Category Archives: Soaking the South East

Yangshuo: Silk Ribbon of rivers, jade hairpins of hills

Unending series of karst mountains stood tall, seemingly rising straight out of the river. Wispy-bearded cormorant fishermen set their birds off to get the catch in a while. The boy from Babhnan was on a bamboo raft, cruising in the Yulong river in Yangshuo. 

Bamboo rafting in Yulong River
Bamboo rafting in Yulong River

A short Google ‘research’ before setting out to the sleepy and beautiful, almost mystical city had thrown up Bill Clinton’s famous statement after visiting the region in 1998. Visibly flabbergasted by the beauty, he had then said: “I heard of the name of Li River long ago. Today I visit Li River. It is more vivid and genuine than what I thought before. Nowhere is like Guilin. It makes me think of the traditional Chinese paintings.”

West Street in the morning
West Street in the morning

He had got it partly right. Had he drove a little further down or had talked to the locals, he would have known of the local wisdom embodied in a saying. “Guilin has the best scenery under the heaven, but Yangshuo is even more beautiful.” He missed it by a whisker. Understandable though, world leaders do not often have that much time with them. 

Yellow Cloth Shoal- the picture behind 20 Yuan notes
Yellow Cloth Shoal– the picture behind 20 Yuan notes

The boy had much more time on him, though. One doesn’t get to escape Hong Kong, a maddening city in its centre, everyday. Particularly not in China, getting even more urbanised with crowds that can put even Saigon traffic to shame! Yet, there is a city with no malls. Even Xiapu had one- a humongous WallMart! Yeah, the Tourists have started taking over this hitherto muse of the Chinese poets and painters for centuries, and the travellers, especially backpackers’ hideout after the country finally opened up. 

All set for day's cycling, hiking and rafting
All set for day’s cycling, hiking and rafting

The sun has risen on the city that lies at the confluence of the Li and Yulong rivers, forming part of a waterway system that connects the Yangtze with the Pearl River Delta.

So what if 20 Yuan note has Chairman Mao on the front, I can also pretend!

The boy was in the West Street sipping his coffee and munching on the sandwitch- the really scenic centre of the town with small canals crisscrossing beautiful houses, most converted in cafes and shops now. And it is noisy, busy and crowded any time of the day- the exact opposite of the scenic beauty outside the city- rustic, rural and laid back. Yet, it is worth a visit every evening till you are in the town. Best thing? The legend has it that more English is spoken in the West street than in the rest of China taken together. 

XingPing Village- near the Yellow Cloth Shoal (RMB 20 note scene)
XingPing Village- near the Yellow Cloth Shoal (RMB 20 note scene)

It was time to head to Yulong Bridge for Bamboo rafting in the Yulong River, equally scenic but far less touristy than the Li river. It was to be a lovely day. West Street, out of the town, cycling through the paddy fields to the Moon Hill. Then leave the cycle and go for the short hike to the hill so named because of a natural, crescent shaped arch with beautiful views of the town below. Get back, move on to the Big Banyan Tree, believed to be 1400 years old. Go further and explore some caves if you wish. And then to the Yulong Bridge for the best steal- bamboo rafting on the river so serene and clean that you can see the all the way down to its base! All this as the Karst Mountains look on smilingly. Get back to the West Street and unwind with dinner and wash it down with Liquan, the famous local beer brewed in Guilin. 

A couple by the Yulong River
A couple by the Yulong River

Get up the next day for the famous RMB 20 exploration. The boy was so confused in the beginning with every second person selling him that tour- then he got it. This was to the place which is so famous for its beauty that China prints it on the back of 20 Yuan notes! The traveller in the boy never liked these tours. So he got the maps and the basics- went to the local bus stand. He was in XingPing, an ancient looking village some 45 minutes after. Lost in the rusty charm of the village he had almost forgotten what he came there for. He thanked the aunty when she showed him the Note with Yellow Cloth Shoal on the back and asked- no go? Yes Go, Now go- he almost screamed, thanked her profusely, paid the bill and ran! It indeed was a majestic view. 

Of love and photo shoots
Of love and photo shoots

Next in line was Fuli, the birthplace of the traditional painted Chinese fan, just about 8km out of town. The boy had time on him- so he then went to the village’s pier and set off to Dutou, another village, aboard yet another bamboo raft! Aah, the beauty! Back on the land, an ancient village, 800 years old Liugong right on the banks of Li river was calling. One of the least touristy in the whole area and rather well preserved historical buildings like the Moon Pavilion and Home of Senators, what else could one ask for. Or one could, Near the village were the famous three-color ponds, evidently with three different colours of water supernatural tales. The locals believe that water levels in the ponds remain the same throughout the year, no matter what season it is or how much is the level of the Li River. 

Serenity
Serenity

It was time to head back to the town. To come here again and again. Being in Hong Kong, just 4 hours away allows this, the boy thought and smiled. He had found his paddy fields yet again! 

West Street in the night

He had read about Han Yu’s description of the area 1200 years ago- “The river winds like a green silk ribbon, while the hills are like jade hairpins.”

New Cafe in the ancient village
New Cafe in the ancient village

Vietnam: Journeys of Shiva, spices and Samar

Lord Shiva looked at the boy from Babhnan visiting him. Don’t get surprised, we all have had our journeys, long and beautiful, he seemed to have said. Both smiled amidst the heavy rains. The boy was in Mỹ Sơn, the ancient temple site of the the Champa empire that ruled what is now central Vietnam from the 4th to 18th century AD. The ruins tell a gritty tale of the journeys that brought first Shiva and Hinduism and then spices to the region.

In the Temple of Literature, Hanoi
In the Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Interestingly, Hinduism reached Champa through neighbouring states like the Khmer empire in Cambodia and Funan, or Nokor Phnom. Even more interestingly, not much is known about Funan, not even its original name, Funan is what the Chinese calligraphers and historians called this indianised state, a loose network of states, Mandala.

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Vietnam has always fascinated the small boy growing far away- actually three seas and an ocean away. He first learnt about the country through his father. His father was an ardent admirer of Ho Chi Minh, the only Asian man who militarily defeated two colonial powers, France and USA. His eyes would shine with a pride emerging from the idea of solidarity, the boy would note. He read about the country in Geography books as history ones would have little of it. Look East was yet not the official diplomatic line of the governments then- despite very friendly relations with them. India was one of those very few countries which helped the Viets in their war against the USA.

Lady Buddha, Da Nang
Lady Buddha, Da Nang

It was natural, then for the boy to run to the country, yet another soul place, on the very first opportunity. He started safe with Hanoi and was amazed at the warmth of the people and place. Countless trips to museums, including The Hanoi Hilton, as US prisoners of war called Hanoi Prison would end with the traditional Bia Hoi- gallons of freshly brewed beer served, literally, out of gallons in unassuming streetside shops. Aah, to be in Vietnam is bliss, to be in Bia Hoi just divine. Divine, the atheist boy feeling divine in a communist country sipping beer- journeys, he thought of and smiled.

Prison aka Hanoi Hilton, senator Senator John McCain is the most famous of its inmates
Prison aka Hanoi Hilton, senator Senator John McCain is the most famous of its inmates

Hanoi would take him to the The Văn Miếu , roughly translated as the Temple of Literature. It was Vietnam’s first university, built in 1070 AD and dedicated to Confucius. A university built in 1070, that too in Asia, the boy was impressed. Though no longer functional, students still come to the Temple of Literature to celebrate their graduation. 

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Halong Bay

Halong Bay was the next among countless trips taken in and from Hanoi. The bay, literally translated as the “Bay of Descending Dragons”, has thousands of limestone hills rising from the sea look like someone has built a wall on the sea! Named as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the very touristy way is a must see, go early or stay in the town to beat the crowds but do go. 

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A girl in Ao Dai

Next for the boy in the Nam was Hoi An, now overshadowed by the nearby megapolis Da Nang at the coast of East City turned into a resort city. Give that a miss though, nothing much to see or explore there. Go to Marble Mountains instead- a cluster of 5 mountains of hill and limestone with beautiful caves with temples whom Viet Minh turned into bunkers to fight first the French and then the US forces. Buddha next to bullet holes, journeys, again, the boy thought. 

In the famous Cu Chi tunnels
In the famous Cu Chi tunnels

Hoi An, a beautiful Universal Heritage city was once the commercial capital of the Champa Empire that controlled the spice trade at its zenith. The boy was back home, the land of Shiva. Hoi An, one of the world’s most important ports from the 15th to 19th century is exceptionally well preserved despite the two decade long wars Vietnam suffered. The city’s importance waned sharply at the end of the 18th century. Some believe it that Tây Sơn Rebellion opposed to foreign trade was the reason, some claim it was silting up of the river mouth rendering the port worthless. Whatever is the truth, nearby Da Nang soon became the new centre of trade and the city got almost forgotten. That was a blessing, perhaps. 

A gallon full of beer!
A gallon full of beer!

Lost among the lanterns, the boy was tired and sleepy. To get ready for Hue, another ancient capital of the Nam, a long journey next morning. Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, were the next on line. He waved his byes to Lord Shiva, promising that he would come back soon. Hong Kong is just 2 hours away, after all. 

Phnom Penh: The original not in my name

The boy from Babhnan knew that this encounter was inevitable, that there was no escape. One has to fight his demons, after all. He had braced himself up. Yet he could not take it when it really happened.

In National Museum, 2010
In National Museum, 2010

He was standing in front of the Killing Fields, slightly out of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The execution centre of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979 and killed around two million Cambodians, almost one fourth of the total population. This is where the purged from party cadre imprisoned in the Security Prison 21 (S-21) were brought to get killed. Often with all of their family. The boy had been to S-21, a former school converted into first prison, and now a Genocide Museum! What a sad journey! 

The Killing Tree: Khmer Rouge used to kill kids by banging them against this

The trip had started on a positive note. The boy was there to participate in a United Nations workshop on rebuilding the rural communities. The days were filled with the discussions of hope, of looking ahead. The evenings with real yummy street food- though he could dare try one of the most famous of them all- red ants chutney! Early part of the nights was even more hep and happening- exploring many night markets that dot the capital. Phnom Penh Night Market was his favorite despite the jury preferring the Russian Market more. By the way, you can buy almost anything in the Russian Market barring a Russian! It got the name not for selling them, but because at the height of cold war, Soviets, the biggest, and welcome, expat community in Cambodia visited this market. 

In National Museum, 2018

It was also about long walks by the Mekong Promenade and dining in one of the myriad of Indian restaurants. The ‘vegetarian’ boy from Babhnan was ‘culinarily’ home in the South East Asia for the first time. He thanked the UN which had taken over the country- along with the Vietnam backed liberators for rehabilitation in the post Pol Pot era. They brought Indian curries, the reverse, cuisine colonisers of Europe with them. “Indian” restaurants followed. 

The Royal Palace

There was only a limit to which the boy could delay the inevitable. So there he was. In front of the Choeung Ek- the killing field with Sophary, his colleague. 

The Monkey God: A Constant from India to all of the South East Asia
The Monkey God: A Constant from India to all of the South East Asia

It was a revolution gone horribly wrong and revolutionaries gone paranoid. It was a dream shattered. Not in my name, the boy could hardly tell himself. 

It is not your fault, said Sophary, gently holding his hands. 

Being in Cambodia is like time travel. A country stuck in times gone by, running decades behind the most of the world. It had to be- after the year ZERO, or 1975  when Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge snatched the country from a US puppet regime. They abolished the currency, evacuated the cities and ordered everyone back to the villages. Four years of mayhem ensued. Mayhem that included US carpet bombing against the communists in Indochina- Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam killing millions. Communist Khmer Rouge added another million to the tally. 

Flower boys of Phnom Penh
Flower boys of Phnom Penh

Ironically, the latter had their own completely understandable reasons for getting paranoid. US led forces were not only bombing Indochina to get rid of the Reds, they were also killing communists with CIA made lists in the countries with allied governments in the region. Indonesia, for instance, had witnessed the killing of half a million members of communist party! 

Ironically, once communist North Vietnam supported forces defeated the Khmer Rouge and ousted them, US immediately allied with them and kept supporting the Pol Pot led government in exile as the legitimate representative of the country in the United Nations! It ended up sheltering him too, where the UN indicted war criminal finally died peacefully! 

The Killing Fields Monument
The Killing Fields Monument

Yeah, truth is far more stranger than imagination. So is history! History that changes Tuol Sway Priyala School into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Choeung Ek orchard into killings fields and a die hard communist Pol Pot into an American protegee! 

Later, resting at the steps of magnificent Wat Phnom, Sophary told him that the younger generations of the country hardly remember the horrors their parents and grandparents lived with. This gives me hope, she giggled, hope that nothing is beyond redemption. It also scares me, she sombrely added- we need memories to guard us from falling in the same pit again.

They agreed and went on the memory trip: the Royal Palace, the Wat Phnom, both night markets, the National Museum. 

And being friends with locals, a gem unknown- a RO RO Ferry trip to the other side of the Mekong- at least 30 years back in time! Don’t miss the last one!  

Ningde: Where the sea became farms

It was so surreal. Bamboos rose out of the sea, all the way till eyes could sea. The boy from Babhnan was in utter disbelief a second time in China. Yet to come out of rice farming on the mountain terraces in Longji, and here the sea had become farmlands growing Bamboo… Like how come, he asked Lin, his driver and the guide in Ningde, the coastal prefecture in China famed for perhaps the most beautiful mudflats in the world! 

In Xiapu's Most famous sea farm
In Xiapu’s Most famous sea farm

Lin had a hearty laugh. They are farming seaweed, not bamboos, bamboos are there merely for drying weeds. It makes the autumn harvest easier. 

Mudflats, also called tidal flats are many things. Found in coastal wetlands, they are a very important part of the ecology, a refuge for many species both of flora and fauna. The last thing one could imagine about them, though, was beauty, breathtaking beauty to be precise! What can be so beautiful about long expanses of mud, just mud, the boy had thought before undertaking this journey. He had nonetheless as he was intrigued by the pictures scattered across the internet. Pictures screaming that these were perhaps the most beautiful mudflats indeed. 

See the girl in the mudflats?

They proved to be. They were a delight for photographers, even for the amateurish ones like the boy who would often keep the DSLR aside, daunted by its hundred controls and take recourse to his phone. Comes the sun, and the rays turn them into paintings capable of putting even the best of the abstract painters to shame! Former Sea Gypsies, the human ones, start their work walking on the mudflats, and they start looking magical! Whole villages, of course floating ones, on the sea. And the miraculous Kelp, a type of seaweed, that grows over half a meter a day and is sort of the hinge on which mudflats lives hinge upon. 

And of course, they were a refuge for escaping the maddening chaos called metropolitan cities, a gateway to the times gone by. 

Mudflats are also an opportunity for a mere human to emulate Jesus, and all others known for the legends like walking on the water! Comes the high tide and they disappear despite being firmly there- walk on them and those looking at you from far away can take you to be the next prophet. Not a bad thing, no? 

A such a convincing fakery of village life in Rural China, it was all staged!
A such a convincing fakery of village life in Rural China, it was all staged!

Mudflats are also a celebration of sheer human endeavor that can move the mountains as cliche would have it. They can also farm the sea, the boy was to know in Ningde. Yeah, all kinds of seaweed along with fishing and crabs and what not. All of this in beautiful gear in super vibrant colors, all of which are locally innovated. They could also build whole villages on the sea, a properly functioning ecosystem. 

Receding tides, leaving day's catch behind
Receding tides, leaving day’s catch behind

Why did they choose to live on the sea, it is not easy, the boy suddenly realized. Lin came handy. His English was very rudimentary, my Putonghua did not even exist. But we were both armed with the magic called smartphones with Baidu App though- you speak into it in English and it translates that into Putonghua and vice versa. As expected, the gut feeling of the boy proved to be true.

They did not choose to live on the sea. No one does, knowing the vagaries of nature. They were rather forced to as they were Tanka people. The Outcasts of China, with many theories of their evolution. The most plausible one of them identifies as the descendents of one of the ethnic minorities, meaning non-Han Chinese people, from the first millenium BC and condemned to fend for themselves ever since. That they did, and did with elan. Exiled from the lands, they converted the seas into farmlands. They were denied a life, they built another. 

Village on the sea… These huts you see are real homes

Tanka people are not treated badly anymore, Lin volunteered. They were brought back in the mainstream after the Peoples’ Republic of China came into existence, he added. You support the party, I asked Lin. A boisterous laughter was the reply- we do not talk about politics here in China. 

Sam and the Seaweeds
Sam and the Seaweeds

I am definitely coming back here, the boy from Babhnan thought, six days were just not enough for a place this enchanting. There was so much left to know, like that colourful parade he came across. Lin had made him tick them all. Dong Bi, Xia Qing Shan, Ba Chi Men, Xiao Hao, Beiqi, Nan Wan, Yangjiaxi, Sha Wan, Yantian, the ancient town whose name he forgot. Yet he got to come back. To celebrate human endeavour. To salute the Boat People! 

With Lin.
Lin, the local

Manila Meandrings: Audacity of hope

Richell’s smile was infectious, her hope audacious. The boy of Babhnan was in Manila, the pearl of the East, as they called it because of its strategic location in the Asia Pacific region. They were chatting in a yellowy darkness that reminded the boy of his village some 4,500 kilometers, two oceans and several seas away. The ambience was eerily similar, reminiscent of those 200 watt yellow bulbs that hanged precariously in decaying holders and gave a twinkling yellow light that sickened more than illuminating. They hanged on, nonetheless.

With Children in Cavite
With children in Cavite

So did Richell, the bright and beautiful young girl. Sitting in the verandah in front of her room that she shared with seven others. All she had of her own was a bunker bed with no privacy other than a big and coarse curtain that could lock her 6 into 6 feet space out of others’ eyesight but could not stop noise, or even light from seeping in. Yet she laughed, and laughed a lot. She dragged the boy inside to have a ‘feel’ of her life and once inside, proudly showed him the teddy bear she had bought, no got as she corrected herself, a few days back. Her eyes twinkled when she talked of her dreams. She had no qualms against sharing them with me, a rank stranger until just half an hour ago.

With Richell and her friends and colleagues
With Richell and her friends and colleagues

Manila was going to be different, very different, the boy from Babhnan thought. He decided to give monuments a miss this time. He would meet people instead. 

Richell’s dreams seemed so out of place in that dingy verandah.Yet,she had the courage to chase her dreams. The girls of his village would dare not, or they would be sacrificed at the altar of patriarchy for the ‘crime’.

His ride to their ‘home” had been tough and uneventful. Having decided to dump a cab ride, he had taken a bus followed by a signature Filipino Jeepney and then a ride in that claustrophobic tricycle that cages you on small shaded compartment attached to a motorcycle or a cycle. The route ran, almost along the seashore that defines the boundaries of Metro Manila, as the national capital region is known there. It passed by Freedom Islands, ironically named so, that are home to the boathouses and the skyscrapers coming next to it, which would gulp the boathouses soon. Notices are already out and served on them.

City Hall, built in 1939

Richell’s journey was much longer and tougher. Masabate, the city she calls home, is not merely geographically distant from Manila, it is almost a different country, poorer and lacking of opportunities. But then, her old and ailing parents lived there, they still do, and it was there where she was pursuing her college degree in Information Technology. Ask her what brought her, then, here and what you get is another burst of laughter that could hardly conceal the pain seeping through her eyes. No work there, why else, she replies. Ask her about the IT course that she left midway and she points towards a roommate, she has an IT degree as well, no use. The roommate nods, giggles and then all of them burst into a collective laughter.

Leya does a Rizal, national hero of the country

Laughter, the boy was soon to realize, is not born merely out of the sheer audacity of their hopes. It was their weapon too, to reassure them that they have not lost everything, The laughter and the hope kept them afloat in a country that alienates them from their own labour, from their own bodies. It is intoxicating. It gives them the delusion they need the most.

You have a boyfriend; the boy suddenly asked Richell and saw her blushing for the first time. The reply, hastily put together with an invitation to have dinner with the group, is a coy ‘not yet’.

The story was the same; be it Irene, a single mom. Or Maribel, a fisherwoman in ironically named Freedom Island. The government was trying to relocate them to mountains, she informed. And giggles, fisherfolk to mountains, the government got some good sense of humour! 

Museum in Rizal Park
Museum in Rizal Park

And Leya, an activist. And Dayan, my colleague. Or Freddie, a vendor in the Rizal National Park. I have been living here since 1972, Freddie tells me. My wife died here, he adds. He had slept in the makeshift bed inside his stall ever since. Wanna try, he asks the boy. He readily agrees. 

Jeepney: US Military jeeps modified into passenger whatever

The boy did manage to go to some of the monuments, just for the pictures’ sake. And he stole a trip to Taal Volcano, a live one. The boy from the plains seeing the lava of a volcano! It is mere 100 kilometers away from Manila, and one thing you should not miss if you ever happen to be in Manila. 

Lava in Taal Volcano

And of course there are more places, one of the most beautiful of them being Manila Bay walk. I have passed by many of them, but not quite visited. Just like locals who hardly wink at touristy places in their own cities. People there become far more important than them. 

Richell’s laugh was the souvenir the boy brought back from Manila, a laughter so uncontrolled and unabashed. And her belief in the future. The audacity of that belief which can make anyone believe in humanity. Can we save the smile for our children, the boy asked himself. He had no answer!

Hope…

Lucknow to Longji Rice Terraces

Rice fields on hills? In small serpentine terraces cut over centuries? Small boy from Babhnan was in the Longji Rice Terraces in the Longsheng County of Guangxi, surprised to his wits end. Coiling terraces rising up from the foothills and going up all the way to top of the mountains is fine! Where do they get water though, he was thinking, perplexed. Growing rice needs a lot of water, after all.

Longji Rice Terraces: The Dragon's Back section in Ping'an. See the people?
Longji Rice Terraces: The Dragon’s Back section in Ping’an. See the people?

Surprise slowly gave in to nostalgia. He had grown up by the rice fields, a food grain central to the civilisation feeding over half of the world’s population. But the rice fields he has known, and has a few of his own, are all in the Gangetic plains. One which could be easily mistaken for giant ponds from preparation to planting!  He remembered the days he would run to them and jump in the muddy rice fields, filled with ankle deep water. He would then have to run away from mom, hiding behind grandpa to escape beating. Layers of rice shoots had led him to layers of memories, longings and losses. 

The terraces would soon become small rivers... then rice fields
The terraces would soon become small rivers… then rice fields

He was missing his own rice fields back home some 3,000 kilometres away from Longsheng. Rice, along with other crops, was the currency his ancestors had. Cultivating rice would get them their livelihood, their luxuries, howsoever scant, their travels, everything. Rice would get the small village boy education and set him on this journey.

Rice would take him to Lucknow, the first big city he got to know. A city known for its Tehzeeb, culture, and the monuments, both built by the surplus its rulers, the formidable Nawabs, got from rice cultivators. A smile had made its way to boy’s lips. Monuments built from rice surplus to rice terraces built by sheer human endeavour… Journeys!

His ancestors had fought among themselves to get the most low lying lands, preferably closest to the water bodies. That they were also the farthest from the roads and they repent now for that is another story for another time! 

Longji too had become home. And its people, Zhuang and Yao from two minority communities in China, his own people. The Zhuangs are native to the area. The Yaos originated in Hunan and came here fighting persecution and became native. Oh the journeys! The boy from Babhnan to Lucknow to Delhi to Hong Kong to Longji, Yaos from Hunan to same place!

With a Yao aunty, look how long they wear their hair
With a Yao aunty, look how long they wear their hair

Then, they started constructing the terraces- the Zhuangs in Ping’an and the Yaos in Dazhai and Tiantou in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Turning hills after hills into rice fields big and small, they continued until the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when the hills had all become fields! Rising from the river bed that sits at 380 meters above the sea level and rises, with the coiling terraces up to whopping 1180 meters! 

The boy from Babhnan in Longji Rice Terraces
The boy from Babhnan in Longji Rice Terraces

Where do you people get the water for the rice from, the boy from Babhnan asked Qin,his friendly hostel owner (basically a traditional 3-story stilted woodhouse converted into a hostel)? He smiled and asked the boy to come behind. The boy did, going all the way up to the one of the most scenic terraces, me again, tired, yet excited with his running commentary which I would otherwise never had known- that’s my aunt’s house, built 200 years ago, that is the home of a friend who migrated to US and so on. The boy was getting to know even the people now.

See that round, white mountain top: people have made that a pond!
See that round, white mountain top: people have made that a pond!

See that huge flat thing on the top of the hill, Qin asked! The boy, ever the son of the farmers, did not need a single word more. He has got it, with eyes wide open with surprise! The people had cut the top of the hills into flat bodies first, and then dug them into huge ponds to store water during rains! They then dug winding irrigation channels accompanying rice terraces! How did they do it? He wanted to ask, but did not. He was in awe of these people who rose to mighty mountains some 800 years ago, armed with primitive axes and shovels at the most and made fields out of them! Humans can indeed move the mountains, he smiled. 

Another Yao woman, look at her hair too
Another Yao woman, look at her hair too

The boy from Babhnan had fallen in love. He has been coming to the fields year after year, season after season. To see the hills become rivers in the spring with terraces filled with water in preparation for sowing paddy. In summers, to see them turn into a sea of green shoots, neatly arranged. Then to see them turn into gold mines in the autumn, with ripe paddy ready for the harvest. He is yet to make it there in winters though, when the mountains turn into a frozen mystery with white snow all over! Soon, he would. 

A village nestled in the terraces.
See the village nestled in the rice terraces?

He is sad, though, seeing the terraces falling to tourist trap since he first visited them in 2015 and hiked his way to Tiantou. There was no road to the village then, the reason he chose to stay there and not in Ping’an or Dazhai that had already fallen. He had then hiked his way up to the hostel enjoying the beauty and paying respects to the elders who created it. He saw a road being constructed to Taintou too, when he was there at last- in 2018. 

Go, before it is too late. The boy from Babhnan would be happy to help with suggestions and inside secrets. 

Hong Kong: Home Coming to a Harbour

It was a beautiful, sunny, and oh not so humid morning of March 2007 when a bright streak of light woke the boy from Babhnan with a start. He looked out of the window and it felt like the plane was about to land on water! He looked around, a little startled, saw everyone composed and so did he. A red eye flight, his first international one, he had taken 7 hours ago from Delhi had brought him to Hong Kong, the city he would soon call home. 

Camping near the Tung Lung Chau Fort at the island by the same name.
Camping near the Tung Lung Chau Fort at the island by the same name.

Hong Kong. That was a full 6,000 years after humans first set foot in the territory. 2200 years after it became part of the Chinese Empire for the first time. 500 after the first European came here, Portugese Jorge Álvares. 

Hong Kong: a jungle of concrete and grass. Where the East meets West. The financial capital of the world. And the Disneyland and the Ocean Park.

Local tip: If you must, go to the Ocean Park, it is so much better than the Disney.

This is an aerial view of the Ocean Park, the best theme park in Hong Kong.
An Aerial view of the Ocean Park.

 

The village boy was a little nervous, but he was armed with his most trusted weapon:  a well rehearsed abandon bordering on disdain. Whole buildings of glass, so what? It is just the glitter. The Khadi kurta, rugged jeans and Hawai Chappal- the JNU uniform that got him many stares- from immigration to immigration was part of that abandon, a carefully rehearsed one, though.

He followed the crowd running to the immigration, pretending he was not, as if he had been clearing immigration since he was an infant. A faint smile ran through his cheeks. The memories of entering glass buildings when he had first come to Delhi were back. That careful look- on people behaving ‘normal’ and imitating them. 

That was the only nervousness the boy would ever have with this city. 

Hong Kong was nothing that those cinematic ‘establishing shots’ made it to be. Yeah, Victoria Harbour is beautiful, but it was only as much the city as is India Gate Delhi. The Peak too, only as much Hong Kong as Gateway of India was Mumbai. 

Victoria Harbour during the symphony of light: the mandatory 'establishing shot' for HKSAR.
Victoria Harbour during the symphony of light: the mandatory ‘establishing shot’ for HKSAR.

Yeah, the ‘heart’ of Hong Kong is all glass and concrete. Provided you could call that place, always in flux with people moving in and out as they would from any financial hub Hong Kong in the first place. No one calls Dubai airport’s transit area Dubai, right? That glass and concrete part is only that much Hong Kong. People come here, mostly on short time assignments and go. Without even knowing the city.

Iconic Star Ferry Pier from the Hong Kong Island Side
Iconic Star Ferry Pier from the Hong Kong Island Side

Beyond that exist well-knit communities in villages 300 to 400 years old still farming. Many of them are still walled in a throwback to the times gone by. 

The village boy immediately belonged here, settled in the first he took as home with windows looking at sprawling bonsai mandarin plantations on one hand and a lush green hill behind. It was not love at first sight, but a lifelong romance had begun. 

The BOnsai Mandarin plantation right out of the window of my bedroom

A romance that would take him to the Tai Mo Shan- a hike traversing over 5 waterfalls, largest over a 100 meters in a row, in a single hike! Startled? The boy too was- only till he took a nice long swim in the natural pool in the third one. Or to the Tung Lung Fort built in 1722 to guard against the pirates. Or the Bride’s Pool- another waterfall combined with a beautiful valley praying for the wife who lost her life while crossing the waterways, after whom the waterfall took its name.

Bride's Pool Waterfall
Bride’s Pool Waterfall

Or the stilted villages like Tai O with their unfolding bridges taking you straight to further south east- Vietnam and Cambodia. 

Bride's Pool
Bride’s Pool

And the villages with their centuries-old traditions living on for centuries- the dragon dances, the bun festivals in which a very rustic looking person sees you and you being the only non-Chinese there starts explaining the history and the ritual. And then that he is Vice President or this and that in HSBC or again, this or that! 

Preparation for the Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village
Preparation for the Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village

And yeah, the small bunkers, now shrines, dug by the Hong Kongers who resisted the Japanese during World War II with all their might, often making the biggest of the sacrifices. And the sprawling parks in the middle of the city with retired elderlies playing Mahjong all day, often also babysitting their grandchildren as both the parents would have gone to work. 

The Bun Festival in Cheung Chau
The Bun Festival in Cheung Chau

Hong Kong is now home. Yeah, I often feel sad seeing a few of the fields in front of my house disappearing every year, yet, happy that forests make for them. Yeah, forests cover over 26,400 hectares of the total area of Hong Kong, about 23.8%- much more than during the World Wars. 

Come, visit my home. But please please please, not on those 2 nights 3 days packages. I can share with you some best-kept secrets for a longer and better rendezvous with this harbor I now call home. 

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