Friday, 13 January 2012

Hop on a bus, Gus (Singapore - Johor Bahru)

Johor Bahru (more commonly known as JB) is the state capital of Johor and, from Singapore, is the gateway to neighbouring Malaysia when travelling by car or bus. It is a very popular destination amongst Singaporeans because most prices there - but not all, buyer beware - are about half of those in Singapore.
For foreigners in Singapore the attraction is that you can go travel to JB in less than an hour and be back in no time. This might come in handy if you were enjoying Singapore that much that you find yourself in desperate need to extend your tourist visa. Since Singapore is very well organised, you could just have asked for an extension on line but why not enjoy the hospitality and good food in Malaysia?
Another reason for an Ang-Moh to travel to JB is that it is far more easier there to find proper clothes that fit the average size of European or American men and women. Indeed, one of the surprises of my stay in Singapore is that it is challenging to find ‘XXL’ clothes, in many stores only  clothes from size ‘XXXS’ to size ‘L’ are sold. Thanks to the healthy Asian food in Singapore I’m now down to ‘XL’ sized clothes, but even if ‘XL’-size clothes are more commonly available, they might be too short for your height. Yes, there are big differences between Asian, American and European cloth sizes!
But back to the topic of this post: how to travel to JB on a budget? By far the cheapest option is to go by bus, but there is a bewildering number of choices, and the many sites where they calculate the cheapest fares really don’t make the choice easier. After hours of reading, you’ll find out that those sites
  • don’t use the current prices;
  • are uncertain over the total price when you combine a trip on the Singapore MRT and the bus; and
  • are often connected to one of the bus companies.
Don’t waste your time, the maximal amount you can possibly save is about 2 SGD, but the time you would spend is lost forever. Why not make a quick choice by following my guidelines and have more time to enjoy the delicious food in Malaysia?

Keep your cool!

Malaysian-CW-Bus-at-Kranji-From Singapore one can travel by public transport to Johor with a Malaysian bus company or a Singaporean company. The Malaysian companies are slightly cheaper, but the busses do not have air-conditioning, while the Singaporean busses do.
Since the climate of Singapore is really, really hot and humid all year through, it might be wiser to go by Singaporean transport if you cannot stand the heat, especially if you start your bus trip from the central district of Singapore which takes about an hour.
In case you choose a bus just for the 10 minutes trip between Kranji MRT (picture above) and the JB checkpoint, this is not really important. 

Time is Money?

Malaysian buses are only allowed to have one stop in Singapore, not counting the checkpoints. The reverse is also true: Singapore bus companies are only allowed to have one stop in Malaysia. 
Conclusion: if you travel from Singapore and are in a hurry, it is better to travel by a Malaysian bus to the checkpoint: they will not stop in Singapore but will travel directly to the checkpoint. And vice versa, if you travel from Malaysia to Singapore, it is faster to go by Singaporean bus to the checkpoint. In total, you might save about half an hour from and to JB.
Note that if you switch bus after the checkpoint, you need to pay again. But don’t worry: this will be cost you less than SGD 2.  Save time or money, the choice is yours!

Combine bus with MRT

Kranji-MRT-bus-stopA slightly faster way to travel to JB is to combine MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) and bus: as a tourist or foreigner this is quite easy to combine: one can pay with the EZ-Link card on both Singaporean bus and MRT.
The EZ-link card can be bought (and topped up) at the ticket-office of all MRT stations and is also available from lots of other places, such as the ubiquitous 7-Eleven stores. 
The best option is to proceed to the Kranji MRT station and follow the signs to bus stop 1. Both Malaysian bus operators as well as Singaporean bus operators stop there to pick up passengers. In the picture above you see the queue for the Singapore bus (bus 170), while the Malaysian bus (CW1) is picking up passengers. Tickets for the Malaysian bus can be bought where the bus halts.
Note: the Kranji MRT station is on the red-coloured North-South line, but I advise you to take the green  East-West line first when travelling from the Central District. Alight at the Jurong East interchange, just cross the platform and take the MRT to Kranji MRT. A trip on the East-West line to Jurong East will take less than half an hour, and on most occasions, you’ll be able to sit.
Especially on week-ends and public holidays the North-South line will be very crowded with people going on a shopping trip in one of the 22 mega-malls of Orchard Road.  

Double-Check Everything

Departure-Hall---Singapore-The bus will take you to the Singaporean checkpoint (picture of the entrance on the left, do not take pictures after that point, it is forbidden) at the Causeway first.
You must alight the bus, take all your belongings and pass the Singaporean checkpoint. You did bring your passport, didn’t you?
This might be extremely bewildering for foreigners at first. But don’t panic, just follow the flow of passengers.
Waiting-for-bus-170After the passport check, which should not take more than a few minutes unless you are travelling on Chinese New Year or a public holiday, take the stairs down, and proceed to the bus-stop (picture of the queue on the right), where you will take a bus with the same number (Malaysian or Singaporean) to proceed your voyage. Note: this is not the same bus that brought you there, just one servicing the same line. Just find the correct queue.
This bus will take you to the new Malaysian checkpoint (Sultan Iskander CIQ complex), where once again, you will have to take all your belongings ,leave the bus, and proceed to the passport check. After that, you have the choice to travel further by bus, take a taxi, or just follow the signs and start spending some money in the City Square Mall.

Ok, show me the bus stops

See above if you want to travel by MRT and bus.
In case you want to take the bus (public transport) from the Central District, proceed to the Queen Street terminal (near Bugis MRT station).
Take bus 170 (Singapore SMRT) and pay cash or by EZ-Link card. Or take bus CW2 (Malaysian operator) and pay cash.  Every 10 minutes or so there is a new bus. The trip will cost less then SGD 2,-!
Another option is to go by Express bus or Coach. These cost however more and maybe I’ll write about my experiences with them in a future blog post. 

Brag about the money saved

After your trip, you deserve to relax with a cold beer to balance all that spicy food you ate in JB. There is probably no better place to do this in Singapore than in the Public House.
Singaporeans like a good deal, and whatever you did good, they will tell you that you could have done better. Don’t go into details but just explain them (whether you really did it or not):
  • That you spend hours on-line to check for the best deals;
  • That you paid in Malaysian Ringgits to take the bus from Malaysia (this is indeed ‘cheaper’, maybe saves you a half a Singapore dollar or so);
  • That you would have loved to take the cheaper Malaysian bus in Singapore, but the weather was too hot and you really needed air-co.
They will admire your knowledge and expect to pay them some beers from all the money you saved that day. One beer in Singapore will cost you much more than the trip to JB. But hey, that’s life! Enjoy it!

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Forbidden City - Nine Dragon Wall

nine_dragons_screen_forbidden_city

I visited the Forbidden City in Beijing on the 14th of November 2011. The above picture displays the marvellous Nine Dragon Wall (九龙壁 - Jiǔ Lóng Bì). It was build in 1773 during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796). The screen was apparently built to provide privacy by blocking the view through the Gate of Imperial Supremacy into the Palace of Tranquil Longevity. Such walls also denied access to evil spirits, which must travel in straight lines.

There are two other nine-dragon screens in China: one in Beijing in Beihai Park (which is very special because it has nine dragons on the front and back) and the oldest one in Datong.

nine_dragons_screen_touristThe image was created by stitching 6 different images together. This wall is indeed huge (20.4 meters long and 3.5 meters high), look at the picture to the right to compare a fragment of the wall with one of the many tourists pretending not to notice me and standing in my way while I was attempting to take the 6 pictures.

Nine beautifully coloured dragons play with a pearl. The number nine is considered a good number in China because it sounds the same as the word for ‘long-lasting’. The dragon often symbolizes the Emperor.

The face of the wall has 270 pieces of coloured glaze. 270 is both a multiple of 9×5. In China the number five is also considered auspicious: it is associated with the five elements (Water, Fire, Earth, Wood, and Metal) and connected with the emperor.

I read about this too late to check the legend, but apparently there is a piece of wood at the bottom of the third dragon from the left. According to legend a workman carelessly broke a tile just before the inspection by Emperor Qianlong and replaced it with a wooden part. Indeed, if the work was not finished on time, all craftsmen would be executed. Fortunately, the emperor did not discover it.

Here are some details of all nine dragons:

dragon1dragon2dragon3

dragon4dragon5dragon6

dragon7dragon8dragon9

The Nine Dragon screen alone was well worth the kilometres of walk trough the Forbidden City!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Beihai Park and Nine Dragons Screen - Beijing

Beihai-Park---PavillionBeijing really is an amazing city, deeply entrenched with history and tradition. First built in the 10th century, Beihai Park is part of that historical background. Since 1925, the park has been open to the public.

Note that I could only show a very small selection of the numerous beautiful gardens, structures, palaces and temples of Beihai Park.

Be sure to visit them all on your next trip to Beijing!

Beihai-Park-dance1Do not visit Beihai park to escape the noise of the bustling city: you will be very surprised to learn that this large park (69 hectares, of which about more than half is a lake) is not a haven of tranquillity, but filled by groups of Chinese citizens playing or enjoying music and dance. 

Beihai-Park-dance2A visit to this park will certainly bring a smile to your face and warmth in your heart, even in the freezing cold winds of November.

It is a delight to see people enjoying them-selves and be not afraid to join them. You might even get an invitation for a dance.

Hall of Spiritual Peace

Beihai-Park-Hall-of-SpirituThe hall of Spiritual Peace, originally named Jingqing Hall (Mirror-Clear Hall), is the entrance of one of the most exquisite gardens inside Beihai Park.

In the Ming Dynasty it was an ordinary house for officials. From 1756 (Qianlong 21st year of the Qing Dynasty) to 1756 (Qianlong 23rd year of the Qing Dynasty), it was build for Emperor Qianlong during the expansion of the Western Elysium.

Beihai-Park-garden-01Beihai-Park-garden-02In 1885 Empress Dowager Cixi rebuilt the garden.

From an official inscription in the park: “The whole garden not only displays the majestic splendour of  the northern gardens but also excels in its elegant refinement in the vein of the southern gardens, thus making it a diamond shining in Chinese Horticultural art.”

Beihai-Park-garden-03After reading this text, one can only remain silent and admire the wonderful gardens.

Hall of Great Bliss and Anticipation

Hall-of-Great-Bliss---buddhThis hall was founded during the Ming Dynasty during the Wanli period. It is entirely made of NanMu wood.

Worshipped here are the Buddha of the Three Worlds (Worlds of Past, Present and Future) and the eighteen Arhats. An Arhat is a spiritual practitioner who realized the Buddhist doctrine.

The two copper towers (each 6.59 meters high and inlaid with 712 bronze Long-live-Buddhas) where restored in 2008.

Heavenly King Temple

Beihai-Park---East-KingBeihai-Park---South-KingNearby the hall of Great Bliss and Anticipation is another hall with  sculptures of the Kings of the East, West, North and South.

The temple consists of several halls and beautiful courtyards.

Beihai-Park---Dragon

Nine Dragon Screen

The beautiful two-sided Nine Dragon Screen was erected in 1756 (Qianlong 21st year of the Qing Dynasty). It is about 25.52 meters long, 5.96 meters high and 1.60 meters thick.

From the information at the park: “On the greenish white marble base, is erected the Chinese - hipped - roofed screen, composed of bricks with 424 seven-colour glazed tiles embossing the main body. There are nine huge coiling dragons on each side of the screen and big or small dragons in different postures decorating the two ends and the eaves, making a surprising total of 635 dragons”.

This screen is the only one having nine dragons on both sides. Here are some of my pictures! First the Front side (click on the images for more detail):

Nine-Dragon-Screen-Beihai-rNine-Dragon-Screen-Beihai-fNine-Dragon-Screen-Beihai-m

Here the back panel (sorry, some difficult lighting conditions).

Beihai-dragon1Beihai-dragon2Beihai-dragon3Beihai-dragon4Beihai-dragon5

 

Jade (Qiónghuá 琼华) Island

Beihai_Park_IslandAt the centre of the Park is the island Qiónghuá (琼华) and this is certainly worthwhile of a visit.

Beihai---Imperial-restauranDo take the boat that brings you there.

If you are hungry (and you will be), visit the famous Beihai Fangshan Imperial Restaurant in the Yilangtang Hall where Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 - 1908) used to take her meals after sightseeing in the park.

Beihai---Imperial-menuPrices go up to RMB 8.888,- for the lucky ones, but more affordable and highly enjoyable dishes are certainly available.

 

Behai---Stele-of-Jade-IsletStele of the Jade Islet in Spring Shade

The ‘Jade Islet in Spring Shade” scene used to be one of the Eight Great Sights of Beijing in the Jin Dynasty. The stele is erected in 1751 (Qianlong 16th year of the Qing Dynasty).

On the front-side the inscription “Qiong dao Chun Yin” (Jade Islet in Spring Shade) is written by Emperor Qianlong, and on the other three side are poems composed by the emperor. 

The White Pagoda (Bai Ta)

Beihai---BaiTa3Beihai---BaiTa2The White Pagoda, erected in 1651 (8th year of Emperor Shun Zhi of the Qing) stands 35.90 meters high.

Beihai-BaiTa-gateIn front of the pagoda is the Hall of Beneficent Causation, build in 1751. Beihai---BaiTa1The Hall’s walls are covered by 455 glazed tiles. In earlier days a bronze statue of an immortal king was worshipped.

Beihai---BaiTa4From the top of the Bai Ta you will enjoy a nice view on the Forbidden City.

Ancient Caves on Jade Islet

Beihai-Caves-3893The description in the park of the Ancient Caves left me speechless and the climb down the Caves breathless.

Beihai-Caves-3894I just quote the full text here for reference (and I needed a lot of text to present pictures of the many statues in the Caves).

Beihai-Caves-3896“Located in the northern part of Jade Islet, the scene is composed of a zigzagging line of deep caves in the manmade rockery built of Taihu stones.

First built in 1166 (Dading 6th year of the Jin Dynasty). It starts in the west from Gangu Hall (Hall of Sweetness and bitterness) to the Panlanjingshe Hall (Hall of Rising Mist) in the east and Xiemiaoshi Hall (Hall of Fine Stone) and Yannanxyn Hall (Hall of Holy Basil) in the north, covering a length of over 200 meters.

Beihai-Caves-3897The harmonious combination of subtle elegance and magnificent grotesqueness tops it as a masterpiece of manmade rockery in Chinese horticultural art. Shan Shiyuan, a celebrated expert on cultural relics, once composed a poem to praise the unique beauty of this scene, deeming its refinement superior to that of the islands of Penglai and Fangzhang where the immortals reside.

Beihai-Caves-3898The construction of the Jade Islet is inspired by the mysterious Kunlun myths in traditional Chinese culture, the Jade Islet symbolizes the Penglai Island, a part of the divine “One-Pond-Three-Hills” pattern in ancient myth, the ancient caves are designed according to people’s imagination of the immortals’ residence on the diving islands.

Beihai-Caves-3899Inside the ancient caves there are carved the Eight Diagrams, the twelve animals ruling people’s year of birth, the sixty dragons and so on. Also you can enjoy the unique beauty of those caves such as the Lygong Cave (Cav of Master Ly), Zhenru Cave (Cave of Origin), Xianku Cave (Cave of Divinity) and ShanMian Pavilion (Fan-shaped Pavilion) which was built according to the shape of Emperor Qianlong’s fan as it is said that the emperor used to practice Chinese kung fu with his fan in Yannanxun Hall.

Beihai-Caves-3900These interesting anecdotes add a mysterieus hue to the craggy caves. The original well-balanced pattern of the temples here is changed by these caves as the pavilions, temples and halls are now seemed scattered among the steep rockery and deep caves. A pleasant feeling is naturally aroused by the mysterious splendor.

Beihai-Caves-3902Climbing up the rockery or traversing through the caves, you will enjoy not only the enticing overview of the islet but also a refreshing experience of entering an idyllic scene. Looking up at the rugged stones inside the caves, you will feel as if you were in a fairyland.“

Beihai-Caves-3908After all this prose, you are no doubt completely ready to pay a few more RMB to visit the caves.

Be warned that there is no exit downstairs, you have to climbed all stairs up again.

 

Other information

Beihai-Park---Bell-Tower

A visit to the park will keep you busy for a full day. The ticket-price is RMB 5,- for an adult (please check here for the latest prices). A brochure with a nice map can be bought on-site.

Be reminded that some attractions need to be paid separately (.e.g. visit to the island, ..). All in all, an additional RMB 15,- should be sufficient to cover everything you really want to see.

Open hours are

  • 06:00 am to 8:30 pm in April, May, September, and October
  • 6:00 am to 10:00 pm in June, July, and August
  • 6:00 am to 8:00 pm in January,February, March, November and December