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Sigiriya

Although we enjoyed the statues and paintings of Dambulla, it was Sigiyira that impressed us far more. Sticking out of the jungle by some 200 meters, the lions rock, as it is known, has been an ancient city and fortress for thousands of years.

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Sigiriya is a unique witness to the civilization of Ceylon during the years of the reign of Kassapa I. The site of the 'Lion Mountain' was visited from the 6th century AD, by passionate admirers. The frescoes of Sigiriya inaugurated a pictorial style which endured over many centuries. The poems inscribed on the rock by certain of these admirers, and known as the 'Sigiri graffiti,' are among the most ancient texts in the Sinhalese language, and thus show the considerable influence exerted by the abandoned city of Kassapa I on both literature and thought.
In the heart of Ceylon, the extraordinary site of Sigiriya, a lofty rock of reddish gneiss dominating, from a height of some 180m, the neighbouring plateau, has been inhabited since the 3rd century BC, as attested by the graffiti which proliferate in the grottoes and the shelters of the Buddhist monks. The fame of the 'Lion Mountain' is, however, due to one single factor: during a short period in the 5th century AD, a sovereign established his capital there. King Kassapa I (477-95), son of Dhatusena, only came to power after he had engineered the assassination of his father and had, briefly, dispossessed his brother.
Justly fearing the vengeance of the latter, Kassapa had a fortified palace built on the rock of Sigiriya which was reputed to be impregnable. However, it was there that he was defeated after a short but cruel battle in 495, following which he cut his throat. After the death of Kassapa, Moggallana returned the site of Sigiriya to the monks, thus condemning it to progressive abandonment. During the eleven years that Kassapa resided in Sigiriya, he created a residence of exceptional splendour and founded his capital there, impressive vestiges of which are still extant.
At the summit of the rock is the fortified palace with its ruined buildings, its cisterns and its rock sculptures.Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

Lions feet at beginning of stairs
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Nuns ascending the rock
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Cistern at the top
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Crumbling building walls
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Shots from the summit looking out
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Looking down toward the bottom of the city
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A few of the nuns finally made it.

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And so did the monks.

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Halfway up the rock, within an inaccessible rocky shelter in the vertical wall of the western face are rock paintings which have brought universal acclaim to the site of Sigiriya - 'The Maidens of the Clouds', 21 non-identified female figures, comparable to the most beautiful creations of Ajanta.
Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

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At the foot of the rock are the two quarters of the lower city which are defended by a massive wall: the eastern quarter (perhaps postdating the 5th century), which has not been sufficiently excavated, and the aristocratic quarter of the capital of Kassapa I, noteworthy for its terraced gardens embellished by canals and fountains, as well as for numerous monumental remains which have been disengaged from the forest which had invaded the ruins.Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

Nanette at the base
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Sweaty joint selfie at Sigiriya
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Nearby was this girl
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NB: Much of the history of Sigiriya was initially supplied by our trusted guide and driver, Lalinda, although, full disclosure, he did not climb to the top with us. However it is stated more completely and succinctly on the Unesco web site, so I have simply quoted that here.

Posted by jonshapiro 15:07 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged landscapes photography tourist_sites Comments (6)

Munnar

We are in another isolated place high in the Western Ghats, much greener, cooler, and more rugged than Wayanad. It is surrounded by tea plantations, cardamom fields and rocky peaks.

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The place we are staying in is a two story house, and we have the upstairs honeymoon suite, my nomenclature, with two rooms and a balcony, overlooking a spectacular mountain valley. Unfortunately, Regi, who I have been communicating with for several months, does not actually stay here, and the only folks that do, the caretaker and a Tamil woman with a baby, have very little English. So when I wanted stronger coffee this morning, I made a muscle with my right arm. Hard to tell whether that made any difference.

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Food has been a problem, as they ordered veggies and rice for us from a restaurant several klicks up the road, and it was greasy and gave us both indigestion. Breakfast of idly was marginally better, as it was homemade, but they are clearly not set up to serve meals, despite what I had been told earlier.

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We feel a bit marooned, and I suspect that there have been few, if any, Westerners staying here, especially without a car, as we are about 12K from Munnar, on a narrow, winding road.

Earlier today, we went on a hike with a guide. We thought we would be climbing one of the nearby mountains, but got a late start,and he seemed reluctant to take us up the highest peak because there are "wild elephants up there." It seems that if the Naxalites are not hiding out on the peaks, then the elephants will get you. We spent most of the time in a nearby forest, and in and out of tea plantations.

Tea pickers
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Wild Morning Glory
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On another day, he agreed to take us up on the ridge line of a lower mountain, and I hope to be over my nasty head cold by then.

We also took a tuk-tuk into Munnar, and ate lunch at a thali place that received good reviews. Unfortunately, neither the town, nor the restaurant are worth writing about.

Despite the isolation at Regi's place, and the rock hard bed, which reminds us of China, the sunsets are as brilliant as I have seen anywhere, as is the view from our balcony. We have enjoyed sitting out there, drinking a beer, listening to world music on my travel speaker, and just gazing out at the last light of day. The sun goes below the clouds as the sky turns pink, and then the mist descends, so that it is hard to tell mountain from sky. Subtle shades of grey and orange dominate, as the outline of the ridge line above merges with the darkening sky as dusk turns to night.

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Posted by jonshapiro 11:03 Archived in India Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains photography Comments (4)

Malaysian Borneo

We have just come back from a few days around and near Mt Kinabalu, a two to three hour drive from the city of Kota Kinabalu. At over 4000 meters, it is the highest peak in Southeast Asia. We gave some thought to climbing it, but the steep price tag put us off, as well as time restraints. It is a fairly serious undertaking, though not technical, with some 8000 feet of vert. Most people complete it in two days, although we met some young bucks who had managed it in one, partly in order to save money. It is also a bit dicey with the weather, as it is often socked in by rain and clouds that rise up from the tropical south China Sea.





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The area around it is very lush, as it is more or less a rain forest that sees precipitation on many days. It is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with tree ferns, enormous dipterocarp trees, many variety of orchids, rhododendrons, and even carnivorous Pitcher plants. One of these almost got my friend Debbie on the way in. (just kidding)

The four of us took some short hikes through the very dense forest around the perimeter.

We also had a bit of an adventure with our rental car. Bill tossed me the key, which I missed, and it fell to the ground. It had been taped together, and the two parts separated with the fall. After putting it back together, the car refused to start. It was getting dark and starting to rain. At first, we couldn't figure out the problem, but then realized it must have something to do with the "smart" key, which had become stupid, because of the tiny chip which had fallen out. With the help of park staff, we were able to call the rental car company in the city, who agreed to send someone to drive up into the mountains with the only spare. In the meantime, we were able to walk the mile back to the main road, where, just outside the park entrance, was a decent restaurant. After warming and filling up, we then walked to our guest house, luckily just a few hundred meters down the road.

Sure enough, later that evening our man showed up with the key, and gave us a lift back to the car. The next day, Nanette and Debbie returned to the scene, avoiding the Pitcher plants, and surprisingly, managed to find the chip. It worked fine after we reinserted it, but we noticed that the spare key was also taped together. Obviously, although the car itself was fine, the keys were not. Perhaps this was why the rental car company didn't give us an argument about having to drive up with another one. It had happened before.

Getting the car started enabled Bill and I to drive part way around the mountain to the Mesilou trail, which sees much less traffic than the main route. Our plan was to go for a long day hike and see how far we would get.



Bill on a bridge on the trail
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On the Mesilou trail
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It is very steep and muddy, with many ups and downs in both directions, gaining and then losing vertical, until the final pitch to a trail junction, where it meets the more heavily traveled path from the other side. Sensibly, with the near constant rain, Bill turned back before I did. I continued on through the gloomy cloud forest, which became increasingly stunted as I gained altitude. I made it most of the way up to the junction, before being turned back by drenching rains, and near white out like fog. On the return, I met a number of local kids who seemed like they had no business being on the mountain, given their lack of equipment, obvious inexperience, and hypothermia inducing weather.






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A rare sunny moment
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Mt. Kinabalu at sunset from a viewpoint near park entrance
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Before returning to Kota Kinabalu, we were fortunate to get a glimpse at the world's largest flower, the rafflesia. It blooms infrequently, and then only for a few days before decomposing. We just happened to be there at the right time.






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For our last day in Kota Kinabalu, Nanette and I went out to Sapi, a small offshore island, to do some snorkeling. Sitting next to us on the beach was a mother and her daughter, who are Chinese-Americans. The daughter, a lawyer, lives in Hong Kong, while her mother, a very spunky lady, our age, remains in Michigan. We quickly hit it off, and later went out to dinner with them and our friends, in the large, outdoor food market.

Vendors were furiously barbecuing everything imaginable, and an aromatic cloud of smoke hung over the market and extended out to the adjacent harbor. In very Chinese fashion, the mother quickly took charge, told us where to go, and which fish looked the best, even arguing with the cook about the exact ones she wanted and how fresh they were.




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Malaise in Malaysia

Overall, Malaysia has been a mixed experience. Perhaps this is because of the ethnic and religious divisions that are so much a part of life here. The Straits Chinese, roughly 20% of the population, tend to control much of the economy, and are largely Buddhist. Seven to eight percent of the population is Indian and Hindu, and they also have an outsize impact on the economy. Ethnic Malays, a somewhat diverse group themselves, are roughly 60% of the population. They are increasingly religious Muslims, and though they control the government, seem to resent the other two groups because they are generally poorer. In 1969 there were race riots in which several thousand people were killed.

On an individual basis, the Chinese and Indian Malayasians, seem to be reasonably cordial, if not that interested in getting to know us. However at a number of hotels, and not necessarily the cheapest, the service has been sorely lacking. Maybe this is because of ethnic tensions, but often the staff never offer to help with bags, and don't seem to have a clue as to how to treat guests. Our present hotel, Eden 54, in Kota Kinabalu, is a delightful exception, possibly because the owner was educated in the states.

Even some Malays have confirmed that the service industry is lacking. There seems to be some kind of problem with the work ethic and the educational system. One young man that I met while hiking on Mt. Kinabalu, an educated, ethnic Malay, told me he thought it had something to do with the colonial past, but I said to him that certainly the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians have even more reasons to be resentful, and yet they don't appear to be. Of course, they don't have the same ethnic divisions as Malaysia. He didn't respond to my comment, though he was very friendly and generous, and insisted on giving me a sandwich, because I had a long walk back and very little food.

These recent quotes illustrate some of the problems.

"The Malays have been left behind as they lack feelings of shame, discipline and are not hardworking, charged former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad today. (Malaysian Insider, January 7, 2014.)

"The raid (of a Methodist church charity dinner) may reflect tensions that undercut Malaysian society, which is divided along both religious and ethnic lines. Sixty percent of the country is Muslim, and just over half are ethnic Malay.

According to the constitution, citizens claiming Malay ethnicity must be practicing Muslims, speak the Malay language, and adhere to Malay cultural values. The conditions are in place to ensure that only the Malays may claim protection under special laws that reserve jobs and other benefits for the ethnic majority. Although they are an ethnic majority in the country, the Malays have been historically disadvantaged, advocates say, because of ethnic Chinese and Indians’ advantageous roles in trade and commerce.

As a result, ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the civil service, universities, and at other institutions. (Al Jazeera, Aug 25th 2013.)

A note to my loyal readers: This marks the end of last year's excursion, but stay tuned, because we leave for southern India on February 20th. I will be gone for three months, and as usual, will blog on my return, after taking copious notes and photos.

Posted by jonshapiro 14:26 Archived in Malaysia Tagged landscapes mountains people Comments (2)

Tanah Rata, Malaysia

Making our way to the Cameron Highlands took the better part of the day, with a long hot layover in the scuzzy bus station of Ipoh.The town of Tanah Rata is not particularly picturesque, despite it lovely surroundings. They are building like crazy, and putting up huge high rise hotels and apartment buildings in between several obviously abandoned and half built edifices. There doesn't seem to be any restraint on where, how much, and how high, they can build. The streets are packed with vacationing Malays, as well as a fair number of western tourists. Despite this, it is still small enough to have a relatively relaxed atmosphere, and is full of good restaurants.



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We were fortunate to be in town to witness a Hindu celebration, with dancers decked out in full regalia, drummers, musicians, floats, and fruit and sweets given out to all.




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Photo by Bill Wertz
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This Caliban like figure was riding high in a float and blessing babies
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And the moon made it pure magic.

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For the past couple of days we have been happily encamped at Father's Guest House, which is a low key place largely for western backpacking types. Father, aka Gerard, picked us up from the nearby bus station. The staff here is the opposite of the Anjungan, friendly, and helpful.

As it was for the Brits ,who established this town as a tea growing hill station, the climate is positively bracing compared to the rest of lowland Malaysia. A very nice change for us northerners. Every day so far we have had some sun, mist, and late afternoon thunderstorms. We have gone on some enjoyable hikes on the extensive network of trails. In between, we have had some memorable meals, especially the Malaysian version of hot pot.

Yesterday was by far the most challenging walk, with a gain of at least 2000 steep and muddy vertical feet to the top.




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A little disappointing and anti-climatic, the summit had several building and an assortment of cell towers.



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We walked back down on a narrow road on the other side, past verdant tea fields and strawberry farms.




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The views across the steep fields were stunning, especially the sunlit rows of tea bushes against the black sky of an approaching thunderstorm.




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And the tea workers kept picking and planting until the last moments before the storm.

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We took shelter in a small Hindu temple not far from these houses, just as the rains hit.




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After a half hour or so we continued on through the mist, and ended up in the dead end of the Boh Tea Plantation, after having been directed down the wrong road. It was getting late, and we were a long way from town. Luckily, a Straits Chinese man offered to take one of us back to his hotel. The car was too full for him to take all of us , but 20 minutes later he returned for Bill, Nanette and I. We were then able to call a cab to take us back to Fathers. An altogether enjoyable day, thanks to the kindness of strangers.

The Malays have been a mixed bunch in terms of friendliness. Some, like the previous gentlemen, have gone out of their way for us, but others do not want to be bothered even to make contact. We have heard it has something to do with their work ethic, which seems to be lacking.


Another day, another hike, and we ended up in Tan's Camellia garden quite by accident.



Photo by Nanette
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I, of course, took this one.

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Yes, this is a pina, also in Camellia's garden
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Tomorrow we return to KL once again, where we will fly to Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, for the final leg of our journey.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:13 Archived in Malaysia Tagged landscapes mountains people photography Comments (3)

Ninh Binh

After another night in Hanoi, we hired a car to take us to Ninh Binh, roughly three hours away. We wanted to spend more time with Huyen, and to thank her for all she had done for us. She met us in the morning, along with her cousin Huang, as well as three other university friends who we were not expecting. No matter, we all managed to squeeze in. They are such a great group of kids, seemingly much more mature than college students in the US. They all seemed excited to spend time with us, despite the age difference, and generally their English is quite good. Huang, the oldest at age 29, took charge of the whole day, and made all of the arrangements.

The small town of Tam Coc is famous for its goat restaurants, and we had an enormous lunch with all the local specialities. I won't attempt to describe them in detail, but suffice it to say we had goat and veggie spring rolls, goat with peanuts, goat with green onions and potatoes, etc. You get the idea. All washed down with the local brew. It was not for the vegetarian faint of heart, but it was delicious. Huyen and her friends insisted on paying. We somewhat guiltily noticed all the goats roaming around after the meal, minus one that is.



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The primary reason we were here, however, was not to stuff ourselves full of goat meat. It was for a two hour boat ride through a series of limestone caves and karst mountains on the Ngo Dong River.




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On our sampan, were gently rowed by a middle aged woman, who alternated between rowing with her feet and hands.



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We needed two boats because there were so many of us.



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As is obvious from the pictures, the scenery was outstanding, the ride, relaxing.


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At one point Huyen, who came with us, tried her hand at rowing. It seems she could use a little more practice.




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Nanette bought a few embroidered pictures made by our rower, who then brought us to her house to meet her 92 year old mother, who had also made one or two of the pictures. After the boat trip we drove over to Bich Dong, an old 15th century pagoda.





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It is located in a beautiful setting, white storks flying in a nearby field.



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Huang asked if we wanted to go to see more of the storks and of course we said yes. She hired a local man to accompany us in our jeep. The ride was on a narrow road that was still in the process of being built. We soon found out why. After 20 minutes or so, we came to a road block. Huang got out to negotiate. As it turns out, not far up the dirt track was a large resort, smack in the middle of the jungle. Although not yet open, they demanded the equivalent of about $8 for each of us, just to drive further up on the property to view the storks. Huang was furious. Something that had just been a natural event, was being turned into a tourist rip-off, open only to the rich. So typical, she said, about what is happening all over her country. We decided that it wasn't worth it and turned around. On the way back, she argued with the local guide, who must have known that this was going to happen and didn't say anything.





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On arriving in Hanoi, we made a stop for Pho Bo, (beef and noodle soup) in their favorite Pho shop, which are ubiquitous here. This one they said, was special. And it was the best.

The next day, Huyen remembered it was Nanette's birthday, and brought over a cake to Thuy's house. We celebrated with her three children and a neighbor, who all loved it, as did we. It was a great send-off before we left for the airport for Hue. We felt very grateful for Thuy's hospitality, and for introducing us to Huyen, her cousin and her friends. Huyen reminds us very much of Sunny, our favorite Chinese student, who we recently visited. She is a delightful, engaging, and bright young woman.

Posted by jonshapiro 13:20 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people boats Comments (1)

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