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Juderia of Cordoba

Spain > Cordoba

CORDOBA, 22 May 2009

At the northwestern corner of the Mosque Cathedral compound, we exit by passing through an arched doorway next to the sole minaret.


Outside the northern wall of the mosque, there’s another lane lined with souvenir shops and restaurants. It’s a hot mid-day, and folks are indoors shopping or doing lunch or having their siesta.


A notice at the wall of the Mosque Cathedral tells of a some major restoration work worth €3.5mil, probably funded by the EU, which has pumped a lot of money into the economy since Spain’s membership in 1986. The new motorways were subsidised this way.


At this corner of the mosque compound, the famous Juderia – the ancient Jewish quarter of Cordoba – starts.

The statue of Rabbi Moses Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon) is a major landmark. A famed Torah scholar among others, he was born in Cordoba in 1135, and ended up a physician in the court of Saladdin in Damascus. Also a contemporary of another Cordoba Muslim intellect – Averroes (Ibn Rushd). They say, when at his statue, touch and rub the shoes, and good luck will come. 🙂

A short distance from the rabbi, we come to La Sinagoga – built 1315, the only preserved synagogue in Andalucia after the Jews were expelled in 1492 (the same year the Spanish Muslims were finally defeated by the Christians in Granada).

The interior is smallish, with the altar facing Jerusalem. Note the familiar Moorish motifs top right of pic.

See the distinct Moorish style design. The Hebrew inscription mentions the date of the synagogue’s construction.

A patch of stucco with plant motifs, another Moorish influence.

Beautifully decorated wall of the synagogue.

Averroes (1126-1198)  is another towering personality of intellectual Islamic Cordoba, but all I could find of him is just this dead-end lane, close to the synagogue.

An ornately-carved door catches my eye.


Close-up of the door, a proof that the Islamic culture of a thousand years ago, still influences.

Past Juderia, we find our way out of old Cordoba, among the beautiful gardens and patios just outside the mighty city walls.


A beautiful hot day, and an ‘art’ tour group members take a breather, dipping their feet in the cool water while sketching the serene scenery.


Old Quarter of Cordoba

Spain > Cordoba

CORDOBA, 22 May 2009

The mandatory but lengthy Mosque Cathedral visit done, we emerge into the hot noon Andalucian sun. Even the crowds are staying away.


Foot patrols are common, making us visitors feel safe and secure.

At the northeastern tip of the Mosque Cathedral, there’s even a tourist trap called Al Mihrab.

The Great Mosque is a huge industry for Cordoba’s economy.

Typical of old Andalucian quarters, narrow lanes such as this one abound. Designed for pedestrian, carts and horse traffic in the old days, but nowadays the odd modern car can still squeeze by.

It’s lunchtime, and we are famished. Up another narrow lane, we find a halal eatery. It’s a Morrocan joint, not owned by descendants of the original Cordoban Muslims. A thousand years ago in its hey-days, Cordoba the Islamic City (of 500,000 people) boasted 700 mosques, but now only 500 Muslims live here (out of 320,000 people).

Interior of the restaurant is cosy and cooling, but the menu is in Arabic and Spanish. A bunch of Morrocans from France, who sat nearby, help us in deciphering the menu, thanks to our bad French and their bad English.

Nevertheless we manage to figure this one out: spicy wheat couscous with vegies and chicken. Probably a staple Berber dish but quite tasty and filling.

Outside the eatery, the traffic is perpetually non-stop. Cars in single file patiently wait for their turns along the narrow one-way cobblestone lanes. No honking allowed.

From the hot sidewalk I peer into a typical entrance to the residences. The common hallway is always whitewashed with wooden doors leading into the apartments. The thick walls protect the interior from the hot sun, and traffic noise, and strangers like me.


Across the street, an ancient balcony juts out from the eastern wall of the Mosque Cathedral. Looks like a later Christian addition.


Further up the road, at the southern face of the Mosque Cathedral, there’s a square…


… where, to the left, the 16th century Christian-era Puerta del Puente (Bridge Gateway) stands. This used to be the southern wall of old Cordoba, and this gate marks the start of the main road heading south out of Cordoba.


Past the Bridge Gateway, the Bridge of Cordoba spans the wide Guadalquivir River (originally ‘Al Wadi Al Khabir’ – the ‘Great River’). Built in the 1st century by the Romans, it’s a 250-m long engineering feat. In those days, this river was navigable all the way from here to the Atlantic Ocean, some 300km away.



Gardens of Keukenhof

The Netherlands > The Gardens of Keukenhof

KEUKENHOF, 13 May 2009

Midnight 12 May ‘09, and the international departure at KLIA LCCT can’t get any desolate than this. But it’s a huge improvement over older facility.

Our AirAsia X KUL-STN flight D7-2002 departed at 1am on the dot, and 10 hours later, I still can’t believe how comfy I am. Look at the ample leg space I have on this Airbus A340-300. smile.gif

Somewhere over the Black Sea, now covered in white.

Breakfast is suddenly served and that’s one compact but tasty nasi lemak, I can assure.

Some 12 hours into the flight, with less than 2 hours to go, we are in Ukraine at 38,000ft. Strong headwind impedes the speed to just below 800km/h.

Landing on time at STN after a 13.45hr flight, and I have a 5-hour layover before my next flight to Amsterdam. STN is a pleasant airport, some say the best in the UK, but one thing I can tell – it’s not a bad place for a lengthy layover. smile.gif

Taking off from STN as scheduled, easyJet flight EZY3005 promptly flies over Ipswich and head for the English Channel.

Not too long soo, the cute Airbus A319 crosses the Dutch coastline.

I think that’s the city of Leiden in the background.

On final for Runway 06 at Schiphol.

Finally at AMS, and next to us Ezam’s A319. We are 20min early. smile.gif

The Netherlands

Arriving Schiphol Airport, we promptly take a cab to this delightful hotel, near the town of Lisse, some 30km southwest of Amsterdam.

I always love to start the day with continental breakfast, plus a good helping of yoghurt. Somehow European egg yolk tastes ’sweet-ish’ which I like. smile.gif

Energized for the day, we start our trek to Keukenhof, the very reason we come to Lisse. We have our kid #3, who joined us from Toronto, and his friend. They took Air Transat to Gatwick and on to Amsterdam with easyJet, arriving AMS a couple of hours before us.

What we initially thought was idyllic farmland …

… turns out to be a huge flower plantation!

Soon we start seeing blooms everywhere, …

… hectares of them.

Across the huge expanse of blooming field, I spot two Dutch icons.

Soon a junction in the road, …

… past beautiful pasture and a canal, …

… and we enter the woods of Keukenhof. Whatever is this thing called ‘Keukenhof’?

So back to my query, what is ‘Keukenhof‘? It’s a piece of woodland belonging to an aristocrat which has been converted into the worlds largest ‘flower garden’. And yes, this year’s its 60th anniversary.

Dubbed as the ‘Garden of Europe’, it’s only open for some 9 weeks per year, between March and May. Keukenhof’s specialty is its amazing collection of tulips, daffodils and lillies, with about 7mil bulbs being planted each year just for the 9-week show.

Past the gate, and a you are most welcomed.

Once inside, it’s glorious tulips everywhere …

… of all shades and hues!

And you can actually touch them. Dutch awesome world-beating horticulture technology in full display for the world to see.

The flower bulbs were planted under the shades of the mature trees.

The blooms are everywhere, carpeting the ground.

These plants grow from bulbs, like the humble onion, and coaxing colourful things out of such things is sheer technology.

The plants are sponsored by bulb suppliers, who proudly display their names next to their creations. Keukenhof is virtually a flower expo.

There are food kiosks …

… and clumps of cafes, trinket shops, galleries, amenities, etc, scattered in the grounds – to replenish yourselves, to rest your tired limbs and to relax, and also to cool down overloaded eyes.

Waterways aplenty too, where native avians make their homes.

If you are keen you can buy your own bulbs to plant at home.

But first check out the extensive catalogue.

Then enter the hut to be served.

In any case, you can easily spend 5-6 hours trudging the countless chromatic footpaths in search of your most perfect tulip!


Magical Milford Sound

New Zealand > South Island > Magical Milford Sound

MILFORD SOUND, 08 Aug 2008

‘080808′ – an auspicious date, and today we are doing a ‘must-do-before-you-die’ trip to the famous Milford Sound, which is actually a fiord. The 290km journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound goes through Te Anau, and in winter the tricky bit is the 120km rugged, desolate stretch between Te Anau and Milford Sound. It is exposed to snow, ice (esp. black ice) and avalanches, so to save all the driving hassles, we decide to take a coach daytrip.

At 6.45am we find ourselves at the Clock Tower of Queenstown waiting for our ride to pick us up.

Soon the warm comfy coach (provided by, operated by Milford Sound Select) is whizzing past spectacular landscape in Southland, the southernmost territory of NZ. For orientation, please CLICK HERE.

Along Route 94, we arrive at the town of Te Anau 2.5hrs later for a short break.

It’s another freezing morning …

… and we promptly escape into a restaurant for brekky.

With less than 2000 ppl, this is another town living off tourism.

Next to the main town junction, Sabar braves the freezing weather to pose with a takahe – a flightless bird indigenous to NZ, now only 200+ live in the wild near Lake Te Anau.

And this is Lake Te Anau, largest in South Island, and 2nd largest in whole of NZ. It’s 65km long, and goes all the way down 420m. A true glacial lake. On the other side, it’s Fiordland National Park, another World Heritage Site.

We are at last on our way to Milford Sound. Hmmm … ominous sign.

And this is Vale, our delightful (as most NZers are) guide cum driver. He’s very knowledgable about anything NZ, and has loads of tales to tell us throughout the trip. Thanks, Vale, great stuff!

There are several interesting stops along the way, and the first one, in the beech forest, is a place called ‘Mirror Lakes’.

The Mirror Lakes are oxbow lakes formed by the river which meanders the floor of this huge glacial valley, formed some 15-20 thousand years ago. Sabar spots the familiar World Heritage Site logo.

Well, a dose of NZ humour, I must day. Unfortunately the water is a bit choppy and full of debris, so there’s no worthy mirror effect. Lake Ruataniwha near Twizel yesterday was much better.

Anyway the scenery of the mountain range across the valley makes up for it.

Further up the huge valley, we come to a place called Knobs Flat. Knobs are the ‘islands’ of plants or trees found on the otherwise barren flat (floor of valley), formed by clusters of earth debris left stranded by the glacier when it receded thousands of years ago. There’s a knob just behind the bus. Just imagine how collosal the glacier was.

At Knobs Flat there’s a rest area and also a display on NZ’s proud heritage.

After Knobs Flat, the road begins a steady climb.

We are entering truly Alpine landscape.

At 945m above sea level, the snow is on the ground all around us, and we come to the famous Homer Tunnel.

This is avalanche territory and only a brief stop is allowed, if at all.

A brief halt just to say hi to these unique hardy critters- the Kea. Note the Kia and Kea below.

Native to NZ, this largish bird is the only Alpine parrot in the world. Very rare species indeed.

Freezing humans try to befriend it, but the Kea is only keen to peck on anything it thinks edible.

The Keas are friendly and inquisitive, but please do not feed them.

Short stop done, and we are ready to enter the eastern portal of the 1270m-long single-lane Homer Tunnel. Completed in 1954 after 20 years of hacking through granite with basic tools.

It has a downhill gradient of 1:10, meaning when we exit the other (western) end, we are 120m lower than the eastern portal above. Note the roof lights in the tunnel going down.

But the view at the other end is simply amazing!

Down the valley we do another stop.

Spectacular mountains all around.

But the interesting thing is there’s a dense rainforest down here.

Giant ferns similar to the ones in Malaysia are aplenty.

Soon we arrive Milford Sound, dominated by the modern Milford Wharf Visitor Centre.

A bit of reading is necessary.

At the pier, cruise boats await patrons. We are lucky to get such fine weather today, esp. when Milford Sound is known to be one of the wettest spots in the world – it gets up to 9m of rainfall per annum, that’s 9 metres!

We immediately spot our boat – the smallish Milford Adventurer – for the 100min cruise to the mouth of the fiord (Tasman Sea) and back. That’s 17km away.

We are soon on our way, and the first thing we note is the spectacular Mitre Peak, at 1692m, another NZ icon. That’s a mile from the water surface to the pointed peak!

More awesome mountains opposite Mitre Peak.

The warm interior of Milford Adventurer.

Fine weather but very cold, esp. with the incessant breeze from inland. So keep warm with endless supply of free coffee. :)

To enjoy the cruise you have to be outdoor, no matter how cold it is. Luckily the weather is absolutely stunning which is rare in wet Milford Sound.

The cliffs go straight into the water, down to some 400m some claim. A mile in the sky and another 400m down in the water, thus making it 2km from top to bottom. Simply awesome.

Standing at the bow, one is mesmerised by the fiord.

The friendly Skipper at the deck, …

… always mindful of emergency procedure. At this point the water is 250m deep – that’s a long way down.

We now reach the open sea – the Tasman Sea. Go straight that way, and 1000 miles away, you’ll hit Tasmania, Australia.

The boat makes a u-turn at the mouth and we look back at the entrance to Milford fiord. Capt Cook missed this twice when he passed by in late 18th century. Must be due to bad weather.

We re-enter the fiord, with another boat trailing us.

More spectacular peaks, where strong winds whip up the loose snow.

Seals basking on Seal Rock.

Next to it, the amazing Stirling Falls, plunging 150m into the water. The boat actually pokes its bow into the waterfall – can get wet. :)

As we leave, another boat does the same Stirling Falls ritual.

Then I notice the familiar turquoise water – more glacial water?

Another boat overtakes us to return to the pier.

Soon it’s our turn to return to base. Too bad.

As we near the pier, Bowen Falls say farewell.

We take one final look at the stunning Milford Fiord, it’s not a Sound anymore, as strong wind sweeps the Mitre Peak. It has been a most exhilarating tour of nature’s grandeur. Totally worth the trip many times over, even for seasoned travelers like us.

Vale picks us up at the Visitor Centre and we are soon on our way out of Milford Sound …

… and through the Homer Tunnel. This is the western portal.

Lush beech forest as we descend the highlands.

A brief toilet stop at Te Anau and I spot this beauty across the street. Compare it to Vale’s office. :)

The weather forecast has been for snow all the way to Milford Sound, but we have been very lucky to have had great weather. We eventually get some snow as soon as we leave Te Anau. It has been another great day for us, we arrive back Queenstown 7pm. Yes, Magical Milford Fiord/Sound!


Lovely Li River

China > Guangxi Province > Lovely Li River

LI RIVER, 01 Aug 2009

It’s a fine warm morning when the minibus picks us up at our Guilin hotel and 40 minutes later, deposits us at this place in the middle of nowhere called Zhujiang. We read no Chinese, speak no Mandarin and hardly anybody else speaks English, so we are left on our own. 20 minutes later the lady from the minibus reappears with boat tickets, written in Chinese, except for the number ‘14-05?, which we figure is our boat number.

As I like to say, if lost just follow the crowd, and soon we find us at the docks to identify our boat. The popular Guilin-Yangshuo cruise sees 30+ boats doing the downstream trip along the Li River every day (80km in 4 hours). Upon arrival at Yangshuo, day-trippers would find their way to the Yangshuo bus terminal for the 90min return trip to Guilin via land.

That’s our boat there somewhere in the middle. There are 2 packages: premium, aimed for foreigners (sumptuous lunch thrown in + other goodies, maybe), and economy (about half the price of the premium one, aimed for local Chinese visitors). We only discover the ‘economy’ one after much enquiry, and opt for it.

The day gets hotter and stickier as more people fill up the waiting boats.

Looking southwards – downstream the Li River – I see the spectacular jagged hills we are gonna immerse ourselves in, in the next couple of days.

Our boat moves slowly, gently picking up speed, and I’m already impressed. We are in the first pack of boats leaving the Zhujiang dockyard.

To the right, pyramid-shaped limestone hills jut out of the landscape.

Inside, the seats are comfy, and huge, clean glass windows make viewing a pleasure. And yes, the air-conditioner at full blast helps too. But for best photography I still have to go out in the sweltering heat.

The occasional smallish waterfalls can be spotted as the limestone drops right into the river.

I notice a funny sort of bamboo raft, an identity of Li River. This guy is actually selling fruits (stowed in the box) to people doing the cruise.

Soon more spectacular sceneries come online. On this score I’d rate this cruise on par with the one we had in Milford Sound (NZ – click HERE), and probably better than the Halong Bay one (Vietnam – click HERE). Note the pristine river and very clean water.

Every interesting formation normally has a name with an interesting legend attached to it, but since we are taking this ‘economy’ package, we are stuck with Chinese tourists and their Mandarin commentaries. :mrgreen:

Looking to the rear, I see more boats meandearing the river in single file behind us.

The PRC flag flutters next to a satellite dish. The boat crew spend so much time onboard that the boat’s like their home, and satellite TV is a major amenity.

Yes, this reminds me of the bunch on the boats at Milford Sound. I see many foreigners there, so I figure that’s a premium cruise ship right there.

As we move further down the river, motorised raft boats become more common. These can be hired by the hour and it’s a great way to explore this wonderful river. It’s like having a private water-car. :)

Ahead, to the left of our bow, I notice another mobile shop posturing and positioning itself.

This is their target, a fellow boat, which interestingly enough, is trying to overtake us.

With enviable skill and technique, garnered through years of unauthorised boardings of cruise boats, the men nimbly attach their raft. All this while, the big boat just holds its course and speed, without any trace of care for the struggling men. But it’s quite a spectacle for us – I feel like cheering them on!

Raft securely tied to the bigger machine, the transactions begin.

And all the trouble, just for these quaint fruits – which taste sweet and sour – but loved to bits by the Chinese around us. I suspect most of these people are from other provinces of China.

On the upper deck of our boat, it’s business as usual, but this is the best spot to absorb the sights and sounds and fresh air.

The motorised bamboo raft boat is quite interesting to watch. As I said, it’s like your private boat to explore the river.

With it, you can stop anywhere for a dip or for a tan.

And along the river, there are countless ‘beaches’ and islands and sand bars to become your playgrounds.

As we round an awesome hill, I see more boats trailing us. It’s really a friggin’ convoy of ships.

Another interesting thing is, there is uninterrupted cellphone coverage along this lonesome 80-km waterway, thanks to base stations such as this one, set discreetly atop hills. I wonder how they installed them up there.

Whenever we see a swarm of raft boats, we know there’s a village nearby used as their base.

I think this is the most famous part of Li River, immortalised at the back of the 20 yuan Chinese banknote. Just imagine, these giants are over 200 million years old, and jut out into the air more than 200m.

My version:


Their version:


We pass more spectacular landscape, and on an island, resourceful people set up shop selling snacks and refreshments for raft boaters. Such is entrepreneurship in this communist nation.

Navigating the Li River, with its variable depths, currents and sandbars, plus pesky floating vendors and motorised raft boats, requires full-time attention. Not to mention boats returning to Guilin after discharging their passengers downstream. Note the captain’s favourite things: cellphone, ciggies, those ubiquitous sweet-and-sour fruits and tea(?).

Lunch is served, and this is the basic set. We politely give it a pass, since it’s obviously non-halal meat (looks like pork to me), so we chomp on fruits and chocolate bars we bring with us.

Our fellow non-English-speaking Chinese travellers sitting next to us, offer us their river fish, which tastes sweetish yet odd. They also order eggs for us, for which we are very appreciative. Unfortunately the lingo barrier makes progress difficult. Ah well, that’s independent travel in China for you.

Our lower deck cabin is comfy, spacious and airy, and a 4-hour ride can be tedious for some.

We traverse another patch of impressive karst formations.

Then I notice a swarm of raft boats, which means …

… there’s a major attraction nearby. Yes, Li River presents to you … the “Nine Painted Horses Hill” or something to that effect. Legend says that if you can identify all the 9 horses ‘painted’ at the side of this hill, then you are destined for great things.

Well, I do my best, but all I can muster is prolly just one tuskless woolly-mammoth. :(

In any case in front of the Hill, there’s a lively bazaar in the hot sun.

Some cool macho men cruising the river. It looks like fun, but the heat and humidity would sap anybody’s energy out there.

Further downstream there’s another shopping centre, but not well-patronised. It’s located right in between two tourist bases: Xingping village and Yangshuo, so probably few people venture out here.

Some three weeks ago, heavy rains swelled the river, and the whole area was inundated. Debris from that big flood can still be seen stuck to the bushes and trees at the riverbanks.

We pass by the last bit of awesome scenery before our destination, Yangshuo.

Almost 4 hours after leaving Zhujiang, we dock at Dragonhead Hill, just north of downtown Yangshuo. We climb up the stairs and walk along a path with the Li River to the left and hundreds of metres of stalls to the right, hawking basically the same touristy stuff. Our hotel is still some 500m away.

I glance back to say bye-bye to our transport, and in the background more cruise boats are arriving. We are one of the first to arrive.

Next to us, the Li River is constantly busy even on a hot day.

After a long journey, we are finally at our Yangshuo home, which faces the Li River, and surprisingly, quite a pleasant little place. Looking forward to the 2 days here! :D


Sometimes, You Have To See, To Believe



Sometimes we must leave, in order to arrive.
Sometimes we must go up, to know we belong on the ground.
Sometimes we bow, to know why we should stand.
Sometimes you have to be apart, to know you belong together.
Sometimes we need to see something small, to know what is great.
Sometimes to know what is right, we need to see what is wrong.
Because sometimes, you have to see, to believe.

- National Geographic



Humble Tamarind


If you happen to find yourself in the East Coast of Malaysia, especially Kelantan, try this buah celagi or tamarind fruit. It’s sold by the piles at night markets, good quality ones fetching RM10 a kg.

Yes, this humble fruit used to be of zero-value when I was a kid, it was so sour that we had to eat it with salt, sugar and belacan (shrimp paste) – yummy!

Now thanks to the ever-resourceful Thais, it has been nurtured into something more edible.

How to eat it? Just remove the flaky skin, which drops off easily.

All skin gone, you then have this ugly-looking dude with tough fibres around it.

Remove the fibres and you are left with this stuff, which looks like a (healthy) cat’s poop.

Just pop the thing into your mouth, chew and savour the sweet and sour taste, which can be heavenly. Don’t forget to spit the seeds out. We don’t want them tamarind trees growing in your tummy. Hehehe …

Talking about tamarind trees, I actually saw some when I was in Phnom Penh last April. It’s on the left in this pic – see the brownish tamarind bunches.

Yes, there is a mature tamarind tree right in front of the Skull Memorial Stupa at the Choeung Ek Killing Field (see story HERE). This tree must have witnessed some pretty horrendous stuff during the Khmer Rouge era.

A NOTE OF CAUTION:  For some people, the tamarind can be a potent laxative! :D

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