Semarang, Indonesia

Indonesia was a former Dutch colony. Semarang, our second Java stop, was a major port town during the Dutch colonial era. Thus, Dutch colonial buildings can be easily located here, mostly around Old Quarter. Some have been renovated to turn into a cafe, restaurant, administrative building or art gallery. But I believe greater efforts could have and should be poured in to preserve them. It is a shame, really, because poor maintenance seemed to be a common problem among not just the historical, religious sites but also the lodgings/ hostels. In fact, I would like to think such a matter outlined some important characteristics of the people in this region (ya, including my fellow Malaysians) but I shall leave the debate of it out of this blog.

Gereja Blenduk/ Dome church

Architecture around Old Quarter. Half of the time we were chilling inside either the art gallery or the cafe having coffee and beers. We could have explored the interiors of these buildings more. Alas, it was simply too hot to move around much.

We did stroll a bit further with our motorbike to stumble across what seemed to be a church and some residential housing.

The Great Mosque of Central Java. No stranger to mosques since I live in Malaysia but I must admit this is the most majestic and unique mosque I have come across. And this attraction was also part of the reason I included Semarang in my itinerary. We arrived before noon, waited for it to reopen after lunch break just so we could take the lift to the uppermost floor of the viewing tower to have a bird’s-eye view of the mosque and nearby towns.

Lawang Sewu. This landmark used to be the headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Railway Company and is lined with numerous doors and windows. After World War II, a battle broke out there and many died at the scene. Rumor has it that the building is haunted. If I am not mistaken, public is forbidden to visit the place after 6pm or 630pm. We almost couldn’t make it that afternoon but in the end, we managed to stay until it was almost dark. When night fell, the whole building was brightly lit, looking mystical from afar.

Shanghai, Part 2

Getting from Hangzhou to Shanghai was a breeze using the high speed bullet train (my first)! Imagine my shock when my bullet train ticket costed less than my bus ticket to Tunxi when the train was obviously faster and more comfortable. However, being a foreigner at the Hangzhou train station, it could be confusing. There was no clear signage on where to queue – if there was a designated counter catered to us. The information counter lady instructed me to queue like others. And the queues at all the counters were long. Lucky for me, after waiting for more than half an hour, the counter lady accepted my passport when it was my turn. I chose not to book my train ticket in advance, but if you are to do the same, it is generally advisable to arrive at the train station plenty of time ahead as you never know how crazy the crowd could be. Then I got to the departure hall where there was a designated gate to wait at and even when you were at the platform, you were divided into waiting areas based on your seat number. Seriously, superior Malaysians who thought China is a backward country should really make a trip to China. When I got to my seat, an elderly man was sitting there. With a stern face, I showed him my ticket. He had no choice but to move to his own seat. Having the window seat to myself, I happily enjoyed the views all the way from Hangzhou to Shanghai!

Some backpackers I knew would wake up really early just so that they could make the most of the day. I swear I tried, I really did. But I simply couldn’t drag myself out the hostel until it was 10am 😦 Especially those few days in Shanghai, my legs were sore from all the walking. Once I was out, the first thing to do was to grab a can of iced coffee at the Family Mart next door. There has been a dilemma – some of the most beautiful places in China and Indonesia are in remote places which aren’t conveniently accessible. A trip there may involve few public buses, hours on road and even the sacrifice of clean Western toilet. There might not even have a Family Mart selling me my much-need coffee in the morning. Am I willing to go the extra miles for those beautiful landscapes? I guess time will tell because I am getting more and more determined to challenge myself to visit more remote and exotic places hehe.

I also started to get conscious about what I was wearing in Shanghai. I started to pull out my dresses to put on. Afterall, I was in Shanghai – Paris of the East and I wanted to look presentable the least. Imagine my disappointment when the girls I saw in metros and streets were rather plain for a metropolis, in terms of how they look and put together with the outfit, hair and make up. Later on, I realized that Shanghai is a place full with either tourists (since I got stopped by few times for direction) or migrants from all parts of the country. And the girls I met at those places I visited simply weren’t the best samples I should get. Oh well.

Shanghai is also the place I felt more civilized, evidenced by the reduced frequency of spitting spotted everywhere I went. Lol. In fact, I had really nice experience with the locals – all the helpful uncles pointing me to the correct direction when I was lost, the middle-aged lady correcting my mandarin pronunciation in English, those elderly ladies in the parks with grandkids asking me where I am from, not forgetting an elderly man who spent close to an hour discussing with me about the difference between two countries and generations. The locals had a gentle demeanor and spoke in Mandarin that was distinctly clear to me, without any slang. Shanghai is a city which I could see myself reside in.

Photos are unavailable while I am typing this. Next post shall be about all the places I had been to (with loads of photos)

Shanghai, Part 1

It came as no surprise that I love Shanghai. Big cities brimming with lights when the night falls where hurrying throng of unfamiliar faces pass by you – each with their own story to tell but you get no glimpse inside their inner world. Even then, you take comfort in knowing that you are not alone amid the crowd. It is a funny way of detaching yourself without feeling the painful isolation.

I was staying in Fuzhou Road. Little did I know beforehand that it is also known as the cultural or book street, where stores selling books, stationery, supplies for calligraphy etc are found. So I spent my first afternoon in Shanghai excitedly checking out one bookstore after another. Among them are the multistorey Shanghai Foreign Languages Bookstore and Shanghai Book City (brother would kill to be here because of the huge collection of Mandarin titles on display). Put aside the more established and well-known stores, small stalls selling used or brand new books/ magazines attended mostly by elders could be found hidden at some corners or alleys. The entire time I was debating if I should shop for some Mandarin books for myself (esp those that are hard to come by in Malaysia). At last, I decided against it as I wouldn’t finish reading them anyway 😦 😦

Fuzhou road where I stayed. Gotta love the buildings around and it was not packed with tourists.

Books and more books. Heaven.

Fuzhou road was also where I finally found a family-run restaurant that served nice fulfilling flavorful Chinese cuisines with good price. I was fed up with having dumplings or noodles for past few days so I decided to stop settling for shops that didn’t serve rice no matter how hungry I was. I ended up having almost all of my meals there that the owner and her daughter recognized me as the weird girl.

Nice stuff. Wished I had taken more (and better) photos.

The reason why I chose to stay at the hostel in Fuzhou Road albeit the mixed to negative online reviews was because of the location. The Bund is just few steps away from it and it has a fantastic roof top bar which overlooks everything at night! Not to mention that it is near to the metro station which makes it easy for me to access all the attractions. But I wasn’t happy when I was there staying in the 8-bed female dorm. In fact, I felt so lonely and I craved for human interactions. As expected, all the girls in the room were young local Chinese. This seemed to be the same everywhere else (happened to the last two hostels I booked). Some came with friends, but most were alone. I soon realized that it was common for these girls to travel alone within the country and even when it was not summer break, they would travel around as long as they got few days off from classes. However in this hostel, the girls usually stayed for one night then checked out the next day before someone new joined the room. What drove me crazy was everyone minded their own business, no one looked at you and even if they did, they did it quietly. It was such a shame because I really loved the spacious room and the huge comfortable bed (nevermind the unsightly balcony that was full of clothes hung to be dried by these Chinese travelers). If I were to make friends with any of them, I needed to be the one initiating the conversations. But when I was put in a room with so many girls, I got intimidated. What if my friendliness was mistaken as a weakness or an unwelcoming nosiness? What if they reacted with indifference or hostility? I would feel hurt. I was such a coward, I was no different than them. So I told myself I would book a mixed dorm the very next time. But then again, the thought of sharing a room with so many Chinese guys put me off. Lol. On the last day before check out, finally a new girl said hi to me and conversations followed. Later on, another new girl chipped in. Both girls came from different parts of China and were in Shanghai for different reasons – one to look for a job, another to look for a friend.
As much as I enjoy the sight seeing and having a break from normal routines, I guess the biggest satisfaction comes from the interaction with people of different walks of life made along the journey.

P_20160619_194106_NTView from the roof top bar

Kota Kinabalu City

Taking a break from my China posting, here’s a short (pending) entry on my last trip to KK, Sabah in December 2015.

The streets where we stayed looked far more run down and dirtier than I could remember in memory and I had been there many times before. The tropical heat maintained unchanged, so was the presence of East Asian tourists. If a shop was seemed to be full of foreign patrons, never assume it was because the food was good. Chances are they could very well turn out to be overrated and overpriced, no thanks to the tourists who ruined it. The quality dropped and I usually found out through my second or third visit. But lucky me, I did stumble across some yummy ones (mostly pork- and fish-based).

There was so much to do (or to eat when it comes to local food) if we really planned, but we didn’t. My then-traveling partner fancied water sports (I dreaded water) while I wanted a train trip to the countryside (he hated long train journey), ended up no one was willing to compromise. Christmas night was spent in the room overlooking the opposite street where hotels were lit up while we bickered about our lack of activities and whose fault was that. I am just so glad that everything was over now.

I probably wouldn’t be returning to KK anytime soon.

 

Tunxi Ancient Street, Huangshan

The initial plan was leaving Hangzhou around 7am so that I could make it to Tunxi Ancient Street before noon then book myself a tour to nearby Hongchun (where Lee Ann’s Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon was filmed) and Xidi villages. But when I woke up at 8am, my stomach was not feeling well (suspected gastric pain due to irregular meals or food poisoning). I then dreaded the 3 hours bus journey ahead where I might need a toilet. So when I finally checked out, it was already past 10am. The girl working at hostel told me to use subway line 1 to get to Passenger Transport Center (12 stations away) to get direct bus depart to Tunxi. But when I got there, I was told that there was no bus to Tunxi. I had to get to Hangzhou West Bus Station instead. Lucky for me that not far away there was a waiting area for bus departing to West Bus Station. So I spent up to more than an hour waiting impatiently for the arrival of the said bus and for it to be filled up with passengers! When I looked around, I realized I was not the only foreigner as many of the locals were also new there as they were seemed asking around for directions and whatnot. Being the homogeneous country, I naively expected the people all looked the same but that was obviously not the case – China is a massive piece of land spanned across geographical diversities and migrants from the countryside were everywhere in the bigger cities. Police or security officers were stationed at all the transport hubs, mostly young and expressionless.

When the last passenger finally got up the bus, a quarrel broke out between the bus driver and one of the passengers. That passenger was instructed to remove his farm products packed in a box away from the seat next to him to keep at the bus luggage compartment to make room for the last passenger. He refused and went on justifying his act of hogging the vacant seat (which was common in China btw). They got louder and louder that eventually other passengers chipped in to support the bus driver. When I worried in fear that the driver might finally loss his temper and walk away, the middle-aged Cantonese lady seated next to me could take it no more, started yelling at the man to go get his personal coach. Others cheered supportedly. Lol. That was how it was resolved.

By that time, I was running late. When I finally got to the West Bus Station, I actually followed the men shouting for passengers leaving to Tunxi by the roadside to the opposite side of the bus station. That was a mistake I made – instead of taking my time to process things and surroundings by asking around, I took the first offer that came to me when I was in a rush. True that there were legit buses waiting at the opposite side, but it didn’t look like we (me and a few other elder passengers) would be boarding any of them. When I wanted to leave, the men guarded there stopped me and insisted that bus to Tunxi would depart soon. Then they started herding us to a small run-down van. I pointed it out, they said they would fetch us to where the bus was at as it was trapped in some traffic. At that moment, I was panicked in fear sitting in the van but tried to calm myself down, thinking that I had very likely just run into a syndicate cheating people’s money by taking passengers to their destinations using van rather than an actual bus. However, the van stopped and dropped us halfway by the roadside to wait the bus. The bus to Tunxi eventually came and we were ordered to get in. The Cantonese-speaking lady I met earlier on was also in the bus with her family. Bet they purchased their tickets at the counter legitimately. I sighed in relief and happy that there was no bad ending.

Tunxi district as I approached was seemed to be filled with lots of road banners. No kidding. The messages were usually harmless stuff like “drive safely” or “be a law-abiding citizen”. But they were unmistakably backed by the traditional Chinese cultural values like courtesy, harmony, loyalty etc. The more I read them, the eerier I felt. Take for example, if I drive safely without breaking any laws, its because I am aware of the dreadful consequences to everyone involved if an accident ever happens, not because I am constantly brainwashed, I mean reminded of my roles and responsibilities to my family, society and country. It was a very strange feeling. Anyway, the bus dropped me by the roadside where ancient street was nowhere in sight. I asked the men around, they told me ancient street was walkable but quite a far distance away. A tuk-tuk driver appeared and I was happy to pay 10 yuan for him to take me there. It was indeed quite far!

After checking in and having my shower and early dinner nearby, I found an empty bar that served both coffee and alcoholic drinks. Turns out that the tour to Hongcun and Xidi villages arranged by the hostel would be a day (not half-day) trip so that only meant I had to give these villages a miss due to a lack of time. I was kinda happy of how things turned out because a visit to both villages required an entrance fee respectively (which was not cheap). So there I was, sitting in the empty dimly-lit bar (attended by a friendly female bartender) by first ordering the overpriced coffee followed by cold beers until it got dark outside. Hehe. Three Chinese girls later came in – drinking, smoking and chatting among themselves about their lives.

Easily one of my best evenings in China. Lol.

Later that night, I made friend with a girl from Guangdong who traveled alone to climb Yellow Mountain aka Huangshan. Gotta admire her as the idea to climb the mountain didn’t even cross my mind when planning for this trip. More impressively, she has started a career with the Chinese government with her law degree (note the stiff competition faced by Chinese graduates every year to get a job in the market, what more a job with the government) but she told me they are only entitled of 5 days of annual leaves (I was thankful of mine then). We talked about interesting places to visit in China, the Chinese in Malaysia, China’s one-child policy, so on and so forth! That aside, I actually enjoyed the ancient street in Tunxi more than the one in Hangzhou, especially after dark. There was an entire street filled with coffee shops and bars. Too bad I just got out of one earlier on. Secondly, there were a lot MORE displayed items in the shops that actually caught my attention than anywhere else. Wished I spent the extra one night in Tunxi rather than Hangzhou. Oh well.

Fascinating Anhui style architecture – the main reason I was there. Told brother that it was like in the TV, at the scene where some of the series were filmed.

When the night fell.

Left: How I was fetched to the bus station the following morning. The lady driver laughed at me when I asked would I fall down with my backpack. Right: Tuk-tuk in Tunxi.

Things I was buying home for myself and family
P_20160616_151037Traditional Anhui style architecture – how the houses in Hongchun village shall look like

Hangzhou, Part 2

Apart from leaving behind my itinerary, I also forgot that China bans Google and MANY OTHERS. Without downloading VPN before coming over, I couldn’t access Gmail, Instagram, Tinder, WordPress and Facebook. Luckily they didn’t block Tripadvisor as that was how I eventually retrieved details of my other hostels (i.e. reservation and location). That aside, I had to resort to using the Chinese version of search machine – Baidu. Whenever I typed something in English, the immediate search results always funnily showed translation results of those English words. Lol.

I stayed at an international backpacker hostel ranked one of the tops on Tripadvisor. That was how I filtered out any unwanted surprises upon checking in. After all, hostels with a great ranking and bunch of great reviews couldn’t be that bad. But how much one enjoys his or her stay very much depends on what he or she is looking for. I stayed in the 8 person mixed dorm. My dorm mates were a pair of young British couple friends (through them, I listened firsthand to why young people in UK rejected Brexit), a same-aged Malaysian Chinese guy (who took the same morning flight as me from Malaysia and here we were in the same dorm!! What a coincidence) and a young Chinese guy (who was moving around the country looking for a temporary job to fund his trip to UK). The British guy was surprised that China people barely speak English. This corresponded to the young Chinese guy’s struggling effort to learn English. We all had a great night talking about everything under the sun. Sadly, that was the only time I met other backpackers whom I clicked. I hadn’t had much luck on such interaction and exchange on my following days in China.

From clockwise rotation: the lovely courtyard, the dorm room, view from third floor, view outside of the hostel

It continued to drizzle throughout my first day in Hangzhou. I was wet and tired so I didn’t wander far from where I stayed – HeFang Street. I checked out the following morning to head to Huangshan. I returned to the same hostel on the third day only to be moved to a 6 person female dorm where the girls all kept to themselves. But I did love the bubbly girls working at the counter and the room I was put in. When I looked back, this hostel turned out to be the best throughout my entire trip because the experience got worse as I moved along.

Truthfully, I did nothing spectacular in Hangzhou. I had no interest attractions like the pagodas, temples, gardens or any other historical buildings that required me to pay an entrance fee. I only knew I had to visit the legendary West Lake. That was the whole point I came to Hangzhou. But I couldn’t recall what the stories were behind the lake or any other places of attraction for that matter. It was such a shame because I did spend my final year in school taking Chinese Literature subject (which I scored A in our national examination) and not forgetting those early years where I spent countless hours after school in library reading those books about China history and whatnot. Now, I couldn’t remember a single thing and when I was doing the planning, I didn’t even bother to read up. I would love to have my youngest brother around. He simply appreciates all these more than I do.

Beautiful West Lake and nearby scenery. I could easily stay entire day there just doing nothing!

I finally walked to West Lake when I returned and spent a good two hours there before it got dark. Maybe I should have toured the entire lake by walking or cycling. It was doable, just that I read that it would take few hours on foot. I guess I simply wasn’t persistent for anything like that. I would have stayed longer to just sit there and enjoy the beauty of the scenery if it wasn’t for a creepy old man who insisted to sit next to me to talk with me. Other than that, I was happy to stroll without purpose at all the nearby streets around HeFang Street. At night, there was an entire street with stalls for street food.. I had fun sampling them but I always couldn’t finish them alone 😦

The shops and stalls were generally touristy as you could find them selling the same thing again as you strolled further but hey, I wasn’t complaining as I felt safe (without being touted and hassled by anyone) and refreshing with the change in environment by watching the Chinese tourists and admiring all the lovely restored buildings. I was just relieved I didn’t find anything they sold interesting thus I wouldn’t have to worry about splurging my money to buy something only to have them taken up more space in my backpack. It was astonishing though to see how clean and green everywhere was (and that included those outside of tourist spots) – the cleaners were cleaning up the streets day and night. It was a huge contrast to what I had been told all this while that China was dirty. This shows that I ought to travel more to see the world for what it is through my own eyes.

HeFang Street. Trust me, it was full of people, day and night!

Food-wise, it was surprisingly pricier than what I expected. In fact, I paid more in Hangzhou than Shanghai for a simple meal. And I was not alone in that as the British couple lamented about the same thing. The same went to my favorite beverage – coffee. I thought I could afford it every morning and afternoon. But a glass of iced coffee from a normal cafe by the roadside costs easily more than 30 yuan (which was almost equivalent to a nice meal in a fancy restaurant in KL). I was certainly not paying for that, so I had to settle with merely canned sugary iced coffee for most of the days. 😦 But I did pay for Costa coffee hehe. It was my first since I don’t think we have it back home. I could be wrong.

Day 1, Part 1 – Hangzhou

(This is gonna be another blog post without photos. I have taken a few hundreds of photos with my phone camera throughout the entire trip, but the selection itself can be a pain. Lol. I also discovered another website that hosts micro-blog. I haven’t made up my mind to migrate there or not)

I started my day by having nasi lemak as breakfast, totally forgot that I had pre-ordered and would be served nasi lemak again on my 5 hours flight. At the departure hall, all I saw was Chinese faces with the exception of a Malay guy sitting next to me who told me that he was going to China to bring back goods for business. I was dressed in my hipster pant (which I love so much because it is baggy and comfortable), sneakers with black socks and an oversized striped blouse. But I was so conscious of what I had changed into at the KL airport. My hipster pant wasn’t long enough for my legs that it exposed portion of my skin and socks. Now you get the picture. I sighed of relief once I got into the plane, knowing that for the next one week, I got to dress however I liked in China because no one knew me there so I didn’t have to dress for anyone. Once I got seated, I did what the Chinese did – removed my sneakers. At the end of my flight journey, the middle-aged Malaysian Chinese guy chatted me up. Turns out that we both work in the same industry and he knows my job etc. What a small world. Difference is he is now based in China, with the contractor on project basis. My mind started to drift to future job prospects in China and how I should leverage my current experience. Sensing my ambitions, he advised that as a girl, I should be contented with where I am now and not think of global mobilization much like the men. Okayyy 😦 Other than that, he gave me plenty tips on where to visit in China.

We said goodbye upon landing. I lied that my hostel would pick me up. It was better to be careful since I didn’t want any unwanted attention. Hangzhou airport was huge, clean, bright and rather empty. I had no problem buying the airport shuttle bus ticket. That was also when I realized I left behind my printed self-prepared detailed itinerary which contained EVERY SINGLE THING (i.e. how to walk from a transport hub to my hostel). Luckily I still remembered pieces of info here and there about my first stop, so I figured I would worry about the rest once I got to my hostel. To board the airport shuttle bus, I had to walk from international to domestic arrival hall and the girl at counter told me that the bus would depart in another five minutes. Not wanting to miss it, I actually ran and asked few passengers-by along the way to point me to the right direction and right bus. It was quite a distance. Nevertheless, I managed to grab one of the last few remaining seats. Two Indian girls joined me later and were seated next to me. Both were English-speaking so I asked if they were Malaysian (or Singaporean) Indians because they did sound like one, to which they answered they were Indians from India. But why weren’t they speaking in Tamil? Now, I was curious about them. But they were happy to just talk to each other, totally ignoring me – the one and only English-speaking person in the bus who would respond to their English enquiries. Indian girls I know could be very cliquey. Meh but their men are always fun to hang around with. Who knows these girls’ friends or brothers were somewhere around. Ahem ahem.

Rain started pouring down when I was in the bus. I had on my mind that Hangzhou was a picturesque small town. Little did I know it is a bustling industrial city. As we were moving away from the airport, I started to see more and more high rise buildings which seemed like apartments or condominiums. There were multi-storey houses either which were very European-like with the red stone walls etc. And the rest looked like factories or manufacturing plants (one of them is GE). In fact, Hangzhou would be hosting 2016 G20 summit in few months, so a lot of construction or renovation works could be seen along the way.

I got off at Chengzhan, the main bus station. It was still raining and I had no idea how to get to the main railway station. I knew I had to walk and it was nearby. Staying there waiting for the rain to eventually stop wasn’t an option so I took out my disposable rain coat and started asking for directions. Few pointed to me in the same direction so after some walking, I finally got to the main railway station. By then, I was looking really ridiculous with my rain coat as everyone else was carrying an umbrella. Once I figured out how the ticket was sold through the automated machines, I boarded line 1 to get off at the first station “Ding’an Road” where my hostel would be located. The security at railway station was surprisingly tight. Our bags needed to be screened, like at the airports.

Once I got off at “Ding’an Road”, I walked to the first Family Mart I saw and bought an umbrella. Despite not having the exact address number of my hostel, I remembered it being named exactly the same as the ancient street “He Fang”. I eventually managed to get there rather effortless by asking strangers relentlessly for directions. If I was in doubt, I verified.