train station. Sure enough, a fluent driver was waiting for me and whisked me to the Cullanin Hotel.

steep canyon walls and a rocky river provide the base for a day of great sightseeing

My room was all that hotels.com promised, and I unpacked, and let out a sigh. Two-plus days of transit were over. Whew! So, what did I do next? Oh, nothing more than violate Rule #1 of transoceanic travel: Don't nap! I collapsed on the bed and did not wake up until after the sun had gone down. The Type A part of me is grousing, "Nice job, jerk-face (Type A's aren't know for being "touchy-feely"), you just wasted a whole day of travel!" I can hear you, my reader, defending me, though. "Hey, cut him some slack! He's been on the go for two days straight...!" I do appreciate you sticking up for me...especially since one thing I could have done was update this blog. And you, my defending readers, are the ones suffering. Anyway, to sum up day one: Gorgeous train ride, nice long nap, and aimless wander about town before finding a really cool barbecue place where you grill your own meat and veggie choices at your table.

A full-day tour of Taroko Gorge made up for the slow start to my Taiwan trip

Ah, but Day 2. My Type A self was sooo pleased with Day 2. I'd been debating whether to hire a cab and design my own tour of Taroko Gorge or to buy in with a tour. The more I read, the more it seemed very few of the many trails you can take in Taroko are circular. And my guidebook said you don't find it which are open until you get to the visitors center. So, I decided to go ahead and buy the full-day tour my hotel recommended, and pray that it wasn't too obnoxious. As it turned out, this was the right call. We had only 7 of us in a van on this tour, and we got to hike 3 different trails. I was the last one back to the van, as usual, every time. No one seemed to mind, and it was a good group who was there for the same reasons as I was. Our driver/guide, Douglas, explained everything in both Mandarin Chinese and English. He took a liking to me because I had lots of questions and obviously had read up on it beforehand. Hey! I can be Type A sometimes, too, so cut me some slack...!

A temple lion enjoys a kingly view in Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge was stunning. The river has carved out steep canyons -- much of it marble -- that tower above the river and sometimes the road. Cut its climb higher into the cliff sides, and Douglas dropped us off at each of our half dozen walks and explained where we had to go. He would be waiting for us (ahem, usually me as the last one...) on the other side, so to speak. We stopped at both the entrance and visitors center to get our bearings and take some pictures. The area of Taroko Gorge has been inhabited up until recently by some of the aboriginal tribes of the island of Taiwan. The quick road to the city, though, had led many tribal members to abandon their cliff top villages and move to the city for work. Progress always brings its trade offs, and the loss of colorful traditional lifestyles is definitely one of them, worldwide. Our first mini-hike was to the Eternal Spring Shrine, which was built to honor the 450 workers who lost their lives building the road through the Taroko Gorge I the 1950s. There are lots of scenic overlooks and great places to see the frequent road and foot bridges spanning the river gorge.

Swallow Grotto gives you a good sense of the scale and majesty of Taroko Gorge's scenery

Next up was Swallow Grotto -- an even more impressive eyeful of canyons scenery. Our "trail" is actually a one way road with frequent overlooks far down Into the river canyon. And we saw a number of darting swallows (birdses, as Gollum would say) zipping along the cliff walls. This was when the "wow" factor of Taroko Gorge really kicked in. Previously, it had been at the "cool" stage. It is important that travelers use accurate terms so that their readers can get a true sense of what the destination is really like. Can you imagine how disappointed you'd be if you were expecting "wow!" and actually saw only "meh, that's pretty cool..."? I aim to please here at worldwidemike.com! You can thank me later...but be sure to tip your waiters and bartenders...

The overlooks along Swallow Grotto were great places to snap photos of the gorge

Next up was lunch...easily the only disappointing part of the tour. Douglas took us to the cafeteria of a "Youth Activity Center". It was NOT set up to receive tour groups, though we were not the only ones in attendance. The food wasn't even "cool" (but definitely "meh"). What's worse, they had nothing but tasteless hot tea to drink. They served our group a couple at a time over a 25-minute period, making it pretty awkward eating in front of those who hadn't been served, yet. The staff had the congeniality of a prison cafeteria, plus there was nowhere to buy more water or alternative drinks, if you desired. After the warden let us out, we were off to the Lushui-Heliu trail. This was our first real hike -- or at least what I would call one. It was two kilometers and climbed up a jungle slope, peeking out for time to time at the river and road curving and recurring a hundred yards below us. Cicadas whirred in the treetops, sounding for all the world like a science fiction soundtrack. I expected Klaatu to step out of the jungle foliage at any moment and hold us up at ray gun point. I caught sight of an awesome-looking footbridge spanning the gorge and kept hoping the trial would end with that. Think Indiana Jones on steroids. The drop may jot have been to crocodile-infested waters, but it was easily a football field high. It wasn't to be, though. Douglas later told me you need special permits to reenact that scene with Short Round. Our trail did cross a mini version of it, and I wished I had a machete so I could have one of the other tour group members take a picture while the others called me "cwazy".

the jungle pathway of Lushui-Heliu Trail

Following the Lushui-Heliu trail, we wound our way back out of the park. The weather had been cloudy and overcast most of the morning and early afternoon. This was doubtless a geological thing, as the moist sea air hits the central spine of Taiwan's mountains. I could get technical and explain how one coast of the island may get rain for months on end while the other gets sun, due to the season monsoon pattern, but I'm off duty from teaching right now. Catch me in August when I go back to school and I can explain how a "monsoon" is NOT a rainstorm but refers instead to....hey! Nice try, there...

the Qingshui Cliffs near Hualien, Taiwan

The cliffs at Qingshui were our next stop. The weather obliged and cleared up and the sun shone down on the Pacific (nope, I'm not explaining why...not gonna do it!). Our viewpoint was kind of mediocre, though. I imagine there could have been a couple other places we could have piled out of the van for a quick picture besides the one we spent a half hour at. But hey! I'm not the tour guide, and don't know. Even less thrilling was our final stop at Qixingtan Beach -- just north of Haulien and hated by spellcheck programs across the world. This is a euphemistically called "pebble" beach. I would call it rocks. Or gravel. I can't imagine laying out here, or even going swimming. It would be like putting your plastic pool tub in your grandpa's old gravel driveway. The sun was blazing down, though, and there were a few cute dogs to pay with, so I was happy. Plus, I got to scratch my head at the 17-step process the local workers went through to take some supplies out to a fishing trawler about 50 yards offshore. Suffice to say, it involved an earth mover (technical term for a really big back hoe), pickup truck, two motorized rafts, several bales of rope, and a lot shouting and armchair quarterbacking from loafers like me. You had to be there, I guess.

My family is saying, "You stood us up at Hilton Head to spend time at this beach...?

All that aside, there is no second guessing how awesome Taroko Gorge was as a place to visit. If you are in Taiwan, do not snooze and miss this attraction. It was worth it, and made up for the less thrill-packed days on either side of it.

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:43 Archived in Taiwan Tagged cliffs gorge taiwan taroko hualien qingshui Comments (2)

Getting ready for an Asian adventure

Taiwan and Vietnam

My new travel hat

A quick, pre-trip post to make sure I remember how to update this blog. I leave Saturday for a 2-part trip, spending one week in Taiwan and a little more than a week in Vietnam. I waited until summer to shop for airfares, so couldn't find any good deals. Then I heard about booking a "multi-city" trip on search engines. If you set your stop over to be a multi day one, you are essentially getting two trips for one airfare price. So, prices that were in the "No way!" range, suddenly became, "Hmmm..."

Speaking of prices, I booked my hotel rooms on Hotels.com, and was really surprised to find out how cheap they were in Vietnam. Taiwan is more expensive, it appears, but both are bargains compared to Europe in summer.

I leave in a few days, so am busy getting all those last-minute things finished before leaving. So, stay tuned for updates...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 09:29 Archived in Taiwan Tagged vietnam taiwan Comments (1)

One Day in the North

Nicosia and "Turkish" Cyprus

overcast 70 °F

Springtime flowers bloom around the ruins of the Graeco-Roman city of Salamis in North Cyprus

The plan for today was to drive north and cross the border into Turkish Cyprus. Luckily, we'd found what appeared to be a good map the day before in Larnaca. All the tourist agencies seem to either all but deny the existence of North Cyprus, or claim to have no answers to questions about travel there. We woke early because we knew we had a lot to cram into one day. We were headed first to the Greek half of the capital city of Nicosia. It is a divided city, with both countries having their own slice of it, separated by UN troops. The plethora of one-way streets and divided streets made finding a way in challenging, so we opted for a parking lot just shy of the walls.

Greek pottery in the Cyprus Archeological Museum in Nicosia, a city that straddles North Cyprus and Cyprus

Ancient Greek statues were known for their style and beauty, including this one of Aphrodite (I believe) at the Cyprus Archeological Museum

Our first stop was the Cyprus Archeological Museum. This is supposed to be one of the best in the country, and it did not disappoint. Lots of artifacts are displayed in glass cases, labeled in both Greek and English. Larger statues and other objects stand free on pedestals. The exhibits cover the history of Cyprus from its earliest stages to about the end of the Roman era. With our early start, we had the museum to ourselves. It was nice to be able to freely wander here and there, picking which displays to linger over. There were so many Bronze Age and Stone Age artifacts, if we tried to read every single word, we would eat up half a day! Just as we got ready to leave, a tour bus disgorged its contents into the museum. The bustling crowd chattering excitedly made me thankful once again for our early start.

The Bishop's Palace in Nicosia

Next, we wandered through the Old Town a bit, visiting the Bishop's Palace, the town cathedral, and the Venetian walls. An obligatory stop at the tourist information office provided us with the location of the checkpoint to drive across into Turkish Cyprus. We retuned to the car, got our maps ready, and headed for the border. The crossing was quick and painless - unless you count the 20 Euro car insurance needed to being a rental across the border. We also snagged another map from a tourist info display while waiting for our passports to be stamped. This ended up being very helpful because its town names matched those on the road signs. The larger map we bought in the south had the Greek names. And you can not always tell which Greek name corresponds with which Turkish one. That is a problem, in general, in Cyprus - both halves. Nicosia, for example, is called both Lefkosa and Nicosia by Greeks. Limassol can also be Lemesos. Some are less obvious than others, but you have to be careful when you're reading signs.

The stunning views from the hilltop Castle of St.Hilarion in North Cyprus

It took a lot less time than we'd expected to arrive at our first site, which would prove to be one of the best of trip. The castle of St.Hilarion sprawls across hundreds of yards of rocky, forested mountain top. The drive up there was through a "Prohibited Zone," where no stopping or photography was permitted. The reason for that was the unsmiling soldiers guarding oth the UN military post and the Turkish army base. Not really sure what the UN soldiers had to be grim about, though. Cyprus had got to be the easiest posting in the world! No shooting, the sides at peace, and a sunny Mediterranean climate. Would they rather be posted in war-torn jungles of The Congo?

History and castle lovers will enjoy wandering atmospheric St. Hilarion for hours

St. Hilarion is not for the feeble or asthmatic, though. From the moment you arrive, you are climbing upwards, ever upwards. The castle is built in three sections, going higher up towards the mountain peak. The outer walls and gate and watch towers are on the lowest level. The garrison stayed in the second level, above that. Finally, the royal apartments have a stunning panorama at the very top. The castle was begun by the Byzantines, and added to by the Crusaders, then finally abandoned when the Italians and then Turks took over the island. There are so many nooks and crannies to explore -- a watch tower here, the ruins of a Byzantine church there, the shell of a dining hall or a line of battlements. And all of them have incredible views, many of the seaside town of Girne (also called Kyrenia) far below, its white houses framed by the curve of the deep blue sea. This is the type of romantic ruin to wander and daydream.

Looking up at St. Hilarion Castle, perched on its rocky hill, from below

We spent a couple hours slowly working our way through the rambling castle grounds. The air became cooler as we climbed, and our breathing became deeper. This was definitely our most strenuous workout of the week. The sky clouded over from time to time as mist rolled ip the slopes -- moist sea air condensing as it rose. St. Hilarion is one of the most stunning settings for a castle that I've ever visited. Panoramas of mountain, sea, and crumbling stone walls cry out to be photographed everywhere you turn.

The view of the North Cyprus coastline as seen looking from the walls of St. Hilarion Castle

Our original plan was to check out some other sites in the area, but we decided to change on the fly. We pointed the car east toward the coast and the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Salamis. No, not the Salamis of the naval battle of the Greek-Persian Wars -- that is in Greece itself. This is a town with the same name that survived through the Roman era into the Dark Ages, before being abandoned. Most of the ruins are from the Roman era, much of it from when the emperor Constantius rebuilt it after an earthquake...and did what all monarchs love to do -- renamed it after himself!

The ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Salamis are much less visited and more unspoiled to wander through

Greek statues lay open under the sun at Salamis, not tucked away in museums

Here at Salamis you see how much less the Turkish side is set up to exploit tourism. Although there are signs and maps set up throughout the site, there are almost no barriers of any kind. You were free to go anywhere, climb on anything, and run your fingers along that marble statue or tile floor. It is like stumbling, all alone, upon a lost city in the wilderness. The feeling of immersing yourself in history is so much stronger than it was pacing along the wooden walkways with the crowds at Kourion or Pafos. You enjoy both, yes, but here you get to not only see, but touch, climb on, and get right next to living history. You can't help wondering about the risks of this approach, though. If the north ever saw the tour bus hordes that the south does, would Salamis survive intact? Or would thoughtless visitors pry off pieces of tile flooring, mosaic stones, or damage fragile relics? Without a doubt, I enjoyed seeing Salamis this way much more than the efficiently-delivered and almost antiseptic sites of Kourion and Pafos. I don't think it is sustainable, though. Eventually, as crowds increased, barriers would have to go up, and valuable or fragile items would disappear into museums, rather than sit out under the Mediterranean sun. It is not that the island of Cyprus is off the beaten tourist track, right now. Far from it. However, few Americans do seem to come here. Hordes of Brits come to retire or vacation, along with plenty of German and other European tourists.

Ancient Greek inscriptions on the floor can be found as you wander through Salamis - which is not the Salamis from the famous sea battle

I had waited many years myself to finally make the visit. Both the southern Greek half and northern Turkish half were great. I would have enjoyed more time, of course. Maybe then I could have slowed down a bit more. I knew all five days would be a cram going on, though -- just as our last day in Nicosia and the north. Still, the sights I saw over the entire trip were every bit as fantastic those last ones on our only day in North Cyprus.

Greek columns line the temples and roadways of Salamis in North Cyprus

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:12 Archived in Cyprus Tagged st. ruins castle roman greek cyprus nicosia lefkosia hilarion crusaders salamis lusignan Comments (0)

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