Sunday, February 22, 2015

China-towns and Chinese New Year

恭喜發財 (Gōngxǐ fācái)!!!

I know the wish has come four days late (the Chinese New Year aka the Lunar New Year was actually on 19th of February this year). But guess what, it isn’t over yet! The Lunar new year is a fifteen days long celebration and family time, also known as the Spring Festival; hence I am not late, technically :D

This is perhaps the best time of the year to visit China or any country that has Chinese Influence like Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore because this is the time when the beautiful small lanes in these countries are donned in red and spirit of jubilation and this year it is also about the Sheep/Goat/Ram. The Lunar year always has a Chinese zodiac associated with it, and this year it is the year of sheep or goat. Sheep or Yáng according to Chinese zodiac are lovable and remind people of good and beautiful things, hence the year of the Sheep is believed to be year of good fortune. Along with this I learnt about some really interesting things about the Chinese culture and their New Year celebration when I had visited the China Town in Kuala Lumpur and Jonker Street in Melaka, Malaysia.

The Bright Red Lanterns in Chinatown Kuala Lumpur
Red – I had not visited these places during the Chinese New Year (not happy about it!!!), but still these streets were all red – Red Lanterns. Our guide Jeevan told us, red is the colour of fire and symbolizes joy and good fortune and what we saw was not even half the amount of red decorations they have during the spring festival.

Hong Bao
Hong Bao – The Chinese exchange red packets/envelopes, known as Hong Bao, as a symbol of prosperity and good luck, during the Lunar New Year. I remember during my visit to a Perankan Life Museum, the guide there had told us the red packet tradition adopted by the Perankans was actually a Chinese Tradition and these are given on birthdays or exchanged during Lunar New year. Also called as lucky money, these envelopes not only symbolize the passing on of blessings, it is also seen as a way to teach how to save their money. Meaning behind everything right?
Dragons on Roofs and Gates of a Community Center in Chinatown Kuala Lumpur
Notice the small Jade Green Dragon!
Dragons – Dragons hold a great importance in Chinese culture so how could they not have any influence during the spring festival. From what I have come to know Chinese love dragons and consider them auspicious but at the same time they have different types of dragons with different meanings and usage. From dragons on roof warding evil to dragons on doors and dragons near ancestral alters with some other meaning. But during this festival it is all about the dragon dancers! I am sure all of you have seen the dragon dancers, but well this is the time that dance happens and the length of the dragon actually defines luck. Dragons are believed to bring good luck, therefore the longer the dragon in the dance, the more luck it will bring to the people.

An Ancestral Shrine in Melaka
Family Time – This is one time of year where the Chinese make sure they celebrate the start of the year with their families. And when I talk about families it also means their ancestors. Chinese pray to their ancestors and ancestral altars are a very integral part of their community. During the Spring Festival, the Chinese travel back to their homes and also visit their ancestral altars. Incenses, paper and money is burnt as an offering to ancestors symbolizing the importance of family above all and asking for blessings and prosperity.

Family Means a lot more to the Chinese
Fireworks – Did you know firecrackers actually came from China? Fireworks mark the celebrations and are believed to drive the evil away. So no Celebration can be complete without Fireworks!!!
One of the many old Chinese Houses in Jonker, Melaka
Also the Chinese New Year’s date is never fixed. It falls on different days every year, usually between 20th Jan to 20th Feb as it starts on the eve of the turn of the Chinese calendar and is celebrated till the fifteenth day of the 1st month of Chinese calendar. Guess Indian and Islamic festivals aren’t the only ones to have different dates every year. So now you know when to plan your visit to China or other Chinese Places if you want to enjoy the celebrations of the Chinese New Year. For now I have no clue when the next Lunar New Year is but a very happy 2015 to all!!!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Offbeat Guwahati - Rhinos, Tea and Bhrahmaputra

Often, we travel to a place with no expectations but that place seems to grow on us without us even realizing why. A couple of months back I spent a quiet peaceful week in the heart of the largest of seven sister states – Guwahati, Assam. The trip wasn’t a very planned one. All I had were 3 places in my mind – Kamakhya, Shillong and Mawlynnong. Surprised to not see Kaziranga in this list? Wait for more surprises cause this post is about the offbeat places around Guwahati that one should definitely visit when in Guwahati.
At first glance. Guwahati seems like any other ‘town’ of India, huge, laid back, sleepy most of the time and simple but the city’s charm is in its connection with nature. Flanked by the expansive Brahmaputra and lush green hills, Guwahati gives one the total essence of Assam. Tea gardens, rhinos, temples, river islands, unplanned yet traffic free roads, houses with hibiscus fences, rolling paddy fields with meandering dirt tracks, village huts with bright white art work all over Guwahati can show it all to you and much more. Here is my list of must visit not so famous places in and very close to Guwahati.

Rhinos at Pabitora
Pabitora Rhino Sanctuary – If you thought Rhinos love the sprawling wild fields of Kaziranga alone, think again. Forty minutes from Kharghuli, Guwahati is a comparatively small forested land called Pabitora Rhino Sanctuary in Mayong. It may be very small compared to Kaziranga but has a higher density of the one horned Rhino as compared to Kaziranga. The way to Pabitora is nothing less than a treat to nature lovers. Wide country roads, large lotus ponds, and verdant fields lead you to this peaceful adobe of the rhinos. You can easily spot herds of Rhinos even before entering the sanctuary land. The place is also a paradise for bird watchers. Unfortunately this area is inaccessible during monsoons as it lies in the flood-plain of Brahmaputra. The best time to visit is from October to March and preferably early mornings. This place definitely tops my list.

The largest Lotus pond on the way to Pabitora

Assam and Tea are so synonymous 
A Seventy Year old Tea Estate – Around half an hour from Guwahati is Sadgaon - a huge army base in Panbari area. Right behind the army base is a huge, unexplored tea estate about seventy years old. The tea estate is a visual treat, and as it is secluded it is a perfect get away for a peaceful evening or early morning. After a certain point all you can see in that area are small hillocks of sized and equally spaced tea trees  everywhere and hear the murmur of an unseen stream.  It is not listed in any map, nor does it have a name but if you ask for directions at the army base gate you should be able to find it easily.

Peacock Island
Peacock Island/Umananda Island – We often here about Majuli Island – the largest river island of the world, which is in Brahmaputra, in Assam. But Majuli isn’t the only island that Brahmaputra hides in its vast expanse. Peacock Island is the smallest river island in Brahmaputra and one of the smallest in the world too. Accessible via Sukleshwar Ghat by boats, Peacock Island is known for a 17th century temple – Umananda Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Bhairav aka Shiva. But the Charm of the island is the ride to the temple and sunset! This island is one of the 3 places to be at sunset.

Sunset from Peacock Island
Sunset at Saraighat

Sairaighat – Saraighat is the 2nd place to be at during sunsets. Saraighat is considered to be the longest ghat in Guwahati and the 55 year old Saraighat Bridge is one of the longest water bridges in India. The bridge was the first bridge built over Brahmaputra and it is the longest rail-cum-road bridge in India. It is said the best spot to get the view and realize the magnificence of this structure and Bramhaputra is Kamakhya Hill top, but nothing beats the sunset and the sight of the lit bridge at dusk.

All about Birds at Deepor Beel
Deepor Beel Bird Sanctuary – Considering the size and might of Brahmaputra, the number of wetlands in Assam should not come as a surprise. Deepor Beel is one such wetland, under the Ramsar Convention, that is situated in the Kamrup district, 13 km towards the southeast of Guwahati. This is a heaven for Bird watchers and photography fanatics. A beel is typically a freshwater lake that is rich in flora and fauna. Deepor Beel has been declared as an Important Bird Area (IBA) with high priority for conservation by Bird International but along with high avian population, one can also spot Asian Elephants and Deer. And before I forget, this is the third place to be at dusk!

Paved path is assuring, explored and more than anything – common, but exploring the unbeaten path makes a tourist a traveler. Like I said, Guwahati is just like any other city of India, but I am sure this list was enough to convince all of you, it has way more than what meets the eyes.