Europe In A Fortnight: Castle Photodiary- The 3 C’s

Cardiff, Caerphilly, & Caernafon. ūüôā

Europe In A Fortnight: Stonehenge-Struck

 

Visiting Stonehenge, to me, is like meeting the Queen of England.

I’ve seen them on pages of magazines and newspapers, but for many reasons, they are inaccessible to me. They are icons of Great Britain, symbols of the nation’s history, although one represents the past while another the present.

Speculated to have been built as far as 3000 BC, there are a great many mysteries surrounding Stonehenge, from who built the first

I've got Stonehenge under my arm!

construction of the stone monument, to how and why they were built. Although many Stonehenge-like constructions have been found around the country, the original Stonehenge remained legendary. Among the theories regarding Stonehenge was that it had been built as a burial ground during the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Others (and probably the most famous theory) was that it served as a worship site for Druids. Arthurian enthusiasts might remember allegations that Merlin the wizard had helped build Stonehenge at some point of  its existence.

It was a windy Tuesday morning when I arrived in Wiltshire, England. We had just landed in Heathrow about four hours previously, and after an hour’s delay, we were driven out of the airport by our guide and headed towards Wales. Our initial destination was Cardiff, but Stonehenge will be our stop before continuing our journey south. The brief highway drive was soon replaced by the classic English countryside, the sky a dull grey and the air outside made even colder by the wind. I was simply looking out of the window, the feeling of anticipation increasing by every mile. My heart was humming in my ear- I was on my way to one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites!

And then there it was.

I saw it right from a distance, while we were still in the car, but it was there- majestic, mysterious and beautiful- exactly like the pictures and photos I’ve seen in magazines or National Geographic programs.¬†. It stood upon a green field, just a little way off the roadside, with the cool September sky framing the grassy plain surrounding it. At the risk of sounding like a drama queen, my breath did get caught in my throat. I suppose this must be what it feels like to be star-struck, except I was Stonehenge-struck, I guess.

Although we were not allowed to actually enter the structure, I managed to take a close enough look. As we were informed at the entrance, Stonehenge consisted of two types of stones. The stones was smooth-looking, almost like what we Malays call “batu sungai‘ (river stone). The few lone stones around the site suggested that Stonehenge might have been bigger than it was today. I took a long slow stroll around the monument, taking in every inch of the structure, savouring every moment. Even with an electronic assistant device offering me various information about Stonehenge, questions keep popping into my mind as I curiously eyed the serene-looking blocks of stone. What was it really like to be here, for all these centuries? What are the things it had seen? Who did it meet? If only those stones could talk….

If these stones could talk...

As we left and headed for Wales, my thoughts were still with Stonehenge. How I wish I could have stood inside the structure, to take in the building from within, perhaps envision what it was like for those who had lived in its heyday. But hey, at least I get to learn one thing about myself: other people get excited when they meet a celebrity or a public figure. Me, I get breathless when encountering a historical artifact.

 

Europe In a Fortnight: Country-hopping for the first time

I love Europe just as many Westerners have a fondness for Asia. If Asia is rich with

Let's fly!

mysteries and unique culture, Europe to me is just brimming with history and romantic legends across time. From the vast, majestic castles over the hills to the scenery which ranged from imperious mountains to lush flatlands, everything in Europe fascinated me.

Which was why, one of the things I did the moment I found a job after graduation was to save money for a long European trip. Originally, I would have liked to go alone, but as my parents refused point blank to let me loose in a foreign country on my own, I decided to team up with my aunt, her best friend and sister. The plan was to go to Wales for a few days, before spending the weekend in Spain, and then my aunt and me would go sightseeing in Paris before meeting with our two comrades in London. We chose to go somewhere mid-September 2011, when autumn was slowly coming while there was still the debris of summer scattered amid the continent.

Try dragging you bag up this flight of stairs *thud*

Country-hopping like this was a first for me, who up until then had never been to more than one place at a time. So for the first time, I had to learn how to travel light for a 14-day journey. We were sleeping in different hotels most of the time, and for a part had to travel aboard trains in order to reach our hotels, so having to lug around heavy baggage was simply not practical. There were the endless flights of stairs if you’re going aboard underground trains, as I had done in London and Paris, plus if it was your first time there, dragging around the bags while desperately trying to find the right address of your hotel is a far cry from a picnic. Plus, there was the baggage limits for flights. Since we’re traveling low budget and I was determined to spend my cash for souvenirs and other¬†unforeseen circumstances (which turned out right, by the way) instead of excess baggage fees, I decided to only fill half of my suitcase with the essentials- toiletries and clothes.

Indeed the only thing I was concerned with was my camera, as many good tourists do. As long as my camera is working I’d be the happiest person in the world. Imagine seeing a particularly scenic view or a memorable moment and the turning around… only to find that your camera is not functioning. Epic nightmare.

Country-hopping meant that I spent some time in different flights, be it the long 12-hour journey from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Heathrow, or the shorter one aboard between United Kingdom, Spain and France. A reflection that I had regarding this was that I have more respect and appreciation for people who travel for a living- flight attendants, business people, journalists, etc. While I love flying and I would rather travel by plane than a boat, it does get rather uncomfortable if one consistently does it. Economy seats can be unsettling after a while, and when you’ve been sitting there for a good portion of your 12hour journey, you’d wish that you are a yoga expert. Plus those who were ¬†less fortunate among us might have to endure the in-flight tortures- screaming and crying children, super-friendly neighbours and the¬†occasional¬†bad food.

Uncomfortable trips aside, I love airports. To me, airports served a unique purpose, not just as a port for planes to land and drop off passengers before taking off with another load to another place. Airports is point zero, the fine line between entering a country and not entering it. Being there means that you’re already on the country’s soil, but you’re not quite in the country yet.

I love you, anyway Heathrow

Contrary to what many others would feel, I find the whole airport routine enjoyable. Probably because I am a Muslim, and there is still a considerable amount of suspicion towards Muslims and Islamophobia in many countries, I do find it funny when an airport official look me up and down as if he could scan through my clothes for something dangerous just with his eyes. I was actually ‘selected’ for a surprise inspection at Heathrow while waiting for my flight home to Malaysia. The look on the airport security guy as he came and explained it to me was amusing- it was clear that he expected some sort of friction or protest. Maybe a look of contempt at the very least. But the whole process went very smoothly and of course I was found to be terrorist-free. He gave me an enigmatic smile when I said thank you cheerfully and went on my happy way. That¬†was definitely an experience to remember.

In short, traveling around during my European experience was an adventure in itself just as being in those countries had been. Lugging around heavy bags while trying to catch a plane or getting to hotels are by no means funny, but when you think back, trust me, it will make you smile.

Beijing Part Six- Got Money? Spend It Here!

If I were to break down my time in Beijing into percentage, I would divide it like this:

25%- sightseeing

35%- traveling inside the bus

40%- window shopping

I will be honest here and admit that I am not a shopaholic, so having to spend two of the five days that I was there inside shopping outlets instead of historical place didn’t exactly thrill me. And that didn’t include the visits to the so-called authentic ¬†centers which we did sporadically in between sightseeing during the first three days. So yes, I did spend more time loitering around the lobby waiting for our entourage to finish shopping or window shopping in various places instead of doing things a proper tourist should do. Unfortunately according to my traveling agency representative, this is the requirement for tourists who wished to enter the country under travel groups. According to them, unless you’re so used to traveling in China you can do so on your own or if you’re there for business purposes, they will feed you with all these shopping sessions- and you won’t be able to avoid contributing at least some of your money to the local economy.

Actual silkworm cocoon, pre-process

As I have mentioned earlier, we were brought to several centers around Beijing in between visiting historical sites during the first three days that I was there. The first of these places was a silk center in the heart of Beijing. At first, we were given a briefing (emphasizing on the brief) on the process of turning the silkworm cocoon into ready-to-wear silk. But after ten minutes of that, the rest of the trip was spent listening to the various salesladies promote their various silk products, ranging from purses to bed sheet. Funnily enough, when some of us decided to sit that one out (my aunt and I were the culprits) these charming ladies would try to make us join the rest of the crowd in listening to the promotion.

But the ‘cream of the crop’, I have to say, would be the full-blown shopping session in the last two days of my trip in Beijing. We were taken to two of the biggest shopping emporiums in Beijing, which specializes in ‘Original Copies’ as they named them. Original copies, according to my tour leader, stands for goods which looked so original, they could pass off as their branded counterparts, and it would be marginally cheaper than those you’d buy from original stores. For example, a Louis Vuitton bag you’d find in these shopping emporiums probably costs half to three quarter of the price of a Louis Vuitton bag in a Louis Vuitton store, but only a true blue brand snob can tell the difference. An inside joke between us was that these things were nicknamed ‘Aspal‘ which was a shortened version of ‘ASli-PALsu‘, the Malaysian language for ‘Original-Pirate Copy’.

Still, one must never forget to haggle when they come across these places, for despite the price being cheaper than the branded ones, they were still marked-up pretty high. I managed to buy a chess set for CN¬•85 from its starting price of CN¬•270. My mother (to her glee, if I might add) got a tablecloth for CN¬•160 from the starting price CN¬•450. So if you’d like to walk out of there satisfied (and perhaps a little smug too), do have a thick face and iron heart, and be firm with what you’ve put on the table no matter how the salespeople whine or wheedle. Also, be prepared to be accosted by some of the bolder ones, for they will do whatever it takes to get you to buy something from their shops. I myself had been physically dragged into the shops twice by these salesladies. Guess no one could say that they’re not determined!

Fortunately, the other centers we visited, such as the jade center, pearl and traditional medicines were not as bad as the silk one. At

Jade-sculpted Chinese Ship. Is this cool or what!

least we weren’t personally tailed by these salespeople, probably due to the fact that there were tourists from other groups alongside ours to attend to. In the jade center, I had quite a time admiring the various jade sculptures, which are really exquisite and impressive. One of the best ones had to be the sculpture of a grand Chinese ship, complete with a chained anchor made of jade as well. This jade center also offered a small jade museum, which chronicled the history of jade-making in China, as well as some artifacts.¬†In one of the traditional medicine centers, we were treated to a brief foot massage while various medicine experts examined our health in the¬†traditional Chinese way.

In conclusion, if one ever decides to join a tourist group to Beijing, one must be prepared to have a lot of money. Because whether you like it or not, you will spend at least for a trinket or two. If I were to find any fault in my Beijing trip, it would be the endless shopping trips, which to them seemed so much more important than displaying the richness of culture and heritage of China. Which is a pity, since I believe that the true treasure lies in the history of the city and the country. While one can get a bag or a blouse in any old store anywhere in the world, one can only appreciate the authentic Chinese architecture, and its unique  in China.

Beijing Part Five: Like A Dragon In The Mountains

“Just a little bit further up, Big Sister! Come on!”

Anybody up for a climb?

I looked up towards the clambering figure of my younger brother, both admiring and grudging his childlike energy and stamina. The stone steps ahead of me were almost as steep as a ladder’s, its surface cold and biting to my hands when I touched them. Looking upwards, I could only see more steps, seemingly endless and reaching towards the clear winter sky, the very thought of trying to conquer them all made my knee sockets ache. It was only when I looked to my back did the scenery reminded me that I was in no mere quest. I was right on the Great Wall, one of the most iconic monuments in the world and the crowning glory of China’s history.

As I sat back on the steps to admire the view, I touched the brick wall on my right, brown and worn down by

One of the guard posts at the lower side of the Wall

time and nature. The walls on either side of me were smooth stones and had been reconstructed during the Ming dynasty, but the history surrounding these walls has existed as far as 5th century BC. It was built mainly as a defensive measure against nomadic tribes to prevent them from attacking the kingdom. A sadistic addition to the legend of the Great Wall of China stated that many a thousand workers died during the construction of the wall during the reign of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. There was an additional version of this story saying that the dead workers were buried underneath the walls to save cost on burial, one which Hollywood had adapted into the third Mummy movie in 2008, Tomb of The Dragon Emperor.

Whatever the true story is, nothing about the Great Wall is short of majestic. Stretching across the mountains, it reminded me of a large dragon snaking across the landscape, prowling for its enemies and prey, eyes menacing against anything and everything that could ever threaten its peace. From where I sat, it really does look as if the wall goes on and on, and one could actually believe that this wall could have surrounded the whole country once a long time ago (although in truth it only covered the west and northern sides of the kingdom). In the valley between the two mountainsides, the lands could have been stretched bare in those times, the silence broken by the rare appearance of supply caravans for the guards. Or there could have been a tiny village there. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of a lone scouting post among the dry greens, seemingly unattached to the wall. It’s not hard to imagine the soldiers staying up in turn, eyes bright and alert for anything and everything suspicious, of perhaps they would each steal a snooze while on duty when their commanding officer weren’t looking.

Breathtaking is an understatement

The side of the Great Wall where I was is called Juyongguan Pass, the northern section of the monument and the nearest to Beijing. It is also the most visited, the highest point here being the Beibalou- a good thousand metres above sea level with the breathtaking view of the mountains of northern China. But that was as far as I go, as much as I would love to conquer the whole place. It is said that to walk across the whole Great Wall of China, one could take up to eight or nine months, depending on the speed!

Ah… well. Mother and Father were already waving from below, hollering for me to bring down my two siblings so that we can hurry to the next destination. I stood up and prepared to go down the stairs… wait a minute. Didn’t I just said that the steps were steep? Looks like it’s going to be a looong way down. Gulp!

Gulp!