Friday, November 28, 2014

Datong, one of the ancient cities of China

Datong, in Shanxi province of China is located 375 kms from Beijing. It might be famous today as the  coal capital of China. But, once it was the capital for 3 dynasties and has a history of more than 1600 years. Obviously, we expect the ancient city to have monuments to remind us its glorious past. It is there all over the old city, only to understand that most  of this is not the  original but completely recreated  to bring back its past and to boost tourism. I was told that old Datong looked totally different till a few years back. There was not much  left from ancient times. Datong Government  decided to rebuild everything including the city wall.
Datong is a very unique city.I haven’t seen any city with such a mishmash of modern buildings and ancient architecture going hand in hand in creating cityscape. There is a total contrast between  old and the new city. Old city is completely full of pagodas, temples, archways, city walls, shining green glazed roofs and typical traditional Chinese buildings. Some old lanes will give you the feeling as if you are living in  an ancient past. At the same time, some old  monuments with fresh appearance make you think about its age.
Yungang Grottoes
Datong is mostly visited for its UNESCO world heritage site, Yungang Grottoes and Hanging monastery. After visiting these sites I took a walk through the city. Here is Datong captured in my camera.

Datong during night
Datong during night was enigmatic due to its lighting effects. Buildings of Datong  are lit on top of the roof during night. I wondered this might be  statutory requirement for all buildings to have lighting running all around the building on roof top to maintain uniformity. Night skyline was  amazing, I could not capture many pictures though.

Lights at night
Skyline during evening  light
 Nine dragon wall
600 years old dragon wall is said to be the oldest glazed wall of the country. This has nine colorful dragons on the wall. They charged 10 Yuan as entry fee. Once you  enter inside, there is nothing except this  wall. It shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes to see and come back unless you can appreciate each one of the dragons.

9 Dragon wall
Interesting intersections
Most of the intersections in Datong have very interesting monuments. Either pagoda or some interesting structure which stops you to click a picture for sure. I liked this structure. Clear blue Sky was serving as a background.

Structure at the intersection in Datong
Reconstructing the  ancient structures
 Apparently, one of their Mayors had started this work of recreation just 6 years back and now he has been transferred to some other post. So all the construction is going very slow leaving behind construction activities through out the city.  This palace was under construction and glazed tiles were telling the story of recreation.
Ancient palace under re construction-Datong

Glazed tiles for construction
Traditional Chinese style buildings
Traditional Chinese style buildings have been reconstructed. Some of them looked like commercial space.May be this area is built to create shopping complex.A banner read ' available for rent'.

Re-created streets
This construction was pretty new in traditional Chinese style
Old city square
This place was bustling with locals in leisure on a fine Saturday evening. It was fun to watch them having fun. Some were dancing, some were busy in skating, some were practicing plays and some practicing Tai Chi. I spent good time here watching all the happenings and people around me
New Datong
Once we come out of the old re- created Datong, Datong looks like any  other industrial city with  high rise buildings, cranes and construction sites.
New Datong

How to reach
Datong has connectivity from Beijing by bus, train and by air. Flight options are very limited. I traveled by  flight as I didn’t have enough time to go by bus or train.  Over night train journeys are preferred I heard.
Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels available. For budget travelers youth hostel is available
Best way to see Datong
For Hanging monastery and Yungang Grottoes taxi can be hired. Best way to explore the city is by walk.

Similar post 
5 tips for vegetarian food in Beijing

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

5 Facts+5 tips for Vegetarian food in Beijing

I  am back from 2 week’s travel visiting 3 countries. Ever since I came, I am hogging the food as if I hadn’t had for months. Thanks to Beijing travel. I starved for few days mainly due to my poor planning.
When I visited Beijing for the first time a few years back, being a vegetarian  I was clueless and anxious how Beijing would treat me. Initial couple of days I managed to ask for only vegetables in the restaurants. After couple of meals, what landed on my table forced me to turn into a fruitarian and few muffins helped me to survive. In my next visits, I ensured to carry MTR ready to eat packets. 

Now, after 4 years when I had to travel last week, I didn’t want to carry food from home. Wanted to explore vegetarian food in China.I was successful only to some extent. Next time when I go there, exploring vegetarian food will be the first thing in my list.

How did you survive in China being a vegetarian is a frequently asked question from my friends. Here I am presenting 5 facts about vegetarian food and 5 tips for veggies traveling to  Beijing
1. Vegetarian concept in Beijing
In China, they don’t have the concept of only vegetarian food.They have wide variety of vegetables which I will not even find in my own land where vegetarian food is a staple food. But it is just that they mix veg and non veg while cooking. It is not like India where we find separate menu for vegetarian and Non vegetarian.  If you are thinking of finding some restaurants where vegetarian food is cooked separately, don’t even think so. If you ever tell  someone to use separate vessels and spoons to prepare food, you will be looked as an insane person in China
You can see majority of the food is vegetables except central meat.But even vegetables were not tasting made of vegetable oil
       2. Ordering vegetarian food
As language is a big barrier in China, it is very difficult to communicate in many of the restaurants unless it is upmarket restaurant. I was explaining to one of my colleagues in Beijing that I need ‘veggie food no meat, no fish and no egg’. She asked me ‘how about pork ?’  Now this made me speechless.  I was told that they use Pork oil for many of the dishes especially raw salads. I found lot of improvements in the menu from my last visit. This time I found veggie section as well in the menu. Most of the menus come with pictures. So you can visualize before ordering.
These vegetables were one of my meals

3. What you order may not be served
It happened  once during my first visit.My colleagues took me to a Japanese restaurant and they ordered vegetarian food for me. When got it, I suspected something not vegetarian which was used   for garnishing the dish even by looking at it. When we called the waitress she said ‘it is vegetarian’. I was doubtful. So we called the chef. He confirmed that it is vegetarian dish. But as a value add he has put meat flakes into it.

Vegetables along with some or the other non veg pieces
4. Typical Vegetarian Plate
A typical vegetarian dish will have bowl of rice and either hot pot or boiled vegetables in some    sauce having beans, mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms, sea weed in coastal, carrot and lot of green vegetables.
This hot pot in one of the restaurants was spicy. They used some spice which made tongue numb

5. Buddhists and Vegetarian trend 
As per one of my Chinese friends, Chinese during their hard time started eating everything that crawls. Buying vegetables and meat was expensive. Now things are changing. Rich people are turning out to be vegetarians twice or thrice in a week in the name of Buddhism. There are an increasing number of restaurants across the city for Buddhists. We can even find Vegan restaurants. Go vegetarian is a budding trend

These mushrooms were there in every vegetarian dish.

5 tips to survive in Beijing as a veggie 

1. A card mentioning ‘ I am vegetarian ‘ in Chinese is a must to carry
Get it in writing from your hotel concierge desk in Chinese that you need only vegetarian food. If possible mention all possible meats to be on a safer side for NO:  no egg, no fish, no sea food, no pork, no beef and very importantly no non vegetarian oil. 

2. Store some fruits and vegetables
Go to nearby super market and  buy vegetables, fruits  and juices as an alternative if you don’t find anything outside. You can prepare salads by yourself at hotel. I do this often. Some good supermarkets have some imported breads as well. I am a chocoholic. I can survive on chocolates for couple of weeks.  
Fruit shop

3. Rice bowl 
Order for a rice bowl which is available in all the restaurants. Which will be for sure meatless. I have heard people saying it has meat stock. However, have checked with many restaurants that it is boiled only with water.   

4.  International Chain of coffee shops
Don’t expect Starbucks, Costa coffee to have vegetarian sandwiches. But you will find some muffins and desserts ( Of course not egg less)

5. Organic Vegetarian restaurants
There are a few organic vegetarian, Vegan restaurants across the city. They serve only vegetarian food. Some restaurants have mock meat made of tofu and are delicious. Though some of them are priced high. .  A meal would cost you close to 100 Yuan whereas in any other restaurants it will cost about 20-25Yuan. But they are tasty and pure vegetarian.
Veggie table - Picture from internet. I lost my pics as i lost my phone
Good planning is required before you travel in finding them in the locality where you stay. I tried  ‘ The veggie table’  restaurant near Lama temple. I must food was delicious and place is clean. While searching for veggie restaurant found this link useful  .

 If you are a little flexible and plan well, you can explore China even being a  vegetarian.

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Have you travelled to China and you have any more tips to add. Pls share .
Or have you faced similar experience in any other country ? Pls share. I am all ears and eyes 
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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Berlin - 25 anniversary of fall of the Berlin wall

While I post this, Berlin is celebrating 25 anniversary of fall of Berlin wall. Wish I could have stayed back to witness this event in Berlin.  I had to come back to catch another flight to Singapore. But, I am glad that I was there this week to see curtain raiser for the celebrations for this big event and to feel the festive mood of the city.
These blue boxes were all around
I had forgotten about the history of  Berlin wall except that I knew there was a wall in Berlin. I am not a serious student of history. But when I saw Berliners being so nostalgic about the wall I was intrigued to know more.  ‘This was  East and  that was west ’ were the most heard phrase during my stay in Berlin this week.
Brandenburg gate.. stage installations in progress behind the gate
The fun part of  any travel is that it takes you to unseen pages of history in our formative years. For those of you like me who would like to know why did they build wall between East and West Germany ? The story goes like this.
After the second world war, West Germany was ruled by US, Great Britain and France. East was under the Soviet Union’s rule. The whole nation was divided between democracy and communism. Within few years of this divide, one could see that both the sides were growing distinctly in different directions. West  Germany was growing economically with its capitalist approach. But East was not making any march forward under communist regime.  More youngsters were migrating to West from East Germany and  East  started to feel the lack of youths in its demography. So communists decided to protect East from West and they raised walls on one fine night. After that  night, for next 25 years people had to be part of the nation they slept that night. Without their approval people of Berlin, became West and East Berliners. It is difficult to imagine the cold war days situation in a globalized world of today.
1961 building  which doesn't have windows towards the wall. Sorry for picture quality
The border was protected with high raised walls, guarded with high alert level of security, secured with automated war equipments. Arrangement was made, ensuring no one escapes from East to West Germany. They went to the extent to close the window of the houses facing the very wall. I saw a building infront of the Wall memorial. There are  no  windows towards the wall for 30 feet high rise building. 
Remains of the Berlin walll
Next question how did the wall fall ?
As per Berliners, the wall fell down on one fine night accidentally the way it was raised. A spokesperson from East Germany got a message to announce to the world that there would be check posts made to allow people move to both sides. However, he was not informed on the rules and regulations of this operation. While answering to the question , ‘when will that happen?’ he unknowingly answered ‘ immediately’. That’s it. Millions of People gathered at gates. Security force was confused. When they tried to get connected to officers they didn’t get any proper direction. To avoid violence, security opened the gate  to create history. People from both the sides entered East to West, West to East. In this way security people protecting the gate at Berlin created history. People celebrated the unification. Some of them started breaking the wall with hammers. The wall started to crumble, and within few days people become one. Since, then the Germans became citizens of unified Germany. 
Pieces of the wall is available as a souvenir to buy from the shops
The Berlin wall pieces for sale at souvenir shop
For non –Germans it is just a wall. Being in Berlin during this celebration week I can understand what it means to them. Some of them could see their family members after 25 years ! Joy that freedom brings is limitless.
As part of celebrations, thousands of Illuminated white balloons were lit all the way for about 15 kms where wall once existed. This art installation is called as Lichtgrenze. I I was told these ballons would be released to air today between 7-7.30 pm on November 9. There was a big stage set next to  Brandenburg gate. There were mock skits all over there. There were LCD screens in all major junctions showing the history of the wall. The world without walls is the vision of many thinkers across the globe. Germans did it in their own way on November 9th