Tuesday, September 22, 2015

First Malaysia Homestay Experience at Kota Belud

We travelled 70 kms northeast from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah to Kota Belud, then another 16 kms from Kota Belud to Taginambur, a settlement at the foot of Mount Kinabalu. We left our car at Taginambur and hopped onto a 4WD prepared by Mr. Sarun. It was another 20 minutes bumping on mud infested gravel road before we stopped at the rest point of Wasai Waterfall. Sarun, our driver, tourguide, and also the owner of Nopungguk Homestay led us through another 200 meters of muddy path downhill to reach the swimming area of the waterfall. The surrounding was green, the air was cold and dense. We were back to nature in our first homestay trip.

Located in between Kampung Gansurai, Kampung Tinata, and Kampung Podos, Nopungguk Homestay takes the name of nearby Nopungguk Hill. Sarun, a local teacher, started the homestay as a community project. The homestay currently consists of 10 local houses scatter around the peaceful villages far away from city. Surround by nature beauty patched by local orchards, it is a great place to experience the village life in the heart of Borneo Island.

To enjoy the village life in a relaxing way, Sarun had personalized our itinerary- Wasai Waterfall, fruit buffet, and dinner for the first day (we arrived in the afternoon). For the second day, we had fish spa at 'tagal' area after our breakfast, durian hunting, and shopping for local souvenir. We went back to Kota Kinabalu at around 2:30 pm after our lunch.

The gravel road connects the villages to the outside world (upper left). "Selamat Datang" or "Welcome" to the waterfall of Podos Village marks the point where we need to stop our car and continue our journey by foot (upper left). Bamboo handrail is really helpful when we walk through a 45 degree slope (lower right). After 15 minutes of adventurous jungle walk, we finally reached the beautiful waterfall in the middle of jungle. 

The deepest part of the pool was about 5 feet. The water is clean and clear. We were surprised that the place was actually free of mosquito.

 The waterfall is around 60 m high, pouring down natural cold water from the hill.

One of the villagers gave us two tarap (a kind of local fruit) on our way down to waterfall. So we decided to make them our afternoon snack.

The flowing stream cutting through the natural jungle, while forming bathing areas with cold crystal clear water. Bathrooms are prepared at the waterfall area. However, we decided to take bath at our homestay, which was 20 minutes away from the waterfall.

Nice green view along the hilly road.

The homestay is 20 minutes away from Wasai Waterfall (upper left), ready with a living area (upper right), three rooms (lower right), and a kitchen.

 The balcony of the homestay is a great place to have our afternoon tea.

Electronic keyboard was never in our expectation list for a homestay (upper left). So, we decided to make good use of it. The photo of the activities, certificates (upper right) and decorations (lower right) in the homestay. Free flow drinks and beverages are prepared for us.

Meals were nicely prepared by Sarun's family. Besides some common Malaysian dishes, we were served with traditional food like tuhau (Coccinea)- a kind of ginger herb found only in Borneo (lower right). We were provided with one dinner, one breakfast, one lunch, free flow of local fruits, and different types of beverages in our trip.

What did we have in our "local fruit buffet" at Sarun's house? Durian (upper right), rambutan (lower left), and manggis were some of them. We were lucky, it was the season for the fruits.

Our first day programs started at Wasai Waterfall, followed by a "local fruit buffet", and ended with our dinner. Second day, we woke up early for another day packed with fish spa at Kampung Melangkap Tiong, durian hunting, and shopping for local handicrafts. 

Kampung Melangkap Tiong was our third 'tagal' area visited in Sabah, where the environment around the 'tagal' river was protected by local laws. Compared to the tagal area at Luanti Baru, the fish at Kampung Melangkap Tiong  provided a better spa service to the visitor. They were more gentle, plus, the stones were arranged along the river allowed the visitors to sit comfortably while dipping their feet into the stream. The fee was very cheap- RM3 for adult and RM1 for child for every 30 minutes! Fish food was sold with RM1 per package. The entrance fee and the fish food were included in our homestay package.

Mount Kinabalu can be seen on our way to 'tagal' area at Kampung Melangkap Tiong.

The entrance to the 'tagal' area is marked by a wooden hut (upper left). The area was quiet in the morning (upper right). Stones are well arranged along the river so the visitors can have a nice place to sit and enjoy the spa (lower right). We spent one hour to enjoy the fish spa before we moved on for our durian hunting.

Searching for durian in the orchard was a new experience for us (upper left). Guided by Sarun, we were lucky to get some durian freshly dropped from the tree (upper right). Then, we decided to eat the fruits fresh on the spot (lower right). Beside durian tree, we found other fruit trees around the area as well.

Shopping from house to house along the kampung road was another new experience for us. The rattan-ware is produced as cottage industry, thus different family produces different types of rattan-ware with their unique designs. The price, much cheaper than we could get from the market. After lunch, we continued to visit several more houses for rattan baskets before we departed back to Taginambur.

Our photo with Sarun's family.

Nopungguk Homestay is a relatively new community homestay in Sabah. It offers various local activities, such as traditional dance, music, handicraft making, rice production, rubber tapping, fish spa, river bathing, fish trapping, Rafflesia hunting, fruit picking, jungle tracking, and mountain climbing for the visitors to experience with. Good experience for us? Definitely. The homestay has successfully provided an excellent blend into the village's life. More information about the homestay is available at Nopungguk Homestay Blogspot

Other experiences in Sabah are available at:

Friday, July 31, 2015

Xi'an Huimin Street- Food and Shopping

Huimin Jie (回民一条街) or Muslim Street is a very busy street at night! We stayed in Xi'an for two nights, and we strolled around the street and the surrounding area for both nights.  Muslim Street in Xi'an is the gathering place for Muslim community in Xi'an. Some sources stated the date of the street back to 206 BC, when "Hui" people started to gather around the area. If it is true, then the street is now more than 2000 years old!

The street is also called Beiyuan Men (北院门), around 500 meters long, its location, just in front of the Clock Tower of Xi'an. There are more than 60,000 Muslims live in that area, which the whole area basically transforms into a giant belt of night market after sunset. The street has a great collection of halal traditional food, snacks, drinks, local fruits and crops right from the farm, souvenirs with bargain-able price, and many more. Accompanying the dazzling light and the voice of the hawkers and retailers promoting their products- the never ending flow of visitors. Let us bring you around with our photos.

The Bell Tower during the day time. Both the Bell Tower and Clock Tower are icons of Xi'an.

Xi'an Bell Tower at night.

Xi'an Clock Tower is just 200 meters west of the Bell Tower, at the another side of Bell and Drum Tower Square.

We have no idea how the street looks like during the day. But we know how it is at night.

Most if not all, the stalls and hawkers are Muslims, selling souvenirs (upper left), assorted BBQ mutton, beef, and seafood (upper right), and noodle (lower right). The shop keepers can be easily identified by their white hats and head covering costume.

We tried many food and drinks along the street, including the local fruit drink and yogurt (upper left), meigui jinggao (玫瑰镜糕) (upper right), and guihua gao (桂花糕). All were good except guihua gao, which was for us, tasteless.

We stopped by the stall with deep fried banana and soft shell crab (upper left), fried cuttle fish (upper right), mutton pan-fried pie, and fresh cherry. All the food were really nice. The cherry was a bit sour but still acceptable.

Ling Shing's parents at the night market street.

Weiwei BBQ was the best for us. We couldn't stop taking the mutton and beef from the stall.

We visited a noodle station along the street and tried two different local dishes- biang biang noodle (upper right) and the beef noodle (upper left). The price for both dishes were not cheap (lower right) but the taste was "special" (nope, delicious is definitely not the word). To our suprise, there was no beef in the serving of beef noodle.  We came across the coolest Mandarin character, which pronounced as "biang". The word might carry the meaning of the sound "biang" when the noodle was made. Well, biang-biang noodle is shown on lower right, which cannot be found from the dictionary at the moment.

The streets around Muslim Street and the Bell Tower were safe at night. Or at least, we didn't feel threatened. There was one thing which we were quite worried- the battery-powered bike. The bike was really quiet on the road. Well, we learned that we should not avoid the bike when it was approaching from behind. The driver would usually avoid us quietly unless he sound the honk from a distance away, alerting that he wouldn't give way to the pedestrian.

Besides Muslim Street (Beiyuan Men), there are several other streets crossing each others, but don't worry, we won't get lost if we have good sense of direction. For souvenirs, the price was cheaper in the branching streets compared to the main street. A deal with 20% off was done when we tried to buy more. We bought a few key chains, clay-made terracotta warriors (about 2 inch tall), giant jujube, and some snacks as souvenirs. The price for the food however was quite standardized across the area.

Other than local delicacies at Muslim Street, we were also being arranged to dine in two different restaurants- Chuanyu Family Restaurant and Renren Ju Restaurant. Both restaurants provided good Chinese food. For us, Renren Ju Restaurant was better.  

Ramada Xi'an Bell Tower Hotel has unbeatable location. Situated at the center within the old city wall, many attractions and shopping malls are within walking distance from the hotel. By foot, the hotel is just 5 minutes away from the Muslim Street and the Bell Tower. It is 10 minutes away from the Clock Tower. The room was clean and comfy, with good amenity. However, the service was not up to the standard, especially the breakfast- very slow service and many plates were left empty, with no refill of food after 8:30 am, even though the breakfast time was far from over. The wifi connection was slow as well. Anyway, we weren't really bothered by the breakfast service or the online surfing speed. Location is the more important after all. For Xi'an, we would recommend to stay somewhere nearby the Bell and Clock Towers and the Muslim Street.

Located at 79 North Street, the hotel is indeed at the center of the city (upper left). The dining area (upper right) and the bedroom in the hotel.

After staying in China for eight days, we departed back to Malaysia from Xi'an International Airport, with a transit at Shanghai International Airport. The overall arrangement of the tour was great and we enjoyed it very much. China again? Definitely yes.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Xi'an City One Day Trip (Henan and Xi'an Trip Day 7)

Day 7, Xi'an. We visited Shaanxi Museum (陕西博物馆), Big Goose Pagoda (大雁塔), the old city wall (西安古城墙), Muslim Street (回民一条街), and watched the opera in the city. Xi'an was the capital to Zhou, Qin, Han, and Tang Dynasty. It was the starting point of the olden Silk Road. The city itself has a history of more than 3000 years. Of course, we couldn't runaway from trying delicacies around, and took a night stroll along the street with historical towers.

Visiting a historical rich city, museum is the place that we couldn't miss. Similar to Henan Museum, the exhibited items showed the greatness of the past. Our tour guide told us that some of the artifacts were indeed found in the recycle centers or from dumping sites. Ignorant about these invaluable old relics, many were bought by the museum with low price from the locals as well. Completed in 1991, the museum is considered the first modern museum in China, with more than 370 thousand items exhibited.

The admission of Shaanxi History Museum is free, however entrance ticket is still needed. We departed early, hoping to beat the crowd. To our surprise, we had hundreds in front of us, and had to wait for 20 minutes to obtain the group tickets. We spent the next 1 hour 15 minutes in the museum. For us, the museum was not as attractive as Henan Museum, but it is still worth a visit. However, please be early to beat the crowd and to avoid tiring long queue.

The entrance of Shaanxi History Museum.

The queue under the hot sun at 9 am (upper left). The building of the museum is large, and is divided into 4 different halls (upper right). The lobby of the museum with a replica giant stone lion of Shunling Mausoleum- the tomb of Wu Zetian's mother (lower right). The internal design of the museum is quite similar to Henan Museum.

Murals in the museum.

Some of the items exhibited in the museum.

Dayan Ta (大雁塔) or Big Goose Pagoda was our next target, 10 minutes away from the museum by bus. Built in 652 AD in Tang Dynasty, it housed the religious material brought by Xuanzhang from India. Who is Xuanzhang? He was the real character of Tang San Zhang (唐三藏) in the story of "The Journey to the West" (西游记). After he returned from India which lasted for 17 years of journey, Gaozong Emperor appointed Xuanzhang as the first abbot of Daci'en Temple (built in 648 AD), the temple where the pagoda located. 

We couldn't deny the historical value of the pagoda and the temple. But the architecture design of the pagoda is simple, and can be meaningless if we have no knowledge about the epic of "The Journey to the West".  There was really nothing much to see there. Instead of paying CNY50 to enter the temple, you might want to choose to stroll within the shopping mall and pedestrian street surrounding the temple and pagoda. Anyway, one can always take photo with the pagoda outside of the temple's compound.

Big Goose Pagoda from the shopping mall. The pagoda was built with 7 levels, representing the highest hierarchy in Buddhism architecture. As a token of respect, we didn't take many photos inside the temple buildings.

The pagoda from the main entrance of Daci'en Temple.

It was a hot afternoon. Lucky enough, the trees provide shades for the visitors around the temple.

Close up to the pagoda.

Our next station after lunch- Xi'an City Wall or Xi'an Fortification. The city wall was built in 1370 AD in rectangular shape, covering an area of 13 square kms. The average height of the wall is 12 meters and the thickness of the top part is 12 - 14 meters. The city wall has four main gates facing four different directions. It is the most well-preserved city wall in China. The normal fee to the top level of the wall was CNY54 per person.

We entered the city through the east gate - Changle (长乐门), or the Gate of Eternal Joy. The elaborate building on the gate was an archer tower.

Climbing up the city wall was not a problem after a sumptuous lunch.

This is the barbican (瓮城) of the city. The barbican made the city extremely hard to be taken through the main gate. We can see how tall is the city wall compares to the buses.

The top of the wall is wider than a normal two-way road.

We have few options to tour around on the top of the city wall- by foot, bicycle, or by electric car. We chose electric car. The ticket counter is just nearby the city gate. The fee for the electric car was CNY80 per person for a round trip. Bicycle could be rented with CNY45 per person for 2 hours. Traveling by foot was free.

The buildings within the city wall cannot be built taller than the highest tower on the city wall.

The Xi'an Bell Tower built in 1384 AD in Ming Dynasty can be seen from the city wall. The bell tower marks the center of the fortification.

The moat can be seen from the archer tower on the Gate of Eternal Joy.

Bastions were built every 120 meters for more effective defense against attackers.

We strolled on the top of the city wall for around 2 hours. The sun shined proudly and the sky turned blue for us to take wonderful photos around the city wall. The weather however was not hot due to the strong wind.

After dinner, we went to Sunshine Lido Grand Theater for "The Grand Chapters of the Grand Tang Dynasty" show. The show was the combination of splendid costume and contemporary dances, featured by amazing dancers. However, the stage design and the sound system were a bit disappointing. 

Located at 29, South City-Ring Road, the theater is one of the oldest in Xi'an with a good track record of performance. However, with the ticket CNY180 for the normal seat, the show is considered expensive. It worth a visit of course, but only if we have extra budget for it. We can visit SUNLIDO official website for more information about the show.

Sunshine Lido Grand Theater at night and the show.

Tang Dynasty show.

Main dancers of the show.

Well, our advice, sitting at the last row might bed the best as we could stand up to watch the show without blocking other people. The arrangement of the theater was not very good as a tall person in front would block the view of the person at the back. All the photos that we showed were taken from the last row of the theater.

After the show, we went to Hui Min Street (回民一条街) or Muslim Street to buy some souvenirs and food until 11:45 pm. Next, we will share our experience in Hui Min Street, food, shopping, and our hotel in Xi'an. Follow us now.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Magnificent Terracotta Army of Qin Dynasty (Henan and Xi'an Trip Day 6)

Day 6, we departed early from Lingbao and reached Xi'an 3 hours later. After lunch, we headed straight to the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. The mausoleum is very big and can be seen far away from the highway. Today, more than 600 burial pits have been discovered and excavated at the area. Our target was the most visited and most famous one- the Museum of First Qin Emperor's Mausoleum (秦始皇兵马俑博物馆), where the Terracotta of Warriors and Horses (兵马俑) were found.

The mausoleum was the burial place of Ying Zheng (259 - 210 BC), the first feudal emperor in China. According to history, he was the first king to conquer and united whole China. He believed in the life after death, thus started to build his own mausoleum at the age of 13- the year he inherited the kingdom of Qin from his father. The massive construction lasted 39 years, involving 720 thousands workers.

The excavation has found the pits with pottery imperial guards, royal stables, armors and weapons, civil officials, servants, entertainers, gardens, rare birds and beasts, chariots, and many more, showing the emperor's determination to bring whatever he had and enjoyed thorough his life to the underground. How big is the mausoleum? Estimated by China official- 56 square km. By looking at its scale, it might be the biggest and most magnificent mausoleum in the world. It was listed as an UNESCO Heritage Site in 1987.

We reached the ticket counter at 2 pm. The place was flooded by visitors. The entrance fee was CNY150 per person. Again, the electric car was there to sent us from the entrance to the museum, and like many other places, it was a one way service. We were required to travel 1 km back to the entrance on foot through a walking street afterward.

The museum consists of a few buildings- the exhibition hall and 3 pits, and a souvenir shop. All three pits cover an area of 20,000 square meters, with the most interesting terracotta army found in no. 1 pit. The no. 1 pit contains more than 6000 terracotta army arranged in a tactical formation. We spent around 2 hours in the museum. It was a lot of walking, plus we had to fight our way through the crowd to reach the viewing area. Well, the museum with terracotta of warriors and horses is really a must visit site in China.

The construction of mass rapid transit line was just beside the highway (upper left). It was a bit hazy at Lingbao but the sky turned bright when we reached Xi'an (upper right). There were tolls! (lower right). The crop fields can be seen spanning in Henan, but getting lesser when we reached Xi'an.

We reached the The Museum of the First Qin Emperor's Mausoleum around 2 pm. There were not many visitors at the shopping area (upper left) but the ticket counter was crowded (upper right). We moved to the entrance of the museum (lower right), which was around 1 km away from the museum buildings. The electric car provides one way trip to the museum buildings, with no extra charge.

We started with the exhibition hall with unearthed artifacts (upper right). The hall was extremely crowded and we could barely find a place to stand, especially in the rooms where the artifacts were exhibited. We could barely hear the explanation from our tour guide as well. Two of the most precious items are the bronze chariots, which were excavated in 1978 (upper and lower right) . The experts spend 8 years to restore the chariots to their present states. Both chariots were carved with stunning details, with even the muscle, joint, and even nails were crafted lifelike. We were lucky to be able to take photos (without flashlight) of the two chariots, as most of the time, we could see only heads of other visitors.

Then, we went to visit no. 1 pit situated on the left side of the museum complex. No. 2 pit is located on the right, while no. 3 pit is behind no. 1 pit.

Closer look at no. 1 pit.

This is what we came for, the terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang! We were waiting, squeezing, and waiting, and squeezing again for more than 10 minutes to see this stunning scene due to the massive crowd there.

A closer look at the army.

The observation platform was extremely crowded. This photo was taken on our way down the right alley.

Restored terracotta- foot soldiers and cavalries. All the soldiers have different expression. They have even different hairstyle.

Restoration in progress- the experts need to reconstruct the damaged terracotta piece by piece like playing jigsaw puzzle.

No. 2 pit was partially excavated. All the terracotta were still burried underground. There were less visitors there.

No 3 pit was much smaller with less terracotta. It had been fully excavated.

This was how the no. 3 pit looks like. Most of the terracotta army placed there were the officers, showing that the pit might be a command office. We could see a worker (in pink) was collecting rubbish which was thrown by visitors into the pit.

We took a rest at the souvenir shop (upper left) and bought a book "An Exploration of the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor" with CNY150 (upper right). The person in charge claimed that the book was sold only in the museum. Anyway, it is a book with detailed information about the whole mausoleum with systematic records about the excavation of the burial pits. The best part was, we got the signature of Yang Zhifa (杨志发), the discoverer of the terracotta on our book. For us, it is a book worth reading. We walked for 1 km through a shopping pedestrian street to our bus (lower row).

Next, we stopped by Huaching Gong (华清宫,亦称华清池), the winter palace of the emperors. The palace is also known as Huaching Hot Spring or Huaching Pool. The pool is located at the northern foot of Mount Li, around 30 minutes west from the Qin Emperor's Mausoleum. Originally served as the bathing area for emperors, Xuanzong Emperor of Tang Dynasty extensively built the area into a palace in 723 AD. According to the old inscription, the palace buildings spanned from the top to the foot of the mountain. It served as the living palace for the Xuanzong Emperor and Yang Guifei (唐玄宗与杨贵妃).

However, the palace was not properly maintained after Tang Dynasty. Today, most of the palace buildings there were built in 1980s, based on the record of history. Only the pools and the bathing area are the real relics from the past.

Huaching Pool was also the place where the Xi'an incident took place in 1936, where Chiang Kaishek was forced by Zhang Xueliang to be united with Chinese Communist Party to fight against invading Japanese army. Beside Hua Ching Pool, there are several other bathing pools built by other emperors around the hot spring area.

We couldn't deny that the pool and the palace buildings were really beautiful and nicely maintained. For us, it is a place worth a visit because of our knowledge about the love story of Xuanzong Emperor and Yang Guifei, and how the emperor lost his kingdom because of the beauty. However, it might not be a good place for those who has no idea about these historical characters. With the entrance fee of CNY110 per person, it is expensive compared to the Museum of the Qin Emperor's Mausoleum.

Huaching Pool entrance.

Beautiful scenery of antique Tang Dynasty buildings with Lily Pond (芙蓉池) is what we can see right after the entrance.

Pool of Nine Dragon (九龙湖). Li Mountain can be seen far behind the palace buildings.

Some of the beautiful buildings inside the palace. The royal pools of Tang Dynasty (唐御汤) are located behind the Pool of Nine Dragon (lower left). A big statue of half-naked Yang Guifei was built in the middle of the royal pools area.

Bathing pool specially built for Yang Guifei by Xuanzong Emperor.

The pools built for Xuanzong Emperor (upper left), Taizong Emperor (upper right), and  the servants (lower right) are opened to visitors as well. We have the chance to wash our hand and face with the water from the hotspring at a special area beside the Yang Guifei statue.

Then, we continued our visit to the former residence of Chiang Kaishek. This photo of Ling Shing's parents were taken at the gate of the residence.

The place is really beautiful. The building with red pillars on the right was the guard house.

Wu Jian Ting (五间厅) behind us was the former office and resting area of Chiang Kaishek.

All the furniture was placed at their original places.

We left Huaching Pool at around 6:10 pm and headed to our hotel at Xi'an. We were caught by heavy traffic in the city area, and the trip to Xi An Ramada Hotel took us around 1 hour 15 minutes. Despite tiredness, we still took our opportunity to roam around the Muslim's night market (回民一条街) which is just a few hundred meters away from our hotel. We will share more about the night market and our hotel in our upcoming posts.