Sunday, 23 March 2008

Tibet, a slice of heaven at stake

The death toll to-date is at 19, as announced by the Chinese government in Beijing. Although the Tibetan government in exile has claimed that more than 80 were killed, earlier this week.

While I followed the media coverage of the unrest in Tibet as closely as I can, I came to a point of frustration on the 3rd or 4th day after the riots broke out as the news reports were confusing and contradicting; the Chinese media's limited footage on violent acts of the Tibetan mobs in streets of Lhasa and the Western reports of largely exaggerated witness accounts. No one will, or perhaps is capable of telling the whole truth. As if high altitude is not a big enough challenge, the high-handed measures taken by Chinese government to deny entry of foreign journalists into Tibet and block some internet access, suffocated more truth than the thin level of oxgyen in the Himalayas did.

The only clarity so far is that the riots started out with peaceful demonstrations by monks on 10 March 08, which marked the 49th anniversary of Tibet's failed uprising against the Chinese government (the event that led the Dalai Lama to fleed Tibet and go into exile in India). It is unsure what sparked the violence as stories diverged. Some said that the police injured/killed monks while trying to put down the protestors, although the Chinese government suggested that monks slashed their wrists and deliberately injured themselves and then accused the police of initiating violence.

The colourful streets of Lhasa now totally transformed as shops are burnt and security personnels stationed everywhere.

Sorry sight at the sacred Johkang Temple and once bustling Barkhor.

Tensions and grievances have been brewing between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans, probably from the day the People's Liberation Army (PLA) marched into their sacred homeland in the 1950s. Tibetans claimed that with the influx of Chinese immigrants into Tibet, job opportunities are being taken away and traditions are eroding. More importantly, many Tibetans felt that the real autonomy that the Chinese Communist Party have promised (when Tibet was "liberated") was never delivered.

Source: Phoenix TV. Read reports here.
This sign was said to have appeared outside shops in Lhasa on 10 Mar. It was initially thought of as meaningless grafitti by children. However, after the riots broke out, people recalled that this sign appeared on most shops that have later been burnt down.

I don't know much about autonomy, but while in Tibet last year, I witnessed the disparities in lifestyles of the Han Chinese living in Tibet and the local Tibetans. I often think of my Sichunese driver, who owns a Toyota Land Cruiser and my Tibetan tour guide, who owns nothing but his motherland; and the Chinese family who runs a large souvenir shop having dinner in a restaurant frequent by American tourists versus the elderly lady mending her small stall at the Barkhor and the way she prayed and thanked the Buddha after we spent a mere Rmb100 on some cheap jewelleries. I will also never forget that Tibetan boy who grabbed our ankles and was crying, whom we dragged as we tried to walk away, and who evenutally let go of us after being told off by the Tibetan lady I asked help of.

The completion of the Qing Zang Highway in the 1980s and now the new railroad which connects Qinghai and Tibet have made the mystical kingdom more accessible to the outside world than ever. I recalled having long discussions with my Tibetan cabin mate on board of the Lhasa Express, for a 36 hour ride from Lhasa to Xi'an, about the damages (to my Tibetan friend, he sees benefits) that would be brought onto Tibet as it opens up to the world. I was concerned about the negative impacts of modernisation on the landscape, traditional values and ways of life as we have seen in many developed cosmopolitan cities. But my Tibetan friend(1), who is a teacher, is more optimistic. He has a vision, which is one that the Tibetan children could see and know the outside world, instead of just having to imagine it. And these, he believes are only possible with economic and social developments and better education. To keep up with the rest of the world, Tibet has to change, he said.

I reflected on his words long and hard. At first, it was hard to embrace them completely but eventually, I relented. For the better future of children who now have to walk many miles everyday to attend school, and for that bottle of Coke, in the hands of the granddaughter of a restaurant keeper, as well as other modern comforts to make way to the Tibetan people, it seems like progress and thereby changes are inevitable. I thought Tibet would just have to find ways to deal with the "side effects".

And so, they are staring at us blatantly today, some of the "side effects". Who could have guess that the very means of connecting Tibet to the world would become the cause of the discords and rifts between the Han Chinese and Tibetans? Is this a price too much to pay? Or someone needs to be blamed for forcing changes on Tibet faster than it could sustain?

Photos from Reuters

It is a pity to see the unique characteristics of Tibet slowly fading away as the Han Chinese population replace Tibetans as majority in Tibet, introduced ways of life in great contrast to the traditional values of the Tibetans and stifles the deeply entrenched Tibetans' Buddhist faith - where portraits of their respected spiritual leader are not allowed, where monks are forced into exile leaving holy monasteries deserted, where Panchen Lama is still missing after being held in "protective custody" by the Chinese authority... these are sad events and no wonder the Dalai Lama talks about a "cultural genocide".

As an on-looker, a tourist, Tibet is a place where my city drenched soul calls a paradise. To me, these series of events did no more than put my slice of heaven at stake. But to the Tibetan people, it is their pursue for greater freedom, for their future and for a country they will like to see. Yet irregardless of what is at stake, violence should never be the way to resolve issues. And boycott the Olympics, I say no no, at least for now. I look forward to the day when the Olympic torch reaches the summit of Mt Everest. That will be a great pride to all Chinese people and me alike.

A video clip released on YouTube in the early days of the riots. It is one of those few that have more than the official images released by CCTV.

(1)Ami won a teacher's award presented by Intel. He wrote a touching speech which I heard him rehearsed several times on the train. Watch video about Ami and hear part of his speech here. (Warning: Takes a long time to buffer)

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Schloss Schonbrunn: Glamour or Tragedy?

The Schloss Schonbrunn (Schonbrunn Palace) is built in the 17th century by order of Maria Theresa, the then Empress of Austria. The palace was used as the summer residence of the Habsburg Monarchy (Austrian Monarchy between 16th-19th century).

Schonbrunn Palace building. Magnificent structure exhibiting all the imperial glamour in Baroque style. This is however not the best time for admiring the beautiful Grand Parterre (garden).

The Gloriette erected in 1775. The word "Gloriette" comes from French, which means "little glory" and this is like a resting place for people walking in the garden. Absolutely necessary in Schonbrunn because the compound is huge. And climbing up the hill to get to the Gloriette can be physically demanding. But it offers a great view of Schonbrunn and the city of Vienna so it is definitely worth the effort to make the climb.

Schloss Schonbrunn and city view of Vienna from the Gloriette, on top of the hill

Fake roman ruins in the garden compound. Hmm... who could understand the Austrians?

The most impressive of the palace have got to be the gardens. The planning and landscaping in these Baroque gardens are something to awe at. Unfortunately, winter is never the right time to admire gardens. See some pictures of the gardens at other times during the year.

The Privy Garden. Look how beautiful!

Great Parterre when the flowers are blooming.

There is a total of 1,400 rooms in Schonbrunn Palace and 40 of them are opened to public. Opt for the "Grand Tour" which allows you to see all the 40 rooms in approximately 50 mins. Complete the tour with an audio guide in multi-languages which is included in the price of the ticket.

Some of the rooms that are particularly interesting are:

The Millions Room(Photos: Schloss Schonbrunn official website). The room got it's name most likely from the precious rosewood that is used for panelling. Notice the crystal mirror in the photo? There are actually 2 of such mirrors facing each other on opposite sides of the wall. With this, an image of an "infinity room" is created through the mirrors.

The Mirrors Room. This was where little Mozart, at age of 6, made his first performance of violin for Empress Maria Theresa. It was told by Mozart's father, Leopold that after his performance, Mozart wrapped himself around the Empress and planted kisses on her face.

Hall of Ceremonies. Whether it was his outstanding musical talent or the kisses, Mozart had certainly made quite an impression on the Empress that she later ordered little Mozart and his father to be painted in one of her paintings. The painting is hung in this room and depicts the wedding scene of Joseph II, Maria Theresa's son, in 1760. In that year, Mozart was only 4 years old and still living in Salzburg so he could not have possibly attended the wedding.

The reason why the Hall of Ceremonies is a room worth mentioning is because of the 5 precious paintings in there. One of them, as you can see from the photo, is the famous portrait of the Empress Maria Theresa herself. She was regarded as the "First Lady of Europe" because she was effectively ruling the monarchy during her time in the 18th century. Somewhat like Wu Ze Tian and Empress Dowager Cixi of China, but different because Empress Maria Theresa and her husband were truly in love even until they were much older, and they had 11 children altogether. She was also considered one of the most capable rulers in Europe.

But what really brought Schonbrunn Palace so much fame can be attributed to the famous Empress Elisabeth of Austria or better known as Princess Sisi.

Borned as a Bavarian Princess on Christmas eve of 1834, she and Emperor Franz Joseph fell in love and were enageged to each other when she was just 15. After the couple got married in 1857, Sisi proved to be a misfit in the imperial family and was disliked by her mother-in-law.

In some writings, Diana, the Princess of Whales is compared to Princess Sisi both for her beauty and defiance of the strict formalities in the imperial family. At one point in time, Princess Sisi was thought to be the most beautiful woman in Europe, and perhaps even the world!

Sisi was unhappy living in the palace due to tensions with her mother-in-law as well as frustrations with her royal obligations. It became apparent that she also regretted her early marriage, as written in one of her later journals, "Marriage is a preposterous institution. You are sold as a child of fifteen, you swear vows you don’t understand, and you regret them for thirty years or more, but you can never break them." At that time, she did not have the option of a divorce.

Princess Sisi however found great pleasures in travelling and she spent prolonged period of time away from the palace, visiting different places in Europe. She also wrote poetry, practised horse-riding and kept to strict diets to maintain her slender figure (it was said that she has a waistline of 20"). Perhaps, travelling and to be away from home were the best ways to escape all her misery.

Her life came to a tragic end when she was murdered at the age of 60 at Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Or maybe not... this could be the ultimate liberation for her.

Emperor Franz Joseph's love for his wife was, however, unwavering. When he heard news of the Empress's death, he was devasted, although he didn't die immediately.

Emperor Franz Joseph's bedroom. It was on this bed that the emperor died in 1916 at the age of 86. You may think that he was lucky to have lived to such an old age, considering with reference to the times in which he lived in. But he had survived the death of his first daughter at age of 2, suicide of his only son and murder of his beloved wife Empress Elisabeth. Maybe it was tragic for him to have lived so long.

So whether Schloss Schonbrunn is a manifestation of glamour or tragedy, it depends on which part of history you like best. Nevertheless, it is one great legacy from the Habsburg Monarchy and even if you put histories aside, the exquisitely decorated palace rooms and the well set Baroque gardens are good reasons to make this a must see site in Vienna.

* * * *


你看过了许多美景 你看过了许多美女
你品嚐了夜的巴黎 你踏过下雪的北京


你累计了许多飞行 你用心挑战纪念品
你拥抱热情的岛屿 你埋葬记忆的土耳其



你离开我 就是旅行的意义

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

"The Kiss" by Gustav Klimt

A painting in the Belvedere Gallery by Gustav Klimt, a celebrated Austrian painter. In fact, it is like the "镇馆之宝", the centre piece in the gallery. I loved it so much that I bought a poster of it back home. The original piece is painted with gold and silver. Of course, I can't afford anything like that, though my poster is decorated with some Austrian crystals. Really beautiful, show you next time.

Let me try to intepret this painting for you.

Notice the rectangles on the man and the circles on the woman? They signify the distinctions between male and female and that people are always attracted to the opposites. Upon a kiss however, the differences dissolved and the two form an union and emerge as one in a world of their own. There is no indication of time and place as suggested by the plain brass and gold background; and that represents the timelessness that one feels in a kiss... as if one is stranded in a galaxy, where time stands still.

I am sorry if I did no credit to the painting with my intepretations. But it is meant to have a beautiful meaning, like how the painting is in reality. And I didn't come up with the intepretation on my own, I heard it during the museum tour lah!

So I am a sucker for all these romantism and airy fairy ideas. But I simply love this painting.

P.S. I also love the "Adam and Eve" painting from Klimt. Ha, it's a bit obscene, but you can google to find it.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Vienna Day 5-6: Danube, Demel and I am Done!

It is a cold morning in Vienna and I am due for home today. My bags are almost packed, except for some odd items lying on the bed, which seem to fit into no where.

It is often hard to describe moments like this. On one hand, the fatigue from traveling and the inconvenience of living out of a suitcase have got me looking forward to the home bound trip; on the other hand, it is difficult to say goodbye and leave all these beauty behind.

Upper Belverdere, palace compound of Prince Eugene

Lower Belverdere, residential palace of Prince Eugene

Yesterday was meant for the Danube river cruise. However, due to my carelessness, we missed both timing of the cruise for the day and could do nothing but watch the river flow.

Actually I don’t think we missed much because the Danube looks plain in Vienna city. It is in the valley that the river would look most beautiful, accompany by magnificent mountains in the backdrop.

I walked a long time along the Danube. It was quiet, so quiet that sometimes the ears hurt, like that you would feel in a vacuum. So the world was created silent, until man introduced sound: music, laughter, gunshots…

A walk down the Danube is a great way to enjoy a leisure afternoon. So many little things are happening: dogs chasing the birds, swans flaunting their beautiful white feathers, mandarin ducks swimming in pairs.

After being disappointed with missing the cruise, how else is it better to boost up spirits than to indulge in chocolate and sweets?

Never travel with a China man... he always appeared in my photos at the most inappropriate places.

Café Demel, founded in 1848 by the court confectioner. The hot chocolate is wooooooo……fit for royalty!

Classic set up, with chandelier

Even the toilet sign is made of marzipan.

Joke #2: At the Belverde

Oh no! The palace is closed!

When there is a will, there is a way...

Before I go, here are some wise words...

Friday, 7 March 2008

Vienna Day 4: Classical Concert in Palace

A classical Viennese concert in Schloss Schonbrunne (Schonbrunne Palace) is fit for the Empress. In this room, the Palace Ensemble performs, consisting of 5 musicians ((piano, violins and flute), 2 opera singers and 2 ballet dancers.

Mozart and Strauss’s pieces were played, including their symphonies and operas. I have to agree that Italian is the most beautiful opera language because those sung in German were just, how should I say it…. a little less than perfect. No wonder Mozart insisted on producing his operas in Italian (though himself German speaking), as he thought they were superior.

While Mozart’s compositions are majestic and grand, Strauss’s waltzes, I thought, are absolutely romantic.

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

When Shakespeare wrote this opening line for “Twelfth Night”, I wonder if he had heard Johann Strauss (of course you know this is impossible, Shakespeare lived in the 16th century, long before Strauss). As the ensemble played, it felt like being in love, like little flowers blossom in spring and birds chirping in the morning sunlight…. Life is beautiful, when you waltz.

I am no big fan of classical music but it was a great evening. Sitting inside a palace built in the 17th century, listening to music from great composers from almost 200 years ago, it has all the right elements for an evening worth remembering.

Vienna is all about palaces and music, exactly the way I have seen from TV.

Next pit-stop, Danube lake!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Vienna Day 3 : Nothing but work

I like to show you my hotel rooms, so that you know if I have been treated like a queen or is putting up at some shabby quarters. These days, hotels have many creative themes, just like the one I am staying in Vienna… Roomz Hotel.

The rooms have different colour scheme; brown, pink, blue and of course green (colour of summer, just right for me).

Everything is green… door, curtains, bed headboard, toilet shelves.

See, my personalised TV screen!

This is supposed to be a budget hotel. No mini-bar, no kettle or cup. And no door to the bathroom! It is so cold to take a shower at night; ok I am exaggerating, but I’d rather they kept the door.

Tomorrow is the last day of my training. I am the youngest participant in this meeting and the least attentive one. Haha, my mind has been roaming the streets of Stephanplatz). Anyway, I will be going to Danau River on Friday and maybe a Mozart & Strauss concert in the evening. Yippee!

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Vienna Day 1-2: I'm not kidding, Vienna is pretty

I’ve decided not to blog diligently on daily basis because the comments are so few despite I've travelled so far. You are not easily impressed is it? Should I wake Mozart up from his grave?

Just kidding, the internet charge in my hotel is too expensive (Euros 3 per hour, that's crazy!) so I have to scrimp and save a bit.

Today is a total transformation for me, from a holiday maker to a business traveler. My tired legs can finally get some rest. Honestly, making my “8 hours shift” in Salzburg was so much tougher than a day in office here in Vienna.

Giving up the walking shoes for heels. I shall be a lady for 3 days.

I said a few days ago that I thought I was going to like Vienna because of its similarity with home. However, I have to say it differently now as it is not the “modern metropolitan” atmosphere that appeals to me; it is the churches and palaces that won me over. Although I have spent only 1 afternoon sightseeing so far, those amazing historical buildings I saw are enough to convince me how beautiful the city is. When I was at St Stephan, I lost all ability to reason… how can I explain to you this magnificent sight? The church which stood there since the 12th century, where Mozart’s wedding and funeral were held, which also survived the Nazis during WWII.

And finally, some decent weather... look at the beautiful blue skies; I have missed them for days.

I wish I was not traveling with a “photographer” of unknown statues and old buildings that afternoon… if you know what I mean. 走马看花 is not my style. What happened to history?

Anyway, I am thinking of creating a pseudo identity for myself, to patronise those strangers I met when I travel. "Where are you from?", Africa. "What do you do for a living?", Painter. "How are you today?", Sorry I don't speak English... haha I'm losing my mind. What am I saying here?

I will discontinue with recounting my daily mishaps because I realized they are nothing compared to what my other 2 colleagues have suffered over the last 2 days. Both lost their luggages on the way (they came separately) because their connecting flights to Vienna were delayed. One was stuck in Paris for a night and as a result was late for the meeting this morning. The airline managed to retrieve and delivered the luggage to one of them, but for the other, his bag is still stranded in Paris as of now. No change of clothes, no toothbrush, no nothing…. sad, sad, sad.

Moral of the story, never take for granted our national airline which is mostly (if not always) on time and reliable. Star alliance rules!

In place of the daily mishaps, may I introduce....


Joke #1: I received a phone call from Paris yesterday night: “… can you tell me how much I need to tip the waiter?”

Monday, 3 March 2008

Day 4 Salzburg ---> Vienna

I am leaving for Vienna in 2 hours, returning to a "real" world... where there are friends, colleagues and a job to do. Not that I don't like the company of people or to be gainfully employed, but the lonely footsteps and the silent breath have their unique charms; quite addictive at times. Spending a weekend alone in Salzburg and indulge in solitude, that was a great thing to do.

I haven't shown you where I put up for the last 3 days. Hotel Weisse Taube (Hotel White Dove) located in the old town. This was a resident house in the 14th century and restored into a hotel. The location is great, it is near everywhere... museum, cathedral, churches, shopping street and of course the Fortress which is so near but far.

My dove nest. Small but cosy and with a private bathroom.

Daily breakfast included in the price of room. I stuffed myself nuts with breakfast so that I can skip lunch. Save time and money.

I struggled with my luggage today. Although I was very lean on shopping, I probably have still bought one thing too many to fit into my suitcase (which was already stuffed full when I came). But the Mozart Kugel, (I hate them because of the Marzipan inside), the authentic version from the original confectionery, how can I not bring them home for you?

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Salzburg Day 3 - The weather forbids

I’ve learnt that the bad weather I experienced in Salzburg these couple of days is also affecting the other European city, particularly Germany (in Munich and Frankfurt). And I was told that a tour bus carrying Japanese tourists over turned on its way to the airport in Munich.

I was full of anticipation this morning as I thought I was finally going up Fortress Hohensalzburg. This was where I wanted to go before I even arrived in Salzburg. But as I reached the funicular station (for a ride up to the Fortress), I saw a notice saying that the funicular service was suspended due to the weather conditions. Even the footpath to walk up to the fortress was blocked.

This is really one of those things that can dampen my spirits in a trip. Over dressed and under fed, I was walking silly around Residenz Platz, wondering how I should kill my time for the rest of the day.

But museum hopping can be fun too. Salzburg Museum, Modern Art Museum, Wax Museum and the Festival Hall were some of those places I went today.

(1) Salzburg Museum

Has a collection of paintings of Salzburg city and important people in history. Good stuff, really fascinating. It has also a section with old photographs of Salzburg, which has inspired me on the theme of my next photo album.

Nice painting

(2) Festspielhaus (Festival Hall Complex)

The Festpielhaus will come alive during the Salzburg festival in summer (July). It has 3 theatres, with the oldest one dated back to the 17th century.

The newest addition, the House for Mozart, opened only in 2006, in conjunction with the 250 years anniversary of Mr Mozart. The acoustic in there is great. The walls are made of special plaster-marble mix that will not allow a decibel of sound to escape. So are the wood used for the benches. Specially built for best enjoyment of Mozart’s operas.

The Great Festival Hall opens in 1960. Look how it was built, leaning against the mountain rock (the "wall" right at the end is actually on the rock of Monchsberg mountain).

The Felsenreitschule is an open air theatre (with a retractable roof) built in the 17th century. It is completely deserted now and the stage is covered with white plastic to protect it from the rain (tour guide says it rains more than London here in Salzburg)

For this year’s opening of the Salzburg Festival, Romeo and Julia will be playing in this theatre. Wow!

(3) Café Tomaselli

When the Turks invaded Austria in the 18th century, they introduced coffee beans to this country. It was the best thing that came out of the invasion, as I was told.

Café Tomaselli opens in 1705 and is run by the Tomaselli family ever since. As I was enjoying my coffee and cake, an elderly man with German accent asked if he could share the table with me. Of course, I said, though I was wondering when the table sharing culture in hawker centre has been introduced to Europe.

It was awkward in the beginning as my eyes met the stranger’s uncomfortably. I started out clumsily with a casual conversation, asking if this is a popular café in Salzburg (of course it is, I read it from the guidebook haha!) Indeed, operating for over 300 years, the Tomaselli family must have been doing something very right.

It turned out that this old gentleman from Germany was a wonderful company for the afternoon. Strangely, we have a few things in common. He works in a Swiss bank doing finance (so am I though not in a bank), love travelling on trains (needless to say, trains are my favourites… Trans Siberia, Lhasa Express are some of my track records) and been to Singapore once but just at the airport (I have been to Germany once, but just at Frankfurt airport). Is this coincidence or fate?

We hit it off really well and I got carried away talking about my Trans Siberia trip. The old gentleman mentioned that this was “in his radar”. I certainly hope he can fulfill his wish soon…. how about this summer?

He ended up buying me the coffee. Oh how can I refuse? And thanks to him, I was introduced to Mrs Tomaselli and shake hands with her!

Mélange (coffee with whipped cream) and Mozart Torte (this is Salzburg as I was told by the waitress).

(4) Mozart Platz

It was 6pm again. I sat on a bench in Mozart Platz, over looking the statue of the great composer and listening to the symphony of church bells.

Today is my final day in Salzburg. Although it has only been a short 3 day stay, I felt like I have travelled in a time machine and was taken to 300 years ago and then back. Salzburg city is full of old town charm. It is so easy to spot something that is more than a century old. Just look up at any building, it can easily be one built in, say 1553. Not surprising since the old town existed since A.D.700 and the “new town” since A.D.1200.

Mozart left a legacy to the world, probably far greater than he could ever imagined. What would he have done differently if he knew he was composing for eternity?

Tomorrow, I will move on to another city, just like the journey of my life will continue as I search for its true meaning.

Next stop, Vienna!

* * Mishap #4 – Fortress Hohensalzburg closed

Can it be worse? So near yet so far.

Maybe this is a way to give myself an excuse to come back here some day. Attending an opera during the Salzburg Festival is a dream of mine for the longest time but, I have not been able to do it this time. Yet I am mindful about making promises to return because it usually does not happen. And when all these are over, the wonderful Salzburg experiences will become pages of memories, be read and re-read then tucked away into a corner of a bookshelf. So what is there left to regret?