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Category: Culture & Heritage

Peranakan Princess Pampering At Majestic Malacca’s Spa Village

In Malacca, the early Chinese community that settled in Malaya in the early 17th century were known as Peranakans or Baba (male) and Nyonya (female). They were mostly traders, merchants…

In Malacca, the early Chinese community that settled in Malaya in the early 17th century were known as Peranakans or Baba (male) and Nyonya (female). They were mostly traders, merchants or businessmen and were extremely successful, wealthy and influential. The Majestic Malacca was once a mansion owned by a Peranakan businessman and today, it has been restored to its former glory into The Majestic Malacca with an in-house luxurious spa, also known to be the only one to base its therapies around the healing culture of the Peranakan people.

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My three-hour pampering session began at the front desk where I filled out a questionnaire to determine the kind of treatment I needed; warm treatment for cooler body types and cold treatment for warmer body types. The range of treatments offered celebrates the incredible mix of Chinese and Malay ingredients that are often found in the Nyonya pantry but have been transformed to form a decadent concoction of spa treatments – ingredients such as eggs, palm sugar, ginger, birds nest, pandan, nutmeg and limau kasturi.

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After completing the questionnaire, I was whisked into a private changing room and asked to change into a plush robe. Then I was taken to an airy lounge with spacious Peranakan day beds overlooking the glistening lap pool. Purveyed with cold scented towels, hot Chinese tea and a Mandarin orange, my mind began to wander as my body started relaxing.

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My treatment started soon after as I followed my masseur, Redita upstairs into my private massage suite. Designed to please the eye, the wooden shuttered windows are drawn shut with the slightest hint of sun streaming in accenting the soothing light teal and creme colours of the wall. Two massage beds sat island in the room and the suite has its own toilet, shower and standalone clawfoot bath tub.

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Bliss began as my face was treated with to an exotic birds nest facial. Birds nest, a Chinese prized ingredient is lauded for its healing properties that are thought to boost immunity and bolster longevity. Jade rollers were used at the end of the massage to close the pores and tighten facial muscles. Almost lulled to sleep, my senses came to life as scents of sweet pandan infused the room. I was given a firm head massage before my hair was treated to a thick sweet coconut-pandan hair mask. The aroma almost made me salivate and crave for some good local dessert and I my mind drifted into pure bliss.

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Since I am pregnant, Redita proceeded to give me a pregnancy massage. Laying on my side, she massaged my back and shoulders giving utmost care to ensure my comfort. Her movements were seamless, with long firm strokes expelling all the knots on my stiff shoulders. She was also mindful not to massage my feet and kept the pressure light when massaging my lower back.

Just as I thought my treatment was over, I was treated with a special hair washing treatment, drawing on the twelve step Peranakan wedding preparation for brides. On each of twelve days leading up to the marriage ceremony, Nyonya brides are traditionally pampered and beautified which involves a different ritual every day. The hair washing ceremony ends with a hair combing ritual believed to eliminate impurities and negativity as the bride steps into a new chapter of life.

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After an ultimate three-hour pampering, I sank into the sprawling Chinese day bed and sipped on pot of soothing Chinese tea while savouring on some acar, pickled vegetables and wishfully hoped that the minutes stood still.

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Majestic Malacca: A Glimpse Of Old Opulence

Every building has a story, particularly heritage buildings that have weathered the storms and survived to bear the footprints of this generation. I entered the modest lobby of the Majestic…

Every building has a story, particularly heritage buildings that have weathered the storms and survived to bear the footprints of this generation. I entered the modest lobby of the Majestic Malacca and felt perfectly at home. The warm lighting from the porcelain umbrella lamps and the old-fashioned chandelier set the place aglow. Large leather-bound armchairs and wicker furniture beckoned me for a rest.

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As I looked around, I found a few glass containers filled with familiar childhood goodies – preserved sweet plums, peanut biscuits, tou chee phaeng – tiny plain biscuits topped with a swirl of colourful harden icing sugar (in English, it’s translated as belly button biscuits), green peas, salted peanuts and coconut candy. These munchies brought back many memories and are reminiscent of Malacca’s rich culinary heritage – especially the coconut candy that taste almost like Gula Melaka.

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The beautiful Spanish tiles and solid timber staircase, reception and bar counter evoke an air of opulence in the days of past. I learned that this building was once a mansion belonging to a wealthy rubber tycoon who had four wives and he lavishly designed his home with the best fittings and furnishings. The decadence continued even after he passed on when a hotelier bought over the mansion and transformed it into a hotel bearing the same name “Majestic”.

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The reception and bar counters have been kept intact since the 1920s. The Majestic played host to traveling merchants and British planters. It was then lauded for its grandiosity where big banquets and important meetings were held within its walls. But its glory soon faded and was converted into a simple guesthouse and soon after abandoned.

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Walking into the Library, a lounge and lunch area with a floor to ceiling bookshelf filled with historical reads, I get a sense that the mansion was painstakingly and delicately restored to keep its charm and history unflawed. The cosy Library with its large wooden shuttered windows with warm natural light streaming in and soft arm chairs makes for a cozy curl up and read. This space was formerly a bedroom space which now has been aptly converted into a relaxing lounge where lunch and tea is served.

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I spent an afternoon sipping on green tea and nibbling on fine local and European tea snacks served on a three-tier platter – scones with clotted cream and jam, creme brulee, cheese tarts, macarons, finger sandwiches, kuih lapis, blue glutinous rice cakes, ondeh-ondeh, spring rolls and samosas. Full and satisfied after tea, I settled in and buried my face into a book trying not to feel guilty for the calories I’ve piled on. But my conscience did not waver, so I visited the hotel’s gym and spent an hour sweating it out. The fully equipped gym is small, but has all the essential equipment for a good workout.

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Overlooking the gym is a lap pool and it connects to a tall building where all 54 guest rooms are housed. My room was just as homely as the lobby, elegantly designed in neo Asian-colonial style with timber floorings, a teakwood four-poster bed and a sprawling daybed overlooking the Malacca River. The open bathroom with wooden sliding doors offer a chic accent with black and white marble floor and a large clawfoot bathtub.

Bedroom4Bedroom3Yet, even with the most luxuriate furnishings, what stood out was the warm, friendly hospitality of the people who work behind the scenes. Upon check-in, a wicker basket with porcelain teacups and a teapot filled with soothing warm Chinese tea was served to me in my room. I later requested for some nibbles to munch on and it promptly delivered to my room without fuss.

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Dining at The Mansion just above the lobby area was pure delight. Tunes from the grand piano piped through the entire building filling it with a sense of nostalgia. The spacious windows draped with elegant curtains boast views of the glistening Malacca River and Kampung Morten with dancing night lights as the city comes to life in the evening. The menu is simple and uncomplicated, it celebrates the best of Malacca cuisine; the perfect blend of Portuguese, Dutch, English and Baba-Nyonya cultures.

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From the food, to the service, to the hotel’s fine furnishings – the Majestic Malacca triumphantly captured the opulence of its heyday. Not many hotels are successful in telling their story so well, still not many are able to preserve a history that spanned almost a century old and to this day dwell in its confines. A visit to Malacca would be shortchanged if you did not stop by the Majestic for a stay or even stop over for a cup of Chinese tea.

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Preserving Fading Cultures & Trades

If you’re exploring Peninsular Malaysia and nearby stopovers destinations while transiting in the capital Kuala Lumpur, then put Malacca (Melaka) on the list. It’s only a two-hour drive from Kuala…

If you’re exploring Peninsular Malaysia and nearby stopovers destinations while transiting in the capital Kuala Lumpur, then put Malacca (Melaka) on the list. It’s only a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur and is brimming with culture, rich heritage and an abundance of good food. Since young, Malacca has been one of the places I frequented for short family getaways, aside from the equally charming state of Penang and nature-rich Pahang.

Malacca’s history holds great intrigue, a city once ruled by Portuguese, Dutch and British leaders. The Straits of Malacca was a strategic waterway and as a result, the city played host to Chinese, Indian and European merchants who brought with them spices, silks, ornamental carvings, porcelains – and of course, cultural influences to the local people. The traces of Malacca’s rich history can today be seen in the design of the shophouses, its cuisine, existing (but slowly fading) businesses and religious centres.

z2The best way to explore the city is by foot – so I joined the free walk tour hosted by the Majestic Malacca for her guests. We meandered through tiny lanes exploring small shophouses, some dating back 100 years and lasting through four generations. We watched tinsmiths, prints-men, barbers, goldsmith, Chinese tea sellers and tailors busy at work, unperturbed at the speed of the day, but drumming to their own carefree rhythm.

Old barber

We stopped at a century-old bar where the owner is thought to have extraordinary knowledge in concocting healing medicine laced with alcohol. We stopped by a wood carvers workstation, thought to be the only wood carver in Malacca that made Chinese signboards by hand. I revelled in the skill and patience of the carver – attentively chiselling away from the wooden plank.

Chinese caligraphy

Then we stopped at a shophouse where skilful shoemakers with perfect vision sat attentively stitching small micro-beads to make beautiful beaded shoes for ladies. It takes up to a month to complete a pair of shoes and they retail for a few hundred ringgits, but every cent spent on a masterpiece like this is worth it, because these skills are slowly fading, one generation at a time.

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The gruesome foot binding practice which originated in China was also introduced to Malacca during the fusion merchants boom. Apparently, there were several shoe makers who specialised in foot binding, but only one remains today in Malacca. The practice, however, has been put to a stop due to the inhuman implications on young ladies who failed to walk or even perform day-to-day activities without falling over or aided with a walking stick. I held a shoe in my palm and was baffled at a how a foot can fit in – it was smaller than the pair of shoes my almost three-year-old wore. The shop still makes these minute shoes for keepsakes.

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Beelining past busy Jonker Street where activity is abuzz, we stepped into Masjid Kampung Kling. The mosque, built in 1872 resembles a Chinese temple at first glance, with the minaret resembling a pagoda instead of a dome. The interiors of the temple are decked with wooden wall carvings and hanging chandeliers, with its structure held up by Roman pillars.

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When the mosque was restored in 2013, craftsmen replaced old and missing tiles by replicating the design of old tiles. Our guide told us to look closely at the tiles to spot the difference. The new tiles were stamped with the year ‘2013’ while the old tiles remained as is. This interesting observation applies for many other restored shophouses and buildings within Malacca.

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The refurbishment of these old buildings, shophouses and religious centres have much to be celebrated. I returned from my three-hour walk tour and stood in awe of Majestic Malacca, once an old mansion owned by a wealthy businessman with four wives who tragically died from tuberculosis and whose sons squandered his fortune leaving the beautiful structure to waste. Many years on, the mansion was bought over by a hotelier who found the house too big for his family and so he converted the first floor to a simple hotel with single bedrooms and shared toilets. On the ground floor, his family lived in four spacious rooms and he built bar and reception which still remains today in the modern-heritage Majestic Malacca.

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The hotel survived 20 dark years of abandonment after it failed to fly with the rise of larger hotel chains. It also faced the threat of being torn down – but hope arose when YTL Hotels bought it over and delicately restored it to its former beauty. Today, the unsuspecting mansion still stands, sandwiched between a towering hospital and some shophouses while overlooking the glistening Malacca River.

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Seven Terraces, Penang: The Best Of Peranakan Living

Penang has fast gained popular attention. Since its inscription in 2008 as one of five Unesco World Heritage Sites in Malaysia, local and foreign entrepreneurs have rushed in to painstakingly…

Penang has fast gained popular attention. Since its inscription in 2008 as one of five Unesco World Heritage Sites in Malaysia, local and foreign entrepreneurs have rushed in to painstakingly restore and preserve the untouched inner city bringing back a vibrant heartbeat to George Town, a once-almost-forgotten heart of Penang.

I’ve featured a number of hotels in Penang with the same vision of preservation but my recent stay at the Seven Terraces topped it all. Located on Stewart Lane adjacent to the Goddess of Mercy Temple, this hidden jewel is a celebration of the Peranakan culture, a mix of Chinese and Malay heritage, one that is unique to island city.

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Backstory of Seven Terraces

A row of seven shophouses built by wealthy Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s was once a business hub for traders and merchants. Unfortunately calamity struck and a raging fire engulfed the structure leaving it in shambles. The building was forgotten and forsaken as nature took over allowing creepers and tree roots to hold anchor. A glimmer of hope struck in 2009 when award-winning conservators and designers, Karl Steinberg and Penang-born Christopher Ong took on the mammoth task of restoring and re-building the dilapidated shophouses.

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During the reconstruction period, the original features of the building have been retained where possible and salvaged timber have been used to reduce the footprint and antique granite blocks from China were used for the central courtyard.

A celebration of the finest Peranakan living

Seven Terraces sets itself apart from other heritage boutique hotels in Penang because of its exclusivity and authenticity. The floor-to-ceiling gilded doors at its entrance opens up to the hotel’s lobby, an airy space with three mother-of-pearl Chinese opium beds, ornate antiques and blackwood furniture.

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The lobby is the only public space before guests step into the private open courtyard with the highly acclaimed Kebaya restaurant and Baba Bar running the length of the shophouse on one side and a lap pool, lounge and library on the other side of the ground floor. Walking along the open courtyard, I begin to take in the grandeur and wealth of the rich Peranakan culture. Gilded doors, intricate wooden carvings, elaborate furnishings and polished reflected the wealth of that era. I climb up the wooden spiral staircase at the end of the courtyard into the sunlit verandahs leading to the hotel suites.

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Arriving at Argus 5, the doors to my terraced duplex suite swung open as I entered into a tastefully curated contemporary-heritage suite with a homely living space on the ground floor and the bedroom on the mezzanine floor. The living space featured two plush arm chairs, a blackwood bench, rustic gilded cupboards, delicate antiques and framed embroidered costumes.

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At the end of the living room, a floor-to-ceiling wooden partition folds back to reveal the large bathroom and toilet with chic black-and-white mosaic tiles, a seamless rain shower lodged in the ceiling, marble basin and wooden shuttered windows opening to the street below.

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Above the living space is an intimate bedroom with a king-size four poster bed decked with fluffy feather pillows and a set of framed baba nyonya embroidered costumes as wall decor. Beyond the bed, a couple of wooden shuttered doors open to a small toilet for convenience and a private balcony that overlooks St. George’s church.

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The suite lacked nothing in terms of modern amenities, with a flat screen tv, powerful air-conditioning for the entire suite, dainty teapot and cups set on colourful tiled trays for coffee and tea and free internet access.

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At every turn of the hotel, a piece of antique beckons, from jade vases to wooden carvings, from blackwood furniture to memorable collectibles. The hotel’s Antiques shop, conveniently tucked at the corner of the ground floor is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir item or piece of furniture on the way out. The shop also features some of Ong’s personal collection that are now up for sale.

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Still, a trip to Penang is incomplete without a rave on the city’s food. Lauded as food haven by local Malaysians, Penang is bursting from it seams with an endless array of country’s tastiest dishes. The hotel’s award-winning Kebaya restaurant offers a delectable menu of traditional Peranakan flavours using modern and French dining techniques. If you choose to explore some of the favourite local joints on foot, grab a copy of Christopher Ong’s personal food guide from the reception, with a list of recommended coffee shops and cafes.

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Baltschug Kempinski, Moscow: A Taste Of Luxury

Every city has a tourism heritage distinct to her own history, culture, tradition and socio-economy status. Very few ‘first’ hotels are still standing, much less in operation or thriving. It…

Every city has a tourism heritage distinct to her own history, culture, tradition and socio-economy status. Very few ‘first’ hotels are still standing, much less in operation or thriving. It was a great honour to visit one of the first 5-star hotels established in 1898 in Moscow, the Baltschug Kempinski. This luxury heritage hotel can’t be in a better location, overlooking the Moscow River and a panoramic view of the Red Square, the Kremlin and the unmistakable St. Basil’s Cathedral, Russia’s architectural icon.

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Built by the well-known Moscow architect Alexander Ivanov, the stunning facade embellished with decorative figures is the only remnants of the original building dating back to the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. By nightfall, the building illuminates and its reflection shimmers on the Moscow River, a great reminder of this hotel’s grand history.

The hotel is not short of VIP guests from international dignitaries to celebrities like Tina Turner and Sting. It’s hard to resist a charming hotel that’s a stone’s throw away from the Red Square with unobstructed views of St. Basil’s Cathedral. We were ushered into our Kremlin Suite, a beautiful and spacious suite tastefully decorated with luxurious European-styled furniture in shades of royal blue, dark grey, and creme.

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The suite has a large lounge area, a powder room, a small study desk and in a separate room with curved walls and windows looking overlooking the river and the Red Square is the master bedroom, the hallmark of the Kremlin Suite. The bedroom connects to a walk-in-wardrobe leading to a sensational bathroom featuring a standalone claw-footed bathtub on marble flooring, rainwater shower and a double dark-marble sink. I have been told that some suites have been designed by minor members of the British royal family.

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After catching a glimpse of the suite and its decadent decor, I was ready to taste the fine offerings of the Baltschug Grill. Chef Louis Badenhorst introduced himself and recommended some signature dishes – yellow fin tuna tatar and gazpacho for starters and for mains, prime steak cooked to perfection, paired with a red wine & thyme sauce and a green-pepper sauce and a grilled seabass on a bed of fresh greens and consomme. The table was beautifully filled with delightful side dishes like pommes allumettes (finely cut french fries), mashed potatoes, juicy asparagus shoots and a platter of cheese and crisps. Seth, our little toddler had his own serving of handmade freshly made pasta which he gobbled without much effort. Our amazing lunch ended on a perfect sweet note with a surprise from Chef Louis, a special that’s not on the menu – salted caramel ice cream macarons.

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The following day, we enjoyed another decadent breakfast at the Baltschug Grill. The open grill was whirling with activity and the restaurant offered a luxurious buffet spread of Russian favourites like blini and caviar, a salad bar, cheese bar, cold meats counter, overflowing sweet pastries, fresh fruits and other continental favourites like sausages, baked potatoes and eggs cooked in any way you desire. We sipped on beautiful rooibos tea and tucked into a hearty breakfast while enjoying the buzz around us.

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With professional and top class standards of service that befit the Kempinski Hotel group and as member of “Leading Hotels of the World”, the Baltschug Kempinski is a luxurious haven of peace and comfort away from the large crowds in Moscow city center, yet close enough to not miss out on the city’s happenings. I climb into my deep bathroom tub for one last soak, taking in all the grandeur this city has to offer – it truly is the glimpse of the glitz and glamour of the rich.

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Moscow In 48 Hours

Moscow has long had a reputation as the one of the world’s most expensive cities to visit. I was warned by other travellers to make sure that I had a…

Moscow has long had a reputation as the one of the world’s most expensive cities to visit. I was warned by other travellers to make sure that I had a big budget and to keep my money safe when exploring the city. What an irony! This reputation could have stemmed from the Cold War where wealthy foreigners inhabited the city and they were charged exorbitant prices and treated like royalty. It doesn’t help that the city boasts the largest number of billionaires in the world – that’s 84 billionaires according to a Forbes report.

But this notion should not shun you from visiting Moscow. The city has so much to offer in terms of history, world iconic buildings such as St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, rich decadent food, spectacular metro (subway) stations, beautiful ballet and a vibrant arts scene. If you’re in for a splurge, dig deep into your pockets and sink into lavish beds at the Four Seasons, St. Regis, Ritz Carlton, the heritage Baltschug Kempinski, or for a family-friendly option, try Mamaison All-Suites. Dotted across the city are other more affordable accommodation options for the budget keepers. Try Petrovka Loft, Mercure Arbat or Ibis Moscow.

When it comes to tucking into a good meal there is no shortage of options. There are 2,750 restaurants dotted all across the city of Moscow and still counting. Make sure you check TripAdvisor for the current top ranking restaurants because competition is tight in the F&B scene. For a full Russian fare, definitely give Pushkin Cafe, Russkie Sezony and Dr. Zhivago a try. You will be enthralled by the grand 18th-century decor and be prepared to be served by waiters dressed in crisp suites and starched white aprons.

Getting around the city can be quite a challenge if you don’t read Russian Cyrillic, especially when using the Metro. So make sure you have some sort of translation app on your phone or stop passers-by on the way. You can also flag down almost any car on the road and, if it is going your way, it will become a taxi – again, that’s if you can speak Russian. The cheapest and most efficient option is to take the metro and the city is very pedestrian friendly.

Now let’s get to it. If you had 48 hours in this dazzling city, here are some suggested must do’s to capture the pulse of Moscow.

(FREE) Walking Tour

Walk tour moscow

Yes, you read it right. It’s free with an option to tip at the end of the tour. Usually, most people tip because these walk tours are highly informative, very engaging and it helps you navigate in a new city. I recommend taking the tour on the day of arrival as I found that incredibly useful especially when it comes to insider tips at the end of the tour about where to eat, shop for souvenirs and things to see.

The Red Square & Kremlin

Red Square

There is no escaping this – the Red Square remains the essential starting point for sightseeing in Moscow. Red Square is an expanse of space bordered by the colourful and charming St Basil’s Cathedral, with its iconic spiral domes; the historical GUM State Department store – where only international luxury brands make it here, the massive Kremlin – the famous seat of Russian rule and the Lenin Mausoleum – where you will have a chance to ‘meet’ the ruler himself in a glass casket.

You can easily spend more than half a day in the Kremlin – within its walls are enormous palace complexes, old cathedrals and a house of just for armoury, bedazzling jewels, carriages and thrones. The ticket prices vary, get your ticket at the ticket office on site and it opens at 9am. The Kremlin is closed on Thursdays.

Moscow night

You need to see the Red Square by day and by night. The lights from the GUM department store, the evening glow from the museum, the illuminated St. Basil’s Cathedral and clock towers in the Kremlin is a wonderland after night fall. If there is one attraction in Moscow worth seeing twice, it is Red Square. Head there again when it’s dark to see the evening glow on St Basil’s and the GUM department store.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

St Basils

Although it’s often seen as part of the Red Square, the beautiful cathedral has garnered a name for itself and is known as the unofficial icon of Moscow. The Cathedral’s full name is the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat – thankfully Ivan the Terrible who commissioned the building of the cathedral shorted it to St. Basil. Named after a holy hermit who lived on the streets, Ivan the Terrible seemed to have found a liking for him. Legend has it that after the architect finished building the cathedral his eyes were gouged upon the strict command of Ivan the Terrible because the ruler did not want him to build another cathedral as beautiful as this.

Contrary to popular belief, St. Basil’s Cathedral is not just one church, instead it is a cluster of nine churches sitting on one foundation. The interior of the church is not airy and spacious, instead it is narrow and winding. Get tickets and explore the interiors of the church while appreciating the view of the Red Square from the many small odd-shaped windows.

GUM Department Store

GUM

Even if you don’t purchase anything from here, it is still worth a stroll. The high domed ceiling and open bridges connecting the floors are an exquisite example of pre-revolution architecture. If your legs give way after a full day of exploring, this is a great place to chill and have a cuppa. You have to try the famous ice cream here. I heard from a local that the ice cream sold at GUM dates back to the Soviet era where children could be seen walking out of the departmental store with a cone in hand.

Bolshoi Theatre

Bolshoi

The historical Bolshoi theatre is home to some of the best ballet shows such as Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty and Romeo & Juliet. Book in advance if you want to catch a show here. There are standing tickets available and ticket counters open two hours before the actual show, but be sure to stand in line early as tickets get snapped up pretty quickly.

Gorky Park

Gorky Park

The Central Park of Moscow, this green lung has a small man-made ‘beach’, lakes to paddle in, playgrounds and carousels for children. There are also fountains, skateboarding ramps, running trails along the Moscow River and plenty of space to bask. On weekends and on weekdays, Gorky is packed and you’d never go hungry with plenty of food stalls to choose from – corn, sandwiches, hot dogs, ice cream, you name it. Be sure to also check out the latest funky Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

Explore the Metro

Moscow-metro

Moscow’s metro is no ordinary subway, not just because some stations were dug deep to serve as bomb shelters (the escalators are incredibly steep), but because the metro stations are in itself a work of art. It is said that the metro stations were designed with intricate carvings, elaborate hanging lamps and etched with paintings as a channel for art to commoners who otherwise had no access to the elite world. Notable metros include; Komsomolskaya, Taganskaya and Prospekt Mira.

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Terelj National Park: Explore Mongolia’s Backcountry

Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks…

Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks or more – some even up to a month! Initially, I was in disbelief – seriously, a month is a long time for one country, but it later evolved into an apologetic revelation with a regretful, “I wish I had planned a longer stay. I will come back for the Gobi desert, climb the Altai mountain range, bask at Lake Kovsgol, traverse Orkhon Valley”.

Safe to say, our experience at Terelj National Park remain one of the highlights throughout our TransSiberian adventure. Getting out of the city we passed undulating hills, plains flecked with gers and small country homes, and wild horses galloping in the distance with unrestrained freedom.

Trelj NP76We entered the national park after an hour plus on the road. I was looking forward to the seclusion and wilderness that it promised, but entering the park, I realised that this was a favourite holiday destination for locals – there were cars parked everywhere, holiday retreats on the left and right, gers made of brick and tour buses. After Naadam, locals made a beeline here for some rest. So, it’s not exactly off the beaten track. Thankfully, Terelj NP is massive, covering 1.2million acres of land – there is enough room for everyone to have their own open-plains experience.

The park is known for the gigantic Turtle Rock formation, named for its resemblance to a turtle. There are several monasteries within the park and we visited Ariyapala monastery. The climb up to the temple was unforgiving but the view at the top was well worth it. Inside the temple Buddhist monks sat crossed legged chanting almost in silent whispers, colourful flags danced to the gentle breeze and the wind chimes played a beautiful tune.

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Meeting Our Host Family

It was time to meet our host family, our four-wheel drive pulled into a small community of about five gers. Some horses grazing nearby against a mountainous backdrop. We entered into the family ger and felt immediately at home. The domed shape home was well lighted with natural light coming from the opening above, a sofa set, a tv, a few small cupboards and a small portable sink were lined neatly along its side. The centrepiece of the home as its kitchen, a wood-fire iron stove with a long chimney sticking up and out of the ger.

Trelj NP_iphone41Our host, Chan’gkhan (I think that’s how its spelt) was a pretty young woman with plump healthy cheeks and sparkling eyes is the mother to a one-year old boy and a superb multi-tasker. She cooks all meals, milks the horses every to hours, takes care of her son and ailing father and attends to all her guests. Her husband works as a horse herder and brings guests on horse riding trips in the summer. When winter hits and the tourist dry spell arrives, her husband travels to Ulaanbaatar and works in construction.

Trelj NP9During our stay, we were flanked with simple home cooked Mongolian meals. I had the privilege of helping and seeing how the meals were prepared. Fried meat dumplings called huushuur was my favourite. Light pastry with mutton, potato and onion filling deep fried to crunchy perfection. Huushuur is usually served with hot milk tea or a clear vegetable broth. We had man tou, a white flour fluffy steamed bread served with mutton soup.

Mongolia FoodMongolia food2Chan’gkhan offered us some mare’s milk, a sour fermented drink that tasted nothing like milk. I took a sip and politely declined seconds. We also had a steady selection of Mongolian tidbits – aaruul, dehydrated yak curds, hard cake-like biscuits and dried milk chips. It’s an acquired taste, I must say.

Mongolia Mares MilkAfter lunch, we walked to our ger about 100 meters from the family home. There were four single beds inside the ger each covered with pretty linen. Sunlight streamed in from above illuminating the beautiful hand-painted orange beams that held the ger in place. There was a small table in the centre and that was it. I appreciated the simple spaciousness it offered. But there was no electrical plug points, no toilet, sink or shower. It dawn on me that we were in for quite a camping experience.

Trelj NP_iphone6Trelj NP66Trelj NP64Trelj NP_iphone35The toilet was about 150 meters away where the horses grazed. There was a wooden box-like shelter that I thought nothing off, until I realised that that was our only toilet! I neared the wooden box and was already overcome by the strong stench – there was only two wooden planks over a deep pit and the only thing that seemed to be having fun were the flies! I made a mental note to avoid the toilet unless for emergencies.

Trelj NP_iphone33Besides the toilet conundrum, we had a wonderful stay. We went on horse riding trips and laughed when our horses had to stop for a wee and a poop. It wasn’t my first time riding a horse, but it was our first as a family and we enjoyed every moment of it – watching how Seth was completely drawn to every movement of the horse, patting the horse and saying, “You can do it!” and today, he sits on pillows and gallops away. Wonderful memories were made.

Trelj NP32We watched and marvelled at the strength of Chan’gkhan as she carried out her daily task. Every two hours, she would put on knee guards and with a bucket in hand she gets down and milks the mare. She makes grunting and hissing noises to coax the mare to let down while her father steadies the animal.

Trelj NP52Our days in Mongolia’s backcountry could not be a better introduction to the vastness and distinct culture and landscapes this country has to offer. We connected with a local family through our similarities of shared family value, our appreciation for nature and curiosity to learn about each other’s culture. Beautiful Mongolia could do with more marketing on an international stage, but somehow, I selfishly hope that Mongolia will stay a little less known because its rugged edge is what makes her special.     Trelj NP26

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