Valleys of Wonders (Part II – Death Valley)

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Las Vegas McCarran International Airport never fails to delight me with its unique fanfare of bright and chirpy whimsical slot machines. The sounds of play companied by vibrant visuals of promised payouts create a celebratory atmosphere of winning. Lining right outside the connecting airbridge, these visually stimulating slot machines are the first and last things travelers see when they visit Las Vegas. Never underestimate these harmless-looking game machines, they are built with deep psychology insights to lure and keep you coming back.

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I love CES! More than just an expo of the latest tech offering, it is a big trove of everything! I get to touch and experience some of the latest and most interesting gadgets. Best of all, I get to ask all the questions I need to know about the magic behind the tech. The effort to put together such a great show requires infinite resources and millions of hours of creativity, research and development, production and planning. It is worth every cent, effort and time just to be here.

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This year, we were much more mentally and physically prepared. We knew where to go to look for the kinds of stuff we needed. We actually walked lesser and covered more grounds. We paced ourselves pretty well.

2019 is going to be another exciting year with many AI-aided innovations. From smart watches to autonomous electric-vehicles, every smart gear that you have will only be smarter as AI is taking over most of the control. The presence of powerful optic, audio, and atmospheric sensors enable AI-engines to be faster and even more precise. You don’t even need to give any vocal command to Google or Alexa, predictive patterns and AI-analytic models are going to remember your movement, preference and anticipate what you need. When technology is being put to good, sustainable purposeful applications, it fulfills mankind with A Better Life, A Better World (echoing the core aspiration and value of CES).

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What’s delightful to know was despite the advancement of better tech-offering, many suppliers are keen to keep retail prices at an affordable range. A 3D-printing-cum-laser machine used to cost around USD2,000 is now priced at USD800. It is something Apple must learn to avert its falling sales.

This trip, I didn’t visit any casino (other than the exhibition halls at Venetian Sands) or any naughty joints. Some cheeky friends texted me to visit Playboy’s Mansion. Guess they didn’t know that the infamous joint closed down for many years.

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Instead, I went to have a drink at a pretty well-known bar, Tipsy Robot Bar. It is the world’s most famous unmanned theatric robotic bar that is capable to mix a cocktail in less than 90 seconds. Ordering is easy via a tablet, just pick and pay with a credit card. The robotic hand picks up a cup and start to draw different blends of mixers from the ceiling. It then shakes the concoction in true robotic style before pouring the mixture into the cup. Just before the cocktail is being served, the robotic arm gives a final touch with decorative garnishes. I paid USD15 for the drink. It was fresh and rich in taste! And yes, no tips required.

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Just before we fly out of Las Vegas, I wanted to make a quick visit to another world’s famous valley, the Death Valley. Not sure what kind of terrain we will be encountering, we rented a 4-wheel-drive Jeep. The Death Valley was a 3-hour drive away from Las Vegas City. The entire journey will take us about 8 hours to and fro the valley.

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We were blessed with terrific weather. It was clear sunny blue sky! Due to the recent US government shutdown, we drove to our first destination with uncertainty. True enough, we were unable to proceed to our first destination as the road was closed due to the federal shutdown. Thankfully, we were able to visit the other attractions as there were friendly park rangers working without pay.

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Death Valley is full of wonders. It is certainly not a dead place but a big gallery of timeless canvases of colors, textures, and formations. Crafted by the forces of nature and time, each canvas is sculptured vibrantly with unique depth and style. Here, we don’t just see the art, we literally live and breathe in the art. Walking through the gigantic terrains and deepest point (85m below sea-level) of USA, we get to see its artistic form in various different dimension, lighting, and perspective. Feeling so small in its majestic presence, it is a humbling and awakening experience for both of us.

It is, after all, a mystically deadly and beautiful place.

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Valleys of Wonders (Part I – Silicon Valley)

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After last year’s bad traveling arrangement, we needed more time to adjust the uncomfortable jetlags, this year, we began our annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of Gizmos (CES 2019) 3 days before the opening of the event. And it was the wisest decision ever!

This year, we also decided not to transit at the City of Angels. Instead, we made a short 3-day stopover at the City by the Bay, San Francisco to visit one of the world’s most famous valleys – the Silicon Valley. It is the birthplace of many new start-ups and home to 3 global technology giants – Apple, Facebook, and Google.

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While Chowpo enjoyed her business class status, I was extremely “lucky” to have an upgraded “SSSS” status on my boarding pass. Trust me, it is a special privilege you won’t want when flying to the USA. It stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection. According to a UK news website, it says travelers who are given the SSSS code are on an FBI counter-terrorism watchlist and there are others who are assigned this code at random. For some strange reasons, TSA viewed me as a high-risk traveler. (Nope, I didn’t fly or crash any drone in the USA last year!) Due to this, I couldn’t check in my luggage at the downtown airport express. Prior to boarding the plane, I had to go through another “special body massage” and had my bag scanned and checked.

Other than this special treatment at the airport, I had the best long-haul red-eye flight ever. It was so smooth and gentle compared with last year’s violent rocky ride to Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, the dreadful rain spell followed me from Taiwan to San Francisco. Luckily, we arrived one day before the big storm which resulted in the cancellation of over 300 flights. I slept through the storm and adjusted my sleep cycle.

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San Francisco’s steep slopes are scary and challenging even for an experienced driver like Chowpo. It was so rare and unreal to see fearless Chowpo driving in anxiety. I can’t blame her. Some of these roads are visually impossible to drive. Some of the steepest roads are at only 17.5°. Now, that’s insane!  Imagine doing parallel parking on such crazy steepness (under heavy rain and strong wind), our logic and senses simply couldn’t compute.

We had our worst nightmare while crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge at the peak of the storm, confronting the unexpected gales. I panicked when Chowpo told me that she was unable to control the vehicle straight. We literally crawled through the ferocious gales. Our cheap light Japanese car was just too weak to handle such weather condition. Thankfully, I had a very skillful and fearless driver.

We didn’t do much in San Francisco. Despite the driving nightmares, I asked Chowpo to drive me down the world’s crookedest road at Lombard Street. We visited the San Francisco Cable-Car Museum, Chinatown and dined along the Fisherman’s Wharf. We actually wanted to pay a visit to one of the world’s most famous cages, Alcatraz but it was closed over the weekend.

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Finally, on our last day, the sun was out and we made our way to the Golden Gate and a speedy tour around Silicon Valley. On our way to the new Apple Park and Google Campus, we paid our homage to the late Steve Jobs at his old garage.

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Most of these tech campuses looked old and lifeless on the outside. The endless rows of short flatted factories reminded me of Singapore’s old industry parks in the 90s. The new Apple Park Visitor Center was pretty disappointing. Over 70% of the visitor center was the usual Apple Retail Store. There were many expensive exclusive items for Apple Fans (like T-shirts, mugs, and pens) but many of those limited editions were produced in China. We couldn’t enter the UFO-shaped complex. Visitors were given an iPad to view the building through an interactive AR app. Yawn… What’s the point of traveling all the way there just to play with an iPad?

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Google Campus was slightly more colorful and fun. The Android Statues Park is home to many giant Android-sugary-characters. Made of soft foam, it is a harmless joyous sugary playground for all adults and kids, even for the diabetics! There is a Google Store next to the park where we bought a few Google Exclusive toys and t-shirts (all made in China too!). I got a Google Home Hub which cost 50% cheaper than the ones in Hong Kong. What a sweet deal!

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We left Silicon Valley and made our way to the airport. Next stop – Sin City, Las Vegas!

 

Nipper’s Master Voice No More

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The day finally came. Faced with lawsuits over unpaid rentals, HMV closed its last 3 outlets in Hong Kong after 25 years of operation.

It is sad to see my favorite stores gone. After all, I grew up with HMV since my young adulthood. It has been a reliable source for all my gadgets, tech magazines, pop t-shirts, games, movies, and music albums. I bought my first PlayStation, PSP, drone (Parrot), first blue ray and many other “firsts” at HMV. Despite the rise of music and movie app stores, HMV was always a great weekend hang-out place for me.

I always knew this day would come. And HMV saw it coming too. They really tried to rejuvenate their retail offering. In recent years, HMV Hong Kong revamped their stores at Causeway Bay and Central, added other new categories (cafe, restaurant, event space, movie collectibles, computers, toys, audio accessories, designer fashion, and accessories, Kickstarter gismos and more!). They even tried to duplicate Ikea’s grab-&-go hotdog guns at a very attractive price of HKD5! Despite all these efforts and changes to attract a new generation of shoppers, HMV succumbed to its final cessation.

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What HMV did right was the new creation of the loft-themed retail space at Causeway Bay. However, the segmentation of categories (toys, games, gadgets, music, movie, fashion, accessories, electronics) was not well-curated and linked. The gaming zone and toys were placed separately on 2 different floors.

It is the lack of differentiation and high-selling price that led HMV to its final downfall. HMV is unable to compete with the convenience and lower pricing of iTunes offerings. While it tried to offer and introduced new categories into its store, HMV did not have any advantage in terms of pricing or varieties. Just like the downfall of BestBuy in China, shoppers went in to browse and experience the products but chose to purchase elsewhere online where the price was much lower than the physical retail outlets. With the emergence of Taobao (and the convenience of home delivery provided by SF Express), shoppers are spoilt for choices and lured by lower pricing.

Another failure of HMV was their slow and weak efforts to invest in their online APP and CRM program. For years, HMV VIP Program and APP failed to lock and incentified loyal shoppers. Instead of moving forward, HMV introduced the old “collect a stamp” card which shoppers can redeem cash rebates after a full collection of stamps. Their online web store was poorly designed and not user-friendly. Poor UIUX wasted the company’s investment.

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Really… it is a great brand with a rich heritage and a beautiful story. We visited the island stores over the weekend for one last time before it closed for good. Most of its suppliers and brands have taken back their stocks, leaving the store raw and empty. I felt sorry for the remaining staffs. It is never a good time to wind down, especially when Christmas is just around the corner. I sincerely hope the brand HMV will be revived to fit tomorrow’s demand.

2018 is the year of the Dog and sadly, it did not bring HMV the luck it needed to survive. Really wish to adopt Nipper for he will be homeless with the silence of his master’s voice. (Let’s hope Hong Kong HMV sells me Nipper).

Seasons of Joyful Reunions

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As one age, time flies faster.
And we find ourselves keep saying this “Wow, another year has passed”. Yes, we are winding down to another unusual and dramatic year when World War III erupted quietly (trade & cyberspace), Neymar’s superb acting at the World Cup should have won him several awards at the Golden Globe, Singapore’s very very old nemesis returned with his former nemesis, cash notes fell from the sky in Hong Kong, bitcoin crashed, 50% of Avengers vapourised and a horde of infamous people mysteriously disappeared and reappeared in the land of the dragon. So just before we say “another year has passed”, I say, this isn’t just “another year”. In fact, it has been quite a strange year not just for the Crazy Rich Asians but also for the bromance between Rocket Boy and Dotard too. 

Finally, this crazy year is winding down. November and December are my favorite months of the year. There is always something lovely in the air and the cooling weather brings out the best in people. Streets are decorated with colorful Christmas lightings and every dimension filled with delightful jingles. I see more smiles and happy photos on social media. It is no doubt the Season of Love and the Season of Joyful Reunions. 

I had many wonderful reunions with my family and friends over the past 6 weeks. I was in Singapore early November to pay an overdue respect to my late beloved cousin Yei who passed away in Tokyo suddenly late September. There wasn’t any sadness or tears, just our joyful, deepest last respect to Yei who loved and enjoyed life to the fullest. And we were all so happy to see Qian again after almost a decade. 

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It was a very tight hectic 4-day work/personal trip (with Harshad and CP) to Singapore. I managed to meet up with all my old friends and relatives. Thanks to my childhood buddy, Joakim who spent a lot of time and effort to help organize a primary school reunion dinner. There were friends (Weifen, Shanbin, Huili) whom I haven’t met in person for over a decade! Just for all these friends, I have decided to re-activate my old Whatsapp account. (Yes, you heard it, I am finally back into Whatsapp after banning it for more than 7 years!). 

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I will never leave Singapore without meeting my closest Wahbiang Clan friends and dearest family. It was at the family dining dinner (Confession: I arrived at the family dinner tipsy after 1.5 hours of aggressive drinks with some “I-cannot-reveal” friends) when sister and I made the most incredible decision! Thanks to the young talented Didi, my sister and I decided a last-minute family trip to Ho Chi Minh in December!

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Sigh… I put on another 3kg when I was in Singapore. Thanks for spoiling me with so much local high-carbs delicacies, liquors, and the very very sinful durians! I should have done up this blog a long time ago but I wasn’t in the right mood. Perhaps I was just plain lazy or busily (putting on more weight) indulging in the sinful yummy durians. The truth is I have been procrastinating on my personal stuff. It is time to put the priorities back on track. These (family, friends and loved ones) matter more than anything else. 

Enjoy the magic of the Season while it lasts before we start the new year with another list of “self-justified-&-feel-good” resolutions/goals/targets/ambitions that occupy our lives with meaningless missions. Not forgetting a new dramatic crazy year when 50% of Avengers will be miraculously revived, more disappearance of infamous characters and the return of the White Walkers. Sadly, we won’t get to see Neymar at the Oscars in 2019.

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(Thanks Kalinda for another beautiful handmade Christmas gift!)

The Last Entry

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Ever since I have embarked my hectic start-up adventure, I have very little time for blogging and vlogging. Looking at the declining number of postings for the past 2 years, my blog has been quiet for a while. Haha, I am still well alive and kicking. It is just that I have little time (and too lazy) to sort out the weekly photos and videos. (Again, never a good excuse not to record all those beautiful and precious moments.)

This morning, I was couch/bed-surfing when I bumped into Jeanette Aw’s latest post on Instagram. It was an awakening reminder that dragged me out of the bed to relook at the important people and things that I may have forgotten or neglected.

 

Based on many true stories, Jeanette Aw’s 25-minute short film, The Last Entry narrates the relationship between a loving mother who was suffering from Alzheimer and her doting daughter, and the bonds that will not break under the most trying of conditions. Simple and beautiful with little dialogues between the mother and daughter, The Last Entry is a very meaningful and touching short film. And it is very real.

This story unlocked something very deep inside my heart – my relationship with my late Ah Mah who lost her remembrance of those around her during her final days. It was 1999, I left Perth for a 2-month holiday. Before I left, Ah Mah chatted with me and asked me to come back soon. When I returned 2 months later, she has completely forgotten me.

Despite suffering from dementia (and forgotten everyone), my granny kept reciting a small trace of memory of her young adulthood days on Kinmen Island where she and grandfather dug clams by the beach house. I did not know why she only remembered this particular memory and not the rest. Was it love or was it her happiest moment that etched so deeply that can’t be erased?

Losing Ah Mah plays out a very important chapter of my life and it taught me to place family above all. Nothing else matters. That’s why I have been spending all my time and money to bring families and friends together. And that’s the reason why I started blogging in the first place – to record every precious and important moment. There will be times in life when we may get distracted and lost in our pursuit of monetary goals, statuses or love. This blog is my memory vault, an important anchor that prevents me from drifting too far away from those that matters to me. And I should start filling it with more colorful and personal stories before I forgotten all.

Cherish those who love you. Life is short, don’t wait. 珍惜眼前人。

Thanks Jeanette for producing and directing this beautiful film. A good timely reminder. Go watch and support this wonderful film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2WwjhDie0w

Eulogy – 金煜良言 (1973-2018)

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Titled “Just Do Yei – 金煜良言” – This book is dedicated to Qianqian and all who love Yei. 5 weeks ago, I lost a very dear and annoying brother, Yei (煜). Extracted faithfully, unadulterated from his Wechat Moments, this memorial book comprises of all Yei’s moments and words of wisdom. While combing through all the materials on Yei’s microblog, I saw a very different side of him. He was a good photographer, a good life-preacher and someone who lived life to the fullest.

Thanks brother Leslie and friends for all their contribution and help to make this book possible. This book is printed in USA, traveled to meet Yei’s loved ones in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and finally Singapore. This is Yei (pun intended). His journeys, his words, his moments.

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SHENZHENI was on a train back from a long day of work when I heard the shocking news. I have been looking for you for days and I knew something was wrong. But never expect you left us so suddenly.

I was very pissed because you left without saying goodbye. I was very heartbroken because I have one person lesser to share my brotherly tales and secrets.

Yei, I just want to say Thank You. You have been a great big brother. Annoying at times but no doubt, a very very caring one.

I saw a big positive and remarkable change in you after the passing of your dad. You were more relaxed and benevolent in your way of life. Your days in Japan opened up your life. You started your microblog on WeChat Moments and filled it with so many colorful moments of good food and travel.

“Live & leave life with no regrets” – That’s your mantra. Family comes first, anything else comes second. Since the day we spoke about the fragility of life, I cherish every single moment I had with my family and loved ones. Over the past 12 years, I had many priceless, wonderful and memorable moments with them, including the one with you in Tokyo last year. Looking back, that was an awesome “bromance” trip!

It is still so unreal Yei, losing you. It is going to take me a long while to get used to your absence and silence. No more wee hours WeChatting or karaoke.

I always knew you are ready to leave. Cos you told me so many times about this day. You said when it is your time to go, you will leave with no regrets… After all, the greatness of one’s life can never be measured by its length but by its volume.

Life is short. Don’t wait. Just do Yei (pun intended).
I love you, bro. And we will always miss you.

– Peng. 25th September 2018

Road to Pandora – The Surreal World of ZhangJiaJie 张家界

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The Glass Bridge of Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon (张家界大峡谷) has intrigued me since its opening in 2016 August. After watching so many comical videos online, I was curious to see if I am gutsy enough to walk across the 430m transparent glass bridge. I decided to visit the famed bridge in 2016 Christmas but Tracy booked us a flight to Vietnam instead. Finally, after a long 18-month procrastination, we finally made it to Zhangjiajie this Easter holidays (thanks to the swift and decisive action of Chowpo).

It was a tourist’s nightmare to travel during the Chinese Tomb-Sweeping holidays. Everywhere was packed with Chinese travelers. Knowing my fear to fly, my wonderful and considerate travel companions accommodated me on a longer route to Zhangjiajie.

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The entire journey took us over 12 hours. First, we crossed over to the border of Shenzhen. From Lowu, we took a 30-minute taxi ride to Shenzhen North Train Station where we boarded a 3-hour speed train to Changsha City (the capital city of Hunan Province). From Changsha City, we then took another 15-minute subway train ride to downtown where we hopped on a 7-seater van that we rode for another 5.5 hours before we arrived at Zhangjiajie National Country Park. We started our journey at 7am and by the time we arrived at our hotel, it was almost 10pm.

Weather in April is always tricky and unpredictable. My friend Hovman was at Zhangjiajie just a few days before us and he warned me about the blazing scorching sun. I packed very light clothing and even brought along a pair of shorts. To my horror, the temperature plummeted from sunny 28 degrees to 7 degrees overnight. It was so cold and wet. A deja vu of my Easter holiday at Xian 4 years ago.

Expectedly, I got the unhappy stares from my two female travel companions who took my advice to travel light. The next morning, we made a desperate run to the nearest shop to buy winter jackets and shoe covers. (This explains why in many photos, we were seen wearing the same design of 3 different colours.)

The hotel we stayed wasn’t exactly 4 stars as it stated. It reminded me of the typical Taiwanese home-stay accommodation (民俗). The bed was hard and there were ants, spiders, and bugs crawling on the walls and floor. Shower room was uncomfortably small. The shower head was installed right above the toilet bowl. A big group of noisy family resided right beside our rooms and they were extremely rowdy.

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Early next morning, we arrived at the infamous famed Glass Bridge where many macho men failed to conquer. It was still drizzling and we were warned of the slippery glass surface. Every visitor was given a pair of protective shoe-gloves to prevent damage/scratches to the glass surface. Security check was strict here. Any heavy, sharp or large object that poses a risk to the glass bridge is prohibited. I had to leave my walking sticks, DSLR, drone and gimbal video camera behind. I can only vlog the entire experience using my mobile phone.

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From far, the glass bridge looked like any suspension bridge. Spanning over 430m across, it was once the world’s longest glass bridge (currently the second place to the new 488m long Hebei’s HongYaGu Glass Bridge). Suspended 300m on 2 vertical cliffs, the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge still holds the record of being the world’s tallest glass bridge.

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Despite my fear of flying (acrophobia), I suffer no acrophobia. I have absolutely no fear taking the walk of faith. It was a surreal experience to walk across the mountains and canyon river on the solid glass. It felt very safe and sturdy. There were still many visitors chose to walk across the bridge on the metal sidewalks.

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Getting rid of the horde of unwanted photo-bombers was easy. All it took was a couple of heavy loud jumps in the middle of the glass panel, the nearby crowd will immediately back off in fear.

After crossing the bridge, we took a 2-hour scenic riverside hike at Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon. It was a gentle hike with lots to see – the unique rock erosions, the cascading falls on the side of the cliffs, the turquoise lake and lots of old abandoned bandit caves. At the end of the hike, we took a short boat ride to the exit of the park.

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After a tiring morning hike, we had a relaxing tour in the afternoon. Our guide brought us to another iconic attraction, the Baofeng Lake (宝峰湖) where we sat on a 30-minute scenic boat ride around the spectacular basin. There were little wooden huts scattered along the rocky bank where local performers sang (山歌) for the audience on the boat. Even though none of us understood the songs or its story, it was indeed a unique waterfront musical concept.

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By evening time, we were so exhausted. Our muscles were sore and aching badly. We visited the night street market opposite our hotel and retired early for the night. What a tiring but rewarding first day.

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On the second day of our tour, we checked out of the hotel at 7:30am and made our way to the most famous site of Zhangjiajie, the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve (天子山). Gained worldwide fame by the blockbuster movie, “Avatar”, the quartzite sandstone towers of Tianzi Mountain inspired the surreal world on Pandora.

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True to its divine reputation, Tianzi Mountain didn’t disappoint. The 8-minute cable car ride over its enchanted sandstone obelisks was an unforgettable, priceless and mesmerizing experience. Nature is indeed the Grandmaster of Art, perpetually sculpting these majestic pillars through time. I was very lucky to be able to fly my drone over the sea of “stone forest” and see Nature’s masterpieces from different angles. (At the same time, my drone flying stunt attracted lots of tourists who also want a glimpse of what I saw through the drone’s camera lenses.)

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After a long stop at “Pandora”, we hiked further to experience another multiple world records breaker – the BaiLong Elevator (百龙天梯). Installed on the side of a massive cliff in 2002, the 335m-tall BaiLong Elevator currently holds 3 Guinness World Records as the world’s tallest outdoor elevator, the world’s tallest double-deck lift, and the world’s fastest (pax & speed ratio) lift. Each lift can take up to 50 passengers and it takes only 66 seconds per trip. At a ticket price of RMB72/pax, that’s about RMB1.10 per second. This is the most expensive elevator ride I have paid to descend. Still, it was worth it, considering the knee-torturing steps down the mountain.

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At the base of Tianzi Mountain, we took a slow sightseeing train to view the sandstone pillars from another perspective. The entire 5.8km journey took less than 20 minutes.

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Our last attraction of the day was a 2-hour outdoor folk musical at the base of Tianmen Mountain (天门山). Debuted in 2009 with Tianmen Mountain as its stage backdrop, the Fairy Fox Musical is very similar to another real-scene show directed by world’s renowned director, Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) at Li River, Guilin (丽江, 桂林). Having watched both musicals, I preferred the songs and special effects of the Fairy Fox Musical more. The tragic love tale between a Fox Spirit and a woodman was easier to comprehend compared to Zhang’s Liu Sanjie Musical. Overall, it was emotional, beautiful and magical.

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Just when we thought we ended our second day of activities, our tour guide surprised us when she checked us in a very new and clean “love hotel”. Although the hotel was filled with family groups (with young children), the hotel decor and amenities (circular bed and big jacuzzi tub) were very suggestive. All of us had a great laugh over Wechat the second we walked into our individual room. Every room has a unique portrait of a naked lady. I enjoyed the thoughtfulness of our tour guide, after all, I am desperate for a good hot tub to ease my muscle aches.

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We woke up even earlier on the third day of our “not so free and easy” tour. At breakfast, Chowpo told us that she couldn’t walk anymore. She wasn’t used to the long strenuous walk. With the aid of 2 walking sticks, she paced herself slowly and painfully along the way.

Unfortunately for her, our hike at Tianmen Mountain was more strenuous than any of the hikes before. Our helpful and friendly tour guide plotted a route that minimizes walking. To survive this hike with the least effort, we need to take 2 cable-car rides, 10 super long escalators and a very scary drift-driving roller-coaster minibus down the mountain.

We started our hike on the world’s longest cable car ride – Tianmen Mountain Cableway (天门山索道). Covering a distance of 7,455m, the entire ride took 28 minutes and it accented to a height of 1,518m! That’s twice the height of the world’s tallest building!

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While we were in the cable car, a few of us stood up to shoot the scenery outside. It caused a minor panic among the other passengers as our abrupt movement caused the cable-car to sway side by side. As the cable car accented, the temperature dropped drastically. We felt a sudden chilly draft entering into the cable car. Throughout the journey, we need to adjust the pressure in our ears. Without any doubt, It was a breathtaking and scary ride! Certainly not for the faint-hearted passengers. I personally thought to ride the cable car ride was 10 times scarier than walking on the glass bridge itself!

At the peak of Tianmen Mountain, we hiked a short distance to the second glass bridge of our trip, the West Glass Skyway (玻璃栈道). There are currently 3 glass bridges on Tianmen Mountain (east, west and Panlong Cliff). As the distance to the other 2 other glass skyways was a few hours hike away, we decided to give them a miss.

Compared with the Grand Canyon Glass Bridge, the 60m-Glass Skyway on Tianmen Mountain was much more terrifying – both psychologically and physically. First, it is built almost 5 times higher than the Glass Bridge at 1,430m above ground. And it hangs itself with lesser support by the side of the cliff. There is no additional harness that supports the Glass Skyway from the top. There aren’t solid sidewalks for those who want to walk on solid ground. It is a narrow one-way route and jam builds up easily. We found ourselves sandwiched between a group of slow shutterbugs and a group of terrified thrill-seekers who wanted to bail out frantically. Surely, this is not a good place to be stuck during a catastrophe or a mad panic attack.

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Thankfully, most of the glass floor was scratched so badly that it looked almost frosted. So visually, it wasn’t very intimidating. Nevertheless, there were still many terrified “cliff-huggers” who crab-walked across the Skyway. A terrified old lady grabbed my arm unapologetically as she looped over me frantically on the bridge. She continued holding on to the other strangers’ arms as she made her way to the exit. Another strong hunky man in his 30s found himself stuck on a tiny stone slab as there was no more solid floor ahead and he was desperately begging his friends to U-turn. Drama on this bridge was much comical than scary.

After surviving the dramatic glass walk, we proceeded to the next thrilling walk – the Cliff-Hanging Walkway (鬼谷栈道). The cement walkway was built on the sidewalls of the vertical cliffs. The 1.6km long, 1,400m high walkway offers beautiful, unblocked panoramic views of the valleys.

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We finally arrived at the final pitstop of our long scenic hike at Tianmen Mountain Temple (天门山寺) where we took a return 20-minute chairlift ride back to the summit of Tianmen Mountain (near the cable car station). From there, we then took a series of super long connected escalators, through the mountain, down to the entrance of the colossal “Heaven’s Gate” (天门), which is also the world’s highest elevated natural arch. There, we saw the infamous 999-step “Heaven’s Stairs” (天梯) where only the strongest and bravest souls ascend the treacherous climb to the gate of heaven. Well, the path to and fro Heaven is never easy.

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We decided to leave Heaven’s Gate the lazy way – by another long flight of escalators. Just when we thought all the terrifying commutes were over, we were dead wrong. I boarded the most horrendous ride of my life. It was like a deadly hell ride to the real Heaven’s Gate. The minibus sped down the notorious winding Tongtian Avenue (通天大道), maneuvered extreme 180-degree turn at every bend. For a few times, I thought we were going over the cliffs. I could see the fear on the faces of all the passengers. The 99-bend road wasn’t fun for me. Lesson learned – the lazy path is often full of deadly traps, twists, and turns.

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Just before we headed back to Hong Kong, we planned to spend our last night at another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient town of Fenghuang (凤凰县). Located 3 hours drive away from Tianmen Mountain, the 300-year-old Fenghuang ancient town is a beautiful, cultural-rich riverside settlement with well-preserved ancient buildings and colorful ethnic Miao villagers. I can’t compare Fenghuang with Amsterdam or Venice. Or other similar water towns (like Suzhou Tongli 同里古镇 or Zhouzhuang 周庄) in China. The old water town is just different, it is charming, unique and mysterious in its own way.

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What impressed me most was the clarity of the flowing river and the locals’ way of life. Despite the dense settlement on its banks, the local kept the stream clean. Day and night, I saw local washing vegetables and clothes by the river banks. The streets were filled with little makeshift table-stores of local souvenirs and handicrafts. Price was surprisingly low, there was no need to bargain. The stall keepers were peaceful, humble, honest and friendly, unlike the typical aggressive ones I met at most Chinese street markets in first-tier cities.

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Sadly, this ancient town is undergoing major upgrading for tourism. Some parts of the town are overly “urbanized” and it loses its authenticity. For readers who are intrigued by this town, do come by soon before it loses its identity.

How I wish I could extend a few more days to explore this unique place. We did a very short 2-hour tour of the town before we took a long dreadful 12-hour return trip back to Hong Kong.

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This is a very rewarding and fulfilling Easter vacation for me. Thanks to our wonderful and thoughtful Chinese tour guide, this 5-day-4-night trip is more than what I expected. All I wanted was to satisfy my humble curiosity to walk on the new Glass Bridge but the long winding journey enriches me with many unexpected new discoveries and delightful experiences. It is a place where I truly escape from the chains of the city vacuum, where my mind wanders and interacts freely, appreciating life in a different time and space.

Pandora is indeed a unique world full of man-made marvels and natural wonders. It is not far away and it is a great place to discard the avatar in us. There is no place like Zhangjiajie.

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