16 February 2009

Singapore: Chinese Garden

Another less hidden place of interest (I don't know if you call it a gem) in Singapore is the Chinese Garden. This replica of a Chinese garden (it contains a Japanese garden, as well; I don't really know the difference, but I think that Japanese gardens contain bonsai trees while Chinese gardens do not) is in the southwest of the island. I had wanted to visit and even got so far as the gates last year before I read the sign that said the garden would be closed for that weekend. So, I filed it in my "to do" list, and a year later was back on the MRT heading to, conveniently enough, Chinese Garden station. Off the train, through the turnstiles, and 300 metres down the path, you cross the bridge into the garden.

It really is a nice space. This is one of the places my local friends say, "Yes, I went there...when I was six!" But, it is worth a trip out on a nice day to enjoy the scenery. You have large, arched bridges that cross inlets from the sea, winding paths through forests and sculptures, old sun dials (and a more modern one - can you tell what time it was?), a garden with the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, a well-populated turtle pond, and statues of historical Chinese figures, from philosophers such as Confucius to warriors like Yue Fei, on whose back his mother tattooed four Chinese characters meaning: "Serve the country loyally." There are also the twin pagodas on the water and the 7-storey pagoda at the entrance to the garden.

I liked the garden with the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Each year was represented with a stylized statue of two of the animals, with a plaque showing the particular years of the animal (I was born in 1968, the year of the Monkey), and the characteristics of people born during that year. The oxen (pictured here) were adorned with red ribbons, in anticipation of the new year celebrations that would take place nine days later to usher in the Year of the Ox.

I found one particularly neat feature. Singapore has built a "model" of the solar system, spread out over the island. The sun is located at the Singapore Science Center, and the nine planets are then placed in public spots in scale according to their distance from the sun. I found Venus in the Chinese garden, and Mercury is in the Japanese garden. Each of the planets occupies a space along its orbit somewhere in the city-state, with Pluto rounding out the solar system all the way to the east. I thought that was a nice touch.

It was a nice Saturday evening, so I decided to take the PCN back towards town. It was a longer walk than expected, but it led me to Bukit Batok Park, with its thick forest and quarry lake, stuck right in the middle of a residential and commercial area. Another hidden gem! Singapore is full of them.

01 February 2009

Walking the Ridges

Singapore has a number of hidden gems, if you are willing to look for them. One is the Park Connector Network (PCN), a series of trails and elevated walkways that connects several kilometres of public spaces in various places across the island. I had seen parts of the PCN from the road several times, and I decided to pay a closer visit.

I started with the Southern Ridges, which wind through the southwestern section of the island, connecting Mount Faber Park, Telok Blangah Hill Park, Hort Park, Kent Ridge Park, and West Coast Park. The trailhead is at the base of Mount Faber Park, just across from the port (and Vivo City, the largest mall in Singapore). Mount Faber is also where you catch the cable car to Sentosa Island. The first climb up Mount Faber is the toughest part of the the trip! It was a steamy day, and I was sufficiently warmed up by the time I got to the top.

The PCN is actually a series of walkways, each with a distinct style. The Mount Faber section is a "mountain" trail, winding along the top of the hill and through woods until it opens onto the Henderson Waves. The Henderson Waves - Singapore's highest pedestrian bridge - is a towering walkway above Henderson Road that links Mount Faber Park to Telok Blangah Hill Park. The Waves give way to a hilltop trail, which turns into series of traversing metal walkways taking hikers down the hill to the Alexandra Arch and into the Hort Park, a gardening-themed park. From there, you wind your way back up hills and into a treetop walk in Kent Ridge Park.

The Henderson Waves bridge is spectacular. The design is a unique wave form made up of seven undulating curved steel ribs that alternately rise over and under its deck (description and external photo courtesy of National Parks Singapore). The decking of the bridge is finished with a beautiful yellow balau wood, giving it a homey feel. The curved ribs form alcoves with built-in benches, giving hikers places to sit back and enjoy the views from 78 metres above sea level (and 36 above Henderson Road).

The hilltop trail on the far side of the Waves brings you to a beautiful multi-layered pavilion before taking you zig-zagging through the trees to the Alexandra Arch and the Hort Park. It had already been a long morning, so I quickly went through the Hort Park to the eastern part of Kent Ridge Park, home to Reflections at Bukit Chandu, a memorial for the 1,400 soldiers from the Malay Regiment who chose to fight to their death against 13,000 Japanese soldiers in February, 1942, during the fall of Singapore. This looks like an impressive memorial, but I did not stay, so it will be subject of a future blog.

I hear from my Singaporean friends that there is nothing to do in Singapore. I disagree. If you just take a little bit of initiative, you can find all kinds of interesting outings that can fill a half day and give you a better appreciation of the city-state.