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Taking in the Art at Medici Chapel in Florence

Extra cheese!? Who do you take me for, Lorenzo de Medici?”
– C. Montgomery Burns

There was a lot on my list of things to see in Florence–I had to get to Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, the Uffizi Gallery for tons of art, and plenty of churches. And I know I missed out on a lot more.

Along my walk during the first day in Florence, I stepped into one site that should have been on my list. I was just getting oriented in the city after my train ride and checking into the hostel when I found myself in the Medici Chapels. It was conveniently located near my hostel and was on the way to Piazzale Michelangelo, which I hadn’t actually planned on visiting, but I’m certainly happy I did.

medici chapel florence

Outside Medici Chapel

Upon seeing the sculptures throughout the chapel, memories of art classes past rushed through my mind. It’s difficult to remember what year, but I recall writing about Renaissance art and spending significant time on the works commissioned by the Medici family. Seeing those same works of art in person was an awe-inspiring moment.

medici chapel

Dome at the Chapel of Princes

Just walking into the Chapel of Princes is a moment of beauty, from the tiles floor to the ornate dome.

Known as the Sagrestia Nuova, the chapel was designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century and intended as a mausoleum for the family. Michelangelo did not complete the chapel, but the building contains some of his amazing sculptures.

Medici Chapel

Altar at Medici Chapel

The chapel and mausoleum are quite a testament to the wealth of the Medici family. Even if the chapel lacked the great work of Michelangelo, this would be an impressive historic site to wander through.

medici chapel

Lorenzo’s tomb

The sculptures at the tombs of Lorenzo and Giuliano are most impressive, though most visitors focus on Michelangelo’s sculpture of “Madonna with Child” between the Medici patron saints Cosmas and Damian. I, on the other hand, immediately recognized the artwork at the tombs.

Madonna with Child

Michelangelo’s Madonna with Child

The statues “Day and Night” at Giuliano’s tomb are the more impressive works, particularly with the detail on the face next to Night. The sculpture is part of an allegory of the four parts of day.

Michelangelo Day and Night

Day and Night (night is on the left)

Of course, in typical fashion of my adventures in travel, much of the chapel was undergoing renovations and shrouded in scaffolding.medici chapel

It was disappointing to have the view of the chapel obscured by the renovations, but at least I was able to see the work of Michelangelo while there.

The Streets of Osaka, Japan

No matter where I go in the world, although I can’t speak any foreign language, I don’t feel out of place. I think of the earth as my home.
-Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography

As I wander through cities, I sometimes try to take in too much at once. The sights, sounds, smells of a city are what give me a sense of place–it tells either tells me that this is not a place I’ve been before or this is someplace familiar in a way. And the streets of Osaka were in the former category.

Dotonburi canal

A quiet path along the canal near Dotonburi

Osaka overwhelmed me from the moment I stepped off the train from Kyoto–I got lost searching for the exit that should’ve been nearest my hostel. I only got more lost when I exited Namba Station and found myself at a five-way intersection with a map that wasn’t oriented with north on architecture

Despite wandering and getting lost, I found the area where I stayed in Osaka to be walkable. Of course, it was even better when I rode a hostel bike around the city.

Dotonburi crowd

Crowds at Dotonburi

However, near my hostel in Naniwa Ward was the most intriguing Shinto shrine I’ve seen. Nanbayasaka Shrine is quite small, but is home to a fearsome lion’s head that encloses a shrine–certainly grabbed my attention as I walked by.Nanbayasaka Shrine

There is a lot to see along the streets of Osaka. Despite the history, the city is home to some of the more interesting contemporary architecture I found in Japan (alright, so I only saw metropolitan Tokyo (including Yokohama), Kyoto, and Osaka). These were not buildings I expected to see on my trip, but I was certainly impressed enough to stop and admire what I found.

Osaka architecture

My favorite building in Osaka

Of course, the main attraction for walking in Osaka is Dōtonbori–a touristy area for food. Of course, locals eat in the area, but it is crowded around dinnertime. The appeal in Dōtonbori isn’t always what’s on the plate, but what’s on the building above the entrance to the restaurants.

Dotonburi blowfish

I assume this is the place to get some fugu

Giant mechanical seafood to entice customers, perhaps? Or cartoonish depictions of Japanese culture and food. Either way, this area is fun to wander through as long as you don’t stare up too long and cause a traffic jam. It would be easy to walk with your head tilted skyward to admire the artistry of Dōtonbori, but it would most likely end in an accident. This section of the city has a kitschy appeal, but it’s well worth wandering through–there’s a reason it’s popular with tourists. Dotonburi restaurant

While the city is centered on Osaka Castle, everything surrounding it is contemporary–it’s rare to find a street with older structures, but there are some hidden away from the crowds that wander the streets.

Osaka Castle

View from the moat at Osaka Castle

Although at times I seek quieter avenues to escape the overwhelming feeling that comes with the crowds, those bustling streets are almost a requirement to get a better understanding of the city. Watching the people in the streets from a coffee shop window, or gazing at the buildings from all angles provides me with a sense of place–an image to associate later on as I recall my journeys through these cities.

dotonburi octopus

Takoyaki restaurant or anime shop?

Of course, with all this wandering through streets of a major city, food is desired. Osaka is known for okonomiyaki and takoyaki, both of which I had in Tokyo and was desperate to try again. Unfortunately, as I was unemployed at the time, my budget did not allow me to enjoy everything Osaka had to offer on a plate–I still managed to eat at one of the popular okonomiyaki restaurants.dotonburi canal

As it isn’t a long flight from Taipei, I could easily plan another weekend getaway to wander the streets of Osaka again and enjoy the architecture and culinary delights that the city has to offer. It doesn’t feel like as much of a tourist city as other places I’ve been, but there is still plenty to enjoy.

Colorful Side of Singapore

“Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.”
― Claude Monet

While modern Singapore is a marvel with the contemporary architecture of the areas surrounding Bayfront, I found it less interesting than the older side of the small Southeast Asian nation.

Impersonal and imposing view of modern Singapore

Impersonal and imposing view of modern Singapore

Prior to my trip, I wasn’t sure what remained of colonial era structures–whenever I saw pictures of Singapore, it was of those modern skyscrapers reiterating the city’s claim as a global financial center. Every now and then I recall seeing photos of a few scattered historic buildings–the few that remained after the destruction of World War II.colonial-singapore

As I wandered through streets on long walks in the tropical heat, I encountered another side of Singapore. I began to see those colonial-era houses that were familiar from my trip to Malaysia; that same style I saw in Malacca and Penang years ago. But here in Singapore, those same buildings were refurbished–cleaned up and painted, though a few were in disrepair. These buildings showed life, a life that was busy and beautiful.

Overwhelming color in Little India

Overwhelming color in Little India

This isn’t the same as finding those wonderful colors along quiet canals in Burano; this was boisterous and somewhat chaotic. This was no laid-back, relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle. This was Little India.

Little India Singapore

Details of the most colorful building in Little India

I wound up in Little India a few times during my short stay–it wasn’t far from my hostel and there were more affordable dining options. As I was invited to eat and drink with some locals after a long day of sightseeing, I was asked about my stay in Singapore. They were surprised it was my first visit–they didn’t expect a first-timer to wander through the Indian section of the city because it’s not on the popular tourist itinerary. That’s exactly why I was there.

This is must be Little India

This is must be Little India

I showed my haphazard itinerary to my new acquaintances–they were curious what I planned to see around their home. They told me to avoid a few things that they considered dull and laughed at my other choices because they were simply the official tourist destinations–of course, you have to go to the Raffles Hotel for a drink, but don’t expect to find locals there. They were also bewildered by my encounter with renovations at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve–“How could nature be under renovations?” they laughed.

Despite calling the major attractions nothing but garbage, they encouraged me to still visit the destinations on my list. “It’s what you have to do,” they told me.

“Next time, you can see the other side of Singapore.”

Royal Splendor in Phnom Penh

“In fact they were regents for a whole morning as crimson hangings were raised against the houses, and for the whole afternoon, as they moved toward groves of palm trees.”
Arthur Rimbaud, Royalty

I chose my cheap hotel based on its proximity to what I perceived as a desirable location in Phnom Penh. The night market, royal palace, central market, and riverside were all a short walk. When I arrived, I realized it was a rundown backpacker neighborhood with overpriced (by Cambodian standards) restaurants and an abundance of girl bars for the sex tourists. There were signs of development with higher-end restaurants and bars along the main road next to the riverside, but it would still take time to change the side streets.monks-street

A few blocks south of my hotel is the home of the King of Cambodia. The walk to the Royal Palace felt longer in the heat–there was little shade along the way to shield me from the sun. I also didn’t realize the entrance to the palace was at the far end from my hotel–the wide empty street in front of me was beautiful as I watch monks walking along, paying little attention to the opulence just nearby. The streets in the area were devoid of traffic as ongoing workers protests in the capital had forced some closures.

Glimpse of the palace through the gate

Glimpse of the palace through the gate

The Cambodian King is an elected figurehead, chosen from among members of the royal family over the age of 30. The current king, Norodom Sihamoni, ascended to the throne in 2012 after the death of Norodom Sihanouk, who was turned into a puppet figurehead by the Khmer Rouge and later went into exile during the years of Vietnamese-supported government; he was also the leader of the opposition government beginning in 1978 when Vietnam defeated Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. Norodom Sihanouk returned to the throne in 1993, two years after returning from 13 years of exile. In 2004, he went into self-exile in Pyongyang and Beijing and abdicated the throne.phnom-penh-royal-palace

The Royal Palace was built in 1866, when the king moved the capital to Phnom Penh from Oudong; it was designed by architect Neak Okhna Tepnimith Mak and constructed by the French Protectorate of Cambodia. 32 years before the palace was constructed, the Thai military razed Phnom Penh during its retreat. The Royal Palace was built on a citadel that was destroyed.phnom-penh-royal-palace1

The palace incorporates a mixture of architectural designs, including traditional Khmer, Thai, and European. The French gave the royal court a gift in 1876 known as the Napoleon iron pavilion, which supposedly stands out among the rest of the palace but I somehow missed seeing it (there are portions of the palace that are off limits to visitors). Over the years the palace was expanded and some buildings were even replaced.

Royal stupas and memorials

Royal stupas and memorials

There are portions of the Royal Palace I’m sure I missed. There isn’t much in the way of guide information as you wander through the grounds, unless you count the “Do Not Enter” signs. There are some identifying markers to tell visitors what each building is, however. Sometimes in the heat, you don’t notice the names or the meanings behind the buildings, such as the Silver Pagoda, that make you wonder why the names were chosen.

Silver Pagoda

Silver Pagoda

The buildings, stupas, and gardens all lend vibrant colors to the palace as tourists wander through the grounds; the colors can be almost blinding with the intense sun, which led me to hide in the shade for most of my time. There are even murals in need of restoration–there was some restoration of buildings, but I didn’t notice any work being done to protect the paintings. phnom-penh-royal-palace-mur

While not as impressive as the Royal Palace in Bangkok, the Cambodian King’s residence has its own charm and beauty. It’s a respite from the noise of the city, but a reminder of how detached life can be from reality–a short walk to the park will provide a glimpse of the slums just across the river.

The Throne Hall

The Throne Hall

As it was the last full day of tour through Cambodia, I relaxed the rest of the day and into evening–I wandered into better neighborhoods to witness the progress of development in the capital. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s brutal history lesson at S-21 and the Killing Fields and I wasn’t departing until late the next day. I attempted to enjoy the nightlife in my area and wound up with an insightful, yet depressing, conversation. The entire trip was my initiation into a world I knew little about–a juxtaposition of beauty, horror, wealth, and poverty.

Streets of Perugia

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
C.P. Cavafy, Ithaka

While Perugia isn’t a top tourist destination in Italy–it’s even overshadowed by it’s neighbor Assisi–it does have its charm for visitors and residents.perugia-city-wall

This quaint town in the hills of Umbria is picturesque–the medieval architecture mixed with modern structures against a backdrop of rolling green hills and distant towns provides a beautiful view at any time of day from the edges of the old town atop the hill. Sunrise is a particularly wonderful time with the dissipating fog in the valley below.San Domenico in Perugia, Italy

The streets were never straight and I didn’t know which direction I faced as I wandered through alleys and peered at the buildings constructed centuries ago. I got lost like so many times before, but the roads all seemed to interconnect and I soon found myself back where I began–all roads don’t lead to Rome when in Perugia; all roads just lead into themselves once more.perugia-steps-2

Taking the stairs through the historic archways through quiet narrow streets and into the sunlight that radiates off the buildings in August, I found myself lost within myself, thinking of poetry and literature before picking up a bottle of organic Umbrian wine for 5 euros. I could take a glass of wine into the Piazza IV Novembre to sit on the steps in the shade opposite the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. I sat there reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, even now and again looking up to watch the crowds slowly walking through.Piazza IV Novembre, Perugia, Italy

Every day I walked through the streets, turning down alleys that I thought I hadn’t tried before. Even down the streets and alleys I recognized I found new details missed on previous wanderings–it was never boring to see the same sights each day for a month. I watched the sun set over the hills and waited for the lights to  illuminate the main street leading to the town square where the people would congregate for drinks and merriment on the steps surrounding the fountain.

Seoul at Night

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”
-Vincent Van Gogh

Dongdaemun Design Park at night

Dongdaemun Design Park at night

Seoul is an amazing metropolis–the towering buildings and modern architecture make it seem overwhelming at times–with history, culture, and international commerce mingling in the streets. It’s fascinating to watch the people throughout the day among the backdrop of skyscrapers.

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin in Gwanghwamun Square

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin in Gwanghwamun Square

While this busy city is lively enough during the day, it’s the evening that shows the colors and beauty of modern Korean culture. The people roam the streets in search of outdoor food and drink stands–during the summer, they sit outside restaurants and take over the sidewalks. Off in a parking lot lined with street food vendors, plastic tables are set for customers to watch the local baseball game on a projection screen as they order more beer and snacks.

Dongdaemun at night

Dongdaemun at night

Each neighborhood has its own character as the city returns home from work–the noise of expats and locals in the bars and restaurants of Itaewon, the shoppers in Dongdaemun and Hongdae, and the quiet awe in front of Gwanghwamun and Gyeongbokgung Palace with Admiral Yi Sun-sin and King Sejong watching over the center of the city. The character of one neighborhood during the day is not identical after the sun sets–it offers a split personality of sorts.

King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

LED and older neon signs flicker along the streets and alleys, inviting the throngs to join in the activity of Seoul–coffee shops are still bustling into the evening as the salary men and women order more beer and soju from the myriad variety of restaurants and bars that equal the quantity of coffee shops (Seoul boasts more Starbucks outlets than any other city, and there are plenty of other local and international chains).

The aromas from the restaurants fill the streets as patrons filter in–there are more meals after dinner; the public demands sustenance after rounds of beer, soju, and makgeolli. The establishments expect people to eat more throughout the night before the office towers and residences turn off their lights that illuminate the metropolis.

Pillars before King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

Pillars before King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

To gain a real feeling for a city, a traveler needs to embrace the nightlife and the culture that changes with the passing of daylight.

How do you feel about wandering cities like Seoul in the evening?

Look! More Ruins in Pompeii

Remember when I said that all the ruins in Rome start to look the same? Well, the same can be said about Pompeii.

On the advice of my friend from grad school, I told my parents that we should find a tour of Pompeii. It would be more organized and we’d get to see the Herculaneum on a full-day tour. Then we discovered that the full-day tours are only available twice a week, neither day was one that we were in Sorrento. We settled on the the half-day tour to just see Pompeii.


We figured it was worth the price just to avoid riding the Circumvesuviana again. Even the Italians believe this train is a piece of shit. It took almost an hour and a half from Naples to Sorrento along 30 stops on this privately-run train that was probably constructed by Mussolini and still uses the same cars with no air conditioning. The New York City subway looked better in the early 1980s. Yes, I got spoiled by the amazing trains in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea.

Mt vesuvius

Mt. Vesuvius in the distance

Instead of watching the wasteland pass by on the Circumvesuviana, we saw the coastline from the comfort of a tour bus. Our guide was friendly and humorous–he even made a point of telling us to not buy any souvenirs other than books. I didn’t bother buying anything, unless you count the free map at the entrance.

The portion of Pompeii that is open to tourists is large and only accounts for a small part of what was once a thriving city. Due to a lack of funds and local interest, the rest of Pompeii remains unearthed, but there have been promises made that sometime in the future excavations will resume (probably when the Circumvesuviana is replaced by something more modern like a donkey cart).

pompeii forum

Pompeii Forum

Most of Pompeii is streets lined with what used to be shops and homes that are all more or less in the same state of ruin. There are few, if any, identifying features remaining in any of them. “And this here is a what used to be some sort of business. Over here is the same thing. Etc.” The first one was nice, the second was curious because it was so similar, and then it turned to boredom. That is, until we arrived at the brothel.

pompeii penis

Yup, it’s a sidewalk penis

Our guide pointed out the slightly visible ancient Roman penis in the sidewalk that pointed visitors in the direction of the brothel district, which today is the most intact portion of the ruins of Pompeii. It’s such a popular destination that every tour stops there and has to wait for the tour ahead to move along before entering.

pompeii brothel

That might not be moss growing on the brothel bed

In Pompeii’s red light district, visitors can see the original stone bed used by prostitutes that still retains its crabs and syphilis (Mt. Vesuvius must have had a part in the preservation). Inside the brothel are frescoes that depict which sexual act was performed in each room (they had to cater to the illiterates among the population).

pompeii brothel

This looks like an interesting room for a break

Throughout the hot day we encountered many more historic ruins that pretty much looked the same. A few of the temples and the amphitheater stood out, as did the forum. Aside from the brothel, the public bath was also fairly well preserved, proving that the Romans had their priorities in safeguarding particular aspects of society from certain destruction.

pompeii tribunal

The Tribunal was still in decent shape

The roads still have large stones that served as crosswalks so residents wouldn’t have to walk through the sewer that was the street. These same stones had gaps that allowed carts to freely maneuver through the waste. I suppose because the people only bathed once every few months, the stench from their roads/sewers wasn’t noticeable.

I knew Pompeii was a thriving trade center in ancient Rome, but did know just how large the city was. I also didn’t know that prior to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the sea was right next to the city (it’s now miles away). Fortunately, with the clear weather, it’s easy to still see the volcano that buried the city almost 2,000 years ago.

pompeii street

One of the narrower streets

Toward the end of the tour, we passed the gated section of Pompeii that houses artifacts, including the preserved bodies that most of us have seen in history books or National Geographic. With exhaustion from the intense sun setting in and the crowds gathered around, I only took a brief glance at what I thought would be better displayed. I had incorrectly thought that the artifacts and preserved residents would be displayed throughout the ruins of Pompeii. It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

All jokes aside, Pompeii was an impressive half day out of Sorrento. It would’ve been better with a full-day tour though.

Have you visited Pompeii? Have you ever seen a more impressive prostitution district?

Colossal Colosseum Tour

Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum
Dodging lions and wastin’ time”
-Bob Dlyan, When I Paint My Masterpiece

rome colosseum

I got more views of scaffolding at the Colosseum

On the last full day in Rome, my parents and I set out fairly early to tour the Colosseum. We had purchased our tickets the day before at the Roman Forum–the tickets are valid for 48 hours to enter each site once. Despite not having to wait in the excruciatingly long line in the summer sun to buy tickets, it still took a bit of time to get into the Colosseum. Had we known, we might have tried to get there an hour earlier to avoid such a crowd.

Welcome to the Colosseum, please wait in line to be fed to the lions and hippos

Welcome to the Colosseum, please wait in line to be fed to the lions and hippos

We had walked past the Colosseum numerous times because it wasn’t far from the hotel. I took plenty of photos of it at different times of day, usually when we were most exhausted from walking around Rome. It’s an impressive structure from the outside, but it elicits more of a sense of awe upon entering.

rome colosseum

The Colosseum is pretty big

The Colosseum is enormous, thus the Latin root. It is the inspiration for modern stadiums–the similarities in the design are everywhere, from the the seating to the entrances and exits. Contemporary stadium architects are still utilizing the design of a building that’s almost 2,000 years old.

rome colosseum

How many gladiators died in that basement before fighting for their lives?

If it weren’t for the blazing sun, I would’ve enjoyed just staring at the ruins within the walls. I could’ve watched the throngs of tourists gaze upon the history that epitomizes Rome as a tourist destination

Bas-relief at the Colosseum

Bas-relief at the Colosseum

My mom convinced me to download some of the free mp3s from Rick Steves to add some guidance to our self-guided tour of Rome (I also used some of the mp3s for Florence). I read through the text, which only half downloaded for some reason, and then handed the audio portion to my mom. She was shocked by the commentary about the depravity of Roman society–the numbers of people and animals killed during the entertainment. I was just surprised they didn’t fill in the time between killings with orgies, but I assume that came at night after witnessing all the gore and feasting upon the dead animals. I suppose the concession stands had an endless supply of meat to roast and serve throughout the events.colosseum-entrance

If we could have entered the lower level of the Colosseum, we would have stayed longer. Unfortunately, that area is only accessible on a guided tour–a fact we did not know before arriving. The basement area would have been interesting (and more shaded)–I could have seen the cells in which the gladiators were held before they entered the arena.colosseum-b&w

Have you been to the Colosseum? Did you get a cheesy photo with the plastic armor-clad gladiators?

Evening View of Tokyo

Technical college building in Shinjuku while waiting for friends

Technical college building in Shinjuku while waiting for friends

I’m going to miss Tokyo when I leave in less than two weeks. I’m already planning on returning when it’s warmer (I didn’t pack appropriate clothes for winterish weather because I planned on spending the colder months in tropical destinations). I will definitely miss going out with the people I’ve met here–definitely some of the friendliest people I’ve met while traveling (and not all of them are Japanese).

On Sunday, I met up with two of the four Chinese expats I met while hiking Mt. Takao. We decided to meet in Shinjuku for dinner. As it was a bit too early to eat, we walked around the area and headed for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. I’m glad my friends knew about this, because I had no idea that there was a free panoramic viewing area on the 45th floor. This is a much better deal than going to the Tokyo Sky Tree for $25, plus it’s in a more central

Fortunately, the line for the elevator wasn’t long–I was told that it’s sometimes an hour or more wait to get in.

The Sky Tree is off in the distance

The Sky Tree is off in the distance

The lighting on the floor is not the best for anyone who wants to take a photo. There’s a lot of glare on the glass coming from the souvenir shops. The restaurant looked more dimly lit for better photos, but we didn’t stay to eat

Even with the glare, I managed to get some decent photos by resting my camera on the ledge against the windows. In some cases, the glare worked out and provided some interesting effects.

Tokyo skyline framed in glare

Tokyo skyline framed in glare

Sunset on Zhaoqing City Wall

During my first National Day holiday in China, which is shortly after the Mid-Autumn Festival, I headed to Zhaoqing. It’s a lesser known city not far from Guangzhou, which meant a longer and more uncomfortable bus ride from Shenzhen (really, why would the buses be nicer for the shorter trip to Guangzhou?). The city is known for producing inkstones–and I saw some impressive ones with intricate designs being sold throughout the city. It’s also home to the Pabst brewery in China (I’ll have to write more about that another time).zhaoqing_CityWallTower

Zhaoqing still maintains its ancient city wall, which is a welcome sight in modern China. It’s not as impressive as the city wall of Xi’an, but it’s still part of the cultural tour of the city.

Beauty Fades in Fujian

On my first day among the Hakka tulou in the Fujian countryside, I wandered through fields that were not on the tourist maps (if there were maps anyway). dilapidated

Shortly after wandering away from the road and the water buffalo that filled it, I came across this dilapidated house. Houses around it were still occupied, but this one had obviously been abandoned for quite some time.

Despite the condition of the house, or maybe because of it, I found it inspiring and beautiful in its own way. Maybe it was because this was the quietest place I found during that trip.

Reflecting Religion at Trinity Church

On my last day in Boston, I stopped at Copley Square for a view of the public library and to walk around Trinity Church, which was unfortunately closed for the day. It is supposedly one of the most beautiful buildings in the US, and I must agree that it’s one of the most impressive structures I’ve seen (though I still prefer Fallingwater).trinity church

I thought this view of Trinity Church reflected in the John Hancock Tower was more interesting than any other view. But I do have a lot more photos of the church.

Ruined in Panama

casco-ruins4I enjoyed walking around Casco Viejo in Panama City with my Canadian travel companions I had just met. The colorful colonial architecture that had been restored juxtaposed with the dilapidated buildings filled with squatters gave me a sense of what Panama City has gone through and the changes it is embracing. In some ways, the gentrification of this particular section of the city is disappointing, but it is good for tourism. This once was all of Panama City, in the days before the Panama Canal.

It was only a month after Christmas.

It was only a month after Christmas.

During one of our walks around Casco Viejo, we came across these ruins–a structure that is a symbol of the old city that will never be restored. It now remains as a simple museum–there are no signs nor historical notes that I noticed, just the empty shell of the building.casco-ruins

This site happens to be Iglesia de Santo Domingo, which was constructed in 1678, but was destroyed by a fire in 1781. The arch that survived the fire is impressive–difficult to imagine anything built today that would last more than 200 years after a fire.

The surviving arch of Iglesia de Santo Domingo

The surviving arch of Iglesia de Santo Domingo

I was confused by the fact that there was a bench in this spot. There was barely enough space to walk through with the bench there, and it certainly didn’t provide much of a view (unless you enjoy close-ups of bricks).

Quite a view. Feel like I did something wrong on my trip to end up here

Quite a view. Feel like I did something wrong on my trip to end up here

Road to Songpan

The May Day holiday has come and gone in China. Of course, here in America we like to celebrate our Labor Day in September…with barbecues and beer. Following my painfully long bus ride from Chengdu during my first May Day holiday, I had a few hours to wander around the small town of Songpan. There isn’t much to do in Songpan, but it is a sight to see.songpan_street

Unlike my final destinations of Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou, Songpan was uncrowded and peaceful. It was a welcome change from the 12+ million that surrounded me in Shenzhen. The traditional architecture was also a great reason to see Songpan. I also had some really good spicy yak jerky there.

Yes, I walked to that temple on the side of the mountain

Yes, I walked to that temple on the side of the mountain

In Fujian Fields

My final trip in China was a short fall holiday journey through the Fujian countryside to see the tulou (土楼)–earth buildings of the Hakka people, some of which date back about 800 years. The tulou clusters are unique to the area and are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

fujian tulou

This tulou cluster is known as four dishes and a soup

It was the October national holiday, and my companion and I decided to fly into Xiamen and take a bus to a village outside Taxia. Remembering my previous bus trips, I wasn’t thrilled about the option, but there was no other affordable option. Fortunately, it was only a few hours on the overcrowded bus that blasted its horn (which I believe was louder than Spinal Tap’s amps) every couple minutes to ensure that I was wide awake.

Riding a water buffalo might have been more pleasant than the bus

Riding a water buffalo might have been more pleasant than the bus

Upon stopping in the village–it was just one enormous intersection with no obvious traffic pattern–I was greeted by a group of motorcycle taxi drivers who crowded the door of the bus and pushed against me. I swung my bag rather violently to get some space and ran for the nearest store, which happened to also be the entrance to my hotel (a term I’ll use loosely in this case).Hakka tulou

The first day was spent walking around the village–through the fields to view the tulou that weren’t set up as tourist sites. Dinner was an adventure in the town as the restaurant had no menu–just choose your dead animal and vegetables from the cooler and tell them how to cook it.

The next day, we hired a driver to take us around the touristy tulou. For the most part, because we started the day early, we avoided the crowds. There was also the possibility that the driver knew where to go before the tour buses from Xiamen headed in.tulou

These buildings were fascinating. They are extended-family homes that were constructed for defensive purposes. The ground floor is the kitchen, second floor storage, and third floor and above are living areas–each family has a vertical dwelling. The structures are all similar, but there were a few that were larger, older, or had some unique feature in the interior courtyard.FujianField2

After viewing quite a few of the tulou and villages, I found it more interesting to stare at the mountains and fields surrounding the area. Since this area is a relatively new tourist destination, even for domestic tourists, there isn’t much information for visitors. At the time, they were just starting to build hotels in the area–there were just a few guesthouses then. I managed to pick up a Chinglish book on the history of the tulou, but it was somehow lost in the move to the US.