Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Snow Falling on the Imperial Courtyard

Imperial Palace Courtyard

Tianamen Square

At the archeaological site off Dong Hua Gate

1919 Tinamen Protest Memorial outside the Palace

Entrance to a Hutong

Antique shopping before the Chinese New Year

Winter in Beijing can be just as cold inside as it is on the outside. Many of the older buildings in Beijing, even those built in the last 20 years, could be fairly drafty. Staying warm indoors, means bundling up in layers to prevent body heat loss.

The light snow covering the Imperial Palace complex, a Unesco World Heritage, in January 2004 was a rare visual treat but a cold experience. Magnificent as the buildings of the museum complex are, they date back to the Ming emperors from 1400's. That translates to very high ceilings, no double glazing, sealing nor central heating, full winter gear and a drippy nose.

A comforting discovery was a stand up Starbuck's at the entrance of a gallery shop in one of the side buildings. While my colleague and I shared a table with a couple of German engineers warming up with cafe grandes, a group of American high school kids were busy with their steaming hot noodle soups in another section of the shop.

Across the avenue from the Imperial Palace complex is Tianamen Square. The reward for walking down the humongous square in the winter, the largest in China (possibly the world), was Qianamen street, once the imperial shopping centre.

Vendors sold practically every knock off on the entire planet from Burberry scarves to North Face jackets to cheap version of Chinese silk finery. Near the pagoda like gate, was a short street with shops that may have catered to the imperial family in the old days. There, I found a little treasure, a silk duvet, that keeps me warm and toasty to this day.

2004 was the year of the wood monkey, the Chinese zodiac sign in the Chinese calendar. In the run up to the Chinese New Year, January 22 in 2004, the streets and shops were decked out like the Chinese version of Christmas - lanterns, buntings, coloured lights. Shops were stocked to the rafters, sometimes spilling out on to the sidewalk. However, nothing could beat the antiques for sale I saw displayed outside a McDonald's in Beijing.

The days before the Chinese New Year, the city empties out of residents, packing train and bus stations, and airports. Most return to their ancestral homes and do the rounds of relatives. The more affluent take family holidays instead outside the country. The season is one of the busiest travel periods in these parts of Asia.

With the Lunar New Year comes the Spring Festival. The two events actually occur on the same date, one and the same holiday. This makes winter in Beijing a rather short lived season. The snow that falls on the Imperial Palace and Tianamen Square generally does not last more than a couple of days.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Codfish & Grieg

Bergen Harbour

Old Downtown

Bryggen

Fish Market

Old Bergen Museum

Rosenkrantz Tower

Grieg's Statue, Troldhaugen

Grieg's Summer House, Troldhaugen

Fall in Troldhaugen

Dried codfish gave Bergen wealth and Edvard Grieg gave it music. There's actually no cod in the waters off Bergen. The fish come from further up north in the Lofoten Islands, hang dried in the sun, with the resulting constitution of manila hemp.

The samples at the Hanseatic Museum in historic Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage, were meant only for show not to taste as I found out. To eat, one has to soak the dried cod in water for days to bring back the spring in the meat. Or, in true Norwegian style, soak the dried code in lye for days, then boil or bake it, then serve as "lutfisk", the traditional delight with the consistency and taste of jello.

Edvard Grieg is Norway's ultimate and greatest composer. He is to Norwegian music as Henrik Ibsen is to Norwegian literature. His summer home in Troldhaugen with his beloved piano is worthy of a visit by those who have heard his piano Concerto in A Minor. The concerto is dramatic, a little wild, whimsical at times, which basically describes the landscape, the city, and the weather in Bergen.

Bergen's history dates back to 1070, founded by King Olav at the end of the Viking age. It was Norway's second capital, after Trondheim further up north on the west coast, before Christiania (Oslo) took over. During the medieval times, the city was an important partner in the Hanseatic League, the alliance of merchant cities of the Baltic, Germany and Northern Europe on par with notable trading cities like Bruges in Belgium, and Hamburg in Germany. Trading dried cod gave Bergen its bragging rights in the league.

The city landscape, the mountains, the water and inlets (or arms) bear a striking similarity to Vancouver on the west coast of Canada.The foliage and evergreens gave the place a certain mellowness in early November of 2004 when I visited. The overnight train trip from Oslo was supposed to end with a dramatic approach to Bergen, a sunrise spectacle as the train came down the mountain toward the sea. However, it was 4:00 am in mid-autumn, pitch dark and foggy when the train rolled into Bergen. The view, unfortunately, could only be possible on a clear morning during Norwegian summers.

Coming out of the train station in darkness, save for the eerie glow of street lamps, I walked across to the old downtown with its narrow cobble stone streets. At the end of the rows of wooden and concrete low rise buildings with quaint shops, I emerged at the Bryggen. The colourful wooden trading houses of the medieval ages on one side of the street fronting the harbour, was Bergen in a postcard.

One of my favourite cities in Europe, Bergen is very picturesque, like Vancouver, Rio, de Janeiro or Hongkong on a much smaller scale, laid back with salty sea air charm. Although it can be damp cold, it isn't lacking in vibrancy as an urban and cultural center with the blending of the medieval old, 19th century old and Scandinavian modern.

The most memorable place, undoubtedly for me, is Troldhaugen, Grieg's summer home. This has more to do with the piano Concerto in A minor that is firmly lodged in one of my brain cells. It happens to be one of my father's vinyl record collection of classical music, which he played most Sundays on the old hi-fi.

For more information on this charming city, Visit Bergen.
To listen to Edvard Grieg, Piano Concerto in A Minor.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Inside the Kremlin

Red Square

St. Basil's Cathedral

ItalicLenin Mausoleum & Kremlin Palaces

Kazan Cathedral

Gum Department Store

Shoppers in Gum

The Kremlin, citadel in Russian, is as imposing and daunting as the name itself. It has a striking similarity in aspiration to its counterpart, the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) in Beijing. The wooden fortress dates back to 1156, burnt and destroyed by the Mongol-Tatars in the early 13th century.

After 250 years of domination by the Golden Khanate of the Mongol horde, the fortress city rose up again to become the Kremlin that we see now. The growth of the citadel paralleled the transformation from the lowly Rus to the imperial Russia, and the rise of Moscow as the grand city of the tsars.

The most recognizable site in the Kremlin is the Red Square flanked by the Kremlin Palaces and Gum, with St. Basil's at the far end. The addition of the Lenin Mausoleum came in 1924. Cathedrals seem to be more prominent nowadays than the government buildings of this once communist, atheist haven.

The once wooden fortress remains as formidable as the tsars would have wanted. And for the ordinary visitor, it is well worth the grand hike inside the citadel, its museums, cathedrals save for the palaces which are off limits.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Spring Day in Moscow

A Nice Spring Day for Moscovites


Moscow Underground

Resurrection Gate, Kremlin

Trinity Tower, Kremlin

Park outside the Arsenal, Kremlin

Arbat Shopping Mall

Moscow is a grand place but it can be forbidding unless one visits in friendlier season, like summer. Arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport in March 2006, I was welcomed by a late winter blast rather than spring as I had hoped for. It was dull and grey. Snow and ice piled up on the side of the road and along the Moskva River.

It was wishful thinking considering Russia and southern Canada where I live share similar weather condition called, a continental climate. I don't know how the climate got described as "continental" when "tundra" would have been far more appropriate.

In mid-April, after my return from central Russia, the sun finally got through and the snow was gone. Alexander, our representative in Moscow, took the opportunity to invite me for a walk about in the Kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage.

We got as far as the Red Square which if I remember right was off limits to pedestrians that day. I refrained from taking photos of the square just in case. However, we did get to see various cathedrals with onion bulbs, watch towers, and very official looking buildings in the citadel. Kremlin bathed in sunshine was pretty grand.

In late afternoon, we took the subway where the escalators go down as much as 50 metres like a mine shaft, ending on a platform that looked and felt like a museum. The trains, not to be outdone in antiquity, were Orient Express vintage with wooden panels and trims inside the car.

We got off at one end of the Arbat and walked down the pedestrian shopping mall. We stopped for coffee in an Armenian coffee shop where a demitasse of expresso can result in serious heart palpitations. After two of these ultra caffeinated drinks and a lot of stories, it was time to head back to the Hotel Arbat, two blocks away.

Moscow in mid-spring seems a vibrant and exciting place. I presume that in the summer, it can give the visitor a kick as strong as that expresso.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

From Tanks to John Deere

Statue of Lenin

War Memorial

Opera House

Arbat - Outdoor Shopping Mall

Hotel Victoria

Afternoon Rush Hour

Subotnik, Spring Clean Up

At the end of World War II, Russia established closed, secret cities identified only by number. These cities which occasionally changed numerical designation to ensure secrecy, were factory towns of the Russian military industrial complex. One needed a permit to visit. The cities were in remote, interior regions such as the Ural region and Siberia, out of reach of enemy bombers.

The city of Chelyabinsk was once a closed city. It is deep in the southern Ural, approximately 200 km south of Ekaterinburg (where the last Czar and his family were executed), and about the same distance north of the border of Kazahkstan. It was a military fortress in the 1700's during the Russian expansion. On the eve of World War II, Stalin decided to set up military factories in this small village. Katyusha rockets and T-34 tanks were synonymous with Chelyabinsk. "Tankograd"was its unofficial name. Today, Chelyabinsk is a city of about a million people.

In 1992, Chelyabinsk was decommissioned and its factories converted to peaceful industrial use. According to a knowledgeable lady, Chelyabinsk switched from producing tanks to "ahhhh...John Deere," (tractors!), trying to describe the guns to plowshare transformation. However, the successful transformation is overshadowed by a tragic past. Chelyabinsk oblast (region) experienced 3 major nuclear disasters between late 1940 to late 1960, during its heyday as a military industrial hub.

The 1957 nuclear disaster at Mayak, the largest nuclear facility in Russia, 72 km out of the city, irradiated half a million people, leaving some villages, part of the river and a highway still radioactive. A film about Chelyabinsk labels it as the most contaminated place on earth. According to locals I worked with, up to 30% of its residents suffer from the effects of these disasters.

In spring of 2006, while working in Chelyabinsk, the city didn't seem to have transformed gracefully. The heavy industrial look and the Soviet era architecture remained. Coming into downtown, huge hot water pipes stuck out of the road side like a scene from Mel Gibson's movie, the post apocalyptic Mad Max (Road Warrior). The cloudy skies, snowy and cold weather unusual for the time of the year, and factory emissions added to the eery scenery.

However, I was in the Urals, the natural divide between Europe and Asia, almost halfway round the world from where I live. From the airport, seeing the treeless steppes with minimal trace of habitation other than an occasional stray dog, the absence of high peaks (the mountain range is very old, and not very high), the remoteness and the grayness of the place was overwhelming.

It was in this very far away and sort of mysterious place that I had one of the most interesting conversations in all my travels. After helping me at the post office, as we were about to have lunch at a cafe, Sasha, an employee at Hotel Victoria, came out of nowhere and started the conversation about a book, and an author that made me take notice. It was a wild opening line from someone I didn't personally know who seemed to know what I actually read. I mention this conversation in my first post, Where Do I Start?

I'm not sure how to describe my time in Chelyabinsk. Tatiana, a hotel executive, described it best. On a slow night at the hotel, she said over dinner quoting a Russian writer, "don't try to understand Russia, just feel Russia."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Room With A View

Pension Sacher, Vienna

Pension Sacher, Vienna

Hotel Am Markt, Baden-Baden

E.M Forster wrote A Room With A View about vacationing Brits and romance at the turn of the last century. The story is set in Florence and starts with a complaint about the room not having the right exposure. It overlooked the courtyard instead of the beautiful city as had been promised.

Pension Sacher in Vienna does not have to promise a view. Located in the heart of Vienna on Rotenturmstrasse, all the windows expose a glorious sight of the cathedral, Stefansdom, day or night, and the happenings in the square below. A business colleague discovered the pension for me in 1994 on my first visit to the city. I have since stayed at another pension only one time, and regretted it.

The pension occupies the 7th floor of a '60s building dedicated to John F. Kennedy. All the rooms (actually suites or apartments) come with a kitchenette, spotlessly clean and decked out in antiques. The pension has been a "home" in Vienna in the 3 times I had been there (1994, 1996, 2010). It hasn't changed a wee bit over the years. Across on the side street is the Bristol if one cares to go 5 star.

Hotel Am Markt
in Baden-Baden, Germany is another one of those little gems that offer every room with a view. Set on a hilltop in the old town across the Catholic Stiftskirche, the rooms of this 250 year old and immaculately kept pension look out onto the old square and the church, the quaint downhill side street with equally quaint buildings (e.g. the town hall), or a view of Baden-Baden.

My first time, in 2002, I checked into a single room, with wash basin and shared bathroom, facing the side street. (Who needs a bathroom when one can get clinically clean next door at Friedrichsbad or down the street at Caracalla?) Another time in 2006, it was a larger room with windows exposing the city, and in 2007, a large suite looking out to the town hall. A sumptuous German breakfast buffet taken in a leisurely pace completes the picture.

Pension Sacher and Hotel Am Markt are most likely found in every guide books and online travel websites. They're probably rated 5 stars, as in highly recommended.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Travel Companion

"Travel is a state of mind. It has nothing to do with distance or the exotic. It is almost entirely an inner experience. My particular way of getting to Nantucket - alone, almost blindly over water - seemed to transform the destination. The Nantucket I had arrived at was a different place from the Nantucket of the ferry passenger, and I was different, too - happier, for one thing. The trip had done what all trips ought to do. It had given me heart."- Paul Theroux,  Fresh Air Fiend

Finding the right book or reading material to take on a trip can be a bit of a dilemma. The length of a trip, destination, purpose or modern airline vagary such as baggage allowance can determine the choice of reading material – be it a book, magazine, trade journal, laptop or all of the above.

L
onely Planet or Go Trekking seem to be popular among travelers seeking that inner experience Paul Theroux described in his kayaking trip to Nantucket. Airport bookstores do brisk business in paperback fiction and popular magazines for light reading in-transit or on long range flights where one is vertical much of the time.

W
ifi adds a new dimension to one’s choice of a carry-on: laptop, iPod, or any other hand held device. As long as one can find a signal, a whole new world opens in soft copy from emails to a street guide to the next destination.

Paul Theroux’s Fresh-Air Fiend has traveled a few times with me since 2002. It makes a perfect companion in between stops or down times while on the road. The short insightful chapters make the book easy to read, one can put aside and pick up another time.

Some publications may be so engrossing they are asking to be devoured cover to cover on a single night in a hotel or plane ride. Michael Palin’s Sahara was thoroughly entertaining as one can expect from a Monty Python alumnus. His funny observations on the world and the visuals were truly the comedian himself. Fast Food Nation wasn’t meant to entertain but it kept me well-informed. The Book Seller of Kabul was an unassuming piece of non-fiction by a Norwegian journalist that started on the plane and ended in my hotel room the following night.

Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote is also ready-to-go at a moment’s notice. Each chapter is a story in itself but it’s over a thousand pages in fine print. I guess it will have to travel with me a few more years. Back copies of National Geographic don’t lose their luster, and more entertaining than trade journals, English language foreign newspapers and airline magazines I pick up along the way.

Paul Theroux wrote, "so much of travel is self-delusion." For that reason, travelers take a favourite travel companion to keep their delusion in check.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Toronto the Good" Gone Bad

The Berlin Wall of Fortress Toronto

Riot Police photo taken by a Riot Tourist

Many Torontonians think the city is boring. City fathers perpetually dream of elevating the city to "world class" status.

Well, Toronto has a famous landmark called CN Tower, that tall pointed thing that has become a recognizable symbol of the city. The city hosts the 2nd largest international film festival in the world (TIFF), next only to Cannes in importance. We have crowd drawing events like Caribana and Toronto Gay Pride, that bring a million visitors into the city. We have a parks system that is the envy of many cities including a downtown island park with an airport. We have a transit system that people actually use. The locals tend to say "please", "excuse me", "ooops I'm sorry "a lot.

At any given time, there are more than 20,000 international students, most in English language schools who think Toronto is one cool city. We have Much Music, hockey, football, baseball, basketball, alas no World Cup calibre soccer teams. Downtown, there's a theatre district that's 2nd only to Broadway; the financial center, a telephone extension of New York. Torontonians eat an assortment of culinary delights: samosas, kolbassa, blt, pita, multi grain, organic, transfats, bibimbap, Alberta beef etc. Name it you'll find it in the city. With such diverse communities, many citizens carry multinational genes in their veins.

In Mercer's Quality of Living report, Toronto (together with few other Canadian cities) has always been on the top of the world. It must be the weather then - long winters, short summers

Last weekend (June 25-27), changed all that. The PM in Ottawa gave the city a push to world class status, by donating the G20 summit right in the heart of downtown. With 6 months notice and nary an input from its citizens, $1.2 b budget, $900 m in "security" alone and approx 15,000 security force, Toronto had to show the world what a truly world class city it is.

However, things didn't go according to plans. As with any G# or world summits, the city expected demonstrations, protests and marches and that dreaded group called the "black bloc." In a city with 1001 causes, from cure a disease with unpronounceable name to free a country with multiple consonants, what can one expect - Oxfam marching next to anarchists in black.

Photo ops turned into bad optics over the weekend. One day, vandals performed their ritual, smashing windows and burning unattended (or abandoned) police cruisers while the integrated security unit stood down. This mini, micro mob was allowed to disgrace the city. How bizarre.

Next day, the ISU (integrated security unit) decided to do some "kettling" (new word of the day, meaning to box people in) on Queen St. W and Spadina for 5 hours, half of that in a record downpour. A small group of peaceful marchers, including a group that calls itself the "bike bloc" (advocating for more bike lanes), Chinatown shoppers, bystanders, teenagers gawking at the happening or people simply crossing the street were in "breach of peace". What? Queen St. West in breach of peace? The funky street lives to break the peace with its clubs, pubs, artsy fartsy shops, entertainment and Much Music.

That weekend, other than the usual suspects - the young and university age - anyone wearing black, carrying weapons of opportunity (Visine or dollar store pocket knife!?!), speaking with a Quebec accent or a riot tourist with a digital could be deemed an anarchist or sympathizer. A free weekend in a cage at the detention center sans vegetarian menu awaited them.

No one high up would like to acknowledge that this was a mess: bad for small businesses in the core, bad for tourism (80% of tourists to Toronto are from the US which issued an advisory before G20 - thanks!?!), bad for Toronto's finest (yes, we actually like our cops), and bad tv. Of the 900 arrested, so far only 1 has been charged. That was even before the G20 came to town. Authorities have not even identified the 2 people who popped out of a manhole they arrested in the wee hours of Sunday morning. That could be new material for a wicked movie - The Anarchist Ninja Turtles in Toronto.

The showcase for Toronto and tourism turned into a surreal reality show. G20 leaders did not even have a photo op at a tourist attraction. Toronto the good just turned bad.

Now for the real boring stuff, check out Tourism Toronto.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Stairways to Heaven

Terraces in Banaue

Our Local Guide, Moises in Batad

Batad Terraces

Whose minding the terrace?

Tappia Falls

The Cordillera Rice Terraces in Northern Philippines are often referred to as stairways to heaven. They are as impressive to see for real as they look in pictures.

Terraces are found all over Southeast Asia (even in southern Europe). However, the Cordillera terraces seem to be over the top. In size, laid end to end they could cover half the globe. In construction, these terraces are like giant steps on steep slopes, with as much as 500 metres in vertical drop. In age, these have been in continuous use for 2,000 years with the oldest complex over 3,000 years.

Many centuries ago, the settlers of the Cordilleras were in dire need of farm land to plant rice. There were no flat lands in the mountains so instead, they constructed strips of rice paddies on top of each other. Today, these terraces serve as a living testament to the ingenuity and adaptability of man. They accomplished the task without John Deere or Caterpillar, high tech gadgets and slaves.

Banaue Terraces is the grandest, most well known and photographed among the terrace complexes of the Cordilleras which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage. My visit to Banaue in the 2nd week of May this year, was accidental but in hindsight, it worked out for the best. After I completed my work assignment in northern Philippines, I had planned to go straight to Sagada bypassing Banaue. However, there was no easy route direct to Sagada and the best way to go is through Banaue.

With 2 local colleagues for company and the boss' car for transport, we drove to Banaue and got into the mountain town at night. We checked in at Banaue View Inn where the lady of the house happened to be Lily Beyer Luglug, the granddaughter of noted anthropologist, historian, and Cordillera expert, Prof. Otley Beyer. Prof Beyer's collection is now at the Banaue Museum, next door to the inn.

The town itself is built on terraces slowly being overtaken by "town sprawl". Some of the retaining walls have been reinforced with concrete, but most still show the original stones of the terraces.

Next day as Lily recommended, we headed off for Batad to visit the amphitheatre shaped terraces and Tappia water fall. Batad is about 45 minutes away, via a gravel road 15 minutes off the highway. From Batad saddle (a ridge overlooking the tiny mountain village, and part of the terraces), we followed a trail down the side of the mountain until we reached the edge of the village. From here, the 3 of us decided to traverse the terraces, then hike further to the falls. Ignorance is bliss. We were to find out 4 hours later, that the trek down and back up is not for amateurs with weak hearts, loose limbs or wonky knees. Someone forgot to mention that.

Coming into the middle of this humongous amphitheatre, one feels more than views the terraces: huge, complex engineering, hemmed in by steep mountainsides, but oh so peaceful. How ancient farmers managed to match and fit the stones to form 6-9 feet of solid walls holding rice paddies in a complex this size and a few others was beyond me. That's like putting together a million piece jigsaw puzzle tight and snug, without slack, a few times over. The rocks that form the steps were just as solid, without the slightest wiggle or jiggle as we came down. Simply awesome and inspiring.

At the far end of the terraces is a rest stop on a ridge just before the trail down to Tappia Falls. Sitting on bamboo benches, we could hear the heavy breathing and labored steps of hikers coming up the trail from the falls. It was almost amusing to see people pop out of the trail, in such a state.

From here, we hiked or awkwardly clambered down broken concrete steps about 500 metres and at last, the falls. A young French tourist in one of the rest stops assured us that it is very nice down here, worth it. The 50 metre waterfall and the pool were definitely worth it, a reward for that knee busting downhill trek.

Going back up to the ridge, traversing the terraces one more time, then hiking up the mountain trail to the saddle took 2 1/2 hours. It also required numerous stops to deal with leg cramps, shot knees and catch one's breath. However, it was simply exhilirating, a once in a lifetime experience.

Test of the Heart and Legs
, Trip Advisor review.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dancing with the Waves



Ivatan Fishing Boat

Batanes Stone House

Mahatao 17th Century Church

Ruins of Songsong

Coastal Highway, Batan Island

Most Popular Coffee Shop

Batanes is a rather unique place in the Philippines. The 10 islands comprising Batanes is closer to Taiwan, roughly 200 km away, than to the nearest island of Luzon in the Philippines. The island province is in the tropics but depending on where you are, it looks and feels a bit like,the Oregon Coast or some countryside in the south of UK. Take away the occasional clumps of coconut trees and banana plants, one is lost in an unnamed island paradise.

The first thing I noticed while visiting the islands this year were the fishing boats of the Ivatans (people of Batanes). The boats were not the narrow hulled, Pacific or Southeast Asian variety with bamboo outriggers. These canoes or dinghies have bulbous or rounded bottom, shallow keel and little fins on each side. According to our guide, Lito, outrigger canoes won't last in the waters around the islands. The finned dinghies are meant to dance with the waves. As it happens, Batanes is where the Pacific meets and clashes with the South China Sea.

The other noticeable feature of the islands are the old thatched stone houses. The Ivatan houses are built right on the ground, with thick stone walls and thatched roofing made of date (a local variety) palm material, almost like old English cottages. There are no typical, island "resort" huts on stilts with woven bamboo or rattan walls and coconut palm roofing. What more, the original stone houses did not have doors. One simply went through the large windows.

Batanes bills itself as the land of the howling winds. Other than crashing waves, the islands experiences more than its share of high winds and typhoons. Where in other parts of the country, a typhoon or other natural disasters can level a village, the stone houses seem to withstand them. Except one time when a tsunami in early 1950's caused by a typhoon leveled the village of Songsong. The remaining walls of the stone houses along the highway serve as a memorial.

The rugged coast line, the seascape and landscape of the Batanes islands have merited UNESCO's attention. All 10 islands are under consideration for world heritage designation. Latest archaeological findings have added historical and cultural dimensions to its importance.

The Ivatans are direct descendants of the Austronesians who first landed on Itbayat island, ca 3,000-4,000 years BC. This one (only one) branch of Austronesians who are related to the Taiwanese aborigines with one language became the forefathers of Filipinos, Indonesians, Malays, and Polynesians. In time, the Austronesians became accomplished maritimers settling, colonizing, spreading their cultural, linguistic heritage and genetic markers to, as far as Madagascar, Easter Island, Hawaii and New Zealand in what anthropologists call the Austronesian express-train.

Exploring Batanes can take up to a week. Getting there and around can be a slight problem. Rough seas and inclement weather can strand a visitor. But the islands are very photogenic. On Batan island alone, the 24 kilometres of coastal highway yielded many little treasures from deserted beaches, marine sanctuaries, to little towns with quaint 17th century colonial churches, the ruins of Songsong and the deserted former US Coast Guard installation on the beach. The public ranch, Rakuh a Payaman, dubbed as "Marlboro Country" by visitors, with rolling hills, stone fences and hedgerows looked so English.

I wish I could have gone to Sabtang island. My 2 companions however managed to suffer the swells on the 30 minute boat journey. It has more of the archaelogical sites including more stone house, stone fortresses and boat shaped graves than any other island plus, I understand, a fantastic beach.

Beyond the scenic, cultural and touristy character of the islands, Batanes can boast of a very laid back, civil and genuinely hospitable spirit. First, there are no traffic jams with only a few motor vehicles; the airport is a quick 15 minute walk to downtown Basco, the capital; people say hello to strangers; common courtesy rules; people speak softly and gently as well move a little slower than city folks. The most popular coffee shop is not Starbuck's but a little establishment in Ivatan aptly named, Honesty Coffee Shop. It's literally self-serve: make yourself instant coffee, pick your items off the shelves, record your purchase, pay and give yourself change. How civilized.

A local resident told us a story relating to a foreign visitor who read something in National Geographic about the waves in Batanes. The visitor was eager to get on a boat and ride the waves to Itbayat, the northernmost island. The boatman refused because the waves can lift the boat so high that one loses sight of the water below. The visitor may not have danced with the waves but it was wise to heed local advice.

My review of Batanes in Trip Advisor, Weather Permitting.