The Bento Box Challenge!

Last month, our group at work decided to do a bento box challenge.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, "bento box" is simply the Japanese way of referring to a lunch box.  However, some parents use creative ways to make their kids' lunch box look cute and fun, thereby making them want to eat it more.  These bento boxes would often resemble their kids' favourite characters among other things.  For more examples, Google "creative bento" for images and you'll see what I mean.

So on with the challenge.  I must say I've never been the crafty one and this once again proves it!  I envisioned much more, but did not have the real estate in my box to create them and so I'm now left with a lot of random ingredients in our fridge...  In my mind I was going to create Snoopy lying on his doghouse with Charlie Brown sitting next to it.  Of course, I ended up not having room for Charlie, and even Snoopy was quite small.  As I started my creation quite late on Sunday night, I decided to do what I could and hit the sack.

My creation:

My coworkers did well though.  Even though some started late as well, they proved to be a lot craftier than myself.  Below are their creations!

Left: Piggy and his friends!
Right:  Panda, Penguin, and Ninja!

Left: Another Snoopy
Right: Angry Birds!

More pandas! 

Our Trip to XinJiang: Part 7 of Many 14

Day 7:
We woke up on day seven in Kashgar, only to hear that Flora wasn't feeling too well overnight. She had a mild case of food poisoning and going on the road in that condition didn't seem wise. Luckily, our plan for the next two days was to head up to the border where China meets Pakistan, stay one night there and come back to Kashgar the night after. This means that Flora could stay in Kashgar to recover and we'll rejoin her the next night. Flora was very much tempted to come with us, but in the end decided to stay behind. We made sure we stocked her up on water and crackers before we left.

One thing to note is that the border we were traveling to was up in the mountains. The further along we got, the greater the elevation, and pretty soon, we were surrounded by snow capped mountains!

On the way, we had to stop to let a herd of lamb cross the road!

We decided to make a quick pit stop to take pictures of the red mountains all around us.

On the other side of the road, the snowy mountains are peeking at us!

At the next pit stop, we found a random semi-permanent snack stand.  The snowy mountains are getting closer!

We spotted a few pastures at the foot of the mountains.  They actually do resemble the ones we see in games!

Kel and Annie on the way up the mountains.

Next up, Karakul Lake (卡拉庫爾湖)!  It was no doubt the most beautiful place we've ever been to!  We couldn't believe a place such as this existed.  The setting was absolutely surreal!  The weather was perfect, too.  We had the bluest of skies with a couple fluffy clouds to complement, the mystical mountains in the backdrop, and even grazing cows to be our models!  This was the definition of breathtaking!  We felt like we were in a National Geographic photo!  We were extremely grateful for the weather, because on the way back it was foggy and rainy and the place suddenly seemed bleh.  It was quite unbelievable how different it looked 24 hours apart.

Below: We couldn't help but snap a couple more pictures with this surreal backdrop.  The cows were excellent models.

Further down the road, we couldn't help but stop and take more pictures of the lake.  Siu Bo told us that the mountain peaks we were seeing here are the Kongur Tagh (公格爾峰) and Muztagata (慕士塔格山).  The Kongur Tagh is the highest peak of the Kunlun Mountains, sometimes considered as part of the Pamir Mountains.  The Muztagata is the second highest in this region and forms the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.  Note that the Mustagata is not the second highest in the Tibetan Plateau.  It is reputedly one of the easiest 7,000m peaks in the world to climb.  As we were taking pictures, a local man drove up in his motorcycle and tried to sell us trinkets.  We pretended we couldn't understand hoping he would give up.  However, more locals drove up in motorcycles with similar trinkets!  We left fairly quickly after that, guarded by Siu Bo, who conversed with them briefly before leaving.

When we got into town, we inquired at the military post and found that they open at 8:30am for the first batch of tourists through the next day.  We decided to head up the next day instead of that afternoon for better use of time.  Instead, after lunch we drove to Taxkorgan (塔什庫爾幹) where we visited a ruined stone fortress (石頭城) there.  Siu Bo brought us to the side of the fortress to take some pictures because he said there's not much inside.  There was another herd of lambs there, herded by a combination of kids with sticks, and dogs.  After taking some pictures there, we decided since we came all this way, we might as well go in and check it out. 

Below: The town of Taxkorgan.

Normally, there would be an admission fee to get into the fortress.  However, the ticket office was closed that day, but we did find a path around the gate at the top of the steps.  The ruined fortress was supposedly where Marco Polo had once stayed, as did the characters from the Chinese classic "Journey to the West".  Unfortunately, there wasn't much left but piles of rubble and what looked like a few walls, so we proceeded to take pictures of the surrounding area instead.

Left: The front entrance to the ruined fortress.  We weren't sure if the steps were steeper than normal, or if it was solely the elevation and thinner air, but we were panting and I  remember having to take a break in the middle of the climb.
Right: Looking down at the town of Taxkorgan.

Below: We found it quite cool how the small town is nestled between snowy mountains, with pastures surrounding it.  I also wondered whether kids growing up here ever left the town.

We ended the day evaluating two different hotels Siu Bo said were more decent in town.  It wasn't the cleanest of places, but there wasn't much to choose from.  This was the one place where we found the tap water to be somewhat murky and decided to brush our teeth and wash our faces with bottled water over tap. There was no point risking ourselves and getting sick.  Afterall, it was just one night we had to endure.

Day 8:
We woke up the next morning and realized there was no running water!  Good thing we still had some bottled water stocked up and used that to clean up.  Apparently, the town ran on glacier water and the pipes must have froze overnight.  They said they'll get water back by afternoon!  We grabbed breakfast at a local shop and realized this must be a common occurence and locals here probably saved up buckets of water the night before.

We proceed to Khunjerab Pass (红其拉甫口岸), a check point post where China met Pakistan, about 1km north of Tashkorgan.  We had to purchase a permit to drive up to the pass, and a few kilometers from it, we had to wait by a miliary post for an officer to accompany us up.  They would only allow a certain number of people up at a time, and each group had to have an officer with them.  There was a sign at the bottom that read “Khunjerab Pass is not a tourist spot, but an important military posts. We reserve the right to refuse permit to any travelers.”  By the time we got there and out of the car, we realized how much colder it was up there.  We zipped up our jackets and slowly hiked up the slope, taking our time, noting how much thinner the air was there.  We were quite amazed at how little the guard accompanying us was wearing and would've taken more pictures of the outpost with the guards, but we feared for our cameras as taking pictures of anything related to the military was a big no-no.

Left: The military post where we waited for a military officer to accompany us.
Right: The Khunjerab Pass.

On the other side of the "gate", there was a slab of stone that marked the border.  We weren't allowed to cross much further than just enough to take a picture of the other side of the stone.

We headed back to Kashgar that night to meet up with Flora for dinner.  From Kashgar to Khunjerab Pass and back, we travelled 832km.

For our pretty bunny girl

Little Ms Keiko has left for the rainbow bridge last Friday. She was a smart, adventurous ball of fluff always leading the way to discovering new things in the house.  Those who've met her would know she was slow to warm up to, but when you did, would find that she's quite the character.  Nicknamed "White Shadow", she'd make a mad dash down the hall when we had our heads turned.  Many a times, she's had the better of us by reappearing in her quarters, hiding behind her brother while we were still out looking for her.  We'll miss her scurrying across the hardwood floors, giving us her disapproving double paw, and her snuggly fluffball ways.

Keiko Bunny (July 30, 2010 - July 15, 2011)

Our Trip to XinJiang: Part 6 of Many 14

Day 6 continued..

After Shipton's Arc (天門), we went back to Kashgar (喀什) for lunch before heading over to the Tomb of Abakh Khoja, otherwise known as "Fragrant Concubine Tomb" (香妃墓).  Legend has it the mausoleum was built to house the bodies of one of Emperor Qianlong's concubines and her family.  The concubine was said to be Uyghur, but these stories are considered rumours.  Real or not, such a grand Islamic traditional mausoleum is worth a visit.  There were two other buildings in a neighbouring courtyard, but they were under repair so there wasn't much to see there.

The entrance:

The mausoleum

You could pay for a picture on the camel.  There was another stand next to the camel where you could pay to dress in traditional clothing for pictures in front of the mausoleum.  We couldn't understand why, but there was another tour group there where ladies were paying for the service.

It was a really hot day with not a cloud in the sky, so we were glad to carry on to our next destination.  Siu Bo drove us over to the Aitiga'er Mosque (艾提尕尔清真寺).  We approached the entrance and looking in, it looked very similar to the other ones we've been to, and on such a hot day, we really didn't want to pay admission.  We were more interested in the local square in front and decided to venture there instead.  We walked by local stores, a public bathing house, and some smaller photo stands.  One really caught my attention in that you could pay for a horseback or camel ride around the square.  OR, you could even get one where you sit in a cart pulled by a horse or mountain goat!

It was quite funny thinking back because it was so hot that day, the group of us were thinking how great it'd be if there was a Starbucks nearby where we could get an ice coffee and chill for a bit!  We asked Siu Bo when we got back to the car, and of course he told us there was none in Kashgar. :(  So instead of looking for a local cafe (realizing it just wouldn't be the same), we decided to head over to check out the Kashgar Bazaar (喀什巴扎) to escape the sun.  We found the Kashgar Bazaar to be a lot bigger than the one in Urumqi and everything was neatly organized by categories.  One entire row would be strictly of stalls selling spices, while another row would be for fabric.  The list goes on from figurines to men's shirts, to children's toys; and this was all inside.  It was almost like shopping at a supermarket as there were signs above the aisles at every intersection indicating what one would find in the aisle (not like it wasn't obvious!).  Outside, we'd see the food stalls, the butcher and the like.

The spice merchant napping between customers.

The many colourful and intricate fabrics sold at the bazaar.

Left: Outside, we see the roast meat vendors with their chicken and lamb.
Right: We saw a big metal steamer with yummy dumplings and buns.  Kel couldn't resist but try a few.

Below: Customers gathered 'round as the merchant prepared flavoured ice.  Annie wanted to try, but we warned her of the origin of the ice.  And sure enough, later on we found that they'd leave big blocks of random ice on the street under a tree unattended by the parking spots.  The merchant would come around and get more ice when he was running low.

By late afternoon, we headed over to Kashgar's Old City(喀什高台民居), where the government is bulldozing it down section by section as it has been deemed as "unsafe".  There is a huge debate surrounding this, since the government is destroying thousands of years of Uyghur heritage.  However, the Old City has succumbed to many hazards throughout the years and the government is providing alternative housing and compensation to the over 220,000 Uyghur residents being displaced.  On the tour, we learned that most of the residents of the Old City are 60%-80% dependent on government funds to sustain their day to day expenses.  Part of their current housing is used as a storefront for their traditional handicrafts, which they would no longer be able to do once moved to a modernized apartment building.  Our tour guide took us into a few of the local housings to show us the difference between the rich and the poor, as well as the telltale signs from the outside.  One thing she pointed out to us on the construction of the Old City, which would be quite useful for anyone venturing without a map was the stones on the ground.  The side roads between houses were lined with stones and apparently hexagonal tiles indicate that the path keeps going, whereas rectangular brick like tiles indicates the path is a dead end.  What's funny, was that we originally didn't want to take the tour and so entered from a side entrance.  It's not that the admission was expensive, but rather, we question where the money goes to.  It definitely doesn't go to the locals who needs it most, but probably gets lost with government officials.  However, we did find the guide to be quite knowledgeable, and her effort in trying to explain things to us in English was much appreciated.

Aside from the construction of the Old City, we also learnt some interesting customs while on the tour.  One was that when entering and leaving the house of a Uyghur, we are to step across the threshold left foot first to signify good fortune.  Although, they understand that we are tourists, we tried our best to follow this custom.  Another was the way of the doors.  A locked door signifies that no one is home.  An open door signifies the man of the house is home and visitors are welcome.  A half open door signifies that there are only women home, and so only women visitors are welcome.  If the door is open and a red cloth is hung, it shows that a pregnant lady is in the house.  We found this interesting and made sense as the Uyghur are quite traditional.

Left: While taking the side entrance to the city, we saw some children playing by a pool of water.
Right: Inside the Old City, we see a lot of buildings made from clay, mud, hay, and brick/stones, some reinforced with sticks over the years.  We don't know how some of them are still standing, or how anyone can live in them..

Below: More crumbling Uyghur houses in the Old City.  They resemble building blocks, randomly stacked by kids at play.  It truly is amazing how they sustained for so long, and yet sad that there might not be any left soon.

A nicer looking storefront on one of the "main" streets.

A shy local girl peeking at us from her house.

Left: Note the sign.  The community is so poor and neglected, the government doesn't even replace worn out signs.
Right: On another note, one of the bigger mosques (there are several in the Old City), repaired through donations from the richer families in the community.

Below: One of the rich family dwellings we went into.  The big room on the left is a dining room.  On the right, we were on their second level looking down into their entranceway.

We didn't take a whole lot of pictures of the inside of the poor families' houses.  It just didn't feel right.  It was like we were exploiting them for nothing better than to satisfy our own curiosity..