Canals, Minarets, Tea Plantations, and Metropolises
The other day I put up a list of my favourite travel shots from between the end of 2008, when I first arrived in Hong Kong, and the end of 2013, when I got married. Most of my holidays during that time were in pretty small radius around Hong Kong: Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Korea, etc., as well as longer trips home to visit friends and family in Toronto and the East Coast. After getting married we still went to all of those places, but we also did at least one or two “bigger” trips each year to locations further away from home, including our first trip to Europe together at the end of 2013 as as we continued our honeymoon in northern Italy.
The photo above was taken in Venice, obviously. Some holiday locations are so thick with history and the collective idea of the space that it often seems like there’s nothing one really add to the conversation. Venice is Venice, what else is there to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times? The sun was setting that day – a common theme among many of my favourite photos – and the lighting somehow gave the affect of being on the set of a movie, from the Venetian Gothic architecture, to the gondolas in the Grand Canal, to the purples and oranges in the darkening sky. I look at this photo sometimes and wonder that I was there at all.
This is another shot from Venice, but from earlier in the day. I love the compactness and the density of buildings by the canal – it scratches that itch that has to do with cityscapes and how mankind sometimes wrestles with geography to make a city work. Or maybe it’s not working so well these days, given the sinking nature of Venice. Still, these proud buildings stand in defiance of the slow but inexorable passage of time, surviving wars, revolutions, rising sea levels, and the economic decay of the city as a trade hub, and I really dig that.
I took this photo in Verona, of Romeo and Juliet fame, where we stayed for a few nights and did day trips to other parts of northern Italy. While there is actually a courtyard designated by the city to be the official location of Juliet’s balcony, there’s no shortage of romantic imagery to be found in the streets and neighbourhoods as well, especially in the city’s historic district. This shot kind of captures a certain Italian small town aesthetic that seems straight out of a movie, with the narrow street, the burnt orange walls, the green shutters, and the little balconies. It’s not a picture of anything, per se, but it conveys an idea of Italy that I quite like.
This is Verona from across the Adige River, looking down from the Castel San Pietro. I like this photo purely for how it strikes me visually – a golden-hued old world cityscape on a winter’s morning. This is another one I’d love to print out and put up on a wall somewhere, a window to another time and place.
This desolate landscape is Bako National Park in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. The rest of the park was actually quite lush and tropical when we went in the spring of 2014, but here on the beach there was little sign of life. It’s a simple picture – just the sandy browns of the beach, the pale blues of the river and the sky, the dark silhouettes of the barren trees, and the dusty blues of the land across the water.
This picture really gives me a spark of joy. Ashley and I visited Istanbul and a few other places in that part of the world in the fall of 2014, checking off a major item on my bucket list. I’m absolutely enamoured by this city and its history and architecture, from its early days as the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, to the tumultuous era of the Eastern Romans/Byzantines, to its reincarnation as the seat of the caliphate under the Ottomans, and finally its transformation into a modern 21st Century metropolis that still bears the scars of two millennia of imperialism. I can’t even describe to you the emotions I was feeling when I laid eyes on the Hagia Sophia for the first time, but this photo instantly transports me back to that warm September morning by the Bosphorus every time.
This is the ceiling of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque. It stands opposite the Hagia Sophia, on the grounds of the old Roman palace, the blue tiles adorning its walls and upper levels giving the interior its famous marine hues. I’ve never really felt comfortable taking photos of interiors – I find it difficult to figure out what to focus on, or how much/how little to include/leave out – but I like this one quite a bit.
Istiklal Avenue is a well-known pedestrian thoroughfare on the other side of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. The popular street is lined with boutique shops, bookstores, cafes, and patisseries housed in beautiful 19th century Ottoman buildings, served by a historic tram line running between Tünel Square and Taksim Square. I’d had a thing for Roman/Byzantine and Ottoman-era Istanbul for a while before this trip, but a photograph of the iconic red Istiklal tram that I came across a few years back spurred an interest in the post-imperial city as well, and this image kind of captures some of that modern dynamism and energy.
This is another shot that I love from our time in Istanbul. I took this from the Galata Tower as the sky transitioned from day to evening over the hills and minarets of the historic old city and the waters of the Golden Horn. I can almost imagine this to be the view from the tower a century ago or more, the modern-day skyline of the heart of Istanbul still dominated by the grand imperial mosques built by the sultans of old. I’d come back here in a heartbeat.
After Istanbul, we flew out to what was once the northwestern frontier of the Ottoman Empire along the Dalmatian Coast, traveling along the coastlines of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Croatia, where I took this photo. Our base for this leg of the trip was the medieval fantasy world of Dubrovnik, where Game of Thrones was famously filmed. The fortress in this photo is Lovrijenac, the show’s stand-in for one of the castles in the story, but it has a pretty interesting origin narrative of its own. I took this shot on an absolutely gorgeous day, and I really like how the Adriatic Sea just melts into the sky above, giving the impression that the rocky outcropping and the fortress on top are almost floating in mid-air.
Over the Chinese New Year holidays in early 2015, Ashley and I joined a few friends on a snowboarding trip to Niseko, a popular ski resort on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The island gets a ton of snow over the winter months blown in from Siberia across the Sea of Japan, and the powder is to die for. This photo was taken one afternoon as we were going through the bunny hills with a friend that was just starting to snowboard, and it’s deceptively peaceful. You wouldn’t know looking at this picture, with its winter wonderland vibes, the gentle brush strokes of the tree line across the eggshell canvas, the brightly-coloured snowboarders relaxing in the foreground, that the friend was loudly complaining about how snowboarding sucks. We know, buddy, we’ve all been there.
This shot was taken over Easter in 2015, along the Kandy-to-Ella train service connecting the old Sri Lankan capital of Kandy in the island’s mountainous interior to the forested hills and tea plantations around the town of Ella. The train ride is well worth it and an experience in and of itself, mostly because of spectacular views like this one. The word that comes to mind every time I look at this photo is edenic – so lush and full of vibrant greens and blues, and somewhat thematically consistent with some of the Christian and Islamic folklore around the local topography. The landscape is so wildly beautiful it tugs at the part of me that likes to pretend at exploring.
Tangalle is a town in the south of Sri Lanka, known for its golden beaches along the island’s Indian Ocean coast. We ended our holiday on this gorgeous stretch of sun and sand, taking it very easy after a few days of hiking in the trails around Ella. We had the beach basically all to ourselves, and I love how this photo captures the remoteness of the location, the fine mist coming in off the surf over the deep yellow-ish orange of the beach, and the dramatic interplay of light and shadow in the skies above. We had some truly spectacular sunsets in Tangalle, and one night when the skies cleared we even saw the Milky Way.
I am without a doubt a city boy, and out of all the cities in the world, Tokyo is the one I dream about the most. This photo was taken from the upper floors of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in the summer of 2015, my first time in Tokyo, and I love how it shows this mega-cityscape extending all the way to the horizon. From this vantage point above the city, I imagined all the daily ebbs and flows and real world dramas playing out across the lives of millions and millions and millions of people below, and it was like a drug. Over the next few days I went all over the city via its extensive rail networks, trying to drink in as much of Tokyo as I could in one go, much like loading up at a buffet and eating as much as possible before your body knows it’s full. I still can’t get enough of this city.
One of my first stops in Tokyo was Sensō-ji, a massive Buddhist temple complex in the Asakusa neighbourhood. Stretching out in front of the main temple area and connecting it to the impressive Kaminarimon entrance is the Nakamise-dori, a shopping street full of snack vendors and souvenir shops. This photo looks back at the Kaminarimon – you can see its tiled roof peeking out at the end of the corridor – and I just like how this picture looks, with the two sides of the street coming together in the far background and the students and other shoppers perusing the items and wares for sale as they make their pilgrimage towards the temple.
This shot was taken along the stretch of shops and restaurants running alongside the train line between Okachimachi Station and Ueno Station. It was a quiet weekday morning just after rush hour, and these two office workers had just finished a meal together at one of the ramen joints underneath the train tracks. I really like the slice-of-life vibe of this photo, showing regular Tokyoites sharing a moment away from the hustle and bustle of city life before diving back into the current. A city stitched together by these kinds of moments, multiplied a thousand and a million times, is totally my jam.
Rikugien Garden is one of many Japanese landscape gardens scattered throughout the city. There’s a poetic element to the layout of this place, but even without being familiar with Japanese verse one can appreciate the cultivated serenity of the environs. The deep shadows on the left and the sunlit portions on the right, combined with the solo presence of the man on the path in the distance, also give the photo a sort of intimate feel as well.
One of the things I unexpectedly found myself enjoying was seeing the different temples and shrines in Tokyo and how they fit into their neighbourhoods. I went to at least one a day, and they ranged from crowded controlled chaos, filled to the brim with locals and tourists alike, to quiet and unassuming, with only the neighbourhood kids around to keep it company. Kanda Myojin was somewhere in the middle, at least when I was there. It was much less busy than Sensō-ji, and every so often a man in a work suit or an old woman pulling a shopping trolley would quietly walk through the circular gate and into the temple. This photo reminds me of the embedded-ness of neighbourhood temple spirituality in the daily lives of people in Tokyo, and I love how that piece fits into the bigger picture of this hyper-future-megacity.
At the end of summer in 2015, I went back to Canada for a few weeks – first to Toronto to see family and friends, and then to Vancouver for a wedding. I’ve had a number of university friends end up in Vancouver over the years, including a friend that had moved to Beijing the same summer I had moved to Hong Kong before settling in Vancouver after getting married. We catch up whenever I’m in town, and this photo was taken while walking around the Olympic Village neighbourhood right around sunset. I really like the quality of the light in this photo, the sun’s rays suffusing the scene with some excellent golden hues, and I dream of a place where its always golden hour and there’s always a friend to walk with.
The wedding in Vancouver was for a friend that had once lived in Hong Kong, and there were a good number of people from our friend group there that made it out – though many now lived in other places, flying in from New York, Atlanta, Tokyo, and Sydney, as well as Hong Kong. Being Canadian but not from Vancouver, I felt like a host and a tourist at the same time. I’d also treated all of my previous trips back to Canada as more of a homecoming than a holiday, and it was eye-opening to see my home country through the eyes of friends who had grown up elsewhere. This photo was taken on the day we decided to hike Garibaldi Provincial Park, and it was an absolutely beautiful day to spend in the coastal rainforests of British Columbia. I have a blindspot when it comes to Canada, and this picture reminds me of how good I have it to be able to call this place home.
This is a pretty straightforward picture of Vancouver’s skyline from the North Shore part of town. There’s a simplicity to it that I really like, though – just a few shades of grey and yellow tell the whole story.
In the fall of 2015 Ashley and I flew up to Shanghai to visit her sister and her family. I’ve got a personal link of my own to the city, however, as this is where my mom spent the first few years of her life before moving to Hong Kong. This photo was taken in front of her childhood home, which is kind of unbelievable that it was still around given the pace of urban development, and re-development, in Chinese cities. Indeed, the helpful aunties that ushered us through the neighbourhood’s narrow lanes and alleyways to find this apartment later told us the whole area was scheduled to be demolished in the next two years. It’s been five years since then, and the last little legacy of my mom’s family in Shanghai is probably long gone by now.
Our 2015 travels started in Japan in Niseko, and it ended in Japan, on the island of Okinawa. I took this photo on the Kouri Bridge, the land link between the Yagaji Island and the smaller island of Kouri, after a long day of driving. After parking our little car in the lot by the base of the bridge, we walked about halfway across before pausing in the middle to take in the view. The setting sun bathed this little islet and the surrounding ocean in this wonderful warm light, and even with the sounds of the occasional car driving behind us across the bridge, I remember it being a supremely peaceful experience.
On the other side of the bridge was this view of the wide open skies above Okinawa. This was the background on my laptop for the longest time. I get a bit of a Makoto Shinkai-esque vibe to this picture, and I can almost imagine a fiery comet streaking in a blazing arc across this sky. Ashley and I talk about going back to Okinawa all the time, and part of it is because we now have a baby boy that would have a blast doing all the kid-friendly stuff there, but part of it is also having moments like these – pausing to look out over a tropical ocean under blue skies, and dreaming of ramen and pig’s ear with ponzu sauce.