Six years before the handover of Hong Kong to China, Taiwanese songwriter and singer Lo Tayou (羅大佑) published a song called “Queen’s Road East” (皇后大道東) in 1991. Emerged as a satirical reflection of Hongkongers’ collective feelings in the eve’s of the handover, the song became an instant hit. Even today, the song still offers an interesting cultural reference to understand the city’s unsettling moment before 1997. In the face of Hong Kong’s social uncertainties and imminent changes in near future, lyricist Albert Leung (林夕) made use of a wide range of symbols in the song, from “portrait on the coin” and “noble friend” to signify Queen Elizabeth II, to “waves of pedestrians” to suggest the mass exodus of Hongkongers. But the biggest symbolism is in fact the name “Queen’s Road East” itself. Physically divided into three sections, namely Queen’s Road East, Queen’s Road Central, and Queen’s Road West, Queen’s Road was used in the song to symbolize the three main players in the city’s story: “East” for Hong Kong, “West” for Britain, and “Central” for China (in reference to “Middle Kingdom”, the Chinese name of China). While “Queen” is unmistakably a reference to the city’s colonial past, the historical and economic significance of Queen’s Road has suggested a meaning way beyond colonialism. It is in fact a symbol of the city’s success story. As Hong Kong’s first main road, Queen’s Road was home to the first city hall, first post office, first luxury hotel, first bank headquarters, first residences of government officials, first business district, etc. After almost 180 years of urban transformations, its importance in the commercial heart remains vital to this date. The rich history and symbolism of Queen’s Road has made it a sensible choice for Lo Tayou and Albert Leung in their iconic song, and a reference point to tell the story of Hong Kong.
For its architecture and luxury shops, Queen’s Road Central is indeed a popular destination for both foreign visitors and local Hongkongers. Constructed between 1841 and 1843, Queen’s Road was originally named Main Street (大馬路). It ran through the first business district in the city between Sai Ying Pun (西營盤) and Central (中環). The road was soon renamed as Queen’s Road in tribute to Queen Victoria. As the road further extended in the west and east direction, Queen’s Road was eventually divided into three main sections: West, Central and East. Connecting Sheung Wan (上環) and Central along the island’s original shoreline, Queen’s Road Central (皇后大道中) has long been considered as a synonym of Downtown Hong Kong. Subsequent land reclamations in the next 180 years pushed Queen’s Road Central further and further inland. The business district has long extended way beyond its original extent around Queen’s Road Central. Yet, buildings along the road continue to be sold, torn down and replaced by taller replacements, from the 19th century Neo-classical structures to the 20th century Modernist buildings, and then to the contemporary glassy skyscrapers. Due to its historical significance, Queen’s Road Central is probably one of the most documented street in Hong Kong. Having the historical photographs in hand while taking a brief tour of Queen’s Road Central offers a fruitful way to understand the tale of constant changes, and endless cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction in one of the fastest growing metropolises in modern history.
A number of foreign journalists have been allowed to return to some Syrian cities to report on the current conditions after a decade of civil war. After witnessing the apocalyptic devastation, most journalists depict an upsetting “hell on Earth” picture made of miles of concrete ruins and overwhelming human suffering. New York Times journalist Vivian Yee went a step further reporting on an uneven distribution of recovery resources as well as human suffering among different social groups and in different neighborhoods of a city. As a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad, Central Damascus is largely untouched by the war, the 310 million shopping mall recently built in the capital stands as a friendly reminder of which side is the true winner. A little further away in the suburbs previously held by the rebels, such as Douma and Ghouta, ruined neighborhoods and the lack of young men and the middle class illustrates a completely different Damascus. No running water, no electricity, no intact infrastructures, no hospitals or schools not lying in ruins, it is a tale of oblivion. Journalists describe the overwhelming noise of portable generators fill the streets of these neighborhoods, revealing a glimpse of hope that local residents are returning and attempting to move on with their lives. While government reconstruction in these areas are virtually non existence, rebuilding efforts are largely laid in hands of the returning residents who just refuse to give up their homes. A peaceful Damascus that we have experienced in 2006 feels like a fairy tale from ages ago.
* * *
Back in Damascus from Borsa, we decided to visit the National Archaeological Museum. It has a fabulous archaeological collections from sites across the nation, from the region’s earliest settlements up to the Islamic times. I was particularly interested in the ancient alphabet of Ugarit, the ancient port city in northern Syrian that thrived between 6000 to 1200 BC. With 30 letters, the Ugarit alphabet was widely used in the area at around 1500 BC. Although not a dominate culture, Ugarit’s central location in the ancient world (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, Crete, and Cyprus) almost ensured a certain level of interaction with the adjacent writing systems at a particular moment in history. At the museum shop, I bought a necklace carved with Ugarit alphabet. After the museum visit, a travel buddy and I decided to take a causal walk. We ended up reaching Mezzeh, a wealthy district dotted with affluent mansions and foreign consulates. Occasional French mansions flanked peaceful residential streets. Floral shrubs, shading trees, trellis of climbers stood out from the private gardens. The scorching Syria Desert felt like a distant world. Through large windows, piano music could be heard clearly in the street. For a moment we thought we were in a French suburb.
Back at Al Rabie Hotel, we bumped into a German photography student and an Australian Chinese traveler. Similar to us, the German student visited Turkey before entering Syria. He came in search for monotonous urban scenes to fulfill his black and white photographic quest. He planned to travel in the Middle East until mid August. The Australian Chinese traveler has been to many places in Asia, Iran, India, and Pakistan are among his favorites. At 01:00am, three of our travel buddies took a taxi for the airport. Their Middle Eastern journey had come to an end. The remaining three of us would continue the second half of the journey to Jordan and Egypt.
At Marjeh Square, Yalbugha Mosque and the concrete structure (some said Business Centre or Ministry of Religion) behind are famous for remaining unfinished for 25 years. Recent news claims that the mosque has finally been completed.
After visiting the museum, we had a pleasant walk in central Damascus.
In Mezzeh, we had a relaxing stroll in a residential neighborhood under the soft piano music from the French mansions.
On our way back to the hotel, we once again entered the old city of Damascus.
There were many mosques around the area Al Rabie Hotel.
Before the civil war, Al Rabie Hotel was a popular budget hotel just a few blocks away from the Umayyad Mosque.
Ten years ago just before the war, Al Rabie Hotel has undergone a major renovation to keep up with the increasing number of tourists. Back then, no one has foreseen the coming of the war.
Our bus arrived in Goreme at around 08:00. Surprisingly the bus went all the way to the village centre, instead of the otogar at Nevsehir. Arriving at Cappadocia in early morning felt like waking up in another world: minimal traffic, occasional herds of sheep, stone houses and cave dwellings. But it was the bizarre rock formations, some of which towering straight up the sky known as fairy chimneys that captured our imagination. The unique rock formations of Cappadocia began 2.6 million years ago when eruption of the ancient volcano Mount Erciyes covered the area (about 20,000 square kilometres) with lava and ash. The ash later solidified into soft rocks exposed to erosion from wind and water. As most of the soft rocks were eroded away, the remaining hard rocks appeared like stone chimneys towering towards the sky.
We checked in at Hotel Elif Star to begin our temporary stay in a cave. The owner Jacky and her cat welcomed us. Jacky pulled out a map and recommended to us a number of hiking trails around the area, and a few lookouts for sunset watching.
In the midst of fairy chimney rock formations, unique valleys and the open air museum, Goreme is the main tourist hub in Cappadocia.
Inhabited since the Hittite era (1800-1200 BC), cave dwellings had been constructed in the era for thousands of years.
Throughout history, cave dwellings and underground structures have been carved out from the volcanic tuff. These rock-cut houses of Cappadocia provided homes and hideouts for people escaping from wars and persecutions from close and afar.
This world famous UNESCO world heritage town receives significant amount of tourists, reaching a record high of 3.8 million in 2019. When we visited in 2006, Goreme still maintained a relatively peaceful ambience.
Souvenir shops lined up the main street of Goreme.
Remnants from the past were still visible on the fairy chimneys in the side streets of Goreme.
Other than cave dwellings, other buildings in Goreme are also constructed with the local stones.
We stayed at Elif Star, one of the many cave hotels in Goreme.
This people-friendly cat approached us during our breakfast time at Elif Star.
Late afternoon offers the best moment to photograph the unique rock formations.
There are several popular spots to watch the sunset in and around Goreme.
Everyday, if weather is fine, tourists should be able to appreciate the scenery of fairy chimneys blanketed in the orange glow.
Around Goreme, there are a number of hiking trails to explore the interesting rock formations.
Even without exploring the surrounding valleys, visitors at Goreme can still get close to the fairy chimneys.
Cappadocia offered one of the best sunset scenery we have ever experienced.
We watched the sunset everyday while we were in Cappadocia.
At night, Goreme returns to its former tranquility after tourists make their way back to their hotels.
Sleepy town of Selcuk welcomes one of Turkey’s biggest concentrations of tourists. Home to the mighty Ephesus, as well as the ruined Basilica of St John (where some believed was the final resting place of St John the Apostle) and House of the Virgin Mary (a stone house where some said was the final home of the Virgin Mary), Selcuk has its unique power to attract visitors from around the world while maintaining the tranquility as a small town in the Aegean Region. After visiting Ephesus, we strolled around the town for a short while and completed the day by enjoying a glass of wine and a moment of perfect sunset on the rooftop of Homeros Pension.
Away from the Classical ruins, Selcuk is still dotted with historical buildings from the Middle Ages.
Alpaslan Mesciti is a 14th century building. Today, the building continues to serve as a mosque.
The Turkish way to chill out: to smoke Turkish tobacco with a water pipe or nargile in the front porch of their home or shop and watch the world goes by. The tradition started 500 years ago in the Ottoman Empire. Its popularity declined as cigarettes entered the Turkish market after World War II. In recent two decades, water pipes have made a solid comeback for the younger generations.
Other than smoking nargiles, some locals we met chose to play music to celebrate the last hour of sunlight.
Many of the elder generation preferred to socialize at the outdoor area of a cafe.
Near Homeros Pension, the beautiful sunset made everything to appear under a tint of orange.
Walking under the last bit of sunlight on the hill was a sublime experience.
For our short stay in Selcuk, we picked Homeros Pension, a family run guesthouse full of character.
The common areas of Homeros Pension are richly decorated.
Local handicrafts fit perfectly well with the interior.
Apart from local handicrafts, we could also find gifts left by previous travelers, such as these koalas from an Australian traveler.
The delicious food at Homeros was prepared by the experienced hands of the elderly staff.
The rooftop patio was a fantastic spot to enjoy the sunset. We were invited by the friendly staff to have a glass of wine during sunset.
With the clean air and relatively low buildings, we had no trouble watching the sun setting below the far horizon.
Watching the marvelous sunset and mingling with the other guests at the guesthouse on the rooftop patio was the perfect way to end our day.
Day 11 (2 of 2).
Cinnamomum verum, or true cinnamon tree, is an evergreen tree native to Sri Lanka. Considered as the better tasting and has more health benefits than the other types of cinnamon cultivated elsewhere in Asia and Africa, the inner bark of Cinnamomum verum has been a precious commodity sought after by the West since colonial times. Sri Lanka nowadays exports roughly 85-90% of the world’s true cinnamon. Spice plantations can be found in many parts of the island, including the South Coast.
We stayed at Mirissa Hills, a working cinnamon plantation near Mirissa, for two nights. At the plantation, there are three buildings that offer guest accommodation. We stayed at a building called the “Museum”, a work-in-progress cinnamon museum. At Mirissa Hills, we got a chance to join a plantation tour to learn more about cinnamon production.
Our room was located at the “Museum” building, around halfway up the hill of the plantation estate.
Inside the “Museum”building, four guestrooms are allocated on both sides of the courtyard.
Despite the age of the building, our room was quite comfortable.
The main building, Mount Cinnamon, is located 5 minutes walk uphill from the Museum. Designed by architect C. Anjalendran, Mount Cinnamon is an hidden architectural gem in the midst of dense vegetation.
Served as an apprentice of architectural master Geoffrey Bawa, C. Anjalendran is a leading architect of today’s Sri Lanka. At Mount Cinnamon, C. Anjalendran arranges the guestrooms around the courtyard and swimming pool.
The common room in Mount Cinnamon is dominated by Laki Senanayake’s sculpture “Enchanted Forest”.
Laki Senanayake worked as an assistant to architect Geoffrey Bawa, and created a number of sculptures and murals for Bawa’s buildings.
Outside the common room, the covered veranda was where we had breakfast and dinner.
The two dogs of the estate often lingered around the veranda. One of the dogs is already 16 years old.
The pavilion in the backyard served as the dancing stage for peacocks to attract other peahens.
After breakfast, we walked over to a covered veranda serving as a gallery for sculpture and artwork.
Seeing such an interesting collection of artwork was a great surprise for us.
In the second afternoon just before most staff called it a day, we followed the manager for a cinnamon tour. The manager showed us cinnamon trees of different sizes and ages. The cinnamon trees were virtually everywhere in the estate: by the road, behind the buildings, on the hill slope, etc., just that we didn’t notice them until the tour.
At the factory, a staff showed us how to remove the bark of the cinnamon branch.
The bark rolls were then placed over our heads for drying.
From 1970 to now, international production of cinnamon has grown more than tenfold. It is hard to imagine that such popular spice could still be processed in such a simple and traditional manner. Such production method in Sri Lanka hasn’t changed much in the past few centuries.
In the morning of December 16th, Mirissa Hills arranged a car to drop us at Galle.
We passed by a series of beaches near Weligama. Occasionally we would see empty stilts near the shore. The traditional fishermen that Steve McCurry encountered in the mid 1990s were long gone. Today, the stilts are mainly for tourist to take selfies or locals to mimic their the bygone fishermen and let tourists to photograph them for a fee.
Most beaches were empty except occasional surfers. Half day in Galle and a dinner in Colombo would make up the last day of our Sri Lankan journey.
Day 9 (3 of 4).
After the morning walk to the Little Adam’s Peak and Nine Arches Bridge, we returned to Zion View Ella Green Retreat for a quick breakfast. The car came to Zion View Ella Green Retreat to pick us up right at 10:30. We bid farewell to the two German shepherds and hopped on the car. We left Ella behind and slowly descended from the hills. Our next destination was Udawalawe, a small town between the hill country and the southern beaches. The two hour drive from Ella to Udawalawe brought us from tea plantations and green hills to grasslands, marshes and forests, the home of diverse wildlife. After world heritage historical sites and hills of tea plantations, our focus shifted once again to the natural treasure of Udawalawe National Park.
Established in 1972 as a sanctuary for wildlife displaced by the construction of Udawalawe Reservoir, the 30,821 hectares national park has become the third most visited park in the nation. With an annual rainfall of 1,500mm, the park lies at the boundary between Sri Lanka’s wet and dry zones. Within the park, there are marshes, grasslands and forests. Udawalawe is famous for its 250 or so Sri Lanka elephants. Other mammal species found in the park include Sri Lankan leopard, rusty-spotted cat, sloth bear, Sri Lanka sambar deer, Sri Lankan axis deer, wild boar, water buffalo, jackal, civet, monkey, mongoose, etc. The park is also a good venue for bird watching, and so as reptiles including lizards, crocodiles, and snakes.
Passing the Rawana Ella Falls on the Wellawaya Ella Kumbalwela Highway signified our departure from Ella.
The more we get closer to Udawalawe, the higher the chance we might see wildlife along the highway.
Domestic water buffalo are kept for their milk (curd and ghee) and rice cultivation.
Sri Lankan elephant is undoubtedly the superstar in Udawalawe, and can often be seen along the road.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals. According to our driver, some of the curious males have learnt to approach the highway fence regularly to greet tourists in exchange for easy treats like bananas.
Roadside stores near Udawalawe offer visitors a convenient stop for fruits, and perhaps have indirectly encouraged the unnatural habit of the highway approaching elephants.
Despite the popularity of the national park, the town of Udawalawe is relatively tourist-free. There is hardly any tourist souvenir shops along the main road.
Bakery tuk tuk is quite common across the country. As soon as we heard the music of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, we knew one of these mobile bread vendors must be nearby.
Our guesthouse Green View Safari Resort was at a side street across the road from R/Emb/Udawalawa Primary School.
Hidden from the dusty main road, our guesthouse for the night Green View Safari Resort was a simple little retreat.
Facility was clean and simple. The guesthouse owners arranged both the afternoon and morning safari for us.
Dinner and breakfast were included in our one-night stay at Green View Safari Resort.
To reach the national park from Udawalawe, our jeep would pass by Udawalawe Reservoir, a place of potential wildlife sighting before reaching the park entrance.
Locals came to the dam to catch the sunset.
The Udawalawe Dam separates the lush green forest on one side and the peaceful reservoir on the other.
The Udawalawe Dam provides a high ground to watch the distant scenery.
The lush green forest revealed what the area might have look like before the construction of the reservoir.
Local wildlife has adapted to the man-made environment of Udawalawe Reservoir. The water has even attracted wildlife including birds and elephants.
Beyond the reservoir, we finally arrived at the ticket office of Udawalawe National Park.
We chose Udawalawe National Park over Yala National Park was an attempt to avoid overcrowding. During our first safari visit, the entry route into the park was loaded with tourist 4×4 vehicles. Luckily, as we ventured deeper into the park, we would have the park pretty much by ourselves.