China travel: a checklist of essentials


Travel in China is always a learning journey. Despite several trips to China, there’s still always something new to learn. This time, it’s learning how we can go cashless like the Chinese. Everytime I see them whipping out their phones and transacting I marvel – they make it look so fast and easy. And it is – that is, unless you’re a foreigner like me. This trip we experimented with Alipay’s newly minted cash-free option for foreign travelers – Tour Pass. Communication-wise, we also bought SIM cards from vendors in Singapore to use in China to see how and if it would work to get us connected to the world beyond China. We also tried buying a VPN subscription to see if that could get us past the firewalls. To get from point to point, we traveled by a combination of train and car. Train travel in China has also evolved quite quickly in the direction of paper-less travel, making connections seamless even for foreigners.

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13 days in Yunnan, China

C3Stunning natural landscapes, 1000-year-old towns, and more than half of China’s tribal minorities make Yunnan one of China’s most beautiful and culturally diverse provinces. Its varied geography meant that travelers could go from the tropical south of Xishuangbanna close to the Vietnamese/Myanmar borders all the way to the soaring snow-capped mountains way in the north, closer to Tibet. Being in the south of China, Yunnan is known for its mild winters, which we thought could offer a nice cool December getaway.  Yunnan was always on my bucket list but we just never got down to it.  And so when Thai Airways came up with a great offer of SGD360 for an air ticket, that pretty much sealed the deal. Continue reading

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The Sanriku Coast

P1090250The weather report said rain. And boy did it pour. But that did not put a damper on our plans to explore one of Japan’s most beautiful coastlines – the Sanriku Coast. No doubt, when you google pictures of the Sanriku coast, you would see many pictures of the strikingly dramatic sea cliffs or the pretty Jodogahama Beach in gorgeous weather with the blue Pacific ranging from a dark deep blue to a turquoise clarity under sunny skies. But seeing the Sanriku Coast in all its rainy, windswept broodiness, brings forth drama and a tinge of sadness – especially when you know how the coast, and many of its townships and villages were hit by the tsunami. So no, we were privileged to see the Sanriku Coast quite differently – with all its angry frothy waves, its cliffs obscured by mist and rain. And we loved it.

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Entsuin: awash in beauty

51Fat plops, silver needles, fine mist, heaven’s super soakers on full blast, we braved all forms of Japan’s rainy season in early summer. Tsuyu, that transition between the coolness of spring and the oven heat of summer, is often said to  be a bad time to visit Japan. Because who wants soggy shoes when traveling right? But Japan is one of those places where the rainy season creates a certain beauty of its own. The screen of misty drizzle brings out the best in the classical Japanese garden. In Matsushima, in the rain, I found one of the best I’ve seen in Japan  – an under-rated gem of a Japanese temple garden: Entsuin.  Continue reading

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Journey north: Tohoku & South Hokkaido

P1090184On March 11, 2011 the world watched in horror as wave after wave from the Pacific swept inexorably over the north-eastern coast of Japan’s Honshu island. Those videos and images of devastation gripped the world. A scant month or so after the 3/11 tsunami, I visited Japan and found a country bereft – the swarms of tourists had abandoned it with yet another tsunami of cancellations. Japan was grieving and still coming to terms with their losses. In July 2011, I visited the epicentre – Tohoku – and amidst the colour of the Tanabata festival, found a people rebuilding, stoic and resilient and hopeful. This time, in middle of the early summer rains, I went to Tohoku again.

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Wuyuan’s secret eyrie of flowers

zhapingtan1Perched high above and deep within Wuyuan county is a little village. No bus can negotiate the multiple hairpin turns it takes to get here. As the narrow road winds ever higher, I started to feel mildly queasy, not being one for steep winding car rides. I looked out, the forests below falling away and in the distance, only blue hills and skies. Where were we going? We were searching for canola fields but up this high no one in their right mind could be planting anything. Where would they find enough flat land? How would they transport the crops? Clearly my doubts were misplaced. For the car came to a stop and my breath caught. This is what I saw. An impossible Eden as remote as you could place it. A flower garden in the eagles’ nest. This is the ancient, tiny hamlet of Zhapingtan.

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Wuyuan: On the flower trail

yancun morning1Wuyuan in spring and in the thick of the canola blooming season is packed with tourists who chase the flower trail. The well-known villages of Little Likeng, Jiangwan, Xiaoqi etc are flooded with visitors at this time of the year. We didn’t want to do the conga with everyone else and so we headed for the villages which were not quite on the tourist radar yet. Not too difficult to do since the county is quite big and the villages are quite spread out. In fact, the same scenic beauty spreads beyond Wuyuan across the border to Anhui province as well. With wheels and a driver, it was a beautiful day out exploring the path less taken but equally beautiful. Continue reading

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Spring in Wuyuan, China

edited - 29Yellow is the colour of spring in Wuyuan county. From small garden patches to sprawling fields, canola in bloom gives Wuyuan bursts of sunny yellow and its well deserved title of China’s most beautiful villages. The landscape is classic China – ancient stone against the softness of the yellow flowers and the occasional peach blossom. On my first visit to Wuyuan years ago, I did not manage to see this, having come in April when the season was already over. This time, I was determined to see it in all its glory. And so in mid March, I made my way back to Wuyuan county. Continue reading

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The West Lake of Hangzhou


A dreamy version of Hangzhou’s West Lake. But the reality is a lot less serene. The shores of West Lake, particularly nearer the city, are crowded and busy and great for people watching. After Huangshan, we took the 4-hour direct bus to Hangzhou and spent a day or two there before we flew home. It wasn’t our first time to Hangzhou or to the West Lake, but like all who visit Hangzhou, the West Lake is a natural magnet. On that humid early summer’s day that we visited, the roses were in full bloom and the lakeside promenade was teeming with people. Parents, babies, the elderly, young lovers, cyclists, kite enthusiasts, everyone was out for a walk. It was the Chinese version of the Italian passegiata at sunset. Continue reading

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We were lucky. We got to see Huangshan’s magnificence despite her capricious nature. She was in a playful mood, generously eager to show off all her clothes. From grey dense fog and drizzle to the dawn’s mauve sea of clouds to clear blue skies and then ethereally misty puffy clouds that dropped us right in the middle of an ink painting. Huangshan is jaw-droppingly beautiful in all weather. She truly deserves all the accolades showered on her by poets and painters and travelers ancient and contemporary.  Continue reading

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