Nature Observations (lockdown 2021)

leaves

 

We often talk about time as if it is real, yet according to Albert Einstein and many scientists, time is only an illusion. Time is subjective and personal, and everyone has their own concept of time. In Zen Buddhism, the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen Zenji (1200–1253), also wrote about time or ‘uji’ in Japanese, which is usually translated as ‘Being-Time’. The most common interpretation of the two kanji characters is: “time is existence and that all existence is time.” According to Dogen, we are time, and time is us. Time is a complex subject, and I don’t intend to dwell on it here, but personally, the lockdown has made me become more aware of my relationship with time.

During the pandemic, my digital calendar and paper planners were mostly blank for about 2 years. I had no work events or social engagements to attend, and no upcoming holiday to look forward to. I am sure that many people experienced some sort of anxieties when all the short and long term plans suddenly came to a halt. And with so much ‘time’ on our hands, how were we going to spend it?

Perhaps for the first time in life, I did not have to check my watch, clocks and calendar frequently. I stopped planning, and after a while, time became ‘insignificant’. I could ‘waste’ it day after day without feeling guilty about not being productive enough. When I finally let go of ‘time’, I felt liberated. I learned to slow down and live each day as it comes.

Instead of obsessively checking the clocks for time and calendar for dates, I began to observe time through plants and flowers when I went out for walks during the lockdown. Nature became the measuring device for me.

 

Winter

Perhaps it is a misconception to think that flowers do not bloom during winter. In fact, there are many evergreen shrubs and flowers that thrive in the winter like Snowdrops, Hellebores, Eranthis, Primrose, and Viburnum tinus Eve Price etc. During my lockdown walks, I would come across some blooming flowers despite the cold weather. With less distractions and stimulations, I found joy in identifying unknown plant species during my strolls around London.

 

Hedera colchica  Algerian iris

Hellebores

japanese skimmia  Iris foetidissima

First left: Hedera colchica/ Persian Ivy; First right: Algerian iris; 2nd row: Hellebores; bottom left: Japanese skimmia; Bottom right: Iris foetidissima

 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of winter plants or flowers are the array of vibrant colours. There are bright pinks, reds, violets, and yellows – these are colours normally associated with spring/summer, yet they can be seen during the winter too. Time passes quickly when you place your focus on the surrounding nature rather than on yourself – the lockdown probably created an environment for introspection, yet too much of it would make us too self-focused due to less interactions with the outside world.

 

Red twig dogwoods  red maple leaves

img_5079

Eranthis   Mahonia

 Viburnum tinus Eve Price

Viburnum tinus Eve Price  Hellebores

First left: Red twig dogwoods; First right: maple leaves: 2nd: snowdrops; 3rd left: Eranthis; 3rd right: Mahonia; 4th & Bottom left: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; Bottom right: Hellebore

 

Euonymus europaeus  Chaenomeles

Chaenomeles

WEIGELA PINK POPPET

Magenta Hebe

First left: Euonymus europaeus; first right & 2nd: Chaenomeles; 3rd: Weigela Pink Poppet; last row: Magenta Hebe

 

Crocus tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant'

Erica carnea, the winter heath

Clematis armandii

Primrose – Primula vulgaris

First: Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’; 2nd: Erica carnea/the winter heath; 3rd: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; 4th: Clematis armandii; Bottom: Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

 

My favourite time of the year is autumn and spring. Around late February and early March, the day light hours would last longer, which means spring is in the air. The gradual increase of sunshine and day light makes a huge diference to the ecology and humans. We start to notice daffodils blooming everywhere, and seeing the golden yellow colour covering the parks immediately uplifts our moods and spirits.

 

daffadils  daffadils

daffadils

daffadils

daffadils

Daffodils

 

On the grounds, there are daffodils, and when we look up, we would see seas of sumptuous white and pink magnolias over our heads. Magnolia shrubs seem to be ommonly planted in people’s gardens in London as I tend to see them a lot when I walk around my neighbourhood.

 

Magnolia  Magnolia

pink magnolia

Magnolia

White and pink magnolia

 

For those (including me) who yearned to go to Japan but couldn’t for the last few years, the joy of viewing cherry blossom seemed to have become a distant memory. Yet London is also a good place for sakura viewing; even though it is not as spectatular as Japan, the number of Japanese cherry trees being planted in the U.K. have been increasing over the years. As far as I am aware, there is only one white-flowering cherry tree (Prunus x yedoensis) standing alone the middle of an open field in Hampstead heath, and when it blooms, it is quite stunning. The next obvious place to view sakura would be Regent’s Park, both inside and on the outer ring.

 

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

A white-flowering cherry tree/ Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) in Hamspstead heath

 

cherry tree

cherry blossom

cherry trees

cherry blossom

Cherry trees in Regent’s park

 

The lesser-known sakura viewing spot is the residential neighbourhood, Swiss Cottage. The open space in around Hampstead theatre and Swiss Cottage library features rows of white-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x yedoensis) and pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’). When the flowers are in bloom, they do look quite spectacular and make you feel you are in Japan for a second. Since it is a recreation space, it may even be possible to have a viewing picnic party there (weather permitted).

 

cherry blossom

cherry blossom  cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

The stunning pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’) in Swiss Cottage

 

In spring, we would often see a lot of beautiful camellias in various colours, especially Camellia japonica, which is the predominate species of the genus. Besides that, we might be able to spot some ravishing rhododendrons or azaleas ( particularly at Kew Gardens) blooming in people’s gardens.

 

Camellia Japonica  img_5512 

camellia

img_5643  img_5321-min

img_5727

Camellia – Top & 2nd rows: Japonica Camellia

 

rose

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

buddleia

primrose

First: rose; 2nd & 3rd: Rhododendron; 4th: buddleia; botton: primrose

 

If you are not a fan of showy ornamental plants/flowers, there are plenty of wild spring flowers that are captivating too. Personally, I am quite fascinated by gorse/ulex (commonly seen around the UK especially in Scotland), which is an evergreen shrub with bright yellow pea-like flowers and spiny leaves. The flowers are eible and can be used as a medicinal tea, as well as a natural dye, producing a yellow colour on the fabrics.

 

Forsythia

gorse

Top: Forsythia; Bottom: common gorse

 

Spring is also the season to enjoy various lilac/blue/violet flowers like Ceanothus, Periwinkles, wisteria, lavender and bluebells. Ceanothus are popular garden shrubs in the UK, and their lilac flowers are particularly impressive.

However, when it comes to popularity, wild bluebells certainly rank quite high up on the list. Besides cherry blossoms, the bluebell seasons are highly anticipated by many too. It is quite easy to spot bluebells in spring, but the best places to view are still in the woods. Whenever I see a stunning carpet of blue in the woodlands, I would feel instantly quite ecstatic. There are two main types of bluebells in the U.K.: the British bluebell, (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and the native ones are being protected by law as they are under threat now.

 

Ceanothus Yankee Point

Ceanothus Yankee Point

Periwinkle

bluebell

bluebells

bellflower

Top & 2nd: Ceanothus; 3rd: Periwinkle; last three: bluebells

 

When I immerse myself in nature, I could see the cycles of nature and life. Flowers bloom, wither, and are replaced by other species as the seasons change. When there is a beginning, there will be an end… though the cycle will continue to repeat itself indefinitely. It does not matter if we can’t figure out what ‘time’ is, the more important thing is to live in the present. We are now living in a more precarious and unpredictable world, hence we ought to enjoy each day as it comes. If you feel down/ stressed/ anxious, why not head outside and spend time in nature to get lost in time? I highly recommend it.

 

Lockdown walks in London (Winter/Spring 2021)

hampstead heath

Hampstead Heath, 28th Dec 2020

 

It is January 2023, and I have not updated my blog for about 2 years. Although a lot has happened in the past three years, everything seems like a blur to me now. How did I pass my time during the lockdown days? When did the lockdown end? I don’t recall much now. Luckily, I did take many photos during that surreal period, and now I am looking at them trying to recall my weekly activities. After being stuck in Hong Kong for most of 2020, I returned to the U.K. at the beginning of Dec 2020, just days before the second/ third lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson. In hindsight, I would not have returned if I had known that there would be another lockdown. However, I was lucky to have missed the initial lockdowns in 2020, and only had to endure four months of lockdown in London, which turned out to be not as challenging as I had imagined.

 

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath  hampstead heath

winter

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

Hampstead Heath from winter to spring

 

For months, I did not take any public transport and I walked everywhere. I walked to Camden Town, Hampstead Heath, Paddington, Oxford Street, Regent street, Covent Garden, Kings Cross etc. I saw a London that I have never seen before – deserted. Yet it enabled me to appreciate the city’s beautiful architecture, especially around Oxford Street. Perhaps the hardest part for me during the lockdown was not being able to meet up with friends (apart from a couple who live near me), and I had to rely on the weekly farmers’ market for some human interactions (not via zoom or Facetime). And over the few months, I became rather obsessed with cooking – though as much as I enjoyed creating new dishes, I was completely sick of eating my own cooking by the end of the lockdown.

 

primrose hill

primrose hill

primrose hill

primrose hill

Primrose Hill

 

Walking around London during the lockdown made me notice the surroundings more – I started to see all the architectural details that I had missed in the past. Usually I would not look up while walking down Oxford Street as I am more concerned with avoiding the crowds around me. Yet without crowds or heaps of tourists, I was able to saunder down the streets and appreciate the historic architecture in the city.

 

Regent's Park

Regent's Park  Regent's Park

Regent's Park

regent's park

Regent’s Park

 

Oxford Street and Camden market are places that I would normally avoid as I don’t really like crowded places. However, during the lockdown, it gave me joy to wander through the empty (and rather eerie) Camden market. Meanwhile I also felt sympathetic towards the shops and businesses, and was particularly sad to see my favourite eateries/cafes in the neighbourhood close down due to the pandemic.

 

chalk farm

camden town  camden town

camden town

regent's canal

camden tow

camden town

camden town

Camden Town and Regent’s canal

 

At the end of winter, Hampstead Heath and Regent’s park were becoming as packed as Bond Street before the pandemic, and I started to change my walking routes. Instead of going to parks, I did more walks along the Regent’s canal. I headed east towards Kings Cross and west towards Paddington along the canal… these walks lasted only a few hours but they were uplifting especially on a clear and sunny day.

 

kings cross

kings cross

Kings Cross’s Coal Drops Yard

 

Two years on, it seems unlikely that we will experience another lockdown soon (fingers crossed), and what I miss most about that period is the sounds of nature ( like birds chirping while walking down the streets) and cleaner air. The pandemic made many of us (city dwellers) evaluate our relationships with nature and our cities. It is hardly surprising that many Londoners decided to move to the countryside during/ after the pandemic. Nature has healing power, which is why so many of us turned to nature during an anxious and unpredictable period.

 

abbey road  abbey road

covid

Little venice

Little venice

paddington

paddington

paddington

Top: Abbey Road; Second: Maida Vale; 3rd & 4th: Little Venice; 5th to bottom: Paddington

 

According to a report commissioned by the City of London Corporation, London is the greenest major city in Europe and the third greenest city of its size in the world. The metropolis contains 35,000 acres of public parks, woodlands and gardens, hence 40% of its surface area is made up of publicly accessible green space. Our public green space is precious, and I hope Londoners will continue to cherish and protect it.

 

london  bbc

regent street

carnaby street  carnaby street

oxford street

riba  riba

Regent Street, Carnaby Street, Oxford Street; Bottom: RIBA

 

mosque

img_5138

img_5153

img_5162

img_5169

Top: The London Central Mosque; Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle

 

covent garden

covent garden

Covent garden

 

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

A long walk around Chorleywood and Hertfordshire in spring

Six years on: Peng Chau revisited

Hong Kong skyline

ferry to peng chau

peng chau

 

After my trip to Japan was cancelled due to COVID19, I was stuck in Hong Kong for many months… and like many locals, I felt rather claustrophobic after spending days on end indoor. Luckily, unlike the U.K. and many Western countries, there was no lockdown in the city, hence it was still possible to roam around town – at your own risk.

When the covid cases dropped and the hot summer was over ( I found it hard to cope with Hong Kong’s humid summers), I was able to do more outdoor activities again. I decided to revisit Peng Chau after a six-year gap (see my earlier blog entry here), as I thoroughly enjoyed the island’s tranquil and unspoilt environment. Has the island changed over the last six years? Yes, certainly, but currently it is still less ‘developed’ than other islands such as Cheung Chau and Lamma Island.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

 

One notable difference from my last visit was that there were considerable more visitors due to the global travel restrictions. Stuck within the small city, many lcoals are starting to appreciate nature and fresh air, and they are desperate to get out of the urban jungle – who can blame them? In the past, Peng Chau was probably the least visited Outlying Islands in Hong Kong as it is the smallest and the least commercial. However, the pandemic changed everything, and even Peng Chau has become a hot spot for local tourists.

When I visited six years ago, the island’s eateries were divided into two categories: big seafood restaurants or small cha cheng tengs. Western-style cafes were almost non-existent, let alone bars… now there are a few more cafes including a cosy Island Table Grocer Cafe (9 Peng Chau Wing Hing St) and a tiny Japanese tea room, Daruma Chaya (38 Wing On Street).

 

peng chau

peng chau daruma chaya

peng chau  peng chau

 

There was not much to see at the dilapidated Grade III listed former leather factory six years ago aside from a plaque commermorating the island’s once booming manufacturing industry. But over the past few years, a local resident, Sherry Lau, rented the 4000 square metres factory and began to convert it into an art hub filled with junk collected from the island. An alleyway off the Wing On Street would lead you to ‘My secret garden’, featuring some interesting junk art, street art murals, and an antique shop (also an Airbnb). It is very unusual to see junk yards like this in Hong Kong, and I am glad that Ms Lau took the initiative to transform the derelict space into something so unique. It seemed very popular with local tourists as it certainly was a selfie hotspot during my visit…

 

peng chau  peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

my secret garden

peng chau

peng chau  peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

‘My secret garden’/former leather factory

 

Since Peng Chau is a very small island (0.99 square kilometres to be exact), it is easy to walk around the island within a few hours. I went up to Finger Hill first, the tallest point of the island, but the view here is a bit disappointing, so don’t get your hopes up too high. Personally, I prefer walking along the Peng Yu Path, a coastal path where you would pass by many empty sandy beaches with Hong Kong’s skyline as the backdrop.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau  peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

 

One significant change took place since my last visit and it is the new addition of residential developments on the island, notably the row of luxury residential houses overlooking the sea near the pier. I can’t say that I am surprised by this because property development is contantly taking place in Hong Kong. But I am wondering if the island will lose its charm as more (wealthy) outsiders move here. Will the island become another Discovery Bay, which is full of expats, upmarket restaurants and bars? Six years ago, I was charmed by the island’s unspoilt, low-key and calm environment, but I wonder if this is under threat now – I sincerely hope not.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

 

When I headed back to Central at around 5pm, the waiting area at the pier was completely packed and social distancing was all out of the window. And to my surprise, every seat of the ferry was taken despite the fact that this was a weekday afternoon… Not being able to travel meant that bored Hong Kongers are seeking out local sights to visit, and hiking has become one of the most popular activities during the pandemic. It would be fine if people respect nature and the environment, but many of them don’t, which is very frustrating. I think the pandemic has made many people realise the importance of nature in our lives, but outdoor ettiquette needs to be followed too.

I wonder how Peng Chau is going to evolve in the future, especially if more people are looking into moving out of urban areas after the pandemic. Perhpas its limited infrastructure is stopping people from moving here, I guess only time will tell.

 

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

papaya  plant peng chau

peng chau

peng chau

Peng Chau’s tree, plants and flowers

 

 

Spice walk & tour of the Windermere Estate, Munnar

munnar

tea plantation munnar

tea plantation munnar

tea plantation munnar

Tea planations in Munnar

 

If you love nature, you would definitely love Munnar. Aside from tea plantations, I recommend doing a spice walk to learn about local spices and plants. After an inspiring guided walk at a spice garden before the conference, I was keen to do another one. At the Blackberry nature resort, the manager organised a guided spice walk for me in the morning to explore the surrounding area.

Unlike the previous walk, which took place within a spice garden, this walk focused on wild plants and spices. On this walk, I saw coffee plants and raw coffee beans for the first time, and tasted tree tomato (Tamarillo) picked from a tree. Often we forget that tomatoes are actually fruits, partly because they don’t taste as sweet as other fruits. Yet the tamarillo I tasted was quite sweet and juicy, hence I tasted more like fruit than vegetable.

 

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar 

spice walk munnar

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar

tea   coffee bean

spice walk munnar

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar 

spice walk munnar  spice walk

 

Besides wild spices and plants, Munnar is also popular for bird-watching. There are many bird-watching and photography tours that attract bird lovers from around the world. There are about 142 species of birds are reported from Shola-Grassland and 162 species from Chinnar-Marayur plateau. I don’t know much about birds, but I do love hearing them chirp and sing every morning from my room at the resort.

 

bird watching munnar

munnar birdwatchers  spice walk munnar

flowers munnar  flower munnar

flowers munnar  flowers munnar

flowers munnar

 

After learning that the nearby Windemere Estate is set up in a 60-acre of tea, coffee and cardonmon plantation, I went and asked them if I could join their daily two-hour tour of the plantation. Even though the tour is for guests only, they kindly let me to join without charge.

Inspired by the Scottish Highlands and old plantation houses, the Windemere retreat is a boutique retreat with only 18 rooms. I particularly liked the cottage-style accommodations and garden full of colourful flowers.

 

windermere estate munnar

tea

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar  windermere estate munnar 

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar  windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar  windermere estate munnar
In the middle of the estate, there is a semi-open Chai Kada (tea shop) where guests can relax and enjoy chai or coffee. I was kindly offered some coffee brewed from the beans grown at the estate before the tour – the first Keralan coffee of my trip.

 

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

windermere estate munnar

 

Sadly the coffee harvest season had ended and there were barely any coffee fruits to see. However, the guided tour around the estate was really interesting and I felt like I have gain a lot of new knowledge in just two days.

My extended stay in Munnar finally came to an end, and it was time for me to move on and head down to the sea. Munnar is truly a paradise for nature lovers, so I would love to return here again one day.

 

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar 

spice walk munnar  spice walk munnar

 

 

 

Colonial architecture and churches in Kochi

St Francis fort Kochi

St Francis Church

 

I love architecture and I am particularly fascinated by colonial style architecture. In Fort Kochi, you are likely to encounter numerous built in Dutch and Portuguese styles, including many beautiful Portuguese churches and cathedral.

Heritage hotels

I chose to spend the first night at a mid-range 3-star heritage hotel by the Chinese fishing nets called The Tower House. The hotel is on the site of a 17th century lighthouse, but there is no sight of the lighthouse now. I love the colonial style interiors and furnishings here, but I do think it needs to be updated and better maintained.

 

The Tower House

The tower house

The Tower House

The Tower House

The Tower House

The Tower House

The tower house

The Tower House

The Tower House

 

There are many mid-range heritage hotels and guesthouses in Kochi, as well as some more upmarket ones like Forte Kochi, Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel, Brunton Boatyard, The Malabar House, and Ginger House Museum Hotel etc.

 

forte hotel

Forte Kochi Hotel  Forte Kochi Hotel

Forte Kochi Hotel

 

Brunton Boatyard fort kochi

Brunton Boatyard

 

ginger house

ginger hosuse

ginger house

ginger house

Ginger House Museum Hotel

 

Churches

I have lost count of the numbers of churches I saw in Kochi – you are bound to pass by one in every corner. One of the most famous one is Saint Francis CSI Church, originally built in 1503 by the Portuguese, it is the first European church built in India. The original church structure was made of wood, but rebuilt with bricks in 1516 and dedicated to St. Antony. Over the next few centuries, the church was restored by the Dutch in 1779, then another extensive restoration was carried out by the British between 1886-87. After that, the British/Anglicans dedicated the church to St. Francis.

The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama died in Kochi in 1524 on his third visit to India. His body was originally buried in this church, but after fourteen years his remains were moved to Lisbon by his son, Padre da Silva de Gama. Though the gravestone of Vasco da Gama can still be seen at the church.

I really like the calm ambience and exterior – which reminds me so much of Portugal. It just felt a bit surreal to see this Portuguese style church in India.

 

St Francis CSI Church

St. Francis CSI Church

St. Francis CSI Church

St. Francis CSI Church

St Francis CSI Church

 

Not far from the St. Francis Church is The Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, one of the eight Basilicas in India. This basilica serves as the cathedral church of the Diocese of Cochin, the second oldest Diocese of India. The history of Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica also dates back to the sixteenth century and its foundation stone was laid on May 3, 1505, the feast day of the ‘Invention of the Holy Cross’, hence the church was named Santa Cruz. However, the original Portuguese structure was later destroyed by the British, and the current structure was consecrated in 1905.

This Basilicas is more imposing and grander than most of the churches in Kochi, featuring a main altar decorated by the famous Italian painter Fr Antonio Moscheni, S.J., and his disciple De Gama of Mangalore. There are also columns decorated with frescoes and murals, seven large canvas paintings on the passion and death on the Cross, large stained glass windows and paintings on the ceiling.

 

Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica

Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica

Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica

dsc_0603   dsc_0605

Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica

Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica

 

St. Andrews Parish Hall

St. Andrews Parish Hall

St. Andrews Parish Hall

 

Other sights

A tranquil sight hidden from the main street is the Bishop’s House, which was originally built as the residence of the Portuguese Governor in 1506. After that, it became the possession of the Dutch, then the British, and in 1888, Dom Jos Gomes Ferreira, the 27th bishop of the diocese of Kochi acquired it and made it the Bishop’s House.

My intention was to visit the Indo Portuguese Museum located within the grounds of the Bishop’s House, but I found myself being enchanted by the tropical garden and plants, the colonial architecture and peaceful setting.

 

Bishop's House at Fort Kochi

Bishop's House at Fort Kochi

Bishop's House at Fort Kochi

Bishop's House at Fort Kochi Bishop's House at Fort Kochi

Bishop's House at Fort Kochi  Bishop's House at Fort Kochi

Bishop's House at Fort Kochi

Bishop’s House

 

After lingering around the garden for a while, I walked towards the museum at the back. At the ticket office, the ticketing staff started to talk about the history of the museum and he just went on and on… I was listening to him for about 10-15 mins and decided to get away as I realised that he could go on for hours. Oddly enough, there was no one at the museum during my visit, and it didn’t take me too long to finish the ‘grand’ tour of the museum.

I was a bit disappointed with this museum and it wasn’t because of its small size or contents. There are some interesting Catholic and Portuguese artefacts at the museum, but there is not enough written information and history about these items. Without a guide, it is hard to understand the significance of these items, and I think a small leaflet would also be helpful if they want to attract more visitors here.

One intriguing fact I did learn from the talkative staff is that there is supposed to be an underground tunnel that connects the building to the old fort by the sea. But since the cellars are constantly flooded, no one is allowed to go into the tunnel now. Howvever, I couldn’t find any information online about this… Fact or fiction? It is up to you to decide.

 

portuguese museum fort kochi

Portuguese museum Fort Koch

Portuguese museum Fort Kochi

img_6464

Portuguese museum Fort Koch

Portuguese museum Fort Koch  Portuguese museum Fort Koch

Indo Portuguese Museum

 

Personally, one of my favourite places in town is David Hall Art Cafe. After seeing so many Portuguese architecture, it is refreshing to see a beautiful Dutch bungalow. Built around 1695 by the Dutch East India Company, it was the residence of the renowned Dutch governor, Hendrick Adrian Van Rheede tot Drakestein. However, the building gets its name from a later occupant, a Jewish businessman called David Koder.

The building hasn’t been altered much over the centuries, and you can still see the the wooden roof which is made of flat face rafters. I love the wooden beams and high ceiling inside the building, as well as the relaxing garden. The premise now runs as a contemporary art gallery, cultural venue & café, and I would definitely want to spend more time here on my next viist.

 

david hall Fort Kochi

david hall Fort Kochi

david hall Fort Kochi

dsc_0542-min

david hall Fort Kochi

david hall Fort Kochi

david hall Fort Kochi

David Hall Art Cafe CGH Earth

 

Since I didn’t have many days here, I only briefly visited the historic Mattancherry area, where it is known for 16th-century Mattancherry Palace built by the Portuguese in traditional Keralan style. I didn’t have enough time to visit the palace, but I did pay a visit to the nearby Paradesi Synagogue located in Jew Town.

Constructed in 1568, it is one of seven synagogues of the Malabar Yehudan or Yehudan Mappila people or Cochin Jewish community in the Kingdom of Cochin. The interior of the divine hall is quite dazzling as it is filled with glass chandeliers and lamps that date back to the 19th century imported from Belgium. The room is also filled with hand-painted blue willow patterned tiles. It is worth a visit if you are in the area, but no photography is allowed inside.

 

Mattancherry Palace

Paradesi Synagogue  Paradesi Synagogue

Mattancherry Palace & Paradesi Synagogue

 

There are many beautiful and unusual colonial and modernist houses and buildings in Fort Kochi, and I think you can see more on foot. If you love architecture, you would love wandering around here. My advice is to go early or late afternoon, otherwise, it would be too hot and humid.

 

Fort Kochi

fort kochi

fort kochi

Fort Kochi

kort Kochi

fort kochi

Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi   Fort Kochi

fort kochi

fort kochi

 

Modernist

 

img_6454-min

ywca fort kochi

Fort Kochi Modernist

img_6507-min

Fort Kochi Modernist

Fort Kochi

 

Doors and windows

 

Fort Kochi

fort kochi

fort kochi

fort kochi

Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi

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Streetscape of Fort Kochi

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The famous Chinese fishing nets

 

In February, I was lucky enough to travel to Kerala before lockdowns began around the world. It was an extraordinary trip and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I feel grateful that I was able to make this trip, and I hope I can visit India again when it is safe to do so. My month-long trip begain in Kochi, the capital of Kerala. With only three nights in town, I decided to spend the initial night in Fort Kochi and then two more nights at a B & B in Fort Vypin (accessible via ferry from Fort Kochi).

Kochi (also known as Cochin) has been a major port city since 1341, and it is the most densely populated city in Kerala. The historic Fort Kochi is an area within the city which used to be a fishing village in the Kingdom of Kochi in the pre-colonial Kerala. In 1503, the territory was granted to the Portuguese by the Rajah of Kochi, after Afonso de Albuquerque‘s military forces helped him fight off the forces of Samoothiri of Kozhikode. The Rajah also gave them permission to build Fort Emmanuel near the waterfront (hence ‘Fort’ is used in its name), which was later destroyed by the Dutch. Fort Kochi remained in Portuguese possession for 160 years until the Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1683, and subsequently destroyed many Portuguese Catholic churches and convents. The Dutch held Fort Kochi in their possession for 112 years until 1795, when the British took control by defeating the Dutch. After over 500 years of foreign control, the area finally gained its freedom when India became indpendent in 1947.

 

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My first impression of Fort Kochi was that it doesn’t feel very ‘Indian’. Perhaps it is due to the Portuguese and Dutch architecture, the tree-lined streets and abundance of nature; the pace here is also quite slow and relaxing, which differs from my image of many Indian cities. The minute I arrived at my accommodation, I knew I would love it here.

Since I arrived very early in the morning, and check-in wasn’t possible yet, I had some time to wander around. Actually I didn’t make any plans on where to visit in Fort Kochi, and I thought it might be fun to just go with flow and see.

There isn’t an enormous amount of must-see sights in Fort Kochi, which meant that I didn’t have a jam-packed itinerary and stroll in a more idle manner. Although Kerala is considered a popular tourist destination in India, I didn’t see heaps of tourists in Fort Kochi excpet for solo/small groups of independent travellers.

 

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Fort Kochi

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Although it was quite hot, I still chose to walk as I think walking is the best way to see a new place (this may not apply to the US). Wandering around, I was captivated by the enormous old trees, as well as all the exotic plants and flowers everywhere, which certainly help to beautify the area.

One of the most famous attractions in Fort Kochi is the Chinese fishing nets. When I spoke to the locals, they told me that the city name Kochi/Cochin originated from ‘co-chin’, meaning ‘like China’. Apparently, the 10m high stationary lift fishing nets were introduced by Chinese explorers who landed here by ship in the 14th century. This way of fishing is unusual in India and unique to Kerala. Each one is operated by a team of up to six fishermen, and it is quite fascintating to watch them operate the nets. However, since it is more touristy in Fort Kochi, I recommend taking a short boat ride to Vypin where you can watch them without street vendors and tourists around (see my other blog entry).

I also recommend a morning stroll along the beach/waterfront (less crowded and not as hot), where you can see old canons, steam boilers and a huge art installation made of recycled plastic bottles which addresses the issue of plastic waste.

 

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Fort Kochi

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Fort Kochi

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Since the pace is quite relaxing here, I naturally slowed down my pace. When I am not rushing around, I am able to observe the quirks and surroundings more. Even though the colonial days are long gone, the imprints are still there. The area also has a bohemian vibe, and the streets are cleaner than many other Indian cities. It is easy to understand why this area draws many tourists as it feels more like Portugal than India. And if you love colonial style architecture, this is THE place to visit. In my next few posts, I will write about the beautiful churches, cool shops and street art etc.

 

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Fort Kochi

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Fort Kochi

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Flowers & Nature

 

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Birds and animals

 

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To be continued…

 

Stunning coastal walk: Dover to Deal

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I have attended many group coastal walks/hikes in the past, like Seven Sisters (from Seaford to Eastbourne), Hastings circular, and Newhaven to Brighton… the coastal walks/hikes around the South East England are extremely popular with many meetup walking groups due to its proximity to London, and of course, the spectacular views.

It was a sunny September Sunday, and I joined my regular meetup walking group on a walk from Dover to Deal. The fine weather was a huge draw, so places filled up quickly. We took a high speed train from London to Dover and arrived in just over an hour. It is amazing that we could enjoy the sun, sea, and panoramic views in less than 80 mins from London. I think we all got quite excited when we hiked up to the top of the clff and saw Dover Castle. Interestingly, all our networks switched to the French ones when we reached the top of the cliff, which shows how close we are from France!

 

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South Foreland Lighthouse

 

Compare to some other coastal walks, this one is relatively easy and linear. The distance is 10 miles (16 km) and takes about 4 hours. The first part of the walk offers the most breathtaking views of the white cliffs, and passes by South Foreland Lighthouse, a Victorian lighthouse built in 1843 on the South Foreland in St. Margaret’s Bay.

About half way, we descended down to St Margaret’s Bay where we had our lunch break. There is a pub at the bay that offers lunch, but many of us chose to have our packed lunch on the rocky beach while listening to the waves and seagulls.

 

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st margaret's bay

st margaret's bay

st margaret's bay

st margaret's bay

 

The last half of the walk was fairly easy as we descended down to Deal’s seafront. We walked past two histoic landmarks: Walmer Castle and Deal Castle. Like most group walks, we ended the walk at a pub for a drink before heading back to London.

 

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I highly recommend this coastal walk and I think it would be even better if you can combine it with visits to the castles en route. Since it is easily accessible from London, it would be a perfect day trip with friends or family. I had a brilliant time and would definitely want to do explore this area more next time.

 

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Watching sunset from the train

 

 

Scottish Highlands: Ullapool

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This summer, I spent two weeks staying in Ullapool, a small picturesque port on the shores of Loch Broom with around 1,500 inhabitants up in the Scottish Highlands. Before this trip, I have never travelled anywhere beyond Inverness in the Highlands. Since Ullapool cannot be reached by rail, I had to take a bus from Inverness, which took about 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Although it is only a village, it draws many tourists as it serves as the gateway to the Western Isles. Large ferries and cruise ships can be seen at the port, and tourists can be seen embarking and disembarking all through summer. The village is also known as the centre for the arts and music, with several music festivals taking place here throughout the year.

 

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Due to the peak season, I initially struggled to find accommodation for longer stay. After spending one week in a rental house, I went to the Isle of Lewis via ferry for a few days, then returned and stayed at a B & B up on the hill away from the centre. Luckily, the host told me that he has another rental studio by the loch in the centre, and that I could move over there after their guest had moved out. Somehow it all worked out, and I was more than happy to be staying in a studio facing the loch.

Ullapool is convenient as a base to explore the N.W. Highlands. I, too, used it as a base for my paper-making course in Elphin, and Geo Park tour. Hence, although I stayed in the village for 2 weeks, I did not get to visit the Ullapool museum, which was a pity.

 

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Officially founded in 1788 as a herring port by the British Fisheries Society, Ullapool was designed by Scottish civil engineer and architect Thomas Telford. Although evidence of human settlements can be found along the coast and on the road side dating back over two thousand years. Some of the original 18th century buildings can still be seen facing the harbour.

However, the village is also associated with Scotland’s darker past as the harbour was the emigration point during the Clearances, where many crofting communities were evicted from their land by their landowners to make way for large-scale sheep farming from 1750 to 1860. During this period, many families in the Highlands left for the New World from Ullapool and never returned again.

 

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Since Ullapool is a port, seafood is a ‘must’ when you visit this village, and the best seafood place here is not a restaurant, but a shack. The multiple award-winning Seafood shack (9 W Argyle St) offers fresh local seafood at affordable prices, and the menu changes daily according to what is being delivered on the day. I went there a few times for dinner, and the food was always delicious with a contemporary twist. I also had fish and chips from Deli-Ca-Sea (West Shore Street), a small fish and chips takeaway near the Ferry terminal, where they serve traditional fish and chips.

There is also a pleasant bistro facing the loch called The Frigate (6 Shore Street) that serves a variety of dishes made form locally sourced produce. And on the last night, I had drinks and dinner with a new friend at the friendly and bustling The Ferry Boat Inn (26-27 Shore Street). The Blue Kazoo Seafood Cafe not only serves fresh and tasty seafood, you can also enjoy live music there in the weekends. We had a brilliant last night there and loved the vivacious atmosphere.

 

seafood shack

seafood shack

seafood shack

Deli-Ca-Sea

The Ferry Boat Inn

The Ferry Boat Inn

The Ferry Boat Inn

The Ferry Boat Inn

 

The inspiring landscape of the Highlands is alluring to many musicians, artists and artisans. Hence it is no surprise that many of them have moved up to the Highlands to live and work.

At the paper-making workshop, I met Jan, a geologist/botanist/bookbinder who co-runs a beautiful art and craft shop in Ullapool. Ceàrd (21 West Argyle Street) focuses on locally made products by Scottish makers. You can find paintings, prints, jewellery, ceramics, textiles, crochet, carved wood and many wonderful items in their shop.

 

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On the opposite side of the street is An Talla Solais Gallery, where they showcase practising artists across the North West coast of Scotland through their regular art exhibitions. I stumbled upon the opening night of local artist Peter White‘s exhibition and was intrigued by his nature-inspired work.

Peter collects stones from the hills he walks in, paints on them and eventually returns them to the summit of the hill they came from in memory of people who have died. Interestingly, I did encounter one of Peter‘s work when I was hiking up the hill one day (see below).

 

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Further away from the centre, there is Highland Stoneware Pottery (North Road) where visitors can visit the pottery workshop and purchase unique pottery handmade by craftspeople in Lochinver and Ullapool. They have a vast collection of tableware, and an online shop where people who live outside of Scotland can order and get the items shipped to them directly.

 

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What I enjoyed most about Ullapool is that I could easily go for walks or strolls by the river and beach without leaving the village. Nature and wildlife is abundance.

 

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If you enjoy hill walking, then a short ascent up the Ullapool hill and the Braes would enable you to enjoy the panoramic view of Loch Broom and Ullapool. The highest point is the outcrop of Meall Mor with views inland of Loch Achall and surrounding countryside.

As I walked up to the highest point, the rain cloud started to move towards the village and it was engrossing to watch from the top. Luckily, I didn’t get too wet when I descended.

 

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Last but not least, a trip to The Ullapool Smokehouse (6 Morefield Indstrial Estate) is a MUST before you leave the village. Located in an industrail estate, this family run business sells smoke fish, cheese, meat and eggs, using traditional wood-smoking methods. I bought some smoked salmon and smoked cheese and the quality is much higher than what you would find in the supermarkets. You can also order online via their webshop.

 

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ullapool smoke house

ullapool smoke house

 

Higashiyama Walking Course in Takayama

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Since my ryokan was located near the former site of Takayama Castle (Shiroyama Park), I was able to enjoy a tranquil stroll along the Higashiyama Walking Course before I left the city. Unlike the busy city centre, I hardly saw anyone as I walked past various temples and shrines, as well as woodland and cemetery. It is about three and a half kilometres starting from Ryuunji Temple to Shiroyama Park. The route reminded me of the Philospher’s Path in Kyoto, but it is much quieter and perhaps less pictureque. Nonetheless, this area was the highlight of my stay in Takayama, and I thoroughly enjoyed the nature and calmness. It was a perfect end to my short stay in Takayama.

 

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Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (Day 2)

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Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine

 

Since I missed the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine yesterday, I decided to visit the shrine before starting my walk today as it is one of the most three important shrines on the pilgrimage route, as well as the head shrine of over 3,000 Kumano shrines across Japan.

Originally located at Oyunohara, a sandbank at the confluence of the Kumano and Otonashi Rivers, a severe flood destroyed many of the shrine buildings in 1889. The salvaged remains of three pavilions (out of five) were rebuilt at their present site. The entrance to Oyunohara is marked by the largest Torii shrine gate in the world (33.9 meters tall and 42 meters wide). It is a formalized gateway that designates the entrance to a sacred area, and signifies the division of the secular and the spiritual worlds.

After a brief visit, I took the bus to Ukegawa where the second day of the journey began.

 

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Unlike the day before the route from Ukegawa to Koguchi is shorter and less strenuous, and the distance is about 13km. After a hike up Mt. Nyohozan, there is a rewarding panoramic view of the 3600 peaks in Kumano at the impressive Hyakken-gura look out.

 

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Hyakken-gura look out

 

Here, I bumped into a couple I met continuously since yesterday and we started chatting for the first time. I found out that they were from San Francisco, and they had flown over for a week just to do this trail. Interestingly, we all thought the previous day’s hike was extremely challenging; they also couldn’t complete it on time and ended up getting a lift from a French couple. Since we were all heading towards Koguchi, I ended up running into them throughout the day at various spots.

 

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A solar-powered toilet

 

It was another clear and rather hot day, but the trail was gentler with less steep climbs and descends, and so I was able to take a more relaxing pace today.

 

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Sainokawara Jizo

 

When traveling in rural Japan, I would often come across a carved stone statue of a person wearing a red apron/bib. The couple from the US and I were curious and wanted to know more because they are conspicuous along the pilgrimage route.

It turns out that this is the statue of Jizo Bosatsu (or Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in Sanskrit), also known as the earth bearer, and he is full of awesomeness, compassion and fortitude. He is the protector of travelers and children, which explains his presence along the route. Jizo also takes care of the souls of unborn children and those who die at a young age. Red bibs were said to have been worn by children in earlier times, hence Jizo is often seen wearing a red bib.

 

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Ishido-jaya Teahouse Remains and my special pre-ordered bento

 

Aside from the statue of Jizo, teahouse remains are common sights along the pilgrimage route. When the trail was in its heyday, there were abundant teahouses providing tea and resting places (some even offered lodgings) for pilgrims.

At the Ishido-jaya Teahouse Remains, I was looking forward to the special bento that I had pre-ordered online. After reading all the rave reviews, I splashed out and paid 1150 yen (just under £8) for this beautifully arranged and packaged bento. And it didn’t disappoint – it tasted as good as it looked. (N.B. the bentos I had yesterday was only 300 yen, so 1150 yen is considerably higher than the average).

 

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Arriving at Koguchi… Bottom: Koguchi Shizen-no-Ie, a hostel/campsite converted from an old school

 

For some time, I had read news and accounts on the issue of depopulation in rural Japan, but it didn’t hit me until I came to this region. After spending one night at the sleepy Chikatsuyu, I spent another night at the even ‘sleepier’ Koguchi, where there are only two lodgings available for hikers. One of them is a hostel converted from an old school that offers 11 rooms, and the other one is Minshuku Momofuku, a small guesthouse with two rooms.

 

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Koguchi

 

Like Chikatsuyu, I didn’t see a soul as I walked through the slightly eerie village. I came across a average-sized shop, so I went in… it seems to be the only shop in the village which sells food (mostly dry or frozen), drinks, clothing and accessories, stationery, hardware, etc. It is like a convenient store that is stuck in a time warp.

 

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Minshuku Momofuku

 

I arrived at Minshuku Momofuku at around four, and was greeted by Mr. Nakazawa, who speaks sufficient English to communicate. I was told that I was the only guest at their house, so I got to enjoy the place to myself. I was quite blown away by the amount of food at dinner – it was the best dinner I have had since Saizen-in at Koyasan. Apparently, the most challenging hike was yet to come, so I felt justified to indulge before the hardship began.