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Mosques, museums and towers

We walked toward the National Mosque and the Islamic Arts and Culture Museum. The museum, which we didn't know much about before visiting, had an impressive collection of intricate dioramas of mosques from around the world, including the Middle East, India, Malaysia and China. The architecture gallery was likely my favourite. The beauty of the mosques had me wishing I could visit many of the countries some day, once many conflicts were resolved. Mosque architecture was designed to display humility and simplicity.

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According the museum description, the towers were built so that one could call to prayer and be heard. Most had domes that we now associate with mosques, designed for ideal acoustics, and others had courtyards. The first mosque built as an annex to his house by the Prophet in Medina was a model for mosques to follow. Mosques featured a sheltered portico courtyard used for congregational prayer, a minbar: raised steps where the khatib addressed the congregation, a minaret from which the mu'azin called for prayer, a qibla a wall accented by a Mihrab or niche which faces the Kaaba in Mecca and finally the dome to provide shelter and encourage spiritual unity. Later on the Dikka, a platform raised on columns, Kursi, a raised chair with a book fold for the Quran and the Maidha'h, the water source for the traditional ablution before prayer.

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Along with the architecture was the Ottoman Room, a reconstructed interior of an Ottoman Syrian room dated 1820 - 1821 AD that was impressive as well. It had beautiful painted wood paneling and few windows.

http://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/entertainment/arts/frame-up/2014/10/05/islamic-arts-museum-malaysia-sacred-and-splendid/

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The museum itself was beautiful with spectacular domes ceilings. The tiles inside were from Iran while the outer stucco was from Uzbekistan.

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The museum also had a collection of beautifully scribed and illustrated Qurans and manuscripts. Authors and illustrators went to school for years to qualify to be part of the process. Calligraphy was highly respected in society and leaders also liked to show off their prowess. There were fragments of the Quran that dated date back to the 8th century from either North Africa or the Middle East. The museum collection featured Qurans from different centuries and different countries. Those from India, Persia and the Ottoman empires were far more embellished than those from the Middle East.

http://www.iamm.org.my/galleries/quran-manuscript/

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There were also collections of Islamic articles and items from the three main cultural groups in Malaysia: Chinese, Indian and Malay. Islam was prevalent in Northern India. Many Indian items were from the Mughal era (1526-1828) when many items were embellished and there was much attention to beauty and extravagance.

In China, Muslim emissaries arrived during the Tang (618-709) dynasty, but the exact date Islam arrived is unknown. It is thought to have come either through the trade route from Southeast Asia or across the Silk Road trading route.. Trade cities like Xi-an and Guangdong welcomed Islam and it later spread to China's western provinces. By the Song dynasty (960-1279), mosques were built throughout China. Muslims had unprecedented political influence during the Ming era (1368-1644). They also produced a number of goods with calligraphy and Islamic text for export. Items like ceramic pen boxes, alien to the Chinese market, were created for export too. There were even ceramic hookahs. Today there are ten ethnic Chinese Muslim minorities, most of who live in the Northwest. Hui Muslims are spread throughout the country.

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The Malay World, encompassing much of Southeast Asia from Southern Thailand to Indonesia and stretching east as far as the Southern Philippines, were influenced by nature. Plant, cloud and fruit often showed up in the work either concretely or abstractly. Qurans were also made in the Malay world. People were well known for their woodworking and metalworking skills, beautifying Quaran boxes, prayer screens, and weapons (which even included ladies daggers).

http://www.iamm.org.my/galleries/china/ http://www.iamm.org.my/galleries/malay-world/

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We had hardly explored the second floor which featured ceramics, jewelry, weapons and textiles among other displays, when the lights turned off to let us know that the museum was closing. We still got to marvel at the impressive paintings inside the dome ceilings and see a nice fountain. An interesting aspect of the museum was seeing how far and long Chinese influence as a trader, distributor and producer has spread. Some of the mosques included lotus flowers to show China's influence in the ceramics.

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Even though we hadn't had enough time to finish the Islamic Arts museum, we thought let's cram in one more visit to the National Mosque. When I was in Malaysia in 2012, Justine and I went to visit it together and it was time to return. There were still thirty minutes left before tourists would be kicked out so it could be used for its intended purpose of prayer. We had to put on purple robes so we'd be able to explore. I believe Ryan's shorts were the reason he had to wear one as well. I also got to wear an orange hijab. After going up the stairs, the open halls had wonderful view of the city including its famous KL tower.

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The mosque was built in 1965 to celebrate the country's recent independence. It was quite large and could hold up to 15,000 people. There was a turquoise star dome with eighteen points representing the thirteen states of Malaysia and the five pillars of Islam. A 74 metre minaret that broadcast the call to prayer as far as Chinatown. That was one of the first aspects that had struck me about being in a Muslim country, hearing the call the prayer several times a day.

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We ventured over the prayer room, which wasn't open to non-Muslims to enter, but the doors were open wide enough that you could still look in from afar. Volunteers from Islamic Outreach stood outside to chat with us and answer any questions that we had about Islam. It was always refreshing to see someone with so much passion and confidence in their beliefs. He walked us through the five daily prayers facing Mecca (in Saudi Arabia), the cleansing ritual of ablution before prayer, how woman are respected and valued in Islam and how extremists do not represent their faith. They valued human rights and equality. I still have a bit of struggle with the fact that woman should not promote or distract others with their sexuality while men were not subject to equal treatment, but I appreciated hearing his honest views. I'd imagine it would be hard to see your religion blamed and bashed in the news constantly. It would also be hard to see how the same book that supports your beliefs is also blamed for extremist actions like the recent burning of the Jordanian pilot.

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For supper, we found an Indian restaurant with vegetarian food near KL Sentral. I ordered butter vegetable masala curry and a samosa. Ryan went for a potato dosa and roti. We swapped a few pieces of our monster meals. It was really good, though the curry was on the spicier side.

After that, we took the rapid KL line and monorail to get near the KL tower. No matter the hour, the streets of KL were quite lively. The telecommunications tower stood at 421 metres with an antenna, 335 metres if you were measuring to the top of the observation deck. At the tower, we waited for the shuttle to the base until time convinced us that it would be faster to walk to the entrance.

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At the ticket office they tried to talk us into the upper deck, which cost twice the price, but we were fine looking out through the glass of the lower level. The elevator ride up was fairly quick. Kuala Lumpur was lit up brightly at night. From the top, we could see the Petronas Towers, though the view wasn't as perfect as we'd anticipated. We checked out what was happening on ground level and at the towers with the binoculars. In the end, it probably wasn't worth the cash to go up there, but we could say that we'd done it. Watching videos of people base jumping from the tower was pretty cool.

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We walked over to the Petronas Towers afterward, passing plenty of bars and restaurants. The towers were busy as usual with every group or couple waiting to get their pictures. We got ours quickly, admired the bright silvery towers and did some people watching, always fun when pictures were involved. The towers stood at 452 meters high, taller than KL tower and certainly more beautiful. There was a sky bridge between the 41st and 42nd floors that connected the two towers and tourists could visit an observation deck at the top for quite a price, if the tickets weren't sold out, which was why we'd chosen KL Tower. Plus I imagined looking at the exterior was more interesting. The towers' floor plan was designed keeping the Islamic eight point star in mind and the five sections of each tower represented the five pillars of Islam.

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After a walk back to the hostel, we discovered half of our clothes had gone missing, mainly Ryan's half. Perhaps doing laundry here wouldn't be as much of a bargain as we thought.

Posted by Sarah.M 06:55 Archived in Malaysia Tagged mosque tower history india kuala malaysia china museum towers national arts lumpur petronas kl islamic Comments (0)

Pha Taem National Park

Waterfalls and rock art

Traffic was pretty light this morning around eight. Filling the bike us with fuel cost us a whopping 60 baht ($2) so we could understand the appeal of driving these vehicles. We followed the main road/highway that we'd come in on until the 2112, and took that until the National Park entrance. Admission was 100 baht each for the day.

Sao Chaliang came up first which were giant rock pillars that had eroded to look like mushrooms. It was almost like being back in the badlands with the desert-like vegetation and impressive coloured rocks.

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A bit of a walk up was a rock plateau with a significant crack/gap. It would have been quite the drop if we got caught in there. A viewpoint showed off the plains of the park and the visitor's centre. We went back down to see the mushroom rocks a bit closer once the crowds had dissipated a bit.

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The visitor's centre, with an extremely rocky parking lot, was at the end of the road. We jumped off the bike to figure out which way to go to reach the walks to the historic rock art. The route to the cave paintings was not really clearly marked, but after following the crowds we got on the right track.

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The path led us to impressive cliffs even without the cave paintings. They were quite tall and stood by the nearby Mekong river. Opposite the water was Laos, so we'd come pretty far East. After a bit of walking, we discovered our first cave paintings which depicted people and animals. The people had triangular heads and almost reminded us of aliens. The animals ranged from a whale to turtles and fish. The paintings were red in colour and according to the signs were 3,000 to 4,000 years old. There were some paintings of hands as well.

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The next cliff had criss-crossed line paintings under one of the ledges which was a bamboo fish trap called 'blister'. The paintings were done at a significant height when the water levels must have been higher. They were part of the death rituals although there wasn't much further information to indicate why or how.

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Our walk back took us along the riverside where they'd filmed part of the movie Alexander from the cliff tops. We stopped off at the restaurant across from the visitor's centre for lunch and had some fried rice that was alright.

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Ryan navigated the tricky parking lot exit on the bike. The drive to Soi Sawan waterfall was thankfully smoother, 20 kilometres or so which took longer on a slower scooter. It was nice to have the wind against us to cool off.

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There was a small walk to the falls. The trek down was not so bad but heading back up would be a challenge. There was a small thin stream running from the top of a rocky peak. Holes had been eroded in the rock floor at the bottom and were filled with water. Kids had fun splashing in the puddles. It was dry season but some water trickled down the falls.

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To the side of one of the falls was a giant rock valley. From the smoothness of the rocks it, was pretty clear these would be another falls during wet season. We climbed around on the rocks to get some fun photos. The valley was so large we felt like ants.

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There was a mini falls closer to the higher one where a river drained out the water. People were rock jumping and swimming. It would have been fun to have a bathing suit.

After the walk to the top, we decided to check out the wildflower fields. A hot, sunny walk revealed that they were sparse at best. We turned around a few kilometres in only to find that the cliffs we sought were in that direction too. We didn't have the energy to retrace those steps so we hopped back on the bike.

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Next was Saeng Chan waterfall, another half hour or so away. It was easy enough to walk there from the parking lot, just a short flight of stairs. A decent amount of water ran from the stream up top. There was a small calm pool surrounded by vegetation at the bottom of the falls. Aside from the occasional shout or scream, it was quite serene. As we got closer, we could see the crescent or heart shaped hole formed by the erosion of the falls.

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We went up to the falls, then behind them to climb up the cave area steps to the stream which fed the top of the falls. It was neat to see the hole and the drop but signs warned us not to get too close. Ryan joked one of us should jump to the bottom and meet the other there.

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We drove back after one more visit to the bottom of the falls. Since we were fighting the clock and still needed gas, our pace was quicker than before. There was a gas station just before the main road and it only cost us 65 baht ($2.15) to fill up the tank. The hour plus drive began after that. Except for us trying to return the bike for 5:20, Ryan was really enjoyed the drive. I was just trying to sit without my legs going numb or tipping the thing over.

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The bike made it back with fifteen minutes to spare. We rented it for another day then rode off to Two Colour River just down the street. This was where the Mekong and Moon rivers colours were meant to converge. The light from the setting sun obscured the colour a bit, but the sunset was beautiful too. Some visiting Thai travellers showed us Laos on the other side and asked us how our trip was going.

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We had supper at a restaurant on the river and ordered a big fried rice, mixed veggie dish and Ryan had some fried chicken. It hit the spot and we enjoyed the bright gazebo decorations.

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Posted by Sarah.M 19:41 Archived in Thailand Tagged art park colour thailand river waterfall national rock chan sao two pha taem chaliang saeng Comments (0)

Khong Chiam

Buses and motorbikes

semi-overcast

After getting ready and hurrying to the front desk, we relaxed hearing the news that buses to Khong Chiam left every half hour. We went for an early lunch to use the better wifi and eat more fried rice, not so spicy like the first time. We'd be quite delighted when other options came our way.

The New Year's fair was still on, making the walk to find a cab much longer and more challenging. We walked past a lot of stalls outside the park selling woodworking and fancy outdoor furniture. The beginning of the market seemed like an ideal place to find a vacant cab, but still no success. We settled on a tuktuk who got us there for 80 baht and were grateful for the breeze.

Getting tickets for the bus caused some confusion as we thought 1330 was the price and not the time as the man had intended to communicate. The tickets worked out to 80 baht each, same price as the tuktuk but a much longer voyage. Eating tasty fruit from the vendors helped pass the time.

In the van our bags took up quite a bit of space since they didn't have a luggage storage area. We felt bad and really should have stacked them so people wouldn't have been so squished. Luckily the crowdedness didn't last too long.

Khong Chiam was small and easy to figure out with Google maps. There were some convenience stores on the main street too. Since Agoda's map were pretty unhelpful, we still needed directions from the friendly police playing cards outside the station and who called out "Hello!". It was just down the road.

A friendly older man greeted us at the yellow Sibae guesthouse. He asked us to pick a room, but when we inspected them closer, the only option cleaned and ready at that time was the corner one of the second floor. He told us that it got pretty hot during the day. At least it came with air conditioning and a fridge. He also let us know the transportation options for seeing Pha Taem National Park, motorbike or a tuktuk driver for double the price.

We wandered down by the river walk and picked up snacks and water. Afterward, we struggled to find the steak restaurant he spoke of to rent a bike so we went back to get directions again. The Apple guesthouse that used to rent bikes according to the web, no longer did so and there was only the steak restaurant.

We found the restaurant and they showed us the bikes also saying there weren't many left and that it was better to rent it that night. We had supper there to think it over. Mine was 'fried rice no animal' as Ryan had figured out the least confusing way to order vegetarian food in Thailand, and pork and rice for him. We decided to get the bike and Ryan would have time to practise driving it down the quiet streets in town. The woman assured us they were easy to drive, young girls could do it, and the roads were pretty quiet. She gave us helmets and a mobile number in case anything happened too. Ryan had some fun driving the bike around town once had got the hang of the balance.

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By the riverside, part of a little island was lit up with animal light figures. Another section on the bank had Thai writing and dragon to celebrate the New Year. The temperature finally cooled a bit too.

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  • **

Double post today in an effort to catch up. Be sure to check out the Exploring temples of Ubon Ratchathani post if you haven't already.

Posted by Sarah.M 20:41 Archived in Thailand Tagged park rental bus national bike khong pha taem chiam Comments (0)

Koh Sok canoeing

sunny 29 °C

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It was time to move on to Koh Sok, a touristy national park in the south. Our ride there via minibus took about four hours from Krabi and cost 250 baht each. For an air conditioned ride, that was pretty good. They stopped to pick up and drop off people all along the way. Sometimes it got pretty squishy.

Once we reached the bus stop in Koh Sok, there was a man with a sign displaying different hotel names. After inspecting it closer, I found ours and he confirmed that guests staying there got a free ride in. Things were going our way again. The Valley Lodge was away from the main road and surrounded by trees. They had rustic bamboo bungalows on stilts along the forested path. They had roofed balconies and a bed surrounded by a large mosquito net. It was very cozy.

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We headed to town to see if we could rent canoes. The answer was no, but we explored the town and found the national park. The tour companies offered two hour canoe trips and the man we talked to offered us enough of a discount that we took it. It came out to 500 baht for both of us.

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They picked us, the guide, and the kayak up in a songtao, and drove further up the river. We passed through a Buddhist cave and a monk to get to the river. Our guide didn't speak much English, but we enjoyed the views. We didn't get the option to paddle though, it was all done for us.
On the river, fish swam, and birds flew around. There were even some nuts and fruits on the trees that they enjoyed eating.

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The vibrant blue kingfisher was a favourite in flight as it revealed its colour. From the front, they had a plain white/gray body.

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Beautiful karst hills and mountains came up on the horizon. Next we sailed by the drunk tourists tubing down the river with their beers in hand. They were friendly enough.

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By the end of the tour, we got to see rubber trees as well, with little bowls underneath to collect the liquid. We made a pit stop to drop off the kayaks at someone's home and our guide hopped out to chat. The family was buying homemade ice cream from a local vendor so we hoped out too to buy some. It was coconut and really tasty. The guide was laughing at us as we left.

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We wanted to visit the park tomorrow, but unbeknown to us when we planned this destination, it wasn't possible to walk more than a few kilometers into the park without a guide. The park rangers confirmed the tour companies claims. They also offered their own guide service and we told them we'd come back after thinking about it. Even after doing more research online at the guesthouse, we got the same answers. It seemed to be a recent change.

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When we went back to find the ranger, he was gone. Our guesthouse owner and the staff there had vanished as well after our meal, so we couldn't book with them either. We went next door and booked with the guesthouse next door.

Posted by Sarah.M 20:22 Archived in Thailand Tagged park national canoe ice_cream kingfisher koh_sok Comments (0)

Art and Airplanes in Beijing

sunny -4 °C

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On Saturday, we headed to the National Art Museum. It met my friend's two specifications: indoors and not far from the apartment. We only had to walk ten minutes and it was free to boot if you brought your passport/local ID card. The museum turned out to be quite busy. It featured modern art, sometimes using bold, bright colours, abstract style or portraits of local people. There was a neat red chair sculpture with wooden antlers that my friend wanted for her apartment.

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The next sections featured jade carvings from Chen Lizhong. Some were large pieces and extremely detailed. Others were tiny with the same amount of detail, so small we had no idea how they managed it. Maybe with trained mice. Birds with various beak lengths and lotus leaves on the brink of death were the themes of one artist's collection.

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http://www.namoc.org/en/exhibitions/201410/t20141030_283264.htm

Next, we went upstairs to check out a photography exhibit which featured photographers from all over the world, but a fair chunk from the US. They were part of the Straight Photography movement from 1839-2014. The exhibit featured photographers like Ansel Adams, Kim Weston and many others from similar photography groups. Many had collaborated in the past. Some shots had double exposures to juxtapose different images and others employed Photoshop-like techniques that had inspired the software. The macro flower photography was one of my favourites.

http://www.namoc.org/en/exhibitions/201410/t20141030_283259.htm

On the top floor, a Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, was featured along with his many paintings with a theme of rebuilding the country. It also featured his portraits and large murals. Since it was the weekend, many children were there taking art classes as they sketched away the scenes in Rivera's murals, typically the non-nude ones.

http://www.namoc.org/en/exhibitions/201410/t20141011_283047.htm

We went back down to the first floor to see the exhibits we missed. One Chinese artist, Liu Yunsheng, did portraits of people from Yunnan and Tibet provinces so realistically they looked like photographs. He did very well with expressive eyes and capturing lighting.

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http://www.namoc.org/en/exhibitions/201411/t20141104_283469.htm

For supper, we were pretty starved considering we hardly did breakfast and lunch was a piece of chocolate cake for me, strudel for Ryan and coffee for my friend. The restaurant my friend wanted us to visit didn't open until 5:30 so we found Grandma's Kitchen instead. We sat inside the cozy backpacker joint with a Western themed menu as Christmas music played in the background. The most important part was that it was warm. The food was just alright, but we stayed mainly to enjoy the atmosphere and company.

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Sunday, Ryan and I made our way to the aviation museum bright and early. We rode the subway until the end of line 5 then caught the 643 bus. We even got seats! A couple on the bus chatted with Ryan to help him find our stop and to ask about our trip. They told us we were very brave to get on a bus and not really know where we were going. I wasn't sure if it was bravery, cheapness, the anticipation that there would be friendly, helpful locals to point us in the right direction or a combination of the three that motivated us.

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The walk there was a bit long through a flat open field with harsh winter winds penetrating our fall jackets. Half the exhibits were outdoors. Joy. The first collection had many Soviet designed Chinese MIG fighter jets and other aircraft mostly from the Korean war era. They also had Soviet copies of the American built DC-3's along with a few dozen tail dragger Chinese YAKs and a few rarer tri-gears. It was even possible to sit in the cockpit of a retired MIG or enter the Chairman Mao's personal aircraft, for a fee of course. Surprisingly, you could get as close as you wanted to all of the planes in the outdoor displays.

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After making our way through all of the MIGS outside, we decided to warm up and check out the one of the indoor displays. During the Cold War era, the Chinese had built a large bunker beneath Datangshan mountain to protect their aircraft from enemy bombing raids. Since the airfield was no longer in use, it was turned into part of the museum.

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Inside the very long bunker were aircraft from all over the world and different time periods. Including some aircraft on loan from sharing agreements with other countries. They also had some rotary-wing aircraft including the impressively large Russian Hind-D, a rough looking Chinook and a few old Hueys. They had some World War 2 British trainers and even a DHC-2 Beaver. China's first own designed production aircraft was also on display.

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While viewing a few more MIGS, it was interesting to read descriptions of the Chinese perspective of the Korean war. Their collection featured MIGS that had shot down American-Allied aircraft and were quite proud of their own fighter ace pilots. After seeing most of the aircraft on display, we walked through a few exhibits that were all Chinese with no English translations.

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Entering back into the cold, we made our way to the far end of the outdoor displays and quickly looked at the artillery and old radar/communication sections. Many of the larger aircraft were located at the end as well including a ORBIS flying hospital and an amphibious plane sitting in pond. There was a bomber and some passenger planes as well. With the cold nipping at our cheeks, we decided against touring the larger museum and caught the bus and subway back into Beijing.

My friend had a work supper event so we decided to revisit the hutongs for some Greek food. Again it was pricy but Ryan would have probably given a newborn child for a gyro. His didn't come as expected as the pita was more like a base and the meat built atop like a cheeseless Greek pizza, but he still enjoyed it. My veggie moussaka was tasty but Winnipeg's wide selection of amazing Greek restaurants had spoiled me and made the dish hard to live up to its Canadian counterpart. Ryan's also convinced we needed to visit Greece in our lifetime as he stared at all the photos on the walls.

Posted by Sarah.M 03:49 Archived in China Tagged art china museum national photography mig aviation bomber Comments (0)

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