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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)

Pyin Oo Lwin and Lovely Kandawgyi Gardens

After some instructions from the front desk staff, we set out to find the bus to Pyin Oo Lwin. We walked down to 82nd street and 27th to find pick-up trucks with wooden bench seats, not quite what we imagined when we pictured a bus ride to the next city. We chatted with those drivers and the shared taxi drivers before we went back to the hotel to see if there was a legitimate bus station we'd somehow missed. This was Mandalay after all. They confirmed those were the two options or we could book a taxi with them for 7,000 kyat, higher than the 4,500 we'd been offered at the 'bus station'. I was not in good spirits by the end of the discussions and told the woman at the front desk frankly that she shouldn't be calling them buses when they were trucks. I should have handled it better, but it was frustrating to get misinformation when there wasn't decent enough wifi to do research.

We walked back to the station, passing more expensive taxis and a pick up keen on boarding us asap. The 4,500 driver was waiting and took us right away. He made a few stops to make phone calls and to pick up two other customers plus cargo. The road was quite windy and bumpy, making us quite grateful that we paid for the car instead of wooden seats. We managed to arrive in only an hour and a half. Our driver also pointed out the town amenities, market, and hospital as we drove in. There was a neat historic druggist shop. Our driver dropped off at the guesthouse we requested too which saved some time.

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Grace 1, our guesthouse, had a nice outdoor seating area, big rooms and warm blankets. After turning our room into a laundromat, we rented a couple of bikes and set off to the gardens for the afternoon.

Finding appealing vegetarian food was no easy task. If they had anything, it was a side dish and the tea shops unfortunately weren't serving food anymore. We found one place where I could order a very light tomato salad and Ryan had egg fried rice. We biked on past quaint horse drawn carriages and a lake.

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The Kandawgyi Gardens had a $5 admission and 5pm closing time for the staffed exhibits. As we entered the park, small colourful flower beds lined both sides of the road. Soon we entered the area with the bright flower displays and a bridge leading to pagoda island. White and black swans swam around and occasionally lounged on the shore. We kept walking the lakeside to see the orchid and butterfly gardens.

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The orchids were beautiful in purples, oranges and light white with colourful centres. They continued to decorate the trellised walkway leading to the museum. Inside thousands of butterflies were on display from bright blue South Americans to the big moths you could find in Indonesia. Most of the butterflies were native to Myanmar. They were white and brown, some resembling leaves and other had more colour. Some of the exhibits were organized in a way that made a symbol or a letter. The bugs with pincers and giant moths were a bit unsettling especially if you were to see them in the wild. The rest of the orchid garden wasn't really in bloom.

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We backtracked to the aviary to see pheasants, peacocks, parrots, cockatiel and even a great hornbill. He came to snatch corn cobs from other visitors and we got a great view of his bill. It was bright and extended over his head with a flat section. The bird even swished as it flew back into the trees. Ryan spotted a gibbon off in the distance behind the fence, too speedy to photograph. There was a cute dog in the grass as well.

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Crossing the lake again, we made the fossil and wood museum our next stop. We passed the floral display that spelled out Pyin Oo Lwin in vibrant colours and the rock garden.

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The fossil museum had many ancient teeth, some skulls and tusks from prehistoric animals. Some of the tusks were as long as I was.

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The petrified wood was described as far superior to any other in the world. We couldn't help but chuckle about the very proud nationalistic sentiments. They had polished most of the wood so it looked very smooth. Although the texture and colour appeared to be wood, to the touch it felt like stone since it had been preserved that way.

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We crossed the teak plot, a bit unsure which trees were actually the teak ones. We hadn't seen them up close before, just once they'd been converted to table form. Then, we made our way over to the Takin enclosure. It was quite zoo-like and the animals stayed as far back as possible. They were hairy brown creatures with small horns which came from the goat and antelope family.

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The orchard was a bit disappointing since we were out of season. The creton garden was alright. We continued through pine forest until we found an ice cream vendor closing up shop. They still served us taro and strawberry ice cream which was quite tasty.

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The only thing that we hadn't seen was the Nam Myint Tower, at least not from up close. We crossed our fingers that we could still get a nice view of the surrounding area from the winding wooden staircase after five pm. Sure enough we got a stunning view of the lake and countryside hills, even with the city in the distance. A bride was finishing up a photo session at the very top.

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After a bumpy bike ride back to town where the sun thankfully hadn't set just yet, we headed to the market for supper. We didn't have much luck there for meals, but found cheap coconut pastries and fried dough before we had supper at Ruby restaurant. It was like a fancy Asian diner. I had Yunnan fried rice and Ryan had some Kung Pao chicken.

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Posted by Sarah.M 18:03 Archived in Myanmar Tagged gardens tower black fossil orchid wood butterfly swan petrified pyin_oo_lwin hornbill kandawgyi takin nam_myint Comments (0)

Hutongs of Beijing and Lama Temple

semi-overcast -4 °C

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We'd gone into hibernation mode, killing time in the morning in the misguided hope that it would warm up, although it never did. We also had an unhealthy addiction to the Logos game/app that coincidentally amped up our desire to stay inside.

Once we eventually left, we tried out the Taiwanese sandwich shop that my friend recommended. Boy were they good, like little egg or egg and bacon crepes, with a flaky yet oily exterior. They were salty with chili sauce, ketchup and pepper. The vendor even spoke some English so I could be sure mine were meat free. We regretted only buying one to scarf down before the subway ride.

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We came back above ground at Lama Temple, a Tibetan temple that had withstood battles that desecrated other buildings. Originally a residence for Emperor Yong Zheng, Lama Temple was converted into a Lamasery in 1744. Since, it helped to serve as a liaison between China and the Mongol people when relations were healthy.

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By this point, we'd admit that we'd seen a lot of temples, most looking very similar and this one also fit the bill. A unique feature was a giant wooden Buddha statue, so large in fact that they earned a world record (posted in the temple museum) for their statue. They also had the prayer wheels we saw in Sichuan province that were more typical to Tibet.

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Most people visited to pray and bought bundles of incense sticks. There were many sites where they placed the sticks as an offering for each prayer. That incense shop made quite the healthy business. We were pretty cold just wandering around, economically snapping photos when interest topped the desire to have warm hands. The only place to warm up had been the museum with a collection of bronze statues and worship items. Monks stood in the corner, I assumed to supervise, although their phones caught their attention far more than any visitor.

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We found a vegetarian restaurant which was quite far from the temple. It didn't always pay to avoid meat, but the place was nice. It had a health grocery section at the front and then a dining area with several sections. It felt like a tea house out of a kung-fu movie with round windows in the stone walls, dark furniture, an indoor courtyard made to look outdoorsy. We split a kung-pow mock chicken dish that I was a bit sceptical of and I tried some flowery Roselle tea.

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It took a few wrong turns to find our way out of the hutongs and head toward the other hutongs that Lonely Planet recommended. We passed some sweet Christmas decorations like life-sized lobsters wearing Santa hats. Ryan also spotted a few guitar shops that we stopped in to 'warm-up'. Most of the recognizable brand guitars were wrapped in plastic which killed most of the fun for him. There was also a hotdog stand with veggie dogs right near the start of our self-guided tour.

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We opted to do the tour backward based on our location, which was much easier in theory, especially without street names. We started with nice residential hutong alleys that led to the Drum and Bell Towers currently under construction. It was for the best anyway as we would have likely been too cheap to pay the entrance fees.

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Across a busier street, we got a bit more lost trying to decide how far was enough based on the poorly scaled map. Rarely did Lonely Planet produce useful maps in the books themselves. Since our interpretation was that they wanted us to go through someone's yard, we made our own route past vegetable vendors, homes and other one or two story constructions that didn't contribute to the skyline.

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We found a nice little park with a frozen lake that the book forgot. Soon the hutongs got really commercial and trendy as we tried to locate so-and-so's former residence even though it turned out we could only look at the front gate. Our fingertips and cheeks were burning so we went back.

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My friend recommended a nice Chinese restaurant a few streets away from her place for supper so we had a nice feast of lamb wraps, eggplant, a refreshing cucumber dish and fried beans. It was sad to think we'd be saying goodbye soon, felt like yesterday we were having adventures in Thailand together. It was also awesome she put us up and shared her living space for a whole week.

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Posted by Sarah.M 07:44 Archived in China Tagged tower park temple beijing drum lama cold bell frozen hutong closed sandwich taiwanese Comments (0)

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