Sunday, September 25, 2011

Touring the capital of Kurdistan, Sanandaj - Kurdistan

Dar Al Ihsan Mosque, Sanandaj
On 17/5/2011 I was walking on the streets of Sanandaj, exactly a month after the city had two bomb blasts near the downtown ATM machine and Azadi Square. Generally and relatively, this is a safe city where you won't find robbery or theft a frequent happening. 

However, the clashes between the security forces and Kurdish rebel groups have been going on for a long time and the recent blast was not the only incident. I read carefully the travel advice issued by the Australian, British and American Embassy to their citizens….that’s how I keep myself informed of what’s happening anywhere I traveled. “We strongly advise you not to travel to areas near the border with Iraq, particularly Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan and Ilam provinces and Khorramshahr in Khuzestan province, because of the dangerous security situation” (Australian Embassy Advice).  It is always sensible to take all precautionary advice on how to keep safe when traveling. Anyone can be a random target!

In one occasion, we weren’t comfortable at the Hotel in Sanandaj when all our passports were taken from us during the stay. I insisted they returned it to us but the hotel manager told us they need to bring the original to the police station and the photocopies weren’t sufficient. I felt restless because my passport is the most important document that I would protect fervently when traveling. Ok... I had to compromise! 

While in Sanandaj, we visited the old mosque, Dar al Ihsan and Asef Mansion (museum) to have a glimpse of the Kudish culture. Dar al Ihsan mosque was built in 1227AH by the Governor of Kurdistan and is still a working mosque today. The visit to Asef Mansion was interesting, looking at the Kurdish historical and cultural exhibits from the past. 95% of Kurdish are Sunnis from the Mazhab of Shafiees and their population in Iran is about 12 million. Discovering the warm hospitality of the Kurdish people and their desire to share their cultural identity have been the highlights of my visit to Kurdistan. Just walk through the streets of Sanandaj and you'll understand what I mean!
Dar Al Ihsan
New extension of the old mosque
Interior of the mosque
Tile work on the dome
Natural spring pool for ablution and the entrance
Old Hamam exhibit in Asef Mansion
Kurdish architecture
Part of the musuem in Asef Mansion
Internal Garden in Asef Mansion
Asef mansion
Beautiful intricate window carving
Entrance to the museum
The streets of Sanandaj at night

The Ancient Ruins of Persepolis - Iran

We hired a cab from Shiraz to Persepolis. The driver sent us for breakfast in the city and it was about half past ten by the time we left Shiraz. We did not communicate much with the cab driver for he spoke very little English. Most of the time my Iranian friend was narrating to us about the city of Shiraz and the archaeological sites in Persepolis we were about to visit. Along the way to Persepolis I saw several huge posters of Iranian men lined on the highways and out of curiosity I asked, "Who are they?" I was told that those are portraits of the martyrs in the 8 years Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, thus making it the longest conventional war in the 20th. century.
Can't stand the heat!

The journey from Shiraz to Persepolis (about 58km) took us more than an hour and by the time we arrived in Persepolis it was almost noon and the heat was getting intense. I can feel it on my skin and even the hat would not help much. We had to walk up the ancient site quite far from where the cab dropped us. All we saw were just ruins and stones which tell a story of the ancient Persia that was once ruled by the Romans in 2 million BC.

Persepolis may not be a place of interest to everybody because apart from the ruins, there are not much to see unless you are such a great fan of archaeology. 
Founded by Darius in 518 BC, Persepolis was invaded and burnt by Alexander the Great in 331. Persepolis was declared the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. There were many locals flooding the ancient ruins, be it for nostalgic purposes or pride of the past. Persepolis bears an important chapter of the Persian history in particular.

In the scorching heat we walked through the sites and it was really tiring that we need to stop for a cool glass of ice cream and faludeh in a small cafe next to the museum. From the cafe we decided to walk back and call the cab to pick us up. We should have come earlier in the morning to avoid the heat but anyway, just a few hours in Persepolis to have a taste of this ancient history is sufficient.

A site near the museum
Tall columns all over the site
Huge rocks formed the horse sculpture  
Rocks all over
Massive complex influenced by Mesopotamian model
The Great Stairway - 111 steps

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Belum Rainforest - Lake Temenggor, Perak, Malaysia

Banding Island Police Station and a boathouse

After the Second World War until late 1980s, the entire Belum Forest and Lake Temenggor was considered to be unsafe due to active communist movement around the area. The construction of the East-West Highway and Temenggor Dam were among the ways how government hampered the Communist activities. Prior to 1975, there was no such thing as Lake Temenggor, Banding Island and the other islands around Lake Temenggor. 
Temenggor Hydro Electric Dam
Remnants of tree-trunks in the lake 
Upon the completion of Temenggor Hydro Electric Dam in 1977 and within a year, the entire valley was flooded creating 80 islands. Beneath this man-made lake, lies the logging equipment of the loggers who were taken by surprise of the rising water level, the entire village of Kampong Temenggor, Padang Cermin the training ground of the anti-Japanese resistance Force 136 and indigenous tribes ancestral burial grounds. About 400 villagers were airlifted and relocated in villages at the edge of the lake but the stranded animals were spared due to fear of communist attacks at that time.  

This 15,200 hectares man made lake offers a tranquil beauty with diverse flora and fauna. The jade green lake is the home of freshwater fish such as Toman, Sebarau, Tenggalan, Baung and even the renowned Kelah, thus, creating a heaven for fishing enthusiast. The Belum Rainforest is said to be over 130 million years making it much older than the Amazon rainforest. Covering an area of 290,000 hectares, it stretches for another 117,500 hectares of impenetrable forest along Malaysia-Thailand boarder. 

Proud of its natural vegetation and wildlife, the forest is still populated by tigers, tapirs, elephants, rhinos, vipers, black panthers, reptiles, small animals and about 200 species of birds. There are tigers roaming in Belum Forest and elephants wandering along the highway at night. We skipped the night trekking in search for tigers...we don't want to meet them...so we are happy just to see their wet footprints and scratches on the trees the next morning. For two nights we went out to track the elephants but it was hopeless because we couldn't stay up late...we returned at 11pm and they came out at 1am...we will try harder next time. The winding road of the East-West highway is well sign posted to warn drivers that the elephants may be crossing at anytime….especially at night.
Army in charge of protecting Royal Belum Rainforest
The Police Boat in Banding Island
Matching green lake and forest
Small island on Lake Temenggor
Rocky island in Lake Temenggor
Another small island

A room with a view - Banding Lake Side Inn, Temenggor, Perak, Malaysia

A view from the balcony - the bridge to Banding Island
Banding Lake Side Inn
Although the drive from Kuala Lumpur to Pulau Banding is estimated to take 5 ½ hours, it can actually drag longer depending on the traffic. This is Eid and even the expressway can get congested. From the North-South Expressway we exited Kuala Kangsar and drove further up the East-West Highway. The next 39km after the town of Gerik is very winding with sharp bends all over.  

We booked a hotel on a hilly spot just before the bridge across Pulau Banding – Banding Lake Side Inn. Across the bridge is the Belum Rainforest Resort which is much more expensive but with better facilities. Apart from these two hotels, there are no other hotels in the vicinity except for few boat houses on the lake, which is much cheaper than the hotels ranging $12 to $30 USD but I’m not sure about the quality of the boat houses though. I think one should not expect much out of these boat houses but perhaps more for the experience of staying in it.    

King Size Bed

Banding Lake Side Inn is a simple hotel with all the basic features; mini bar, sofa, ironing board and the normal furniture a hotel would have. We had a deluxe room – clean and spacious. But what bothers me most about this hotel is the poor service. We arrived quite late after a long drive and were surprise that there was no one to take our stacks of luggage to the rooms. We loaded our things on the hotel trolley and started distributing them to our respective rooms. I’m not sure if that is the normal practice in this hotel or is it just they are terribly under staff during Eid. “Crappy!” I whispered to myself. 

The breakfast was even more disappointing with just bread, butter and jam. If you’re going for jungle trekking, water rafting and other activities you probably need to load yourself a little bit more to boost your energy. Luckily we brought our own fruits, nuts, biscuits and cereals. Except for a small petty shop and a local stall near the second bridge, this place has no grocery store or fast food restaurant. The hotel has a small shop selling ice cream and junk food but it is very expensive.  The nearest town is Gerik, 39km away. Those are some of the setback of Banding Lake Side Inn. 
The balcony facing the lake

But on a positive note, as soon as I got into my room (401), all my complaints vanished. I was mesmerized by the breathtaking view from my balcony, facing the jade green lake set against Banding Island and the other small Islands. I wake up in the morning watching the sunrise over the shimmering lake. Other families of mine on the second and third floor complained of the bad smell from the toilet, the small insects raided their room but I’m utterly contented with the magnificent view. Couldn't ask for more! 

Huge bathroom
Banding Island at sunset from the balcony
Green tropical rainforest

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Jahai Tribe of Belum Rainforest - Temenggor, Malaysia

The Eid celebration this year has been a memorable one. My family and I decided to be close to nature. We spend this whole week in Belum Rainforest area. Apart from trekking, yesterday we visited the Jahai tribe, the sub-ethnic group of the Negritos. 

There are 18 indigenous tribes living in Peninsular Malaysia forest and about 5,600 of them comprising the Temiar, the Jahai and the Kinchu tribes live around Temenggor and Belum Rainforest.  The Jahai tribe is a sub-group of the Negrito, generally short, dark skinned with tightly curled hair. Although today most of the Jahai population live in settlements provided by government, there are families who still retain their forefather nomadic lives outside these settlements. 

He responded well when called - sparkling eyes with thick lashes
We visited a group of Jahai families who just moved to a hilly spot near Banun about 12km from Banding Island.  They speak their tribal language to their children but the adults are able to communicate with us in our national language. We spent some times talking to the mothers and youths and were told that they moved to the spot about 2 weeks ago. Last night, their  area was encroached by a herd of elephants and they didn't sleep the whole night guarding their huts and families. We found fresh feces of elephants all along the path which confirmed their claims. 

When asked about the age of their kids, they didn't know their children's age. There were three mothers with many children.  Their men were not at home and they must have gone out for fishing or gathering of food. Due to their excellent sense of smell, they are usually hired as guide or porter for  trekkers into the Royal Belum Rainforest.  

We distributed gifts to the kids, gave the families some food and money. Initially the kids were reluctant to come close but their mothers spoke gently to them in their native language and it didn't take long for them to get close to us.  Soon the kids were responding very well and they happily collected their gifts one at a time.