ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Posts tagged “tea

KHAN EL-KHALILI SOUQ, Cairo, Egypt

2006.05.30.

If not the summer heat, wandering in Islamic Cairo around the huge Khan el-Khalili market would be the most ideal way to enjoy Old Cairo. Even without entering mosques or museums, just strolling around to feel the bustling activities, hearing the calls of prayer mingled with the yells of merchants, smelling the shisha smoke and Arabian coffee from open cafes, and searching for the highly decorative details on centuries old building facade was just a pure delight.

As the largest and most famous souq in the region, it is understandable that Khan el-Khalili has been developed into a major tourist attraction in Cairo. It was precisely the souq’s popularity among tourists that made it falling victim as a target of terrorist attacks. In 2005, just one year prior to my visit, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device near the market, killing two French and one American tourists. In 2009, another bombing incident took place at the souq and killed a 17-year-old French girl. These incidents did make some temporary impact to tourism in Egypt. But judging from the tourist crowds that I saw in 2006, just one year after the suicide bombing, the impact was rather minimal. Of course no attacks would make a greater impact to tourism than the Covid 19 pandemic that we are experiencing right now.

The network of alleyways offered me a delightful labyrinth to wander around.
Most tourists come to Khan El-Khalili for souvenirs, handmade carpets silverware, antiques, stained glass lamps, incense, jewellery, copper-ware, and even gold. I spent most of my time strolling around to take pictures.
For me, the area was a great place to get lost and just watch the bustling actions of local people.
The Mosque Madrassa Khanqah at al-Muizz Street near Bayn al-Qasrayn is a popular spot for tourist photos.
Some aggressive shop owners did approach and invite me to enter their shops.
Sitting at the outdoor patio of a coffeehouse was the most comfortable way foe me to enjoy the bustling activities around.
Despite most shops are now catered for tourists, some still maintain their original character selling daily merchandises and spices.
In Cairo, one of the most sought-after souvenir is the handcrafted metal lantern.
Beyond market stalls and shops, I would from time to time be amazed by some beautiful architecture that had stood for centuries.
Especially in al-Muizz Street where buildings with ornate details have been well preserved.
From time to time, I would unintentionally return to the same spot more than one occasion, including the Mosque Madrassa Khanqah at al-Muizz Street.
Without notice, the sun was getting low and shadows were lengthening.
Despite getting late, the market was still packed with shoppers, tourists and merchants.
From time to time I would hear the loud speakers from nearby mosques calling for prayer.
In the side alleyways away from the main shopping streets, the peaceful neighborhood setting was like another world.
Wandering in the Khan el-Khalili area was a delight for me. Every turn at alleyways or brief stop along the way showed me a unique picture of Cairo from what seemed to be a bygone era.

CITY OF A THOUSAND MINARETS, Cairo, Egypt

2006.05.30.

In 1996, British director Anthony Minghella adapted Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient into a box office hit and critically acclaimed movie. In the film, the 1940’s Historic Cairo appears to be an untouched medieval Arab city. In reality, the scenes were filmed in Tunisia, as the real Cairo is a much more developed city. Nonetheless, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Historic Cairo, or commonly known as Islamic Cairo, is the “Cairo” that most travellers and audience of The English Patient desire to see: a vibrant neighbourhood full of winding alleyways, souks, fountains, medieval mansions, hammans, and most of all, mosques of different sizes and with them, a thousand minarets that make up the city’s skyline. Established in 969 AD, Cairo was the capital city of the Fatimid Caliphate until the 12th century. Then the city changed hands from one Islamic empire to another, including the Ottomans. Throughout centuries, Cairo was situated in the midst of caravan routes between Africa and the Middle East. From spices, Yemeni coffee to Indian textiles, Cairo has always been a trading hub in the Arab world.

Just like many old Arab cities, my first impression of Islamic Cairo was noisy, chaotic, disorganized, crowded, disorienting, and confusing. However, at certain moment when I stood under the shade of a minaret or took refuge at a tranquil teashop near the souk of Khan el-Khalili, I felt being miles away from the hectic activities and could easily imagine myself being in the Old Cairo of The English Patient.

Every time I ventured out my hotel I would likely go past the historical Midan Square. At the centre of the square stood a statue of Mustafa Kamil Pasha, a nationalist activist in late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Tahrir Square is the most famous public square in downtown Cairo. In recent years, the square is widely known as the focal point for the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and gathered at the Tahrir Square.
Without traffic lights, crossing the traffic circle at Tahrir Square was one of the most exciting experience in downtown Cairo, especially during rush hours.
As the main square in downtown Cairo, Tahrir Square is the most prominent spot for commercial advertisement.
Sometimes referred to as the Paris along the Nile, the 19th century Cairo had undergone a series of urban transformations after Khedive Ismail, the Khedive of Egypt, visited Paris and decided to leave his European mark in the city.
Touring Old Cairo allowed me to appreciate many historical buildings.
Founded by an Austrian merchant, the iconic Tiring Building was department store opened in 1912. However, due to WWI, the Austrian business was forced into liquidation by 1920. Since then, the abandoned building became home to many small business and workshops. The glass globe on the roof has became a well known feature in the neighbourhood.
In Old Cairo, each building is unique and can be photogenic in its own way.
Tea houses or the ahwa are popular in Cairo as the venue for relaxation and social activities.
Bab El Nasr or Gate of Victory, is one of the three remaining gates of the Old City of Cairo.
Traditional brass lanterns are eye-catching highlights for buildings in Islamic Cairo.
Mashrabiya, a projected bay window covered with wooden latticework, is a common feature in Islamic Cairo.
Wandering in Old Cairo was an enjoyable experience if not the overwhelming summer heat.
I spent most of the day walking around Islamic Cairo without a destination in mind.
I passed by a mosque entrance while morning prayer was called.
Then I noticed splendid minarets of Al-Azhar Mosque right in front of me. Al-Azhar Mosque was established in 972 AD as the first mosque of Cairo. The mosque also hosts the world’s second oldest university.
Al-Azhar University is well known in the Islamic world for the study of Sunni theology and Islamic law. Today, the mosque serves as a symbol of Islamic Egypt.
Built in the 15th century, the Minaret of Qaytbay is a prominent feature crowned by a finial top.
The decorative motifs near the entrances of Al-Azhar Mosque are quite spectacular.

THE RED DESERT OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Wadi Rum, Jordan

2006.05.22.

In June and July 2008, a retrospective screening of David Lean’s films took place at BFI (British Film Institute) London Southbank. We picked an evening show of Lawrence of Arabia as an after work treat. Watching the 1962 classic on the big screen was a fantastic experience, especially for the majestic desert scenes that reminded me of my brief stay in Wadi Rum back in 2006. Wadi Rum, an UNESCO World Heritage site acclaimed for its desert landscape, is a popular filming venue for epic movies from Lawrence of Arabia of 1962 to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker of 2019. Wadi Rum also put its mark in modern history when T. E. Lawrence passed through the desert numerous times during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Together with the iconic red dunes and rugged plateaus, the memories of T. E. Lawrence has made Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon, the most well known tourist attraction in Jordan after Petra.

* * *

At around 09:00 we arrived at Wadi Rum Visitor Centre where our guide Attayak greeted us at the ticket office. After we got the admission tickets, Attayak drove us into Rum Village and stopped at the Resthouse Cafe, where we met Shaba, our desert guide for the day. The first thing we did with Shaba was to get bottled water and the red and white keffiyeh. We put on the keffiyeh with Shaba’s help before hopping onto his Toyota Land Rover. Our first stop was the Spring of Lawrence. Story has it that the spring was the spot where T. E. Lawrence bathed and relaxed himself during his stay in Wadi Rum. Reaching the spring was a 15-minute climb up a slope of boulders, about 200m high. We were a little disappointed to find the spring was no more than a tiny pool, perhaps an outlet of underground water. Though we were rewarded by the magnificent panoramic view of the desert.

Our second stop was a cliff of ancient petroglyphs, where figures of camels, goats, and humans were found. Petroglyphs and inscriptions could come from the ancient desert nomads 12,000 years ago, or any desert dwellers thereafter, including the Nabataean caravans 2000 years ago when Wadi Rum was situated in the crossroad of caravan routes between Saudi Arabia and Damascus. In the shade of a rock plateau, we got off the Land Rover once again for our first desert lunch. Shaba took out canned tuna, fresh tomato, mixed beans, cheese, and bottled orange juice. He then started a fire to make our cups of mint tea, a common practice for the nomadic desert Bedouins, who have roamed the Arabian desert for centuries. Despite circumstances after World War II that led to mass sedentarisation for the Bedouins, the carefree lifestyle of the desert nomads continues to inspire literature and cinema, consolidating the cultural heritage and promoting tourism of the Arabian Desert. Today, most Bedouins have moved to houses or apartments. The few Bedouin tents remaining in the desert are erected mainly for tourists. As globalization continues to reach the different regions of the Middle East, nomadic traditions of the Arabian Desert are becoming a collection of romanticized stereotypes reconstructed solely for the commercial value of tourism.

Rich in iron oxide, the red sand is perhaps the most iconic feature of Wadi Rum, making the desert the most designated movie set for the Planet Mars.
With less than 3 days of rain in a year, Wadi Rum offers the ultimate desert experience for all visitors.
Hiring a 4X4 is the most convenient and efficient means of transport when visiting Wadi Rum.
A half-day 4X4 tour offers a quick taste of the Arabian Desert, but it is much better to stay the night in Wadi Rum for a deeper experience.
We don’t know how much of the story of T. E. Lawrence in Wadi Rum was true and how much was mere mythology. Nonetheless, Lawrence of Arabia has pretty much single handedly imprinted Wadi Rum into the minds of the rest of the world.
Our guide Shaba interacted with a camel while waiting for us. to return from the Spring of Lawrence.
It was our first close encounter with a camel in the Arabian Desert.
Walking up to the Lawrence’s Spring was a tiring task.
The Lawrence’s Spring is actually a fantastic lookout for the desert scenery below.
The view from the Lawrence’s Spring explains why so many films about Planet Mars were set in Wadi Rum.
During the hottest hours of the day, most people and their vehicles would find a shaded spot.
12,000 years of human history has been depicted by 25,000 petroglyphs and 20,000 inscriptions in Wadi Rum. Some petroglyphs were made thousands of years ago, depicting animals that might no longer exist in Jordan.
Created by the Thamud and Nabatean peoples, the Anfashieh petroglyphs and inscriptions are over 2,000 years old, depicting ancient hunting scenes.
In Wadi Rum, we encountered all sorts of beautiful rock formations.
Under the shade of a rock mount, our guide Shaba started a fire to make tea.
During lunch break, Shaba socialized with another local Bedouin while we were finishing the food.

LITTLE ADAM’S PEAK, Ella, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.13

Day 9 (1 of 4).

On our final day in Ella, we get up early as usual.  We had a car arranged to leave town at 10:30am.  Before leaving Ella, we decided to do a bit more hiking.  Our plan was to head east to the summit of Little Adam’s Peak, then descend to the north to visit the iconic Nine Arches Bridge, and walk back to Ella via the railway track.  This is a popular tourist route for anyone who has 2-3 hours to spare in Ella.

With a shape resembling the much higher sacred Adam’s Peak (2243m) near Nuwara Eliya, Little Adam’s Peak (1141m) offers a much easier hike for everyone.  Climbing Little Adam’s Peak took us no more than an hour from the trailhead.  The scenery was pleasant at the top and there were only a family up at the peak when we reached the top.  Despite short, the hike was a great activity to start the day.

01To ensure we had plenty of time to walk around Ella in our last morning, we got up at dawn.

02After we put on our hiking boots and packed our water bottle, we stopped by our hotel terrace to enjoy the sunrise scenery of the Ella Rock.

03From the main intersection of Ella, we headed east on Ella Passara Road towards The One Ella guesthouse, where the trailhead of the short walk up to Little Adam’s Peak is located.

04On our way to the trailhead, we bumped into three familiar faces: an European couple and their baby boy, the friendly family that we kept on bumping into at different towns and attractions since our first encounter at the Quadrangle of Polonnaruwa.

05The short hike began from a small tea plantation.

06As soon as we arrived at an open area, Ella Rock immediately dominated the view.

07We passed by a tea farm in the first part of the hike.

08The last bit of the hike is a set of steps that go all the way to the top.

09At the top of Little Adam’s Peak, the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains was breathtaking.

10The iconic Ella Rock was right across the valley in front of us.

11The highend villas of the 98 Acres Resort seem to blend in perfect harmony with the surrounding natural landscape.

12A small Buddha statue marks the summit of the Little Adam’s Peak.

13Just below the peak of Little Adam’s Peak, Flying Ravana Mega Zipline established a range of recreational facilities including zipline and archery.

14Instead of returning to the trailhead, we continued our walk through a tea farm towards the resort ground of 98 Acres.

15The huts of 98 Acres across the valley from Little Adam’s Peak are probably one of the most luxurious accommodation in and around Ella.

16Beyond the compound of 98 Acres, we found our way towards the most well known attraction of Ella, the Nine Arches Bridge.


HIKE TO LIPTON’S SEAT, Haputale, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.12

Day 8 (1 of 1).

In 1890, Scottish merchant Thomas Lipton who owned a vast business of grocery stores in Britain, visited British Ceylon and partnered with tea farming pioneer James Taylor to secure supply of Ceylon tea and distributed it throughout Europe and the United States.  Lipton’s business plan of providing affordable tea to the mass working class in the West led to the increasing demand of tea and the bloom of tea plantations in Sri Lanka.  The plan eventually developed into the business empire of Lipton tea.

Near the hill town of Haputale, about an hour of train ride west of Ella, the enormous Dambatenne Tea Factory and the surrounding tea fields have been immortalized by the legacy of their founder, Thomas Lipton.  An 8km uphill hike to the lookout known as Lipton’s Seat remains as one of the best hike through the tea plantations in the hill country.  Unlike taking the train or car, hiking in the tea plantations allow visitors to get close to the tea bushes and interact with the tea pickers.

01From Haputale railway station, we hopped on a tuk tuk and got dropped off at the entrance of Dambatenne Tea Factory.  We had no hurry to tour the factory, and left the factory tour for after the hike.

02From the factory, we began to walk uphill into the plantation area along a winding road frequented by tea pickers.  Tea terraces extend out in all directions from the road.  We passed by all sort of buildings from worker dormitories to school complex, all apparently belong to the community of plantation workers.

03Rows after rows of tea plants terraced up the hill slopes.  Busy tea pickers dotted on the slope moving slowly horizontally on the slope.

04Dramatic  shadows were cast on the tea slope in the early part of our hike.

05Everywhere was lush green as we walked deeper into the plantation.

06Causally zooming into any cluster of tea pickers would create a scenic picture.

07For visitors who don’t want to hike uphill may opt for a tuk tuk ride up to the destination.  But surely walking would offer much more opportunities to get close to the tea shrubs and tea workers.

08Past the first valley, we soon realized that the tea plantation was much larger than we thought.  Tea terraces extended out from all directions to as far as our eyes could reach.

09Shrines of different religions, including Roman Catholic Christianity, signify the wide range of religious backgrounds of the tea workers.

10A tea plantation is much more than just a place for work.  It also includes settlement of housing, school, dining places, temples, etc.  Many tea workers are Tamils from Southern India, thus settlements with a Hindu shrine are quite common.

11Near Lipton’s Seat lookout, we stumbled upon a weighing station where tea pickers offloaded their tea leaves, got them weighed and repacked into large bags for transportation.

12Soon we arrived at the lookout of Lipton’s Seat, apart from a sleepy dog and a bronze statue of Sir Thomas Lipton, only fog coming from the other side of the mountain greeted our arrival.  Some said this was the spot where Lipton loved to linger when he came to inspect the plantation.  With the fog, we had no luck to see the supposedly good view from the lookout.

13Soon we realized that great scenery of this hike were basically everywhere, not limited to the final lookout.

14Doing the journey on foot allowed us to get close with the tea pickers.

15Returning to the first valley where we started the hike, the slope with dramatic shadows was replaced by a foggy scene.

16Following a tea picker, we chose a different route to descend the slope towards the factory.

17The small path through the tea rows gave us a closer view of the working scenes of tea pickers.

18We took our time to walk down and were greeted by several smiling tea pickers.

19Close up of working tea pickers.

20We leisurely walked back to Dambatenne Tea Factory in the fog.  At the factory, we joined a tour to learn more about the tea making process, machinery and traditions.


SLEEPY TOURIST TOWN IN THE HILLS, Ella, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.11

Day 7 (2 of 2).

In the midst of tea plantations and cloud forests, the town of Ella situates at an elevation of 1000m above sea level and maintains a relatively cooler climate than the surrounding lowlands.  Well known for its scenic valley view of Ella Rock at the Ella Gap, and a laid-back backpacker’s atmosphere, there is no surprises that the hill town has developed into the most popular tourist hub in the entire hill country.  Almost all businesses in Ella are somewhat related to tourism.  Because of its decent guesthouse and restaurant selection, convenience of transportation, and pleasant surrounding scenery, many travellers including us chose Ella as their base to explore the area’s hiking trails and tea plantations.

01Since July 1918, Ella railway station has been an important stop on the Main Line, the oldest railway line in Sri Lanka running from coastal Colombo to Badulla in the hill country, via Kandy.

02Just like other railway station in the country, curious dogs were often the first to greet us on the platform, especially when we had breakfast in our hands.

03Depending on the time of day, visitors would either get off at Ella from the red or blue train.

IMG_7268We stayed at Zion View Ella Green Retreat for two nights.  A number of guest houses, including Zion View, are erected on the valley slope facing the Ella Gap, one of the most scenic spot in town.

05Every room in Zion View has a terrace overlooking the Ella Gap.

06The terrace was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise over Ella Gap with the silhouette of Ella Rock.

07It was also in Ella that we had our first Sri Lankan egg hoppers for breakfast.

08The two German Shepherds at Zion View always welcomed us at the hotel entrance.

09Walking on the railway tracks is often the the most direct routes to go between attractions.  Because only a few trains would pass by Ella daily, both the locals and tourists would use these tracks as footpaths during the rest of the day to reach their destinations.

10From our guesthouse we walked half an hour on the tracks to visit Kithal Ella falls. We reached the falls just before nightfall.

12Just a few kilometres away from Ella, Halpewatte Tea Factory is a popular tea plantation that offers factory tours for tourists.  The factory can easily be reached by tuk tuk.

13 Halpewatte is one of better known tea plantation in the UVA Ceylon tea region.

14Founded in 1971, Halpewatte is a family run business.

IMG_7600Visiting a tea factory is a good way to learn more about the variety of Ceylon tea.

15From the factory, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the tea terraces and surrounding scenery.

16Among the many restaurants, we picked AK Ristoro in a quiet neighbourhood off the main road for dinner.

18 We chose to dine at the lovely veranda area at AK Ristoro.

IMG_7649AK Ristoro serves good fusion food with Italian, Japanese and Sri Lankan touches.

19We couldn’t resist but to order a can of the local Lion beer to wash down our delicious dinner.

IMG_7659At night, the Main Street of Ella is flanked by lights and signage of restaurants and souvenir stores.

 


THE WORLD’S MOST SCENIC TRAIN RIDE, Kandy to Ella, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.11

Day 7 (1 of 2).

Established in 1864, the railway system of Sri Lanka was constructed by the British colonial government for tea transportation. While not the fastest way to travel, making intercity journeys by train was a unique way to absorb the history of Sri Lanka, and enjoy the beautiful scenery in a relaxing pace.  Some journeys are particularly more popular than the others because the beautiful scenery they offer.  The journey from Kandy to Ella is one of the most popular routes, and is often referred to as one of the world’s most scenic train journey.

Getting a reserved ticket (1st class or 2nd class) from Kandy onward to the hill country is a challenge for many tourists, including us.  We tried purchasing through online agent 1.5 month prior to our departure, but failed to land on any reserved tickets for our desirable date.  We planned to try our luck to buy unreserved tickets and get on at an earlier stop.   At worst we might need to stand for a period of time until someone get off during the 7-hour ride.  The staff at Villa Rosa heard about our situation, and helped us to obtain two 2nd class tickets with reserved seats from a local agent on the day before our departure.  We were grateful for his help.

01The wooden timetable board at Kandy Station looks like it has been around since the colonial time.

02As the train slowly left the train station, we bid farewell to Kandy and moved on into the hill country.

03Soon we arrived into the tea plantation country.

04Hindu temples are often erected in tea plantations as many Tamils working in the plantations are Hindus who came from Southern India.

06The entire hill country is lush green and dotted with houses of pitched roofs.

07Our train passed by one village after another.

08On occasions, our train would get close to a sloped tea farm.

09It was amazing to see so much land have been converted into tea plantations.

10The tea farms seemed never ending.

11Some tea farms seemed to receive poorer maintenance.

13Since the train was relatively slow, many tourists chose to sit at the doorway with their legs hanging out of the train car.

14Tourists took turns to lean out of the doorway of the train to take selfies and enjoy a moment of “flying” over the tea farms.

15Many villagers stood near the railroad to watch our train passed by.

17Many locals walked on the train tracks.

19And so as dogs wandering around the railway stations.

16Near the end of the journey, the weather suddenly turned breezy and foggy.

18 Fog covered much of the area near Ella.

20After 6.5 hours, we finally arrived in the area of Ella.  We would stay in Ella for two days before moving on to the south.