Category Archives: Uncategorized

Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street: Xiamen’s Gem

When in the city, everyone goes to the Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street. They say that over a billion people pass by this street every single year. Over a billion, to just one street. The Boy from Babhnan had to go. 

He was in Xiamen, formerly Amoy, one of the coolest cities in South China. A city which got its name changed and restored so many times as few others in the world would have. A Ming rebel Zheng Chenggong had set a military base here and changed its name into Siming- meaning remembering the Ming in 1650. Later, when the Qings took the city back, it was back to be Xiamen. After the Xinhai Revolution that established the republic in 1912, it was back to Siming. Come 1933, it was back to, again, what it is now. Interesting, no? 

This is a city that sits just across Taiwan and one can in fact see the rebel island across the strait from its beautiful Gulang Island. Gulang island was a beautiful vehicle free escape from the urban rush, alas, the island is now getting crushed under tourists’ weight. 

Back to the Pedestrian Street. Dating back to 1925, Zhongshan Lu is the oldest commercial street in Xiamen. The over a kilometer long walking street is filled with pretty shops, big department stores, chic cafes, restaurants specialising in the cuisine from world over, and so on. 

Most interesting part though, is that smoking in not allowed in the street! The boy was surprised to the core! He had seen smoking to be the normal even in these times across the South East Asia including China. There still remain restaurants one could enter with a lit cigarette even now. He had always associated this with seafaring being one of the very basis of economy here. So ban on smoking in a public street was surprising for sure! 

The street is one of the ultimate examples of the East Meets West cliche- with McDonalds sitting next to traditional Chinese eateries and shops selling tea- a hundred kinds of teas. One could buy them in whichever form they want- as loose tea leaves to prepacked ones. Ditto for the food items- be they dried crab, squid, fish, pork floss, or otherwise, nuts, durian, pineapple and mango candies, mooncakes of different flavours, roast duck and more.

Tired, the boy went to grab a quick bite of the street food. Fujian province has its own cuisine markedly different from the rest of the Chinese variants. The boy had noted that the focus on seafood in Fujian sits along lots of vegetarian options- a wonder in China. Rarely had he been happier while travelling in the South East Asia. 

The signature experience in the street, though, is many of the jewellery stores making necklaces made of pearls harvested from live oysters right in front of you. He decided not to have this one. 

Another thing that strikes about Zhongshan Lu is beautiful amalgamation of architecture styles- Victorian, Venetian and traditional Chinese. Many of them were in fact shop houses, or Tong Laus, as they are called in Cantonese. In these, the ground floor used to be for shops, while the merchants and the family lived above. The boy remembered Babhnan- his Kasba with similar houses. Of course very basic, not grand. Babhnan is no treaty port after all, it is a blurry kasba even within the district! He then remembered the Tong Lau(s) of his new home- Hong Kong, fast disappearing. 

Home, he thought of. 

Xi’an: A return to where Xuanzang came from

Happy birthday, Mr. Paanadey- the girl at reception said extending him a glass of fireball cocktail. She was clearly struggling with the last name of the boy from Babhnan. The twinkle in her eyes and happiness on her face was absolutely real though. The boy though was mighty surprised. How did you know, and realised! Oh, she would. She was checking him in with his passport. So that was why he was made to wait- she had some way to tell her colleagues and get him the drink! Xi’an had had begun on a high- both metaphorically and really! 

Welcome drink for the birthday boy in the hostel.
Welcome drink for the birthday boy

The boy had first known about the city in his history books documenting the travels of Chinese monk’s travels in India centuries ago. Hsüan-tsang was the name he knew him by. How could someone walk thousands of kilometers on feet, he wondered. That too for going to a country he knew nothing about, not even its language. And he lived in India for 17 years. The boy was fascinated. He started dreaming of making the journey back, to the place Hsüan-tsang, known as Xuanzang in his own city. 

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, where Xuanzang returned to
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, where Xuanzang returned to

He was there, finally. He knew, now, much more about the city though. Its rich history, the famous Terracotta Warriors, Pagodas, palaces, and monasteries. Chang’an (Perpetual Peace), as Xi’an was earlier known, was the capital of China for 13 dynasties and 73 emperors- for over 1200 years. Think, if you can, of any other city. Wait, did the boy tell you that the city is home to the biggest ever palace built anywhere in the world! The Weiyang Palace, the main imperial palace of the Han and many of the later dynasties. It was built in 200 BC, just a few years after The Terracotta Army, depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China buried with him for protecting him in his afterlife.

The Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Army

Back to the palace, it covered 4.8 km² (1,200 acres), about 11 times the size of the Vatican City for comparison. Sad that little, if anything, remains of that.

Of course, he first ran to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, the last home of Xuanzang to pay his respects. He went in, paid his homage, chatted with him, and came out. Then he noticed that the pagoda visibly leaned to the west. He was surprised at the same not having gotten the name “Pisa of the East” as every such similarity gets! 

The boy from Babhnan with Xuanzang
The boy from Babhnan with Xuanzang and his pagoda

The evening had started descending, in the city and that birthday of the boy. It was time to head towards the City Wall- first built in 190 BC and built and rebuilt ever since till 15th. The legend is that if you do not do three things before you die, you are not a real Chinese. The three are- climbing on the Great Wall (The boy did), walking/cycling on the Xian City Wall (the boy did), and finally- bamboo rafting on the Li River (the boy did). Gosh, has the boy from the Ganga basin become Chinese or what!! 

Cycling on the City Wall
Cycling on the City Wall

The setting sun had turned the wall golden, a lovely golden rarely seen. The city looked beautiful. The boy cycled. Till he could. Soaking in the view, the history, the happiness. Cycling away to glory, and history!  Just like he would, decades ago on the muddy roads of his small villages thousands of kilometers away. This city was to stay with him, within him, forever. And yeah- temperature was Minus 7 degrees. The first time the boy from the plains had experienced subzero temperatures. He was to have many more. 

The Bell Tower with the Drum Tower in the background
The Bell Tower with the Drum Tower in the background

The sun had set. The city below was glowing below, like a river of colorful lights. It was the time to return for that night- not knowing that yet another surprise was waiting for him in the hostel. The rather warm staff had prepared vegetarian dumplings for him- for the final birthday celebration. How warm their hearts were- just like the dumplings! 

A scene in the Muslim Quarters
A scene in the Muslim Quarters

Aah Xian, my love! Those lovely days. Though never enough to live the city to the fullest. The Terracotta Army alone can keep one engaged for a full day. 

Oh, how did the boy forgot the Muslim Quarters! So bubbly and vibrant that one could just fail to notice that this was the starting point of the Silk Road! Yeah, Xian is the city from where started the Silk Road, and the Muslim Quarter its exact location! The boy had seldom seen such a medley of cultures! And spices, of course! 

Interestingly, the Muslim Quarter begins just after the Bell Tower and ends with the Drum Tower- both so Chinese! Aah, the amalgamation of the cultures!

The Grand Mask of Xi'an: the first mosque of China
The Grand Mask of Xi’an: the first mosque of China

And the Grand Mosque- the first-ever of China. The mosque has an entry fee for tourists- they refused to take from the boy,  thinking that the boy was a Muslim. He thought of telling them that he wasn’t. Then he decided not to. Ultimately they all are the same. He put the money in the donation box instead. 

Naans, Sheermals... Food
Naans, Sheermals…

 

Wan Chai: Bay, Bars, Brothels and a battle

There was no way one could walk without touching another. Yet, there came an ambulance and the crowds parted like a wave, making for a video that would be watched by millions and millions. It was worth it, the world rarely gets to see such blending of anger, resistance, and compassion. The boy from Babhnan was walking, nay, marching in protest to Tamar Park, the site of the government offices of Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of China. 

Image may contain: 1 person, crowd and outdoor
In one of the Hong Kong protests

Over 2 million HongKongers had taken to the street that day. Few knew that this would be one of the last protests in the city with people not covering their faces. One of the last ones to be peaceful too. They would soon metamorphose in pitched battles between Police firing real bullets in decades, and students replying with Molotov Cocktails, petrol bombs for the uninitiated. 

Trams, cars and pedestrians: above an underground subway.
Trams, cars and pedestrians: above an underground subway

Wan Chai was not always known for this though. The area, now one of the poshest in the megapolis has a rather interesting, colourful and intriguing history. A history that starts from a small bay and went to become the city’s first red light district and then the centre of governance. Red light district still exists, by the way, the stigma does not with everyone minding their own business. 

Very few Chinese settlers, all of them fisherfolk, lived in the area by the end of the 18th century. Almost all of them lived around the Sea God “Hung Shing Ye”‘s temple.

China’s defeat in the Opium Wars and resultant handover of Hong Kong island to the victors was to change it all. With Central being the unofficial capital of the one city British colony, Wan Chai too began to grow. Came in a British merchant Lancelot Dent, with a huge mansion around the 1840s, and the area suddenly became upmarket. Many colonials chose the area as home for both: them and their businesses. Dent went bankrupt by the 1870s and that brought in the local Chinese people. 

Sikh Gurudwara on Guruparab
Sikh Gurudwara on Guruparab

Wan Chai as we see it today was getting born with bustling businesses, shipyards and even a waterfront hospital built by the British firm Jardine’s. British royal navy bought it in 1873 and converted it as Royal Navy Hospital. Ferry piers for the sailors and soldiers followed. The Red Light district was born too by the first few decades of the 19th century. Many of the brothels displayed huge street number plates to advertise themselves so their area became known as Big Number Brothels. Decades later, US-Vietnam War would contribute even more to the sex work in area with US soldiers returning from, and going to fight in the Nam, at Fenwick Pier, now demolished. 

Former bay now, in the night!
Former bay now, in the night!

The Big Numbers did not disappear though. They just metamorphosed into shopping arcades, malls and markets in the area still carry the numbers. The City’s biggest computer market, 298 Computer Centre is one of them, perhaps. 

The curious mix of the people and activities another added layer to the area. It soon started becoming the most multicultural one in the town. Taoist temples standing next to Buddhist ones, city’s first Sikh Gurudwara built in 1901, HK’s first Hindu temple built in 1953, a church all standing next to one another!

A Guangzhou Verandah style building decorated with lanterns
A Guangzhou Verandah style building decorated with lanterns

The boy remembered the happier days in the life of the city. Into history and architecture- he would go for the heritage trail. Beginning with colourful houses from the colonial times with green, blue and yellow ones being the most famous. The trail would then take him to PAK TAI TEMPLE  built in 1862. Former Wan Chai Post Office (1912) would follow suit. Then Guangzhou Verandah style shophouses and finally the Hung Shing Temple, with “Shiwan” ceramic pottery roof decorations.

Tired, he would head to the nightlife area- now catering to both- sex workers and officegoing pub hoppers unwinding for the day. Adding to the curious mix would be families living just above the ‘nightclubs’ with having nothing to do with either! All three would keep aloof from one another. He would hit a pub, or just stand at one of the intersections seeing life go by. This is one signature thing to do in the Fragrant Harbour, aka Hong Kong.  

A slogan with a clenched fist up in the air broke his chain of thought. The march was passing by the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre- where the famous handover of sovereignty from Britain to China took place in 1997. The protestors would soon be in the Golden Bauhinia Square Golden Bauhinia Square, so named for a beautiful sculpture of the flower which is also Hong Kong’s emblem. Then the Legislative Council called LegCo. It would be a long drawn resistance. And it would win. It did!

He cannot wait to explore the area even more even if the pubs and bars are shut down. The city is not in a lockdown, you can always roam around maintaining distance and wearing mask! This weekend, perhaps! 

Uttar Pradesh: A descent in decline

The boy from Babhnan looked at the vast, magical, colour changing expanse of the landmass below. The land of mythical Rama and Sita and historical Buddha, both worshipped across the world by millions. The lands of once the home of the Mahajanapadas of the oligarchic republics of ancient India. All but a blur now, a forgotten blur. A magical one, nonetheless. 

Take a flight from Hong Kong in January or February, and the wheat and mustard crop growing in the fields would paint it green and golden yellow. Come in April and it would all turn into bright yellow. A month later, and with the crop harvested, it would be a brownish blur. Come in late May and June, and one would find it difficult to make the fields from ponds with all of them filled with water in preparation for the paddy cultivation.

The boy would keep looking back at the flight map trying to locate his village, one of the thousands below. He would fail, invariably. There is nothing much in his village to differentiate from countless other ones. It was not supposed to be. His village, like others around, has been there producing food for humanity for centuries. Rice, wheat, pulses, oils, mangoes- name it. And producing food was never sexy enough for the rulers to build monuments honoring the producers. 

People also build their monuments, but not for this very mundane, yet, essential for survival activity. He could identify Lumbini if the flight took a detour by the Stupas, but not even Gorakhpur from Basti- district headquarters all looked the same. Unless there was a river below. A mighty river, to be precise. The small tributary by his village would not qualify as one. 

He had grown up in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, traversing fields that led to his school. It was a long and arduous journey, often also an unpleasant one. It was a journey to decline, to have been, just like the state. Yeah, a journey from the world’s most ancient republics to becoming one of the BiMaRU (sick, literally!) states of India by the end of the twentieth century. 

By the time the boy from Babhnan grew, most, if not everything in the state, was a story of have beens. Eastern UP of Buddha and ancient republics was now a den of caste-based mafia groups with nothing much to boast about. He would see tourists and travelers from across the world going to Kushinagar, where Buddha breathed his last, not even give a blink when the city would pass by. He would go to Shravasti, the sixth largest city of the country in Buddha’s lifetime and his abode for years, and the story would be the same. A nondescript Kasbah full with people from across the world, but with hardly any facilities! 

His study would then take him to Allahabad, and he would find his university, the University of Allahabad as ‘the had been’ Oxford of the East. Yeah, the university established in 1887, fifth in the Modern India which attracted the best of the minds at its zenith was reduced to a mediocre place manufacturing provincial civil servants at the most. His activism would take him to Benaras and the story would be the same for both: world’s most ancient continuously inhabited city and the university that takes its name from the city. 

But for its splendid monuments, Lucknow, one the showpiece of the Ganga Jamuni Culture through both: its architecture and culture looked the same as any other city in the North. There would be one saving grace though, the Mughalai Cuisine would still taste the same. So did the folk glories- the quintessential Litti Chokha of the East. 

The small boy had started his journey just like the one that the state had. Born in a hospital in Faizabad, the first and original capital of the Nawabs, he went back to a village. The similarities ended there. His was more of a journey forward, from his Awadhi speaking area to Gorakhpur, in UP, though more in Bihar, culturally speaking. It even spoke Bhojpuri. The joke, very few of ones which are gospel truths as well, has it that Bihar is not a state, it is a state of mind. It was back to Allahabad from there where he really grew up into a young man chasing his dreams. Where he would sit by the Sangam, the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna thinking of the days of the glory of his home state, gone down the drain to earn a sad moniker: BiMaRU.

He would see the land of Buddha slowly changing into the biggest sectarian flashpoint of the world with Ayodhya, his own Ayodhya becoming its epicenter! He would experience it first hand as well- in western UP during the 2013 riots. It was so different from his own UP, in language and culture, unfortunately, united by the politics of hate in those times, though! 

He knew, though, that journeys do not end in decline. One can always go back, rebuilding all that is lost, just like one can go ahead to seek newness. He would, he thought.

Sapporo: The Song of the snow

 

The small boy from Babhnan was shivering, excitedly. It was the first snowfall of his life. He had seen rivers of snow in Rara, Nepal. He had also seen a little bit of snow in Xi’an, China, a reminder of the late night snowing when the temperature went sub zero long enough for snowing. But he had never seen it snowing, with the cotton like snowflakes playing with his skin. Born and brought up in the Gangetic plains, he was not likely to! 

In front of International Youth Hostel
In front of International Youth Hostel

And it snowed with the sun out in full glory. Sapporo is going to be some fun, he thought. It was, when a bus driver happily handed him his cap and the driving seat for a quick picture, of course with keys taken off! He remembered their conversation for over half an hour with him knowing no Japanese and the driver knowing no English. The world is indeed beautiful. 

The old government building
The old government building

Sapporo. The great, dry river, as per its meaning in the aboriginal Ainu people’s language. It was indeed. A river of snow, dry and chilling. And Fifth in so many things that one could be forgiven for mistaking its meaning to have something to do with the number 5! It is the fifth-largest city of Japan, on its 5th largest island Hokkaido, and northernmost. Sapporo people joke that one can see Russia from its shores on a clear day. And yeah, they perhaps can.

Odori Park, as seen from the TV tower
Odori Park, as seen from the TV tower

It is also the Alps of Asia, its unofficial winter capital. Renowned the world for its ski resorts and onsen(s)- natural hot springs, travelers seek a slice of the city throughout the year. Yet, come February and the New Chitose Airport gets really really busy with unending lines of visitors for its famed winter festival. The boy from Babhnan was a little early with winter festival still a couple of weeks away, but he could sense the city gearing up for the carnival. 

TV Tower modelled on the Eiffel Tower
TV Tower modeled on the Eiffel Tower

The first thing that surprised him in the city was the cushioned seats in the metro, aka the subway system. He was to know why soon when he accidentally touched a bench by the footpath in subzero temperatures. He also saw the rubber tires of the trains- only one of its kind in all of Asia- this time he did not need to ask why though. 

The canal in Otaru
The canal in Otaru

He was back in Otaru where he had seen his first snowfall, a neighboring city, and once a very important Japanese port decreed by the emperor for trade with the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The decline in the coal industry took away its financial glory but not the beauty of it. Just 25 minutes away from Sapporo by the metro, it has now emerged as a bedroom community as well with many people living there and working in the capital. 

Bigger view of Odori Park
A bigger view of Odori Park

For a city of fewer than 200 years of history, it was officially established in 1868, it has a lot to offer. Including the Eiffel Tower, okay, the Sapporo TV Tower modeled on the more famous one. And Skiing resorts. Dare a little more, and natural onsen(s) are calling you across the province. High in spirits? Go to the beer museum, the city is home to Japan’s first beer, by the same name. Once warm enough, get back to Odori Park- blocks and blocks of trees gelling so well with the urban landscape. The best view, though, is reserved for the observation deck in the TV tower. Do not miss the former Hokkaido government building as well. 

Babhnan to Bus driver in Japan
Babhnan to Bus driver in Japan

And museums! Of modern art. Of the island’s history. A whole village rooted in its past. Head to Hokkaido for a break from the plains. It will not disappoint you. And once settled there head to Moiwayama, or Mount Moiwa. Take the cable car or climb, like the boy did, and soak in the city views. Go there in the afternoon though, to get the best of both- day and night views. See you there, soon. 

 

Rara Taal: A retreat like none other

The boy from Babhnan had skipped a beat, or two, aboard that 10-seater Cessna Caravan. It was such a surreal experience. No safety demonstrations, none asking to switch off mobiles. The pilots sat right ahead of him, setting up GPS, as radar system doesn’t work in the Himalayan mountains! 

At Talcha Airport: Look at the runway
At Talcha Airport: Look at the runway

Don’t worry; this is just a truck that flies, said Ashok Singh, a friend who was with me on this trip. The plains of fertile Terai were soon behind us, and the snow capped mountains ahead. Karnali, the river that becomes Ghaghra in India, the river in my district, flowed below majestically. It was a scene to die for, just that he was too scared to appreciate the abundant beauty. No one aboard a small aircraft flying dangerously close to the mountains would with sudden gushes of wind throwing the plane away by meters. 

Rara Lake from the plane
Rara Lake from the plane

And then came the descent, a steep descent seemingly into nowhere. The plane was losing height, dangerously, and he could see no runway. He looked back, the 9 others seemed calm so he reassured himself. The plane, suddenly, took an almost impossible 90 degree turn and there it was, Talcha Airport. The runway strewn with small pebbles. The first things the pilots did after getting off was checking the tyres! 

Yeah, believe it or not, this is plane and the people ahead of me pilots!
Yeah, believe it or not, this is plane and the people ahead of me pilots!

His eyes settled on the wreckage of two similar aircrafts, neatly packed on each side of the ‘runway’. Aaah, no one died in that crash, Ashok, sensing his unease, volunteered. They both did not mention the other one. The trip of a lifetime had begun. It is just that he was to take the same flight back a week later. Climbing up, he also realized that the runway had no electricity.

Rara Taal

They left their luggage to be taken to Gamgadhi, the district headquarters of Mugu that was a 6 hours trek away, and started for Rara lake, the biggest in Nepal and second highest sweet water lake in the world. Lying at an altitude of 2900 meters and surrounded by snowy mountains, it was the most beautiful one too as he was to learn later. The 6 hours (three for locals) hike had begun. 

Bheri River, an aerial view
Bheri River, an aerial view

A kilometer into the trek and there came a river of snow, the first of his life. A war broke out shortly, with snow missiles being thrown at one-another. They, in the human rights movement, did not often get to make merry. For them, whose days began with stories of extra-judicial killings and ended at starvation with everything else thrown in between, the snow was a welcome break, a very welcome one.

River of snow
River of snow

Back on the trek and they just encountered the first human beings. A few Nepali workers looking at them, intently. They boy asked for a photograph, and got a stubborn no as the answer from a woman. She must be a Maoist, Yubraj later speculated. They are the only ones who have the guts to say no to such requests coming from apparently affluent Nepalis, he argued. That fact that the boy was in the heart of the region that gave birth to Maoist insurgency was slowly dawning upon him. Soon they crossed an army post as well.

Did not know that the kid was posing, not even that Ashok was clicking us
Did not know that the kid was posing, not even that Ashok was clicking us

Rara was there, in its unabashed glory, right there. Speechless is not the word that can define the sheer beauty of it all. They stayed in Dafe Guest House proudly displaying a ‘clean Rara Green Rara’ signboard. Not that they had any choice, this was the only place to rest. The food was simple and bland, boiled potatoes with salt and chilli with rice, some strange daal and a local spinach. Hardly did he know that this was going to be the menu three times a day for next week. There was no dearth of alcohol, though.

Morning by the lake
Morning by the lake

We sat the night, okay a part of it, out chatting with western backpackers and local guards listening to the stories of daring raids that the Maoists conducted, of the sellout thereafter and the ‘transition’ the country was going through. It was a long night. And a very chilly one too as the temperature goes sub zero in the night. I had never woken up to such melodic chirping of the birds as I did the next day.

Where do you go from here: landslide asked?

We, then, had to leave for another trek to Gamgadhi. It was supposed to be a 4 hour one though I could cover it only in 8. The scenic beauty was the same with rivers of snow crisscrossing the trek. Tall pine trees stood their guard, lovingly watching over everything that passed under them.  There were mules too, no ordinary mules though. They were in the service of the World Food Project transporting rice to this chronically food short region. And then they found the trail washed out by a recent landslide! The way out was climbing on a tree and trying to negotiate the washed out section. They did it.

Gamgadhi

Many such small tragedies and breaks later, they were finally in Gamgadhi, a place more politically charged than any the boy have ever seen. A week of encountering the truths- from beautiful to horrible was ahead. 

The district headquarters

And then getting back to Rara taal. For another day, or two, of escape from all the horrors of life! 

Rara Taal
Rara Again.
Talcha Airport ATC office
Talcha Airport ATC office
Dafe Guest House

Quarry Bay: From mining to the Monster Building

The boy from Babhnan looked at the monster in awe. It indeed was one, occupying a whole city block in a Quarry Bay where King’s Road meets the base of Mount Parker. That is a beautiful location to be, as the equally famous tree walk starts from there taking one away from the bustling city to the serene and beautiful woods! The 19 story E shaped goliath comprising 5 building blocks indeed looks like a monster and has proudly featured in films like Transformers: Age of Extinction and and Ghost in the Shell. 

Monster Building, Quarry Bay

Monster Building, the new Instagram sensation had not started with any aspirations of becoming one. It is one of the last of its kinds commonly known as Composite Buildings. These oversized tenement blocks cast a permanent shadow on everything beneath and were outlawed by the Hong Kong building code soon after its construction. 

Night descends on the Monster

Quite on the contrary, it was born out of a very different idea in the 1960s. The builders wanted to give affordable housing to the Hong Kongers hard pressed for space. They delivered on the dream as well- offering flats starting at mere HKD 15,000 with world’s cheapest mortgages. The name it had then was far more unassuming- Parker Estate. The project finally got completed in 1972 with the first buyers moving in. It consisted of five separate blocks linked together by a ground-floor shopping arcade – the Yick Fat Building, Yick Cheong Building, Fok Cheong Building, Montane Mansion and Oceanic Building.

The Elderly play Mahjong

In all, the building contains 2,443 flats and many illegal huts on the rooftop housing at least 6,840 people by the most conservative estimates based on Hong Kong’s average household size of 2.8 people. Bring in its total area just 11,000 square metres- and it has to be the densest spot on the earth! Quite an accomplishment! A mammoth never ending front divided in 5 courtyards. 2443 families living together using them- elderlies playing mahjong, toddlers in their prams, kids playing, housewives working and chatting- all with the shops around doing brisk business. 

Another look at the facade

Till the building hit the Instagram jackpot, that is! The unending queue of photographers- from professional to amateur and pretenders played havoc with the lives of the community. In February 2018, they finally banned photography inside the courtyards without prior permission! Do not worry though, go there, behave well and ask one of them, they would allow. Provided you do not act as a jerk! 

A colourful Monster, no?

The story of the Monster Building is eerily similar to the neighbourhood. Hakka people, many of them stonemasons, settled in the rocky terrain in then Bay on the foothills of Mount Parker for mining the rocks- that’s why the name. Then the area began developing, like the rest of the Hong Kong. The SWIRE group, one of the richest corporate conglomerates in Hong Kong bought a lot of properties here and developed Tai Koo dockyard and Taikoo Sugar Refinery. It even built a cable car for its employees. 

Their own building blocks followed. Their interests in the areas ended up getting a part of the neighbourhood called Tai Koo, the Cantonese word for the SWIRE. Now it has even a metro station by the same name.

The area also had many buildings with “ventilators”. The metropolis known for its humidity and sweltering heat needed them before the advent of the air conditioning. The buildings are all gone, redeveloped into newer ones. Some of the “Ventilators” remain, though.

The Ventilator Wall

The neighbourhood defines Hong Kong in many ways. A place where jungles coexist: of concrete and glass and woods. Take a right turn once out of the Exit A of the Quarry Bay MTR, and you are in the middle of woods. Don’t and you are in the urban jungle! Don’t take a right, keep walking straight and the sea greets you with all it has. You are in the promenade that begins, depending on which side you come from, with the pets section. Aaaw, those furry beauties and also the exotic ones! I once saw a pet chameleon there! 

The Pet Park in the promenade

Move ahead and you have a lookout point with Kwun Tong on the other side of the sea. And the Alexander Grantham, no not a man. It is the famed Fireboat with the same name, now berthed in its permanent home and converted into a museum. Go and it has a lot of tales of brave firefights on the sea. Yeah, fire on the sea- sounds so paradoxical, no? It does. Just like life. 

Fireboat Alexander Grantham

Come, the sea is calling. So is the monster!

Yours’ Trully dwarfed by the Monster

 

Orchha: Another ayodhya with Aarti and a gun salute

It is an aarti like none other, not at least the boy from Babhnan knew about. An aarti that gets followed by a gun salute to the deity, Ram Lalla, or baby form of Lord Ram in this case. This was in Orchha, a small kasbah now fallen 15 kilometers off the major railway route connecting India’s north to the south. It was once the mighty capital of the Bundela kings though, giving the region its name- Bundelkhand. A word mere mention of which evokes strong memories: of ballads and betrayals. Of alliances and intrigues. Of Abul Fazal and Jahangeer. 

And of Ayodhya, a very important part of the history of the once capital of the princely state accorded a 15 gun salute by the British Raj. The boy was in Ram Raja Temple, the centre of life in the small town more than 500 years after Bundela chief Rudra Pratap Singh had established it in 1501 AD, albeit at a different place nearby called Garh Kundar. He then shifted his capital to a more strategically located place, Orchha, on the banks of the river Betwa in 1931. 

The story behind the gun salute is contested and, intriguing. Most accepted version though is that of a clash of faith. Then king believed in Lord Krishna while the queen was a Ram devotee. The conflicted escalated to such an extent that the King permitted the queen to go to Ayodhya only on a condition. The condition was that she would return with Ram Lalla (Baby Ram). 

She went and worshipped. Yet, after getting no response from the lord for several months, she jumped in the river Sarayu. Lord Ram immediately manifested himself and granted her wish on three conditions. They were that he would travel only under a particular star, would take his seat wherever she first kept in the capital. She returned and kept him in his palace for taking him to the temple built for him the next day. By then he had become an idol. The king and queen tried their best to shift the idol next morning to the newly built temple but it did not budge. Legend has it that Lord Ram came in the queen’s dream in the night reminding her that as the new king, the palace was his rightful abode. 

The king and queen kept the promise. They vacated the palace and turned it into Ram Raja temple. The king also abdicated in favour of Ram Lalla, making him official king of the state and started working as his regent. 

From there started the tradition of the gun salute to Raja Ram. Interestingly, Nehru, the secular blamed for everything today, kept the tradition alive even after accession of the state in the Union of India. This also reminds me that the queen had returned from Ayodhya in 1528, two years after the claims of Babar having demolished Ram Janbhoomi or the Birth Place of Ram Lalla. But then, these are other tales for some other time. 

The fact remains that the city stands as a witness to the history of India from much before the idea of India itself was to be born. It stays witness to all the attacks and intrigues too. Of first Islam Shah Suri trying to capture the state and then Akbar himself, forcing Madhukar Shah becoming vassal of Mughal empire. Interestingly, another contemporary historian records him as a rebel much, though much later in 1583. 

What is certain though that Akbar did send his favourite son Saleem along with Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak to capture the city and its then Vir Singh Deo surrendered. He vowed to never ever betray Akbar and became friends with would be Jahangeer, the Mughal emperor. As fate would have it, Deo later assisted Jahangeer during the war of succession and kill Abul Fazal at his behest. They would stay friends all their life and Deo would build many monuments, making the capital a city to cherish. Jahangeer would even visit the city again, the city which Ram Lala ruled. Deo would build a palace for just that visit of his, the most beautiful in town. 

The Aarti was over, cops in attention, gun salute ensued! It was time to retire- the day ahead was a long one with various palaces, most importantly the Jahangeer Mahal, Chhatris (cenotaphs), river Betwa and much more. Bolo Ram Raja Durbar ki Jai, the crowd ecstatically chanted. The boy from Babhnan, a stone throw away from Ayodhya, was home. 

Jakarta: A city of jarring juxtapositions

Garuda Indonesia. The name sent a shiver down the spine of the small boy from Babhnan. Yeah, he knew that it was once one of the most dangerous airlines of the world with unrivalled crash record. Then he remembered his flight to Mugu, deep in the mountains in Nepal in a 10 seater Cessna Caravan, which the pilots flew with the GPS as radar doesn’t work in mountains and checked the tires on landing! Garuda is fine, he told himself with a smile! 

Jakarta was the first place where I saw HIjabi women in bars!
Hijabi women in a Bar!

Jakarta, it was to be. The city which took its name from Sanskrit, Jay Krita or victory accomplished.  The city which was there in books since forever as the capital of Indonesia. What dragged him to the city, rather country to be honest, was a lesson in his Hindi textbook of standard 7th or 8th- a lesson about Sumatra and Bali- still Hindu majority in the world’s largest country by Muslim majority. He had to go there.

A picture of women shopping from street side vendors
Women shopping

And he was there. On his way to the hotel, for a change from hostels, at 1 am. Lots of eateries were open with a sizable presence of women too. Just like rest of South East Asian countries, he thought. Hanoi, Bangkok, Shanghai, Phnon Penh- the first thing that struck him was this- the sense of security for the women. Do they too worship women, he thought and shrugged, no time for sarcasm. 

This city is love, he was to discover soon. It was pain, when it came to the traffic, he was to discover too. It is a contradiction. Where else could one find Hijabi women in a bar, even if drinking mocktails? Or Muslims with names like Sukaron and Suharto! Jakarta holds one of the biggest (and first of the world) Ramayan Fair, also the most popular tale in the country told in a thousand ways from plays to puppetry! 

Apsaras roam the city in the night- I am with Prakash, my Nepali colleague
Apsaras roam the city in the night- I am with Prakash, my Nepali colleague

Puppetry reminds me of another contradiction: they make their ones with the skin of dead buffaloes or cows. Imagine our deities on that- I am sure it could force us to put the bigots on trauma induced heart attack watch! 

And the Apsaras roaming in the streets in full costumes and an accompanying band! Mostly of youngsters! Beware though, they may seek money so keep some change, small notes with you! As it is, they have notes of millions meaning nothing! 

Jakarta, I mean Indonesia, is repressive, it allows the police to keep people in remand without even producing them before a judge for a whopping 60 days. The boy from Babhnan saw thousands assembling right in front of the Presidential Palace protesting for a myriad of things for a full week, everyday! 

A protest in front of Monas: Or Monument of Independence

 

Biggest of them though is coexistence of religions captured perfectly by the Istiqlal Mosque, fifth largest mosque in the world with a capacity of 1,20,000 people right in front of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Jakartal. Look from a little distance, and the towers of cathedral and minarets of the mosque seem to be part of the same structure! This, in fact was the idea behind Sukarno, then president deciding to build the mosque to celebrate Indonesian Independence right in front of the cathedral. 

Fruit seller by the canal
Fruit seller by the canal

And they both welcome people from all religions. The boy from Babhnan had gone there in a group with 2 women wearing shorts- they were immediately given a kaftan kind of thing to cover. A guide was assigned to the group who took us inside and gave us great details! And his name was Indra! 

Kota Tua aka Old Town, Batavia- an oasis of museums and life

It was a visit for work so he was little hard pressed for time. The traveler inside him was enterprising though, he stole as much time as possible and saw the city like a local. He bowed to the Monas Tower (National Monument celebrating the independence of Indonesia) in memory of all those who made sacrifices, small to supreme fighting against the colonials. Just like in our own India. 

Cycle wallah in Old Town Batavia
Cycle wallah in Kota Tua

He went to the Passer Baroe- a lovely flea market established in 1820 and bought everything- from Batik to biscuits! Just like locals would! He went to Kota Tua aka Old Town Batavia, the colonial name the Dutch gave to the city when they ruled it and traced the city, and country’s history in the Fatahillah Museum. Old Town Batavia is really charming, worth a whole day of museum hopping coupled with loitering in Cafe Batavia. Wish he had that much time on him! 

Monas Tower from my hotel
Monas Tower from my hotel

And more to visit Chinatown

There’s always a next time, though. See you again, Jakarta!

 

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2020/

https://www.facebook.com/events/280869735882853/

Blogchatter

A to Z challenge, 2020
AtoZChallenge2020

Delhi: A View from Babhnan

Delhi. It was not a city I chose. It was one forced upon me. I  had cleared both: NIMHANS in Bengaluru (then Banglore and JNU- now everything negative!). And the “Party” I was working with ordered me to join JNU, so I ended up in Delhi, the national capital.  

Delhi was lovely, not even an inch threatening as I was made to feel. It had all the space for a boy from Babhnan, who high schooled from Gorakhpur, and graduated from Allahabad, and came for his M Phil and Phd from the city. 

The boy from Babhnan loved the city and thought it was reciprocal. 

It was. Till he met his first girlfriend. Her elder sister was in love with someone not from her caste, and it was a hell unleashed on all of us. The girlfriend called me, in the dead of the night, and all the boy from Babhnan had to say was come to my room. They did. It was a reverse learning curve for the boy. He had grown with the guns. Licensed, and more so, with unlicensed ones. He never liked them. But he loved his mom- and his mom was the one, who once sent him with his uncle, Ramnath Chacha, go and teach him how to shoot, Ramnath, when he was just 12.

So this boy from Babhnan was in Delhi, in JNU. not knowing that JNU would change him. For now, and forever. He did not know that the posters on JNU walls would affect him so much. He had done all this in Allahabad, after all.

He did not know that he would start experimenting in love here, that he would fall for a Jat girl from nearby. And then a Bengalan. And then a Tamil. And then he got married. With the Tamilian girl. And then he realised that he loves a Punjabi girl.

It was a break in the journey of the small boy from Babhnan.

The girl he never knew, despite her being friends with many of his close friends. She always asked, as I knew later, why is this man always angry. She would ask others, but never the man. 

The man too did not know her. Even when she was his life. 

Delhi, you mean city, you kept them apart, for so long. 

 

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2020/

https://www.facebook.com/events/280869735882853/

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2020/

« Older Entries