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Archive for the ‘Asia 2017’ Category

Courtyard of XVA Cafe, Bastakia quarter

On the morning of my second day in Dubai (the only full day) I visited the Dubai museum and then the Bastakia quarter.

The Dubai museum is housed in the former Al Fahidi Fort, itself the oldest building remaining in Dubai. Somewhere in the museum there’s a map of ‘Old Dubai’ which shows the small town backing onto the Creek to the east with the Al Fahidi fort acting as the secure gateway to the town on the west. Now it’s buried in an inner-city area which looks ripe for re-development.

The museum, which consists of two sections, is excellent. First is the courtyard of the old fort itself, i.e. at ground level. Within that space are a number of old boats of various sizes together with a reconstructed traditional house. Possibly two houses, in fact – there’s one with thicker walls that might have been (semi) permanent and was the winter house, while an altogether lighter and flimsier structure that is described as a summer dwelling – this latter might have been temporary, erected by the inhabitants anew each summer. Secondly there are the new underground galleries. These consist of a series of life-sized dioramas showing life in Dubai as it was in the first half of the 20th century. It shows the people and the trades, crafts and activities they followed at that time. There are also interpretative displays about pearl diving – at one time Dubai was a centre of this activity – and above all there are evocative displays about the bedouin and their way of life. It’s a very good museum, and I came away with a very clear understanding of how much Dubai has changed in 60 years or so – you won’t see any pearl divers or bedouin today. In fact, that point began to niggle away at me as I was going round – the museum is a wistful evocation of how things were, with a subtext of “and this is how the real arabs lived”, yet every decision that has been made by this city’s rulers in the last 60 years or so has been to remove Dubai and its people ever further from that. In Singapore the clear message was “this is how things were – look how well we’ve done!” while in Dubai the message was almost “this is how things were – look at what we’ve lost….”.

After that I went round to the nearby Bastakia quarter. This is a fairly small area of old Arab houses that’s been preserved. The houses themselves have all been repurposed, mainly into hotels or guesthouses, cafes and restaurants, and/or art galleries. It made for a very pleasant hour or strolling around. Being Arab houses they have blank exteriors – just a few very small windows facing out (and mostly on an upper floor at that). But each house is arranged around an internal courtyard, and these were delightful.

Later that day I went to the mall and had my less-than-pleasant subway experience – see here – before eating in the hotel.

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Batu Feringhhi beach

I’ve just realised that I haven’t written anything about Batu Feringghi or its beach. To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of the town, or the resort, itself – just a road running past the beach and lined with eateries and a few hotels such as the one I was staying at, the Lone Pine. To be honest I found the eateries a bit intimidating – there’s a picture below that might explain why that was.

The big attraction (?) in BF (apart from the beach) is the night market. This is basically many, many market stalls running alongside the road and filled with – stuff. There was nothing there that attracted me. Quite a lot of the stuff looked like it was fake – there was one stall selling stuff that looked as if it was labelled Cath Kidston, but for very low prices, while another stall had what at first sight looked like Lego Star Wars kits, but if you looked closely you could see that they were made by “Lelo” and were in that company’s “Star Wart” range…. The pictures were correct, so it was pretty much a rip-off of this model. But basically the night market left me cold. Or hot, actually – the stalls are built right up against the road so the only way of getting along is by walking through the middle of the stall, and they were hot and crowded.

I did enjoy walking up the beach, however. It’s a beautiful setting – a crescent bay, hills at each end, and the sun sets behind them. There weren’t many people in the water, which given the health warnings I’d read about the pollution was understandable. There was a lot of water sports, and one or two beach bars. I decided to patronise Bora Bora, and had a good time there. I also ought to say that the hotel was very good – very restful.

My main reason for going to BF was to have a break between the visits to Singapore and Dubai, which I expected would be hard work (though enjoyable). The day spent around the pool at the Lone Pine was very relaxing, and I certainly enjoyed the couple of hours in the the Bora Bora beach bar on my last evening there.

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For this second day in Dubai (and the only full day) I decided to visit the Dubai museum, to learn something about its history. After that I would wing it a bit, but I had in mind that might want to go to the Burj Khalifa area. Both of these objectives required use of the Dubai metro so the first step was to get access to that.

My hotel was on the Deira (eastern) side of the creek, and the museum and other remnants of old Dubai were all on the western side, and the metro was the easiest way to get between them. The first task therefore was to get an all-day ticket for the metro. This cost 22 UAE Dirhams, or around £5, and gave me unlimited rides for the day. The metro itself was in many respects similar to the one in Singapore – very modern, and with enclosed platforms. By which I mean it’s not like (most) of the London Underground where there’s no barrier between the platform and rails; instead, as has been done in recent LU extensions, there is a ceiling-high wall between passengers and the track, but with sliding doors in it. When a train arrives its doors line up with the platform doors, both sets open simultaneously, and you step onto (or out of) the train. However, there were some differences between this metro system and any other I’ve seen. First, there’s a first class section, referred to here as the Gold car. Secondly, and more significant, there’s a complete carriage on every train reserved for women and children. On my first trip I inadvertently stepped into this carriage, realised I was the only male in it, and shuffled embarrassedly to the next carriage (the connectors are open).

There were a couple of problems. First, although there were diagrams of the system on the platforms, there were no hand-out maps or diagrams available, so I had to use the street maps in my guidebook to identify the station I wanted. That introduced the second problem – several of the stations had been renamed since my guidebook was printed! So I experienced some confusion, but I managed to sort all of these out and successfully got to my morning destinations.

Late in the afternoon I went to the Dubai Mall, first to have a look at what is allegedly the world’s largest shopping mall, and secondly to get to the area where the glitziest skyscrapers are, including the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure. Getting there was no problem – there was a direct metro route from Union station near-enough to the hotel to a dedicated stop, Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall. There was then a 400 metre walk along an internal walkway into the mall, and from which at a few points I was able to see the Burj. The mall itself wasn’t anything special – quite ordinary, in fact, apart from its size. However the setting of the metro Red line, on elevated tracks alongside one of the city’s main highways, and with tall skyscrapers on both sides, was quite dramatic. I was able to get some pictures of the setting.

Getting back into central Dubai was a lot harder, however. I waited for a train back and when the doors opened stepped forward to get on. Then I realised that there was simply no space on the train – it was already packed full, and no-one was getting off. I gather that there are business districts further out and that using the metro is how people get back into town to their accommodation; and this was going-home time. I waited for the next train, and the next, but none were any less crowded. I noticed that each time one or two people were able to insert themselves into the carriage, so when the fourth train arrived I did the same. I then had to travel six stops to the first junction station – between the Red line which I was on, and the Green Line – where I reckoned that people might start getting off. I lost my hold on a grab handle within the first few minutes of the ride, so for the rest of that journey I was relying completely on the press of bodies to keep me upright (which it did). Eventually at the junction station a lot of people got off, and the station after that was where I was doing the same, so in the end it was OK. But it was an uncomfortable experience. Apparently this is a well-known problem for which there doesn’t seem to be a real solution on the cards.

In the end I felt that the Dubai metro was useful, especially during off-peak hours; but the rush-hour crushes make it uncomfortable (the evenings are worse than the mornings). I wouldn’t want to have to do that every day, and visitors may want to bear this in mind when planning their day.

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I landed in Dubai at about 1 o’clock local time after seven and a half hours in the air and went though the usual immigration/security stuff. I have to say, Dubai immigration was the least efficient of the three countries that I’ve visited on this trip. And that was as a Brit – as such I could go through a fast-track procedure. Other arrivers, from India for example, had to join the back of long, slow-moving queues. It looked as if they were in for a long wait.

Anyway, I got through and was quickly taken to my hotel, the Hilton on Dubai Creek. It turned out that Trailfinders had got me a super-deluxe room, on a corner, and therefore with views in two directions, including of Dubai Creek. The room was very spacious – probably the best room I’ve stayed in, in fact. (Apart from the Holiday Inn in Rotherham that Val and I stayed in the time the boiler was kaput and we fled the house. That was an enormous room, and very comfortable, although it didn’t have a view. Still, it would have been a view of Rotherham – Canklow, actually, for those who know South Yorkshire – so I reckon a view of Dubai Creek wins it.)

After settling in and taking my ease for a while I went out to explore. Mainly this was to locate the nearest Dubai metro station, which turned out to be Union station, on both the Red and Green lines. It was just about 15 minutes from the hotel which meant a warm walk. However I was immediately struck by one difference between Dubai and Singapore – although the temperature figure was the same (30° or a bit over), Dubai was much drier. As the evening wore on it definitely got cooler which it never did in Singapore, so score several points for Dubai.

After returning to the hotel and eating I went out again and explored the Creek. To be honest this was a bit less exciting than I had hoped – just a dock with a lot of old Arab shows moored. Interesting enough, but not especially exciting. By this time I was very tired – it was nearly 10 o’clock locally, which meant 2am by my time given that I had started the day in Singapore. So I went  to bed and and slept well; until the call to prayer from the mosque next door at 5:45 or so. By this point I was wondering a bit about Dubai. But I got back to sleep and eventually rose at about 8am ready for the new day.

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Today has been a travelling day, mostly. I left the hotel in Batu Feringgi at abound 9 o’clock for a flight at 12:15. So there was the usual ‘hanging around the airport’ thing before a very efficient and short flight back to Singapore. A taxi ride from Changi airport got me to my hotel, the Changi Village hotel (in Changi village) by about 2:15.

I spent the latter part of the afternoon taking a walk around Changi Point. This turned out to be very hot (surprise) and I was pretty much melted when I got back to the hotel. I had been researching local restaurants & bars, but I decided instead to spend the evening in the hotel. So I had a meal at their Italian eatery, the Cantina of Venezia, on the 8th floor which had an outdoor terrace. I don’t think the food was very special – certainly not worth what I paid for it – but the setting was sensational. It seemed that I was looking down on the jets coming in to land at Changi airport.

Then I blagged my way into a gathering of regular guests that was arranged by the hotel administration – a sort of ‘keep in touch with your customer’ do, with canapés, little desserts, and drinks. OK, I didn’t blag my way in; I peered round the door, asked what was happening, one of the staff asked me if I was actually staying at the hotel and when I replied that i was, practically hauled me in. I ended up having a fascinating conversation with a French couple who knew northern England very well – they’d been married in Liverpool and knew and liked the Lake District very much.

I need an early night tonight. The flight to Dubai is at 9:35 tomorrow morning, which means I have to be on the shuttle to the airport at 6:30, which in turn means getting up at about 5 am. Bed, here I come.

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Chinese temple in George Town

Today I visited George Town, the main city in Penang (which is itself a state of Malaysia). This required a bus ride, on a local bus – but as ever with these things, it was all absolutely straightforward and easy. And cheap, too – the cost of the rid, about 20 kms or so, was MR2.70, or around 50 pence, each way in an air-conditioned bus.

George Town is a strange place. You could say that it was “nearly Singapore”. Like Singapore (and Malacca), it was one of the Straits Settlements, and in fact was claimed by the British (or by the East India Company) almost 40 years before Singapore. For much of the 19th century George Town (and Penang) was at least as important to British interests as was Singapore. I believe that it was only in the 20th century, with the development of the naval base and associated land defences at Singapore, that that city got ahead of Penang in economic and political terms. And in the end, of course, Singapore ended up as one of the world’s city-states, free to put the interests of the city at the heart of the nation. George Town wasn’t as fortunate. That said, it’s apparently still the second most important area of Malaysia, economically-speaking. It has a city population of 700,000, while the urban area that it commands has a population of 2.5m. Much of downtown George Town is dominated by all the paraphernalia of a modern eastern city – high rise apartments and hotels, and shopping malls.

But that’s not what I was there to look at. I was interested in the George Town World Heritage area. This consists of a labyrinth of small streets close to the old port area where formerly the traders, merchants and craftsmen (and women) of George Town made their living. Essentially the streets consist of terraces of buildings, the ground floors of which were given over to business while the first (and sometimes second) floors were given over to living quarters. The enterprise on the ground floor could be anything – a workshop, a small warehouse, a merchant’s office, a retail or wholesale premises, somewhere that sold food and drink – whatever economic activity could be fitted into the structure and from which people could make a living. As I said, it’s very reminiscent of the older parts of Singapore, and i believe that the term ‘shophouses’ applies to the premises in George Town as well as Singapore.

By the 1970s & 1980s things had moved on – the new technology of trade (containers, global networks) rendered much of these old premises redundant, and the older area became very run-down and dilapidated. But the area was declared a World Heritage site in 2008 and various protection measure put in place to preserve the architecture, and it’s become a major tourist attraction.

One problem is that because it’s remained a working area, it’s very difficult to get good pictures of it – the streets are very busy, there are cars parked everywhere, and of course there are endless streams of motor bikes zooming around. So no great pictures, I’m afraid. (the 90º+ heat didn’t help, of course.)

One interesting aspect of the area is that there are a number of Chinese temples. These too are historic (late 19th century in some cases) but I have a feeling that the actual buildings may have been renewed since then. A few of them are very grand.

I also visited one of the Clan Jetties. These are structure that were originally based on boats joined together and projecting out from the shore into the sea, by more than 100 yards. On this structure were built houses and some business premises, and later shops. They were built by the Chinese and each of the jetties was built by a specific clan or extended family. I visited the Chew jetty and I gather it’s the case that many of the current residents (they are still lived-in) are members of the original clan.

Finally, I must report that while in George Town I ate local. I visited a tandoori shop in George Town’s Little India for lunch. Formica tables, simple menu, and I was told what to order – Tandoori Chicken with plain naan. Delicious; and incredibly cheap. The chicken and naan cost me the equivalent of £1.50, and, big spender that I am, I bumped it up to £2.50 by adding a glass of really thick mango juice.

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I spent most of yesterday travelling, which was interesting and frustrating. It took six hours to get from my hotel in Singapore to the one one in Batu Feringgi in Penang, Malaysia, and of that time only 75 minutes were spent in an airplane. I was at Changi airport (Singapore) way earlier than I needed to be; the flight was completely straightforward; and it then took over two hours to get to the next hotel. Lots of traffic.

I explored Batu Feringgi a bit last night, which basically meant a stroll up and down the main strip. Maybe I was just tired, but it didn’t impress – it seemed very ramshackle. The main feature is a ‘night market’ of hawkers’ stalls all along the road which you have to walk through – they occupy the pavement – and to be honest there’s nothing there that remotely interests me. Then there are the restaurants, most of which seem to be cavernous corrugated iron structures, with random tables and chairs set out inside. Most disconcertingly of all, of course, are the menus full of food that I don’t understand. So I ate at the hotel – it was buffet night – and later walked back up the street and had a glass of wine in a bar I found.

Today I decided to have a lazy day. I got up late and hit the poolside at a bit after 10 o’clock, and didn’t move from it until nearly 5 o’clock. It was a wonderful lazy time, with regular deliveries of ice-cold water. In fact it’s probably the laziest day I’ve had for a long time. At five o’clock I did a bit more exploring and located an ATM in a more developed part of town, and also walked up the beach. On the way back I found a beach bar and enjoyed a glass of white wine. Now I’m back at the hotel about to prepare for dinner and probably more alcohol. It’s a hard life.

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On the afternoon of my third day in Singapore I visited Gardens in the Bay. This is a sort of ‘hi-tech eco paradise’ – or at least, that’s how it’s intended.If you know the Eden Project in Cornwall you’ll get the idea, but with added technology.

Update: here’s the text! Gardens by the Bay consists of three broad areas. First there are acres of ‘walk around’ areas, laid out in gardens. For example, there’s the Chinese garden, the Malay garden, and so on. There are also large areas of open grassland. In fact this area is pretty much like a botanic gardens, and is also free to enter. The second area are the two domes – the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest, and they’re not free. These are both enclosed and controlled environments. The Flower Dome contains flowers and other plants from the several Mediterranean climatic environments around the world – California, South Africa, Chile, and of course from around the Med itself. This is interesting enough, but (unless you’re a plant enthusiast) not exactly spectacular. It’s saved, however, by the presence of additional ‘exhibition’ displays, and when I was here they had displays of cherry blossoms. These were very popular, with queues of people being photographed beside and among the blossoms. I took some images of this blossom myself – examples below.

Then there’s the Cloud Forest dome. This is an artificial reconstruction (and explanation) of the way vegetation on a mountain is stratified by the climate that is present at a given altitude. So particular species of plant will only exist on the mountain within a fairly narrow range – no lower than a certain height, and no higher than a certain other height. For this example they’ve picked plants that thrive in the ‘cloud zone’ – temperate climate (in fact blissfully cool) and with plentiful moisture, mainly from the clouds that form around the mountain at the relevant altitude.

In the case of the Flower Dome you just walk around the floor of the dome, but it’s a bit different for the Cloud Forest dome. There’s an artificial mountain, some tens of metres high, with plants growing all the way up it. I gather that in fact these plants are zoned – that the climate isn’t constant throughout the dome – but I didn’t really spot any great difference. But having marvelled from the ground at it all, you then get to ascend by lift to the fifth or 6th floor, from where you walk down. Some of these walks, as you can see from the images below, extend out from the ‘mountain’ by many yards. Presumably so you can appreciate the thing in all its glory, I expect – certainly not just to give the visitors a thrill! Basically you gradually descend round and round the mountain, sometimes passing through it, sometimes on a walkway out in the air, until you reach the bottom.

But that’s not all! I said that it replicates moist conditions. So how can they do that in an enclosed dome in equatorial Singapore? Well, every couple of hours or thereabouts they ‘mist’ the mountain – hundreds of tiny vents issue a fine spray or mist of water which moisturises the plants. Of course it looks spectacular (again, see a couple of the images below) but I’m sure that’s just a happy accident.

 

First, in the Cloud Forest and Flower domes:

The next spectacular area of the Gardens is the Supertree Grove, together with the associated Skyway (there’s an extra charge for this). The Supertrees themselves are between 25 and 50 metres high, and actually perform engineering functions for the park – e.g. as air exhaust outlets for the cooled conservatories. They’re each mode up of a concrete core; a steel frame exoskeleton; and onto that are fixed millions of plants. The Skyway is a 138 metre walk between two of the medium-height trees.

I enjoyed the afternoon I spent there. To be honest, I think that unless you were interested in horticulture or botany much of the open gardens might be a bit ‘blah’. But the two conservatories are amazing, especially the Cloud Forest, and the Supertree Grove is just one of those ridiculous things that’s actually wonderful.

I gather that at night they illuminate the Supertrees…. maybe next visit.

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I spent this morning exploring Little India, the area near to my hotel. It’s a much more traditional area than most in Singapore; it features mainly low-rise buildings, with traditional shops spilling out onto the pavement (or rather, the pavements almost run through the fronts of the shops). As its name suggests it’s a predominantly Indian area of Singapore – Indians, or Singaporeans of Indian origin, make up about 10% of Singapore’s population. (The overwhelming majority are of Chinese descent – almost 75% of the population.) The walk was hot but interesting.

I visited a Buddhist temple, inside which is a 50 feet high statue of the Buddha, made of concrete and weighing, it was suggested, about 300 tons. It was built in situ in the 1930s, inside the already-constructed temple. I spoke to the attendant/guide and we had an interesting conversation. This resulted in the strangest thing (or most unexpected) that I’ve heard in a long time. I told him where I came from and he replied saying that he really liked English TV; and then he mentioned ‘Allo ‘Allo as a particular favourite…..

In the afternoon I visited the Gardens by the Bay, but that deserves a post of its own.

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Bridges over Singapore river

I seem to be falling behind myself in terms of posting here. It’s now the end of today and I haven’t done yesterday’s post yet.

Yesterday morning I slept late (surprise) and didn’t wake up until 9 o’clock. So what with shower, breakfast, etc, it was quite late before I set out for the day’s plans. I decided to visit the National Museum. This tells the story of Singapore from the earliest known records or artifacts up to the present.You’ll not be too surprised to learn that it’s the history of the last half-century which takes pride of place, and why shouldn’t it? While Singapore was prosperous and busy in 1963 (the year it gained independence from Britain and entered the Federation of Malaysia), it wasn’t at that time a first-world city with extremely strong positions in shipping and finance, whereas today it is. So well done Singapore, and the museum tells the story of the struggle for independence and how it achieved  with it fairly and without rancour. I learned a lot especially from the “How we built” special exhibition which details how Singapore was rebuilt and expanded from the 1970s onwards; a process that hasn’t stopped yet.

After that I explored the Singapore River area, and that was visually interesting and attractive.

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