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Category: Culture & Heritage

Naadam Festival In Ulaanbaatar

It’s the biggest, most celebrated festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course the nation is going to go all out. The festival takes place over three days from…

It’s the biggest, most celebrated festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course the nation is going to go all out. The festival takes place over three days from 11 – 13th July annually with a grand opening ceremony on the first day. Over 35 thousand wrestlers, 40 thousand horse racers and 1,500 archers compete in Naadam’s competitions.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city will be jam packed with cars and shopping malls and streets are filled with people. Locals tell me that the people from the countryside drive into the city to join in the celebration. Hotels are fully booked and the opening ceremony tickets are usually sold out a week prior to the event.

Our hostel would only sell us tickets if we signed up for a full day Naadam tour with them. So we opted out. We decided to walk to the Central Stadium on the morning of the opening ceremony. The streets were eerily empty and we imagined everyone was at the stadium. Nearing the stadium, a carnival mood could already be felt – street vendors parked on the side of the road selling drinks, candy floss, helium balloons, stick-on tattoos, sun glasses, and Mongolian flags. Kebabs sizzling over pit barbecues cast a heavenly scent across the dusty road. It was an upbeat day and our hearts thumped to the music coming from the stadium.

No Tickets For The Opening, Until…

When we got to the stadium’s gate, we asked if we could go in. The gate attendant, a young lady (a volunteer, presumably) asked for our tickets. We told her we didn’t have one. A little disheartened at first, we backed off and tried to peek in. After a few minutes, Terence approached her again, this time he worked his manly charm. He pointed at me, with Seth in the sack – I gave her a weak smile and mouthed, ‘Please’ and a few seconds later, she waved us in. Terence’s ’have-some-pity-on-us’ plea worked! I was grinning from ear-to-ear and I clambered up the steps, gently pushed my way into the standing crowd and found a seat – it’s always good to have a child with you!

Naadam Festival is Mongolia’s very own Olympic Games. The opening ceremony is imposing and grand. We saw a parade of people dressed as ancient warriors, men and women in embroidered robes called ‘del’ and elaborate headdresses, along with burly wrestlers clad in blue and red briefs, soldiers, monks, traditional throat singers, pop dancers and bands. The atmosphere was eclectic. The costume details are unbelievable and for that few hours it felt like I was transported back in time during the Genghis Khan era. Naadam is very significant to Mongolia and in 2010, it was added into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.

The festival’s local Mongolian name, “eriin gurvan naadam,” is translated as the “three games of men.” That is, archery, horse racing, and wrestling. Whereas horse racing and archery competitions have gradually incorporated women participants over the years, wrestling continues to be a highly male-dominated sport. Today, knuckle bone shooting is also part of the competition.

Here are some photos from the day.

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Tiananmen Square & The Forbidden City

Beijing’s Forbidden City is perhaps China’s most famous ancient museum, second to the impressive Great Wall as tourists’ attractions. We were warned of the crowds and unlike other iconic landmarks…

Beijing’s Forbidden City is perhaps China’s most famous ancient museum, second to the impressive Great Wall as tourists’ attractions. We were warned of the crowds and unlike other iconic landmarks around the world, in China, local attractions attract the local crowd. So when we got to Tiananmen Square on a Sunday morning, we were met with an endless sea of people – mostly Chinese.

The sprawling Square is the world’s largest, approximately 99 acres and is surprisingly devoid of trees, benches or sitting areas. Tiananmen Square was just a glimpse of the expanse within the Forbidden City and it entailed a LOT of walking. If you’re in Beijing during summer, bring lots of water to keep hydrated, snacks to satisfy the hunger pangs and cover for shade – either a cap or umbrella – the heat coupled with humidity can be very draining.

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Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden city are located directly opposite from each other. There are two subway stops, one on each end – Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West, both on Line 1. You can take either. Once you exit, just follow the crowd and you’d emerge at the Square’s imposing walls. Guards are stationed along the wall and they look intimidating, however, excited groups of tourists and kite flyers at the Square seemed unperturbed by their presence. Kite flyers pranced around as their kites dance in the air, tour guides wave colourful flags and some even blow resounding whistles to get their group’s attention. It’s quite chaotic and can be overwhelming trying to navigate through the crowd.

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We walked through the arched entrance with Chairman Mao staring right at us from above and into what is known as the Forbidden City. For nearly 500 years, this city (quite literally for its sheer size) have housed the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors up until 1911. A decade and more after the end of the dynasty, in 1925, the Forbidden City was open to the public and earned its place as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987.

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We followed the crowd in and was already spellbound by the size of the compound and beautiful courtyard-style buildings before us. Queues of people were seen on our left and signages read “Tickets” – we stood in one of the many lines and hoped that the wait would not be long. There were easily a few hundred people waiting for tickets – thankfully there were sufficient ticket counters to cater for the crowd. We ended up waiting 45 minutes for our tickets and proceeded in.

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Security is tight and our bags were scanned prior to entry. Audio guides in various languages are available – but we skipped it as Seth wouldn’t have had the patience to wait for us to complete the whole circuit while someone spoke to us in the ear.

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We wandered into the City’s compounds. Large uneven stone pavements led us into courtyards and plazas, first into the ‘Outer Court’ where the government and official events took place, then into more intimate spaces like the ‘Inner Court’ where the emperors and their concubines dwelt and then through small doors into a whole new world of beautifully manicured bonsai gardens.

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It’s incredibly fascinating to imagine what went on behind those wooden latticed doors. How did the emperors get from one place to another? It was too large to wander on foot, at least for an emperor. What secrets were told? How many people were tortured as the emperors were known to have ruled with an iron fist.

Marble-stoned bridges connected one plaza to another with shallow waters running past. The complex is a universe on its own – sufficient in every aspect – both spectacular, yet surreal.

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After hours of walking, little Seth finally dozed off to sleep and we crossed the road and entered into Jingshan Park. We were told that an uphill climb up to one of its summits would guaranteed a full, clear panoramic view of the entire Forbidden City. The discovery was well worth the sweat. We reached a beautiful temple at the top and looked down at the ancient museum for a different perspective – it’s vast compound continued to bewilder us. I wondered, what commoners would pay just to get a glimpse into the Forbidden City in the past – as within its City’s walls lie many untold stories, shrouded with mystery.

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If You’re Gonna Travel To See A Wall – Make it This One!

As a Chinese, I’ve grown up with stories of the Great Wall. Although from a Chinese descent, China has always seemed like a foreign land to me. As a young…

As a Chinese, I’ve grown up with stories of the Great Wall. Although from a Chinese descent, China has always seemed like a foreign land to me. As a young girl, the little I knew about her was that my grandfather came from China many moons ago, that the Great Wall is one magnificent wonder I should not miss and that panda’s are still around, albeit close to extinction.

My grandmother used to tell me stories of her trip to ‘the’ magnificent wall. Over the years, I’ve laid eyes on many postcard-worthy photos and even watched documentaries with detailed facts from history. Instinctively, as I grew more passionate about seeing the world, the Great Wall was way on top of my bucket list.

THIS IS WHAT I CAME TO CHINA FOR!

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This timeless ruin completed in the Ming Dynasty to protect the Chinese empire from invasion against the Mongols is today one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Both a historical treasure and a man-made wonder, it is no surprise that thousands of tourists visit this site in busloads loads every day – yes, even in the thick of winter. One of the ways to beat the crowd is to get here early and to find sections of the wall that are least likely a choice mass tourists. The Badaling section is the most visited one out of the nine sections opened to tourists. We decided on Mutianyu to avoid the masses.

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Located 70 kilometres northeast of Beijing in Huairou County, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is thought to be one of the best-preserved and longest sections of the wall. Since it is farther from the city, the crowds are less – but still we got there early, at 8am before the tour buses arrived at 10am.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu is 22 kilometres long and has 22 watchtowers – the highest of which reaches an altitude of 540 meters above sea level. Before we set foot on the wall, we had a choice to take the chairlift or walk the dauntingly steep stairs to get to the wall. We chose the latter without knowing that it would be that steep and got our morning workout sorted.

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The first sight of the wall was unforgettable – the famous grey stoned-washed walls with unmistakable parapets stood before us bearing proof that this was once a defence fortress, hence the challenge of getting up there. The wall’s pathways are wide in some areas and narrow and uneven at other parts. Tall narrow stone steps led to watchtowers and eventually to Tower 1, the highest of the 22 towers.

transsiberian_180transsiberian_191When we finally got to Tower 1, the crowd was more evident. Casting our eyes along the wall, we saw pockets of people mostly posing for a picture, taking jump shots, waving selfie sticks in the air and making slow ascend to different watch towers. A tangible sense of awe is in the air – it’s hard not to appreciate a man-made structure like this.

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According to history, during the initial stages of the wall built during the Qin Dynasty (way before the Ming Dynasty), bricklayers used glutinous rice flour as binding material for the wall. A more gruesome truth however, is that the Great Wall is synonymous to the ‘longest cemetery on Earth’. Human remains have been found buried under the wall according to leading archeologists. Many talk about the grand magnificence of the wall, but if the wall could speak, I am dead sure that it would tell of the millions of lives lost in the construction of it. Bitter cold winters, hazardous terrain and arduous labour contributed to tragedy. And today, many tourists – me included, stand in wonder of this piece of living history.

I echo the words of my two-year-old, Seth, “The Great Wall – very impressive!”.

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transsiberian_183IMG_0736I gazed out the window at Tower 1 and took in all that this place had to offer. There in my moment of silence, a strange calm came over. If only I could overnight here, I would – I’m sure my imagination and stories of the past would make great company.

Getting to Mutianyu

There are many sites that tell you how to get to Mutianyu Great Wall, but I found this one on China Highlights very practical and easy to follow. And if you can’t get enough of the wall or want to be the first early bird up on the wall, then staying at Mutianyu is the perfect option. The village at the foot of the Great Wall is an interesting one with many eateries, local guesthouses and tiny sundry shops. We stayed at the Brickyard Retreat and enjoyed unobstructed views of the Wall with complete privacy in our personal outdoor lounge.

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Magic Fingers: Dusun Massage

Sabah, on the magical island of Borneo east of Malaysia’s peninsular is clouded with magnificent experiences such as rainforest escapades, underwater marvels and rich biodiversity. Still, the most intriguing are…

Sabah, on the magical island of Borneo east of Malaysia’s peninsular is clouded with magnificent experiences such as rainforest escapades, underwater marvels and rich biodiversity. Still, the most intriguing are the 39 ethnic indigenous groups that are still thriving and of these, some minority groups are still unknown to the outside world.

The Dusun tribe is largely spread across Sabah, once a hunter gatherer group and many were farmers. The Lotud Dusun group is especially distinct as they were mostly rice farmers from Tuaran, a district blessed with plenty of rain flow for paddy planting. The women from this tribe learned very early on massage techniques to ease back and shoulder pains from hours of strenuous work in the field. These strong, resilient women passed down the unspoken techniques from generation to generation. Today, these hidden secrets make ethnic massages not only magical, but exotic and distinctive from the otherwise run-of-the-mill spas.

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At Jari Jari Spa, I was ushered in through thick wooden carved doors and into a cozy lounge with comfy arm chairs lined on both sides. The soothing sounds of running water formed the centrepiece as gentle flute music played in the background. I had just returned from a trip to Danum Valley and was in need of a massage from hours of travel and trekking. I dozed off as my feet soaked in floral infused water but was gently awakened shortly after by the aroma of decadent coffee. Ocie, my masseur lathered on a thick, almost scrumptious coffee foot scrub and gave me one of the best reflexology experiences focusing on pressure points laced with firm strokes.

The award winning Borneo Dusun Lotud Inan Massage is followed by a 75 minute full body massage as Ocie worked on body, magically releasing the tension on my back and eliminating the knots on my shoulders. You know a good masseur when you experience one because all her movements were intentional, bringing relieve to my tired body. From the distinctive thumb movements to the consistent pressure, from the calming “Inan” oil to the luxurious drapings that kept me warm, the entire experience was seamless.

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What Makes It So Special?

It must be the people I thought. As a spa goer, I have tried numerous spa treatments ranging from mid-range middling centers to world class luxury havens in Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Maldives, Thailand, Australia, Greece and Budapest. Still, the ones that remain a great memory even though the knots have long returned on my shoulders are those that have left an indelible experience in body, mind and soul. And I conclude that it is probably authenticity that makes all the difference.

I later found out that Ocie (pronounced as O-Chee) is a local Dusun lady. She was introduced to the Jari Jari Spa Academy in 2012 by her neighbour and at that time, she was unemployed and was busy mothering seven children on her own. She lived on whatever little savings she had and was pining for a stable job. After her training, she got her first job at Jari Jari Spa but had to move to Kota Kinabalu to earn a living. She tells me that she doesn’t mind as she sees this job as part of her personal development and she now feels secure that her children’s living expenses and school fees are taken care of.

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Stories like Ocie’s are a great testament of empowerment, where women are often left to fend for their families not just to cook, clean and care but to earn a living enough to support the family. Ocie is fortunate to have stumbled on the spa academy, a school started by Datin Jeanette and Jennifer Chan.

The Borneo Massage Rediscovered

As modern day distractions continue to chip away rich traditions and cultures, the challenge of reviving the art of ethnic massage is a real feat. Not only did the dynamic duo, Datin Jeanette Tambakau and Jennifer Chan successfully reintroduced this dying tradition, they through Jari Jari Spa have breathed new life and is retelling the story to the world around at international trade shows and workshops.

Jennifer is from a Dusun descent and Datin Jeanette married a Murud-Dusun man before settling down in Sabah. In mid-2000, they both realized the rising trend in health and wellness but massage centers were unheard of. It was the weary of society where hanky panky activities took place behind closed doors. Venturing into this industry meant having to pioneer the route while clearing the image that have long tarnished it.

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They took the plunge learning from massage therapists in Bali and attending workshops. What was to become the start of a Balinese themed spa center soon took a turn. Datin Jeanette had an ‘aha! moment’ while listening to wellness leaders speak at a conference and realized that authenticity is prime for this business.

After returning from the conference, they both set out to trace the roots of their own tribe, the Dusun people. They visited rural indigenous families, spoke to grandmothers and home makers and watched how they massaged with care and precision. The journey in itself was a discovery of pride, joy and belonging.

They hired four local Dusun ladies to join them and there on Jari Jari Spa was birthed. Today, the signature Borneo massage is on the world chart as Jennifer is a certified, accredited trainer from the Federation of Holistic Therapists Association (FHT) in the United Kingdom. The organization is not only profit making, but is also empowering local Dusun ladies with a specialized skill to gain employment. The Jari Jari Academy has trained masseurs that have gone on to work at internationally acclaimed spas such as YTL’s Spa Village and is continuing to grow within Sabah.

Still the best treasure that Jari Jari Spa has given to the Dusun ladies and community is the value and uniqueness of one’s trade. Each masseuse has her own special way of working on the body and so, in that sense, every massage is unique and every masseur is unique. It is this uniqueness that perpetuates the tradition.

Sabah has many stories to uncover, and it’s not just about her verdant landscapes, azure blue seas or teeming wildlife – but her people, their traditions and culture.

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Swaziland

A country within a country – that’s what Swaziland is. A tiny country that has its own monarchy governed by King Mswati, its own governing rules and a deep sense…

A country within a country – that’s what Swaziland is. A tiny country that has its own monarchy governed by King Mswati, its own governing rules and a deep sense of culture and tradition. We had to go through immigration check points and custom stopovers to enter into Swaziland. The Swazis as they are called are no different from South Africans, physically I mean – but in every other way from lifestyle to the way they do business, the Swazis are a lot more rural. They go back to farming, herding, carpentry, craftsmanship and women folk busy their hands with crafts and local foods to sell in the markets.

Swaziland is gorgeous to say the least as much of her land remains untouched, at least by mass tourism. Pockets of villages are seen settled on hill sides and valleys. The Swazis are famous for their bee hive huts made of straw and wood. The dome-like huts take 1-2 months to construct and can only last for 5 months. Women folk will harvest grass, dry it and sell it to skilled builders. Wood is then shaven until smooth, bent and lashed to each other to create the hut. Grass is then layered on and ‘glued’ with mud. This provides insulation for chilly nights.

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We met Myxo a Swazi himself with dreadlocks longer than my hair. He brought us to his village and introduced us to his community. With corn shoots growing on the fringe of his garden, he explains that corn was their staple as it is used to make ‘pap’ – corn meal grounded mixed with hot water to make a thick mash.

He started his business 10 years ago taking tourists around Swaziland and offering packages to stay a night in his village. Speaking perfect English, he was able to give his guests a good and informative tour of his little country. He sits us down in the bee hive hut away from the scorching heat and explains Swazi cultures and traditions. He tells us that Swazis promote polygamy and are steep in ancestral worship. He tells us of his trip to London and how scary it was for him to see the cosmopolitan lifestyle in the city. We chatted for quite a bit exchanging local knowledge and was soon ushered for lunch after a growl from Terence’s stomach!

Myxo’s nephew had cooked us a simple lunch of pap, boiled cabbage and grilled chicken. I had earlier chipped in to cook the cabbage dish and was splendidly delighted that it turned out well. We sat on an uneven wooden bench and placed out plates on a uneven table – but the view was gorgeous as we stared out into rolling mountains and swirly dirt roads.

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Soon after lunch, we bid farewell as our next destination would take us 7 hours to get there before the sun set on us. Swaziland remains an intimate country, with friendly people and truckloads of stories to tell, if only we had time to breeze through the day – just like Swazis do.

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