Monday, July 30, 2007

Songs to Share

Suddenly the urge to share some of my favourite songs. A morale booster :)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Vietnam - Ho Chih Min City (Part I)

Vietnam is a war torn country. They had a war with the French, with the Americans, with the Chinese, with the Cambodians, from my limited knowledge of history. The entire 20th century was a century of war. War had destroyed many of the country's civilisation & cultural heritage. What is left is only the natural beauty.

This is the Reunification Palace in Ho Chih Min City. Once the presidential house for the southern government. Many Feishui elements had been incorporated to bring good luck. The building itself resembles the Chinese characters of 'prosperity', 'austere', 'central', etc, but I think this building looks very ugly. Whatever it is, the end result is the southern government fell & lost the civil war. That must be something wrong with that Feishui advisor!

Some interior shots of the place.

Ho Chih Min, known as Saigon previously, is the country's commercial capital. Thriving business activities, good bargains are what draw visitors from overseas. There are many markets in saigon, some of the major ones are Ben Thanh, Bin Tay, An Dong. In addition, there are many night markets too. Do be careful, though. You have to know the price. For the same goods, price can vary more than 100%. Some market research and good bargaining skills will pay off.

A busy traffic junction in front of Ben Thanh Market

There are also many road-side food stores. They come into life when the night falls. The prices are generally reasonable, the food is done the Vietnamese way. That means lean in oil, rich in taste.

We had our first dinner at one of the stalls shown in the photo. Fish was fresh from the tanks in front of the stall. I should have taken a shot of the food that we had, but then we were all too hungry and meeting the basic needs of a human body seemed a lot more important at that time :D However, as it is a road-side stall, you have to bear with the pollution from the exhaust of the passing motorbikes.

Ho Chih Min City is one of the most polluted city that I had ever been to. Thousands of motorbikes crammed into the small city roads, more or less like thousands of chimneys discharging smoke at the same time.

With the opening of Vietnam to the outside world in the past few years, there are some new western-stye departmental stores popping up. Their Christmas decoration can be really good.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Como - An Escape from Busy City Life

I originally planned to write about Vietnam today, but unfortunately I lost my Como city map, so I decided to write about Como first, before I forget anything.

First, how did I get the map? Como town's tourist information resources is quite limited. There is no tourist information office or whatsoever at the train station, which is quite a common feature in most of Italy & Switzerland. I was left without a map for the whole morning. Do you know what I did? I went to the tourist shops, looked at the post cards, recognized them, and then go to those places. Then I had lunch at a MacDonald's at Piazza Cavour. Hey, they have free tourist maps! Once I got the map, everything became a lot easier. Too bad, eventually I lost the map. Most probably during one of the messy lens changing exercises :)

Como is small town by Lake Como. It is so small that many tourist guide books may not even mention about it, but the impact this small little town has on the modern world is totally out of proportion. The many villas by the lake at this town are also fit for the kings & queens to grant their audience.

In Piazza Volta, stands a statue of Alessandro Volta, the greatest son of the town of Como. He is the inventor of electric battery. Every single electrical and/or electronics engineer in this world should know that the unit of electric potential - Volt, is named after him. Hey, without him, where do you get your batteries for your digital cameras, mate?

There is a Volta Temple at the west side of the lake, which is a museum established in 1927 in memory of A. Volta. On display are some of the instruments Volta used in his research.

You can find more information about Alessandro Volta here.

Como is also famous for the many villas along the lake. Villa Saporiti, which used to belong to Marquis Saporiti, has seen many kings & queens to be on its guest list, such as Napoleon, Tsar Alexandra II, to name two (I have forgotten about the rest, which is not important at all)

The biggest of all (or biggest amongst those open to the public) is Villa Olmo, just neighbouring Villa Saporiti.

Of course, as a typical Italian city, there is always a Duomo and many other churches & cathedrals, winding alleys for you to explore.

My Verdict: It is a nice escape from the busy city life of Milan. Very easy to reach, just 45 mins train ride by even a slow train. Not very expensive. However, if you compare Como with its neighbouring Lugano in Switzerland, I will choose Lugano. Como is a bit too rustic, whilst Lugano is a lot more posh (but more expensive, too).

Getting There:

From Milan, there are many trains going to Como town from Milan Central Station. It is like once per hour in the early morning and late afternoon. There are also trains from other train stations in Milan that can reach Como. You can check it out at the Italian train website: There are two or three train stations in Como town, the most common one is Como San Giovanni station. Train fare is 6.50 euros one way, 2nd class.

Getting Around:

From Como San Giovanni station, you can take a bus to the town centre, or like what I did, walk down the hill. It is a nice 10 minutes walk (or even less). Just walk straight, you will not lose your way. Go to Piazza Cavour and get the map from the MacDonald there :). Everything becomes very easy ever after ;P

From Piazza Cavour, you can see the Duomo, which is about 100m away; you can also walk along the lake to the west direction, you can reach the Volta Temple, further down, you will see Villa Saporiti, followed by Villa Gallia & Villa Olmo. If you walk to the east along the lake from Piazza Cavour, you can take a cable car up to the hill behind Como town. I suggest you do that in the morning, when the sun is shining on the town and from the hill, the light is just right for your photos :)

Aiming Higher

My last post may have made some worried about me. Don't worry, I am doing fine. I am just trying to aim a bit higher. Hui Fang always says "If you aim for the sky, even if you miss the sky, you will land on the roof". But then I always said to her "If you miss the sky, most probably you will miss the roof, and land right on the ground!" :D

Lady Elf had arisen from a simple sales person to director of sales, and soon to become Vice President, if he so wishes. That Elf has critised me for being unambitious for a long long time (from time that I can remember). Partially in response to his critism, partially feeling jealous to his great achievement, I now decide to aim higher too.

Tom says that whatever I do, I will lay down at least 3 layers of safety measures :) There is nothing wrong to play safe, but then sometimes too safe is a danger itself. Humans are bound to make mistakes. The more you do, the more mistakes you make. Sometimes the consequences are minor, sometimes you have to pay heavily for them. The safetest way of not making any mistakes is doing nothing. By doing nothing, it is the greatest danger ever.

Haha, I think I had better stop here before I confuse more people.

I accidentally changed my settings for comments, now it is back to normal. Anybody can leave me a comment now.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ponder for Life

Today, my colleague just told me some great news. Four of my colleagues had been promoted in the recent promotion exercise. One promoted to Technical staff, one to senior engineer, and two from entry-level engineer to full engineers. Congratulations to them!!

But then at the same time, I realised I had kind of lagged behind. Many of my friends and colleagues had made great achievements both in their private life & at work. People getting married, starting a new family, buying house & car, getting to senior positions at work. After 7 long years with my current company, I am still at best a 2nd fiddle player. Not a single product that is in production. The joy of telling people that 'Oh, I designed that one' has never come upon me.

The other 'attempts' that I made to try to be 'successful' are not progressing, either. The passion in photography is dying. I picked up photography more seriously in 1997 with the purchase of my 1st SLR; 10 years later, I am still very much an amateur, if not beginnger. I am not making as much progress as someone who maybe just took up photography a year or two ago. One reason I know very well is my being stingy in investing time & money in it. Photography now is more of a frustration, rather than an enjoyment. The fire has come across a fire extingisher ;P

I tried microstock photography, thinking it might be a good avenue for me to share my 'prodcuts', so that they don't sit in my harddisk waiting for the crash time to come. It did give me some sense of fulfillment for a while. It was exciting to know people actually vote for your pictures with their money! Soon I realised again I am at best a 2nd class, if not 3rd or 4th or any other lower class, in the microstock community. I got excited if I can get more than 50 bucks a month, while others are talking about thousands. The contrast is big.

There are other attempts that unfortunately also failed terribly. To make things worse, I discovered there is a pattern in my failures. In other words, I always make the same mistakes, regardless what kind of attempts that I make. This is serious.

I seldom feel happy anymore. Nothing that can arose my interest or passion. The goddess of joy seems to have forgotten about me, or had been offended by me. Or, maybe God has answered my prayer for strength, wisdom & glory. He kindly gave me difficult tasks, laid down obstacles, to provide me the opportunity to gain the strength, the wisdom and glory.

I am feeling tired and lonely. The desire to return to my family is getting stronger and stronger everyday. A break from my daily routines.

A Singaporean motivation speaker, Adam Khoo, once said, you will be successful no matter what you do, as long as you are the best. How true it is! I am always the 2nd best, or 3rd, or lower. That makes me a perfect candidate to be an under-achiever :)

It is high time I pondered about my life and made changes. Hanging on to my unpromising job is not going to get me anywhere.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Swiss Alpine Walk

Swiss Alpine walk, it is something that I read in travel magazines, watch on TV, admire in photography exhibitions, but I have never ever thought that one day, I will do it myself, but I just did that last weekend! Very tiring, very challenging, sometimes even dangerous, but YES, I DID IT! It might not be one of the 1000 things that you should do before you die, but it is something nice to include in your personal record :D I will slowly upload some of the pictures of the trip, so stay tuned. At the moment, I am still 'recovering' from the trip.

Day One:
I traveled by train from Milan to Bellinzona on Sat morning, reaching there at 8.44am. Met my long time friend Tom, drove up to Mesocco which is 800m above sea level (ASL). There, we parked the car, packed our stuff into the backpack, and started our ascend. We walked all the way up to 1500m ASL at Giasum. The slope is steep, some part of the path is not well marked. As it gets higher and higher, the temperature also goes lower. From Giasum, we then walked down to Cebbia, then back to Mesocco.

Haha, this is the highest point we reached on Day One. Obviously too much breath had been taken out of me, I didn't have the strength to take the breath-taking scenary :D Can you see the white-red-white strips on the pole? That is the marker for Swiss Alpine paths.

Over night, we drove down to Lugano and stayed at the Youth Hostel at Figino.

Day Two:
We drove up to Fontana, which is at 1335m ASL. Then we walked all the way up to the tree line, at 2021m at Rif Biasagn (have to check the name from my photos). The time indicated at the trail is 1 hours 40 minutes from Fontana to Rif Biasagn, but it took us 2 hours. Of course, we did stop for our lunch. :D

It was a tiring two days. I have been a city boy for too long to take up such challenges. My whole body is protesting, heart, shoulder, legs, everywhere is aching. The reward? The breath-taking views of the Swiss Alps in Summer, views that you can only see in movies, TV documentaries.

This is where we walked past on the 2nd day. Scary! My legs were trembling when I took this photo. A valley full of granite stones, probably washed down during an avalanche in the winter. Those granite stones provide the locals good construction material for their stone houses. They make the stones into 'slide' and use them to build the walls and roof of their house, like the one shown below.

Ok, that's what you can see at 2021m. It is summer but there is still a bit of snow left on the opposite mountain, a view you will probably never see again, thanks to global warming.

Alright, don't slam me. I didn't bring my wide angle lens with me, which is both a mistake and a correct decision. A mistake because I couldn't make great wide angle shots; a correct decision is because I didn't have to carry extra weight to make my life difficult :) For an uninitiated, it is lucky enough to survive the whole journey, without any mishaps.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Confusion, Always

Italy is a nice & mystic country. Just when you thought you know it well, it has changed. When I went to Lugano some weeks before, I bought my ticket at counter 48, I think. Then today, when I wanted to get a ticket to Bellinzona, Switzerland, I was told that Switzerland is considered 'International', so I should go to counter 52 & 53 to buy my ticket! Then I, for the very first time, discovered there is a special ticket office for international trains. Alama!

The queue was long, the hall was hot, very much like a sauna room under the 38 degrees heat wave sweeping through Milan. The heat obviously affected the temper of the staff at the counter.

Never mind, tomorrow I am going to Switzerland, a short escape from the chaos of Italy.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Treasure and Junkyard - The Brera Art Gallery

The Brera Art Gallery in Milan houses many important paintings in Italian's history, yet the building that houses it looks more like an abandoned warehouse. Industrialisation of Europe left an unerasable mark on it.

A bronze statue of its founder, Emperor Napoleon I, stands in the centre of the courtyard. Nothing unusual about a Napoleon statue, there should be many of them, but this one is special. It is a NAKED Napoleon. He is portrayed as a young hunk. Artists are liars. Anyway, his statue is also in an appalling state, covered by dust, spider webs and pigeon shit.

The ground floor houses many replicas of the famous statues, but they suffer a worse fate than Napoleon. All the statues are covered by a thick layer of dust, many have been vandalised. Cigarettes in the mouth, testicles, boobs being probed at.

The first floor is where the gallery actually is. The exhibitions rooms are well maintained, with proper lighting and air-conditioning. The contrast with the ground floor is huge.

Most the paintings are of Christian-related. Master pieces they may be, but if you are not a fan of western history or Christian art, you will have difficulties in appreciating their values.

There is a glass workshop in the gallery, where on a weekday, you can see how the staff restore the paintings to their original glory (or destroy the original work completely, depends on how you look at it).

Many paintings appear to be very 'plastic' to me, after their great 'restoration' work. It is like a digital photo that is over-filtered, over sharpened, noise-reduction over-used.

The most important piece of work in the Gallery is the 'Dead Christ' by MANTEGNA, Andrea for its bold foreshortening. Sorry, I can't really appreciate it, or I don't know how to appreciate it. Any art experts here?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Forgotten Pearl - Turin & The Holy Shroud

Turin always gave me the impression that it was a dull industry city, with boring, pollution infected stone houses. A visit on Saturday changed my view completely.

Turin is lively and lovely. The city is laid out in rectangle grids, easy to navigate. From the train station Torino Porta Nouva to Piazza Carlo and Piazza Castello is one straight road.

Shops line up the Via Roma and Via Po, tourists as well as the locals shopping happily :D There is a lot more local life here.

Turin also has the best tourist information. They provide you with detailed maps so that you can explore the city to the fullest. It is obvious they take great pride of their own city, when I told them I would only stay in Turin for one day, they were agast. Two days is a minimum, according to them, and I fully agreed after my hasty day trip. There is so much to discover in this city of great history.

Museo Egizio is one of the rare that has English captions for their exhibites, other than the fact that they are the 3rd biggest museum of Egyptian culture and archeological finds, behind the museum in Cairo and the Bristish museum.

The Baroque palaces and piazzas would impress any visitor for their grandeur, fine workmanship, and architectural excellence.

Of course, no visit to Turin will be complete without a visit to the Holy Shroud of Turin.

The shroud is housed in a lackluster-looking duomo of Torino. If I did see flocks of tourists always walking in this direction and curiosity got the better of me, I would have missed this place completely. I find that the buildings in Torino in general look very ordinary, if not run-down from the outside, but the inside usually are hidden grandeurs.

The interior of the Duomo is not that grand, neither. It is hard to believe this was also the duomo where the royal family of Italy patroned and attended the Sunday mass. I am not sure whether the fire in 1997 was the cause of the current state of the duomo.

The shroud chamber is now located under the royal box where the Royal Savoy family used to sit. This is a new chamber, the old had been completely destroyed in the fire in 1997. It is ok to put the shroud under the royal box, as nobody will sit there any more since the King had been in exile in Portugal since 1946.

But is the real shroud being stored here? I am not sure. A replica is displayed in the chamber, and a new conservation & display case is shown covered by a cloth which bears the sign of the Passion of the Christ.

More information about the shroud can be found here.

Tourist Information:

It is advisable to buy the Torino card. A two-day pass costs 18.00 euros, which covers most of the museums, and tourist attractions, plus public transport in the city and its suburbs.

Palazzo Madama 6.50 euros
Palazzo Reale 6.50 euros
Museo Egizio 8.00 euros
Mole Antonelliana 6.80 euros
Armeria Reale 4.00 euros
Total: 31.80 euros
Comparing with the 18.00 euros cost, it is a pretty good deal.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, which means five places in Italian, is the collective name for the five tiny little fishing villages off the coast in the north-west of Italy. The unique landscape and architecture earn it a place in the UNESCO list of world heritage sites.

July, August and September are the peak season to visit Cinque Terre. However, peak season obviously has a different definition and scale in different places. The peak season here is nowhere close to the 'peak season' in China, such as during the National day golden week.

On our way there, the train was a bit crowded by European standard, the beaches had more people, accommodation may be a bit tight, otherwise everything else was still very enjoyable.

From Milan, you can take the train to Riomaggiore, the furthest village and then back track; or you can alight at Monterosso and then go forward. The journey from Milan is about 4 hours. The train may be a bit crowded with holiday makers, and you may not get a seat.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Neighbourhood

As I explore more about the neightbourhood, I find Gambara is a very convenient place.

I. Supermarkets:
There are many supermarkets around, you are spoilt for choice.
1. Punto Vendita: This is right outside the Gambara Metro station. The scale is small, limited choices, and the price is a bit higher than the others.
2. GS at San Gimignano: This is further away, but bigger.
3. GS at Piazzale Siena: This is comparatively closer to our place.
4. Standa: This is at the junction of Via A. T. Trivulzio and Viale Ergisto Bezzi. It has two stories, many choices, including clothes, electrical appliances such as rice cookers, electric fans, etc. The price is so far the lowest. One kilogram of raw turkey is selling at less than 4 euros. With this price, it is a steal. Other stuff such as pork and chicken are also cheaper.

II. Laundry
The cost of laundry is extorbitant at our apartment. One T-shirt is 4.50 euros, underwear 1.70 euros, socks 1.70 euros, trousers 5.50 euros. Over the last three weeks, I had spent almost 200 euros on laundry alone! A few days ago, I found a laundry shop called "Fuxia Wash" at Via Rubens. I gave it a try today. Not too bad. You go there, a guy would come down from upstairs (he can see you coming through the CCTV), dump your dirty clothes into the machines, and you come back one hour later to collect. The cost is 7 euros for wash & dry. The clothes were not 100% dry when I collected mine, but that is ok as they were about 98% dry :)

III. Eating places
There are many cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs near Gambara Metro station, and a lot more if you walk further down to De Angeli and Wagner. Again, you will be spoilt for choice. There are, of course, many Italian restaurants, but there are also a variety of Japanese, Chinese, and Middle east restaurants, including the Keba. I think I find more Chinese restaurants in this area than in Milan's dull Chinatown.

IV. Shopping
At De Angeli and Wagner, there are also many shops selling clothes, shoes, electronics, and many many others. I just found out today, so I have not really taken a careful look at all of them yet. But city life is vibrant, not as boring and lacklustre as I thought before.

It seems there is an Asian community in this area, with mainly people from the Phillipines. There is a Phillipine Grocery too, but it is closed when I passed by today.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Fashion: Look at my buttock

It has been annoying me for quite a while. People here like to wear low cut or loose jeans. It is so low so loose that the underwear will inevitably pop up to take a look at the outside world. Sometimes the underwear gets a bit tired of all the pollution and noise, it decides to just remain under the shelter of the jeans. In that case, the hair buttock takes over, and gets a sunbath. It is not just a small part of the buttock, but it is like 50% of it is out for a tan. Being an equal opportunity society, this happens to both men and women. There is no age discrimination, either. From teens all the way to fathers mothers in their 30s, 40s do the same, the only difference maybe in the style of underwear, and the wrinkles appearing on the buttocks.

Sigh, the true spirit of European style of fashion?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Do you want to change your lover?

If yes, then you should go to Verona. Shakespear's romantic story of Romeo & Juliet is set here, based on the family feuding notably in the 13th & 14th century.

Through a doorway full of graffiti, you are ushered into the courtyard of Juliet's residence. There stands a bronze statue of Juliet, right under the literature's most celebrated balcony, where Juliet was said to be courted by Romeo.

Superstition or rumour or whatever says that if you rub the right breast of Juliet's statue, you will get yourself a new lover :D Because of this 'legend', the poor Juliet has been molested by hundreds, if not thousands of tourists everyday.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Milan's Chinatown

Milan's Chinatown is centred at Via Paolo Sapri, a crowded working class district. As usual, there are many Chinese shops, but most of them are trading companies doing whole sales business in garments and shoes. There are a few small Chinese convenient stores selling limited number of Chinese food stuff. Chinese restaurants are also rare. This is a stark contrast to Sydney's Chinatown, where you can find almost everything you can find back in China. Cantonese-style Tea Houses are aplenty, you never need to worry about how you can satisfy your tasty buds.

Chinatown is quite self-sufficient. There are property agents, travel agents, immigration agents along the street. The basic needs of a new immigrant should all bet met here. There is even a Xin Hua Bookstore in the middle of the street, selling publications from mainland China.

It is said that Chinatown is very crowded on Saturdays, but when I was there on Sunday today, almost all the shops were closed. Some Chinese lingering around the street. As I understand, there had been some unrest in the Chinatown in recent months due to conflict with the police. Here is the BBC report on the event: Milan police in Chinatown clash

Overall, Milan's Chinatown is a let-down for me. I don't get what I want here. My craving for Chinese food, especially Cantonese food is not satisfied.

To get to Chinatown, you can take Tram #4 outside Cairoli Metro station. It is a 10-min ride.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Traveling between Switzerland and Italy

Milan is very close to the border with Switzerland. As a matter of fact, it takes only 1 hour plus to get to Switzerland, but it takes 5 hours to reach Rome. Today, I took the train to the nearest swiss city - Lugano.

For trains going to other countries, you can't buy the ticket online or using those automatic machines. You have to buy the ticket at the ticket office. I took the 8.25am train, the train's final destination is Zurich. On the way, it stops at Monza, Como and the border town Chiasso. Monza is famous for Ferrari racing, Como is where Lake Como is. From Milan to Monza is only a 20 mins ride, to Lake Como is about 1 hour. From Lake Como to Lugano is just another 20-30 mins.

1/3 of the train journey is wasted at the border town Chiasso. When the train enters Switzerland, the swiss immigration will come on board the train for passport checking & vice versa.

It is quite interesting to see how people in different countries work. When the Swiss came onboard, they practically checked every passenger's passport. When the Italians came onboard, they only selective chose people to check. The usual suspects will get checked, and they are the blacks. On the way to Lugano, one black guy was escorted down the train by the Swiss officers; on the way back to Milan, a black lady was checked by two different batches of Italian officers. I thought they might want to check my passport as well, as I was the few Asians onboard, but then they just walked past and I continued my nap :D By the way, they only check passports, but they do not stamp your passport. I just missed two stamps, one for entering Switzerland, one for entering Italy. :)

Ticino of Switzerland is an Italian speaking state, directly bordering Lombardy of Italy. You would not expect too much difference between the two sides of the border, but you are wrong! Entering to Italy from Switzerland is like entering Johor Bahru from Singapore. The Swiss side has beautiful landscapes, properly maintained gardens, lawns. The streets are clean, filled with luxury cars. Ferrari, BMW, Merz are almost everywhere. Castles, picturesque residences line the picturesque coastline.

One interesting point: with all these Swiss/Italian technology, the toilet in the train is still nothing more than a man-hole. Whatever you pee or shit goes down directly to the track.

The ticket from Milan to Lugano is 15.50 euros, from Lugano to Milan is sFr 25.00.

Last but not least, my opinion on Lugano: If you want to know how paradise looks like, go to Lugano...


I traveled between Switzerland and Italy again on 21-22 July 2007. The scenario is again different. I took the train departing Milan at 7.10am. It is a Swiss train. When we arrived at the border town of Chiasso, the train only stopped there for less than 10 mins, then it continued the journey north. Nobody came onboard to check passports or whatsoever. On the way back, some guards came onboard at Lugano, and started checking passports. Then at Chiasso, another batch of officials came onboard to check passports and luggage. They asked the young guys sitting near me to open their bags for inspection.

An interesting incident here. The guy checking the luggage happened to have the same type of watch as mine. I didn't notice it, but he did. He even specifically came up to me to tell me that we have the same watch! Amazing...