Still recovering from the Christmas feast the day before, we skipped breakfast, grabbing only a quick froth tea before heading back towards the Islamic Art Museum to visit the Kuala Lumpur National Mosque. Christmas day we were denied access to the mosque on account of it being closed for prayer at the time, so we decided to remedy the setback.
On the way we stopped at Merdeka square, Kuala Lumpur’s very own independence memorial and the original site of the first Malaysian flag raising in 1957. After a quick survey of the park and the building surrounding it, we decided it best to pay our respects to the country’s independence with frisbee.
We reached the National Mosque, a fairly modernized looking edifice that is KL’s largest, and slowly walked around the building’s exterior and interior. Being a holy place, Mosques expect a certain attire from visitors wanting to enter. The usual tourist garb of shorts and sleeveless tee-shirts doesn’t fly, especially for female guests. Therefore the National Mosque requires all visitors with excessive exposed skin to dress in what could easily pass as a purple Jedi nightgown or Jeremy Irons’ brightly colored gynecological scrubs from David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers–all references to the loose-fitting purple robes seemed feasible at the time.
We lingered for a bit watching various Chinese tourists pose for photos with “real-life praying Muslims” but eventually headed out to check out Taman Rama-rama (which sounds like a children’s song) AKA the KL butterfly park.
The butterfly sanctuary was a lot more interesting that it sounds. The outdoor, netted sanctuary houses roughly 6,000 butterflies, with over 120 species present. Butterflies are easily taken for granted, but they truly are beautiful–each with its own color scheme and no two butterflies the same.
The Perdana Lake Gardens is a truly remarkable part of Kuala Lumpur, an otherwise major chaotic city. The gardens seem to represent the natural, more serene side of Malaysia and give residents a much needed break from city life. Walking around the butterfly park, and later the orchid and hibiscus garden, was a wonderful transition from the hustle and bustle of the city center.
After the butterfly park we made are way back to the Islamic Art Museum for lunch at the much-applauded museum cafe, which we had heard served up some incredible Mediterranean/Middle Eastern cuisine. The cafe overlooks an outdoor courtyard that features one of the museum’s aforementioned five domes. The spread was indeed a treat: roast lamb, grilled eggplant, spicy barley soup, fresh roti bread, a lump-tuna salad that instantly brought to mind Iberia (taste bud déja vu perhaps), fresh tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and salt, and an impressive olive, hummus, and baba ghannoug bar to start things off.
Among other world cuisines, Taipei is lacking solid Mediterranean food. There’s a halfway decent chain of falafel joints around the city but unfortunately years of wolfing down sandwiches at Chicago’s Pita Inn and Sultan’s Market have made me a bit of a connoisseur of the chickpea and its brethren and Taipei’s Sababa just reminds me of what I’m missing at home. It was therefore a treat to have some truly decent food at the cafe.
After getting our fill at the cafe (gluttony seems to be an underlying theme of travel in Malaysia) we walked towards the park’s orchid and hibiscus garden, an impromptu decision but one that was worth it.
I don’t pretend to know anything about flowers. During my childhood my mother was always an avid weekend gardener, I’ve visited the Chicago Botanical Gardens a number of times, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Charlie Kaufman film “adaptation” of Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, Adaptation, which philosophizes about the beauty and mystery of orchids. Still I wouldn’t consider myself the type who normally seeks out gardens while traveling.
Like the butterfly park before, the Taman Orkid was another beautiful departure from busy KL central. The garden boasts addressing over 3,000 global species of orchids, 800 of which come directly from Malaysia. The garden is broken up into a series of small walking gardens and one orchid bazaar.
The variety of colors and shapes found makes it easy to understand why there are orchid festivals and fanatics to attend such galas. An orange sherbet flower in particular caught my eye.
Along the way I spotted a foreigner reading on a bench under a canopy of hanging flowers, in an area void of the sounds of tourists or garden hands at work. Whether she was a fellow traveler enjoying the park or an expat living in KL was irrelevant. It seemed like a blissful moment. I remember thinking, “yeah, this is pretty nice.”
After wandering around for a while we decided to catch a taxi back to Little India to check out the Saturday street market. This would be my second of three trips to Little India but was without a doubt the most memorable.
The Saturday market spans the length of a major street bisecting the district. From the narrow row of stalls vendors hawk clothes, textiles, discounted copy-products and a colorful and delectable array of snacks. Samosas and deep-fried snacks of the fritter genus, fish balls wrapped in banana leaves and grilled, the smell of curry wafting in the air, spicy tandoori style chicken, candied fruit and jellies, dates, tea and then some, and even some out of place Chinese fare to stir things up.
We were still recovering from the lamb and humus feast at lunch but couldn’t resist taunting our stomachs, yet again. We walked around before dodging an afternoon rain shower at Little India’s Capital Coffee shop, a supposed landmark establishment. With its old electric ceiling fans, tile floors, and large diner style wall menu, the place felt more like what I imagine of French colonial Vietnamese cafes look like.
We drank more froth tea, possibly the tenth cup of the trip, but who’s counting. The place served staples like coffee and tea but also had a sweaty, seasoned grill man stationed at a hibachi on the sidewalk dishing out satay. A table of four Malay woman next to us must have ordered at least 50 of these yummy meatsicles.
At around five we caught a train to Bitang Street, a flashy upscale district in KL near Petronas towers that houses most of KL’s nightlife. We spotted a large red Borders Books neon sing outside the entrance of large building called Berjaya Times Square and decided to kill some time in the bookstore. The allure of checking out some English language magazines was reason enough to get out off the steamy streets.
A recent Wikipedia search confirmed my suspicions that this was no ordinary shopping center but rather an obnoxious mega mall. With 7.5 million square feet of built up floor area, Berjaya Times Square is the fifth largest building in the world (measured by floor area), according to Wikipedia. That this same ranking states Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 is the largest makes that obscenely excessive oasis in the desert all the more ridiculous.
The Borders it turns out is also the company’s largest franchise store in the world, though it seemed like just another mega bookstore to me.
In terms of grandiosity I suppose you could say that Berjaya Times Square is impressive. The shear size of the building coupled with the 1000+ different retail stores housed under its roof is overwhelming but also yet another sign of what Kuala Lumpur dreams of becoming: a major Asian metropolis on par with its neighbor to the south, Singapore, along with the usual East Asian suspects–Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai.
Berjaya boasts having an indoor theme park, the largest in Asia, which features, among other attractions, a large candy-colored roller coaster. To exemplify just how big this mall is, I had no idea this place even had a theme park until I later researched the building for this entry.
After skimming through Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” end of the year issue and debating whether or not to stock up on some hard to find books, we decided to meander around the mall a bit longer, soaking up its opulence.
Malls throughout America are known for housing some strange stores. It’s safe to say the larger the mall, the weirder the array of shopping possibilities. It’s not uncommon to find an entire store devoted to Christmas ornaments or Yankee Candles, or a snack stand that takes something as straightforward as “the pretzel” and ups the stakes by adding maple syrup, frosting and/or pepperoni. This shopping center seemed like more of the same only with the number of random, brand-free stores outnumbering the familiar. For every Nike or Calvin Klein store there were ten oddly-named fronts selling knock-off clothing and accessories under a fancier roof. It’s as if they took the street market goods and pitted them against big names like Polo and Dockers.
Places with names like Magma, Tough, French Kiss, Fellini’s Boutique, Old Scull Clothing, Slipper World, Vamp, Private Shop International (underwear), and the trio of boutiques Rum, Romp and Rock and Roll, were filled with loud teenagers, and the flashy attire that they pined for. The place was what I expected Minnesota’s Mall of America must be like, only with a more global clientele in lieu of overweight Midwesterners.
Still had I known that I would have found a store in which customers pay money to dangle their feet into a pool filled with ravenous fish, I might not have been so quick to write this shopping center off as, “just another mall.”
We stumbled upon the fish spa massage parlor tucked away in what looked to be the shopping center’s very own red light district. This wing of the mall housed a number of kinky Japanese clothing stores with names like S & M Dream Shop and a tiny, neon-lit sex shop that had customers spilling out of its entrance. It could be that edible underwear are in season. The massage parlor was one of two in the area and had an unassuming sign out front offering up foot massages (which are big in KL), full-body rub-downs, and something called ear candling. It was the large fish tank with its padded bench island in its center that managed to catch our attention.
It took me a bit longer to fully comprehend what the hell was going on. Stuart, having lived in East Asia coming on almost four years now, instantly knew what the tank was for and without much discussion coaxed me into booking a 20 minute session.
I wouldn’t uncover the details surrounding Garra Rufa, or Doctor Fish as they’re more commonly referred to as, till an Internet search long after the trip. Like the medicinal use of leaches, Doctor Fish have long been called upon for the revitalization of weathered-skin. The ancient act of “fish nibble feet” spa treatment has roots in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East where the fish originate. This particular species of fish have a taste for human flesh and have been used for years as an effective way to remove dead skin from bathers at spas. At the time I was only focussed on the reality facing me: I was about to pay the proprietor (who I was convinced was taking the piss out of us– “come on man, this tank is just for decoration. You don’t actually expect me to go through with this” I thought.) to feed his fish with the flesh from my rank, well-travelled trotters.
While a place of this nature was just screaming, “anything goes,” I was surprised to find that the proper etiquette before the feeding frenzy is to cleanse the feet with a hose in a back room. Had I previously waltzed around barefoot in cyanide I might have understood this precaution, but I found it hard to believe that these fish had standards.
Following the instructions, I rinsed my long, bony feet, rolled up my pants to the knees, took a seat on the island and dangled my toes over the water, taunting the little buggers, and procrastinating the eventual plunge.
The tank was divided into two sections. The front section looked out to the mall’s corridors, granting strolling shoppers the chance to watch the spectacle of a couple of clueless foreigners wriggle and squawk as fish chew their feet. Its tank featured fish of the minnow variety–small and plenty of them. These younger, more ambitious fish clearly had stronger appetites and were handy for getting into the hard to reach spots like the web of skin between toes. The back tank had bigger fish, which I gathered served no other purpose other than to make me squirm like a child getting a splinter removed.
I started with the little buggers. They wasted no time in surveying the terrain of my size 13 feet jumping right in, their little mouths picking away at every corner. The scary part of the initial ride was how quickly the feeling went from just plain weird to surprisingly comfortable.
After feeding the kids for about five minutes, I moved over to the papas next door, unsure of how their bites would compare. While slower with their eating habits, and hardly as efficient as their brood, the sensation that the bigger fish issue out was enough to completely irk me out.
With their teeth clearly more developed, their mouths bigger, these diligent monsters went right for the heel and were more adventurous with their trip up leg hair alley.
After about ten minutes I was ready to stop but when the woman massaging a man’s big toe in the massage stall closest to the pool asked me why I had removed my feet so soon, I realized that throwing in the towel early would be weirder in the eyes of the locals than continuing the squirming and hissing.
When the proprietor’s timer went off my feet flew out of the water, my toes pruned, cherry-colored and a hell of a lot smoother than before.
When later asked about the meal the wee diners wrote the meal up as “adventurous,” complimenting the notes of foot funk and calling the amuse bouche of hiker’s blister on left Achilles’ tendon, as “a pleasant surprise.” Second seating enjoyed the big toe knuckle hair and were floored by the lower shin region’s smorgasbord of pre-softened skin and sock lint.
After drying off and putting our shoes back on we were set to leave but were drawn in, yet again, after reading a sign offering a discounted ear candling.
Ear candling, aka ear coning, aka, sticking a friggin’ lit candle up your ear canal, is supposedly a therapeutic method of cleansing the ear of toxins, such as wax, dirt and sinister ear goblins. Unlike the fish spa treatment’s instant tickling results, the jury is still out on whether or not this “alternative medicinal” procedure works or if it is simply another new-age body cleansing scam. After the feet-feeding-frenzy–having just done that–my immediate response to the, “ear candling? Come on!” proposition was, “eh, what the hell.”
Ear candling is quite simple really. The patient, or should I say sucker, lies on his/her side while a perfect stranger who may or may not be licensed but does in fact own some fish, sticks a conical paper candle of sorts deep into the ear canal and then lights it up like a cigarillo. As the candle slowly burns its way down, the sensation is that of, well, something long burning its way closer to the eardrum.
After about fifteen minutes the rolled earwax blunt is removed and the remnants–charred pieces of ash and wax, which may or may not come from the ear–are shown to the customer as proof of what just went down.
According to a Montreal Gazette article entitled, Don’t put a candle in your ear and save $25, “as of 2008, there are at least two cases in which people have set their houses on fire while ear candling, one of which resulted in death.” It’s in the humble opinion of this author that records like the aforementioned article should be burned so as not to give future generations the ability to say, “you’re kidding me, right?”
Coupled with the fish spa, the experience cost about US$20.
After realizing how long we had just spent in the shopping center we made our way out and checked out some more of the surrounding area before heading back to our nightly hookah spot at the Kampung Baru Night Market.
Over another fruit-themed water pipe, I ordered a couple satays and some fresh squeezed orange juice, while we chatted with the hookah stand’s owner. He talked about the Kampung Baru market being a popular hangout for young people and of how down-to-earth Malaysians are. I couldn’t agree more with him.
The next day was my last day in KL. We grabbed a coffee and a small bite to eat at a cafe outside of Little India that was written up in the New York Times as serving up a sinfully delicious treat called roti baba. This “light” breakfast monstrosity is essentially a greasy, fried dough pocket stuffed with greasy pork and grilled onions. The Malaysian calzone is then doused with Worcestershire sauce. Damn.
Afterwards we made our way into Little India so I could pick up some goodies at the local grocery store, mainly candy and treats for my students and co-workers, not to mention some Tongkat Ali ginseng coffee, another supposed Malaysian specialty. Before heading back to grab my bags we had one last feast at a hole-in-the-wall South Indian cafe, which I feared would rid my pores with pungent curry before boarding a plane but ultimately seemed like a sacrifice I was willing to make. The things we do for food.
The flight back to Taipei was relaxing with lots of fond memories of this amazing place to keep my mind occupied. Back home I immediately uploaded some photos and replayed the trip.
Malaysia gave me a taste of more travels to come in Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur is a lively metropolis, and his home to people from all over the planet. Its diversity and peacefulness in spite of this varied make-up was refreshing and kind of eye-opening. While I might not have gotten the true Malaysian experience (the peninsula’s interior might be a separate trip down the line), I was definitely treated to a truly global experience.
Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
A Melting Pot—The Uzbek Connection—Little India—Curry to Evade Torrential Rain—Tea that Foams—A Survey of Chinatown—Satay and the Art of Grilled Skewered Meat—Burmese Shoe Salesman Tells His Tale—The Twin Towers—Photo-Op With Malay-Chinese Family
December 23, 2009 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia–
I sit in bulkhead aisle seat of EVA Airlines flight 227 trying desperately to look over my neighbor’s window at the lush green that has just come into view. It’s Malaysia. A Taiwanese flight attendant sitting in the temporary fold-down seat in front of my ridiculously long legs seems to be staring at me with interest. My fervent anticipation is understood to those around me.
“What brings you to Kuala Lumpur?” the Malay gentleman sitting in the window seat asks me.
My decision to holiday in Kuala Lumpur over Christmas ultimately came down to the epiphany of, well, why the hell not!
My friend Stuart of Hong Kong, by way of Texas, sent me an email back in November about a trip to Malaysia’s intriguing capital. Ticket fares seemed high late in the game and it was going to be a bit of a challenge convincing my boss to grant me three of my contractual vacation days (the Taiwanese work ethic is daunting at times). There were a couple days of hesitation before I realized that there’s absolutely nothing holding me back from what will undoubtedly be a memorable Christmas in an exotic destination. After all, “when in Asia.”
In terms of Southeast Asian travel, K.L. was the last place I figured I would end up first. My ever-growing list of future passport stamps include at the forefront: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Still, the allure of Malaysia, a place I knew little about, was too much to turn down.
I first became privy to Malaysia when I first arrived in Taiwan back in May. My modus operandi for my move to the far East was with Air Malaysia, a surprisingly comfortable experience that gave me my first glimpse into the notion that Malaysia had a lot to offer. Being in a predominately Muslim countries like Turkey and Bosnia was an incredible experience and the idea of standing in the midst of Mosque and hearing the minaret’s sound their daily prayers, was reason enough to check out what Malaysia had to offer.
In Taipei there are many Malaysian tourism advertisements on TV, particular the local Travel Channel that my housemates and I used to enjoy before our free cable was remedied. “Malaysia, Truly Asia” is the slogan and after traveling to this country, I understand why.
Malaysia is a melting pot of the Asian continent, not merely the Southeast region where it resides. The Chinese have been on the peninsula for hundreds of years, as have the Indians, Pakistani, Thai, Indonesians, Nepalese, Vietnamese, Burmese, Filipinos, to name a few of its closer neighbors. The Dutch, Portuguese and British colonialists each had stakes in the region at one time in history. In recent years there has been an influx of people from the Middle East–signs of influences from United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Iran, Oman, and Saudi Arabia were everywhere–and on two separate occasions I noticed advertisements for Central Asia’s Uzbekistan Airways, which as you can see from the route map, has more reach than I would’ve guessed.
The country of Malaysia itself is young, gaining its independence in the 1950s and only recently finding its way to the world stage through its oil reserves and Kuala Lumpur’s rapid growth.
The Petronas Towers (more on these marvels later) were for a while the world’s tallest buildings until Taipei’s Taipei 101 overtook this bragging right (Dubai’s Burj Khalifa recently grabbed this title away from the Taiwanese and I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before China gets on the bandwagon and decides to join in the fun). From photos I had seen, the two towers were just begging to be visited.
So after about two days of questioning and hesitation (I am horrible about booking tickets, often waiting for days in the hope of finding cheaper fares until I ultimately cave and pay more than I had originally projected) I booked the flight, found a hostel and waited till I was set to sail.
I arrived in KL at around two in the afternoon on a Wednesday after a four and half hour flight that included a read through of the New York Times Global Edition (formerly the great International Herald Tribune), a scan through my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia guide, a decent breakfast, and an episode of House M.D. which features the smartass helping a shut-in heal some wounds. The Malay gentleman who sat next to me was extremely friendly and welcoming, telling me instantly that, “while this is will be your first trip to my country, this will not be your last.”
Kuala Lumpur is a sprawling metropolis that is still rooted in tradition and has not yet reached the status of say its sister city to the south, Singapore, or say the heights of Tokyo and Hong Kong. It is said to be the cheapest place on the planet to stay at five-star hotels and eat at Michelin-rated restaurants.
It’s a city currently in a state of limbo between its aspirations to be a thriving international commerce hub and its traditional market-based customs. It is diverse beyond belief in the many languages spoken, religions practiced and with its food. And oh, what a city it is to eat your way around. It was the perfect introduction to Southeast Asia and easily one of the greatest cities I’ve ever visited.
It took roughly 45 minutes to go through customs at Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport, which was a buzz kill, as I was increasingly anxious to get into the city and start my first day, lay-of-the-land wandering. I chatted for a while with a tall, well-put together woman in front of me who I noticed instantly from my flight as the one who was accompanying a group of Malaysian teenage athletes dressed in matching club sweat suits. Said team was actually a local gymnastics ensemble returning from an Olympic training competition in Japan. I guessed the woman (the team’s coach) to be from Eastern Europe, perhaps Russia, and was pleasantly surprised when she told me she came from Uzbekistan.
“I’m from a country in Central Asia, Uzbekistan, you probably haven’t heard of it,” she said, challenging my geographical prowess.
I got a smile out of her when I then told her of my fascination with the ancient city of Samarqand, an intriguing UNESCO World Heritage Sight that was a major stop on the Silk Road. When I asked here if she was from Bukhara or Tashkent, she was also pleasantly surprised. God I love when my random knowledge of geography, the result of hours of time spent staring at GoogleEarth and the CIA World Factbook, can be put to use.
She told me she had lived in Kuala Lumpur for the past seven years and that, while she thought it was an amazing city to visit, it didn’t offer much for a foreigner looking for work. Looking back on the my time in K.L. it’s evident to me that unless one holds a job through an international company posted in the capital, the job market for ex-pats, particularly in regards to English teaching, is pretty weak.
From the airport, which actually lies an hour outside of the KL proper, I caught the express train to Central Station, transferred to the KL Monorail (enter obligatory Simpsons’ reference: “a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail!”) which took me to the Chow Kit district in Northern KL where the Hostel Cosmopolitan sat waiting for me.
I stood in the cramped rail car, sandwiched between Indians, Chinese, local Malays, I would gather at least one Indonesian in the fold, and a handful of foreigners alike. There were people dressed in Muslim burqas and other customary headscarves. The monorail itself is one of five modes of transport in the city and seems to be the dilapidated line of mass transit system. Rather than speeding around the city like the Taipei MRT, it runs at a slow pace, stopping almost every minute at stops that can be walked between in a matter of ten minutes or so.
Chow Kit is located away from the chaotic city center and seems to be a much more local-friendly neighborhood, with a large Indian and Indonesian population as I would later learn from the hostel proprietor. The Hostel Cosmopolitan was located at the mouth of a vast, partially enclosed wet market that offered up an expansive array of exotic fruit, spices and prepared treats, from fried delicacies, steamy curry dishes, and plenty of freshly baked bread. I checked into the room, changed out of my Taipei-winter-friendly clothes and made my way out to explore.
I like nothing more than to explore a city on foot, especially on the first day. Nothing pleases me more than to find a route on the map and just walk until I’m lost. It opens up areas that one can often easily miss speeding around on mass transportation, and allows me to truly soak in everything around me. Judging from my map, I knew K.L. was the perfect walking city for my tall-ass to navigate around.
I snaked through the Chow Kit Market, which is famous enough to warrant its own Wikipedia entry, grabbing a wax apple along the way. This delectable fruit has become a passion back in Taipei, a year-round fruit that was completely foreign to me before coming to Asia.
Chow Kit Market PHOTOS: Warner Sills
My first stop was K.L’s famed “Little India,” a neighborhood south of Chow Kit that is one of the major tourist draws in the city. I can’t begin to tell you how much I miss truly great Indian food, among other “ethnic cuisines” that I can’t find in Taipei. Taiwan has an amazing local food scene, one that I am still exploring on a daily basis, however, the city fails to deliver when it comes to certain major world cuisines, such as Indian, Mediterranean and towering above the rest, Mexican. Even now, as I’m writing this in a nice local coffee shop in my neighborhood, the thought of three greasy al pastor tacos from Arturo’s on Western and Armitage back home is giving my tummy rumbling melancholy. This said, it was safe to say that Little India was high on my list of places to see in K.L.
I navigated around the area for about 45 minutes hoping that the dark clouds and sporadic flurries of drizzle were temporary setbacks. Colorful sari shops aligned most streets offering fabrics ranging from expensive silk to cheaply factory-dyed synthetics. A number of storefronts were blaring Hindi dance music from large sidewalk amplifiers. One shop was offering a “back to school sale,” which made me instantly feel like I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, but also served as one of those miniscule, shared cultural similarities that I love discovering when I visit foreign places. While back to school meant a trip to Old Navy and maybe a new Trapper Keeper binder, a new sari might be enough to make a local Malay-Indian child excited to start school again.
PHOTO: Warner Sills
When the tease of rain to come morphed into an onslaught of torrential tropical rain, I sought refuge in an enclosed food stall market that was calling my name with its steamy trays of colorful Indian fare. I found a vendor that looked promising, ordered a steaming plate of chicken curry and a ration of freshly baked thin roti bread. K.L. is a largely Muslim city which means alcohol is hard to find on a regular basis. Instead, tea reigns supreme. Malaysian Teh Tarik, or pulled frothy tea, is a staple in this region and is yet another incarnation of the overtly sweet tea and coffee that is found in Southeast Asia, often mixed with sweetened condensed milk.
Teh Tarik differs with its natural airy froth that comes from a series of high pours. I would drink the tea every day during my stay in Malaysian, sometimes two or three times a day. Once you’re in the Malaysia, any notion of healthy eating goes right out the door when your eyes behold what the city has to offer.
VIDEO: Warner Sills
PHOTO: Warner Sills
Curries range from spicy, gut churning red lamb curries called rendang to South Indian curried vegetable dishes. It was nice being back in lentil territory, where legume offerings like Dhal Makhani are taken seriously.
After the rain calmed I ventured out again and made my way through a night market selling copy-watches, knock-off shoes, clothing articles and pretty much most other types of market crap you can find in this part of the world. The differences here were in the stall vendors who seemed to come from all over. North Africans, Indians, Cantonese, Malay, Indonesians, etc all had a stake in the cutthroat industry of replicas and pirated goods.
Eventually I found my way further south in the city to K.L’s Chinatown. Coming from Taiwan it’s now hard to be impressed by foreign city Chinatowns, especially since Taipei’s night market scene is unlike anything I’ve encountered. Still, I felt obligated to explore what K.L.’s largely Cantonese Chinatown had to offer.
As far as food goes this district offered staple Cantonese fair, with a focus on dim sum skewer snacks. I did, however, make it a point to eat from as many satay stands that my stomach could muster. Satay, which is basically just skewered assorted meat served with sweet peanut sauce, is to Malaysia what stinky tofu is to Taiwan, a staple snack treat that is portable and fast and readily available wherever you find yourself. The mutton versions tended to be too tough, while the chicken and beef were fresh and perfectly satisfying when paired with a serving of diced, partially pickled cucumbers. The stands were everywhere and it didn’t take long before I was full.
I stopped in a couple of pirated DVD shops after countless hecklers approached me offering copies of films theater favorites like “2012,” “Avatar” and “Twilight: New Moon.” When I finally caved to one persistent gentleman who had a tattoo of his own name on his arm, a detail I would later discover served as a permanent business card of sorts. I had a list of obscure titles for him to check, including the latest Coen Brothers film, “A Serious Man,” the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” “Wild Things” was the only familiar title on the list and he instantly jumped to a pile of a hundred or so titles, knowing exactly wear to pull the disc out. At eight Malaysian ringgits (about $2) I couldn’t say no. What was striking is that while I was scoping out this film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s endearing children’s book, the young, ambitious vendor kept on offering me porn.
“You like porn, I got good movies. Blu-Ray, too. Good price. Very hot. Very sexy. Japanese girls. You like, I give you good deal. 4 get 1 free,” he said.
My response: “Do you by any chance have “The Fantastic Mr. Fox?”
This inquiry completely went in one ear and out the other since the man basically repeated the same pitch five minutes later as I was getting ready to pay. Perhaps he simply couldn’t fathom why someone would prefer talking foxes and badgers to hi-definition sexapades.
I found out the man was from Bangladesh originally, had lived in K.L. for three years, spoke perfect English, Cantonese, and local Malay and was working on his Mandarin, which seems to be less common in Malaysia. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how adept vendors like this man are to picking up languages when they are forced to learn it for their trade. Back in Hong Kong at the Chungking Mansions I was equally impressed by a food stand vendor’s mastery of six languages, all for the sake of competing with those around him.
Moments later as I scoped out a copy-designer shoe stall, I struck up a conversation with a young Burmese man about my age who had been in Malaysia coming on two years now. I told him of my interest in traveling in Burma (also known as Myanmar) and he shared his opinions of the corruption with the government, but also about how beautiful the country is. He too spoke a handful of languages comfortably and was working in K.L. to save up money to return to his home and girlfriend. I ended up buying a pair of mock Diesel sneakers when I found out they actually had my size! To humor myself, I asked if the shoes were in fact real and he replied that yes, in fact they were the real deal.
“They come from Korea factory. Best quality. Here look!” he said as he took fire to the shoe’s sole and fabric outer shell. Not sure how showing a shoes resilience to a Bic ligher proves its authenticity but it is comforting to know that if I am ever confronted with a fire storm or a freak encounter with magma, my Diesels will hold tough.
After I had had enough of the endless barrage of vendors offering their goods, I left Chinatown and headed further south towards the towering Petronas Towers, which I had been working my way towards all day, saving the towering beauties for night when the spotlights would make them glow.
These beacons in the sky are a spectacle to the eyes. Forget the ridiculous “biggest dick” global competition for tallest skyscraper, and focus on the beauty of these architectural wonders. At night the twin towers are magical. They at times bring to mind the minarets that are littered around Kuala Lumpur’s many mosques. There’s a bit of Angkor Wat thrown into the fold, and the Antoni Gaudí enthusiast in me can’t help but see similarities to La Sagrada Familia. They’re simply breathtaking.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photos by yours truly coming soon, hopefully…
I spent a good hour photographing the towers’ nooks and crannies up close, later finding a cozy stone pillar near a fountain park to sit for a while, staring up in complete awe. At one point a Malay family from Penang approached me wanting me to pose for a photo with their teenage daughter. In a city as diverse as K.L. this request was a little puzzling, but I agreed nonetheless.
I was downright bewildered when the one photo with the nervous 15 year turned into a series of shots with each child, followed by a group shot with the whole family at their request. I tried to speak to them in Mandarin, detecting some similarities in the Malay they were speaking but they preferred to use their broken English. I was happy when I told them I was from Chicago and instead of the usual, “oh, Al Capone” or “oh yeah, Michael Jordan” name checking, they spoke of Obama.
The girl sulking on the right did not participate in the photo shoot with the tall foreigner. PHOTO: Warner Sills
After my neck started to strain from looking up at the towers I started to make the long trek back to the hostel. It being only 10 I decided to walk the distance back, taking a different route.
Chow Kit at night is definitely a lot sketchier than during the day, but I never felt unsafe. I tucked in at my ten-bed mixed dorm room and chatted with two Polish girls I had met earlier when I had checked in. The two had come from London where they work and told me that it was cheaper to fly to Malaysia for Christmas than to fly to Warsaw! I shared some stories about my short stint in Poland and we talked about Żubrówka Bison Grass vodka.
After my long first day it didn’t take long to fall asleep and I surprisingly slept comfortably through the night, despite the usual coming and goings of people entering a hostel dorm room. For the next day, my plan was to wake up early, head to the bus terminal and catch a ride to the port city of Malacca for a quick day trip, cramming as much as I could in before meeting up with Stuart later in the evening.
To be continued…
On the Trail of Anthony Bourdain–The Chungking Mansions-A Return to Spanish–Warner Sits Like Buddha–An Outlet Mall–Where the People Buy Gold Fish–Night Ferry Across Causeway Bay-A View From the Top
Monday was my day to explore solo, which I was keen to do considering I had yet to truly venture away from the Westernized side of Hong Kong. First on my list was a little field trip on the footsteps of one Anthony Bourdain and the enchanting bamboo noodle-maker he encountered during his stint in Hong Kong.
The scene I’m referring is one of the more mesmerizing moments on his culinary travelogue series, “No Reservations.” A simple man makes simple noodles by hand. Everyday he mixes the most basic ingredients to make one of Asia’s staple foods in his cramped apartment. The difference between his technique and that of a utility noodle factory is his use of a large bamboo rolling pin of sorts to fold the flour, egg, water, and salt mixture together. The dough isn’t mixed but rather kneaded together and, well, you can take a look for yourself.
The act is drenched in, “last of its kind” family tradition and I felt obligated to make the pilgrimage.
A quick survey of some foodie websites and message boards gave me an address in Tai-Po, a university district in the northern part of the New Territories, an area I had been intending to check out anyway. This seemed like an ideal place to grab a late breakfast and uncover the less-traveled side of Hong Kong.
It’s amazing how the city transforms when you leave HK central with its many Western reminders. The New Territories truly have the China feel I was looking for.
The aforementioned gentleman is the proprietor of Ping Kee Noodles, which is your average, run-of-the-mill noodle stand. To be honest it was also a bit of a challenge to find.
Hong Kong has a number of giant indoor markets, which were built to rid the already crowded streets of food vendors (sadly Hong Kong doesn’t have the street food scene that makes Taiwan such a treasure of a place to live in). On the outside these buildings look like giant park lot structures. They’re void of windows and have very few signs indicating what they house. The first floor is butcher and fishmonger territory, which is always a fun place to take a stroll. Seafood in this part of the world never fails to impress. The variety can be overwhelming and just furthers the notion that our planet’s seas are still quite mysterious.
The locals seemed a bit puzzled by this tall foreigner leaning over their stock with a camera and a face plastered with curiosity. Surely they must have been thinking, “Boy, he must be lost…they’re just fish, you know…Why is he wearing such large hiking boots? Why does his hair stand up by itself?”
It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, markets are a great place to be. It’s prime turf for people watching as you are granted that rare peek into the day-to-day lives of everyday folk. At 10:30A.M. on a Monday, the Tai-Po market was alive with the sound of commerce.
People were yelling orders at shirtless vendors slinging an array of flesh from land and sea, the floor was wet with run-off ice melt, and there was a curious mix of odors–some pleasant, others foreign. This is the setting.
The open warehouse space was flooded with flimsy plastic tables and chairs and the walls were lined with various food stalls selling damn near anything you could possibly want to eat. Cheap dim sum snacks, ducks dripping off hooks, steaming woks at every corner, the bustle of the Cantonese eating and socializing and of course, noodles.
Despite its notoriety around Hong Kong and by way of Bourdain’s trustworthy global recommendations, Ping Kee Noodles is a fairly unassuming place. I ordered a simple bowl of thin bamboo noodles served in broth with small fish wontons. As far as noodles go, these were very good. Mind blowing, not quite, then again noodles are one of those essentials that ranges from bad, so-so and good. The notion that this man’s simple trade was passed down from generation to generation gives the noodles more of a romantic feel than an overpowering sensation to the taste buds.
I spoke briefly with the man himself (his English was minimal and Mandarin doesn’t fly in this part of the China), who upon seeing me instantly pointed to a framed news-clipping of he and Bourdain standing next to his noodle work station, which looks more like an archaic painter’s drafting table, an appropriate comparison I think.
After a couple hours spent surveying the rest of Tai Po’s outdoor markets, I boarded the MTR and headed back towards Hong Kong Central by way of the Kowloon district. Kowloon is directly across from Central and seems to be the bridge between the surreal Westernized business district of Central and China proper. If Central is Manhattan, the large Kowloon is an outer borough, possibly its Queens.
My first stop was the world famous Chungking Mansions, which the notable setting of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai’s masterful film, “Chungking Express.”
The mansion, which is more a run down apartment complex situated in an otherwise fancy drag, is literally a giant melting pot. Its hotels, hostels and guesthouses (all three of which seem to be equals in terms of quality/safety) remain Hong Kong’s most affordable lodging for travelers. Its short and long term residents, not to mention the vendors and shop keepers that inhabit the bottom floors, span the globe in their diversity.
North and West Africans, Indians and Pakistanis, Turks, Persians, Mainlanders, Southeast Asianers, you name it, are all under one roof. It serves as a cheap place to lay one’s head during the transition period for immigrants and is also supposedly one of the cheaper indoor markets in Hong Kong City.
The bottom floors are flooded with vendors of countless tongues pushing used cell phones, replicas of coveted Prada and Gucci handbags, DVDs, computers, and pretty much all other odds and ends you could imagine. There are also a number of food stands serving up simple, but tasty native dishes from Indian/Pakistani curry pilaf and Turkish kebab stands to Ethiopian fast food.
I spent a good hour in and outside of this massive complex, which, it’s safe to say, somehow manages to avoid being shut down by the Hong Kong Fire Department annually (a peek inside some of the upper level hostel floors, by way of an antiquated elevator, furthered this observation). I got a steaming plate of Dhal Makhani at a South Indian food stand situated next to a guy selling rebuilt fuzz-busters and handheld GPS units. The food vendor, I learned, has lived in Hong Kong for 23 years, speaks fluent English, French, Cantonese and is even capable in Mandarin. When I told him that in Taiwan we don’t have anything even remotely similar to the Chunking Mansions he said, “you would have a hard time finding a place like this anywhere else in the world.”
Clearly I had found the other side of Hong Kong, the underbelly to all the glamour that makes up most of the island. I instantly realized how unique a city Hong Kong really is. Its varied history of foreign occupations has left the city a multi-cultural oasis in the middle of the Far East. Its ports, economic ties with Mainland China and pretty much the rest of the modern world, gives the city quite a unique look and feel with a lot more to see under its surface.
Eventually I left the Chungking Mansions (though I could have stayed longer) and made my way down Nathan Road, the major drag in this area, to the waterside of Kowloon where the Hong Kong Museum Campus is.
I took a quick run through The Hong Kong Museum of Fine Art, checking out a current exhibit titled, “The Prosperous Cities: A Selection of Paintings from the Liaoning Provincial Museum.” A nice dose of history was a perfect cap to the afternoon. The paintings, many of which were nothing more than faded, yet detailed glimpses into day-to-day life of the Chinese during the Ming and Qing dynasties, were fascinating. The merchant scenes depicted were a nice supplement to what I had just experienced in Tai Po and at Chungking, the latter being the results of globalization on merchant life in China.
I took the ferry back to Central to meet up with Stuart. The choppy boat ride offered stunning views of both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and I believe was actually cheaper than the MTR. Nothing like a good ferry ride. Memories of a similar ride crossing the Bosphorus came to mind.
Monday night I accompanied Stuart to a weekly Spanish class he attends. Spanish speakers are hard to find in Taipei and ever since starting my fairly intensive Chinese courses (six months of classes, five days a week, three hours a day) the linguistically savvy part of my brain seems to want to merge Spanish and Mandarin together into one incomprehensible mash up. Sunday night Stuart and I exchanged words in Spanish and while my listening and speaking skills were still sharp, I found myself adding Mandarin words into the mix. Without even thinking about it I might, for example substitute the first person singular pronoun, “I” in Spanish (yo) with the “I” in Mandarin (wo) or replying to interesting conversation with “zhende ma?” (really? in Mandarin).
Stuart’s night class was a mix of British businessmen brushing up on their foreign languages, a handful of local Cantonese, two Americans and Stuart, who was the youngest in the class. The teacher, a cordial woman from Colombia welcomed me to the class and an elderly British man, a retired barrister who has lived in Hong Kong for 30+ years brought a celebratory spread of Spanish munchies as a, “welcome to our class” treat.
As we munched on Iberian Manchego cheese (which I hadn’t tasted since the States but was a regular staple in my refrigerator in Chicago) and chorizo sausage, and drank Rioja we read through a couple Spanish reading passages on Cristóbal Colón and did a short exercise reviewing the vocabulary of weird body parts. The three words for different parts of the cheek and upper face were new.
Attending a Spanish class in the middle of downtown Hong Kong would be the last thing most tourists would do but I have to say it was a memorable experience.
Tuesday I rose early and headed by MTR to Lantau Island, one of the outlying islands that is adjacent to the airport and is home to not only Hong Kong Disneyland but also the giant 34-meter-tall bronze Tian Tan Buddha, perched high in the hills overlooking the Po Lin Monastery.
For all the glory of the awesome spectacle of this oversized Buddha, Lantau Island seems to be nothing more than an extension of Central’s shopping district, only outletified!
I exit the train station and immediately am thrust into a surprisingly large outlet mall that is literally connected to the train station. Nike, New Balance, Timberland, The Body Shop, you name it. I felt comfortable knowing that after I paid my respects to the holy Buddha I could successfully purchase a new pair of trainers, on discount no less. There was even a Mrs. Fields Cookie depot, which, along with East Asia’s fascination with KFC, essentially equates to the globalization of the protruding gut. With Disneyland a mere bus ride away one could easily be persuaded (by the Lantau urban planners I might add) to skip the Buddha all together, purchase a sun visor at the North Face store, and head towards Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. for the complete mock-American experience.
The giant Buddha is something to marvel at. It’s just one of many large Buddhas scattered across the globe and a quick Wikipedia search clued me in to some of the other even more eye popping examples, take, for example, the Leshan Giant Buddha in Leshan, China, which was first built in 713 and took 90 years to complete.
I spent a good hour or so at the top of the peak where the Buddha resides. The views of the valley below were stunning as were the adjacent smaller statuettes that praise and make offerings to the big boy Buddha.
I struck up a conversation with an Argentine who asked me to take a photo of him with his iPhone. He had been traveling primarily in Japan and S. Korea and was working his way down and eventually towards Sweden where he had what sounded like a cushy engineering job lined up. I didn’t ask but he informed me that he had been studying Swedish by way of an audio lesson program he discovered which he claims to be the best way to learn a new language. The more travelers I meet, the more I am impressed by certain foreigners’ aptitude for picking up new languages.
Europeans have the advantage of small countries and open borders, which means if you are born in say the landlocked country of Switzerland, it is not uncommon for you to graduate from university with perfect fluency in German, French, Italian and English. That this Argentine spoke clear English and was picking up Swedish by way of essentially in-flight language lessons, made the linguistically challenged American in me jealous.
On my way out I talked with a father and son duo from Belfast who were doing a two-week East Asia tour that included Shanghai and Tokyo. Their masterful grasp of English with a wicked sounding accent made me feel more at ease.
After I had gotten my Buddha fix for the day I headed back towards the northern parts of Kowloon to a famous outdoor street market where I heard one could find just about anything they wanted, with that beautiful fine-line between legal and illegal. As I exited the MTR station and was immediately offered a supposed new pair of Bose headphones and later some coke, I couldn’t help but remember John Goodman’s Walter character in the Coen’s “The Big Lebowski” infamous line, “You want a toe, I can get you a toe by three o’clock, with nail polish. Believe me, there are ways.”
Hong Kong’s notoriety as a shopping enthusiast’s Mecca is understandable. Kowloon is flooded with electronics pushers of all sorts. There were old cell phones and used cell phone accessories. VHS players with serial numbers that had been scratched off years ago sat next to other relics of the home entertainment golden age–Laserdisc players and even a Betamax. There were kitchen appliances and cookware sets, neon lights, and heavily discounted fleece jackets, which I would later learn were often the spawn of mad fusions of various companies’ products, say, for example, a North Face jacket with sleeves sewn on from a Colombia Gortex product and Mountain Hardware zippers.
A used camera vendor caught my eye with his collection of vintage to modern lenses and bodies. I fondled an old manual Leica and was instantly given a pitch from the Cantonese gentleman who told me, “no scratches…good photos…good photos. 1000HKD,” which is a little over $100US.
Sprinkled throughout the glut of used electronics were various hole-in-the-wall food stands. I picked up two steamed buns (which in this part of the world never cease to tickle my taste buds), one meat (meat as in I don’t know what it was), the other filled with sweet red beans, and continued down the massive street back towards the MTR.
Later after another couple hours of walking I met up with Stuart and we made our way to the Temple Street market for dinner. Our first stop, however, was a curious sounding goldfish market, which proved to be exactly what it sounds like.
One thing that I’ve noticed living in East Asia is that certain markets or streets will be famous for one thing and one thing only. In Taipei there is one heavily concentrated computer related market, and similarly one that only caters to cameras and camera accessorizes. These markets essentially bring in all the competition into one small area, making it a one-stop shopping bazaar for exactly what you are looking for. This might not seem like a viable business model but it works. The Goldfish Market is no exception.
The Goldfish Market in Mongkot is essentially a four-city-block strip of goldfish sellers. It’s a sea of overcrowded aquariums, anxious onlookers looking for the perfect specimen and with a subtle smell of flakey fish food and brine shrimp lingering in the air. Goldfish in East Asia are considered prized possessions, especially when allowed to maturate to ridiculous mutant sizes. The Longshan Temple in Taipei has an impressive waterfall and goldfish pond outside of its main gates. At said pond I always manage to locate a great black spotted one that has the distinguished body girth of a fish that seems to have spent a lifetime devouring its foe and offspring.
After a surreal stroll along goldfish mile, we headed towards Temple Street, which is probably the most touristy night market in Hong Kong and seemed like a perfect capper to the day/trip. We ate at an unassuming three-wok, open door restaurant with sidewalk seating and big bottles of beer for the offering.
Later after doing the market rounds we made are way back towards Central by way of the night ferry across Causeway Bay and stopped for a surprise outdoor glass elevator ride to the top of Hong Kong’s Hopewell Center building. This is one of those rare experiences that only a local would know about. The building is quite tall and offers a great view of the city lights at night by way of an unnerving outside glass elevator that hugs the building’s exterior wall. While one could exit the elevator and have a drink at the overpriced top floor bar, we opted to just go up for the ride and quick view.
My flight back to Taipei the following morning was easy and when I got home I had originally given myself a tight window of time to leave the airport and rush to work for my two o’clock class. Luckily while on the airport express bus back to Taipei my boss sent me a text message informing me that my first class would be canceled for the week on account of two of my students–Eileen and Angel–contracting oink-oink flu. With a couple hours of free time I went to my apartment, showered, unpacked, uploaded some photos and let the trip soak in some more.
My first foray outside of Taiwan made me anxious to see more, and then some.
This is a terribly exciting and lively part of the world. The clashing of modern the world with traditional sensibilities is everywhere you go, especially in China. Visiting Hong Kong’s Western suburbs gave me a glimpse into what Mainland China might be like (Shenzen continues to fascinate me) and I am already planning an elaborate overland travel route through the monolithic country that is hovering over Taiwan as I write this prose.
I hope to visit Hong Kong again, but if this were my last trip to the massive metropolis by the sea, I feel I did the it justice.
Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China
A Brief History–Seven Million Can’t Be Wrong–A Walk in the Hills–The Ongoing Book of Pork: Part 2–A Swim at Dusk–Makumba Africa Bar–Dim Sum, and then Some–Sunday in the Park with the Filipinos–A Hookah in a Whorehouse–Salsa: The Revenge
It was only a matter of time before I made the trip across the Taiwan Strait to Hong Kong. Since coming over I’ve have a constantly evolving checklist of places to see while I’m living in this part of the world and Hong Kong had always been the first on the list–a sort of training wheels for other adventures in the region.
For foreigners working illegally in Taiwan the city serves as a convenient destination for the daunting visa runs, weekend or single day getaways taken every thirty days solely for the purpose of leaving Taiwan and renewing the tourist visa. It’s a bizarre loop in Taiwan’s immigration system that seems to have been implemented for managing the amount of foreign laborers coming to the island to work. For teachers who aren’t fortunate enough to land visa through their individual schools, it’s a bit of a hassle, albeit one that allows for travel.
I travel to Hong Kong strictly out of leisure.
For the Taiwanese trips to Hong Kong are easy and the national frame of mind is that the city is less a tourist destination and more a convenient hub for shopping. This “shop to you drop” notoriety was originally a bit of a turn off but then I did my homework.
It’s safe to say Hong Kong is unlike any other place on the planet. It’s a huge, densely populated city packed into a series of small islands that, like Taiwan, is “China Lite.”
With the city center’s population at roughly seven million (15 million if you include outlying suburbs and the city of Shenzhen, China) not to mention a flood of Westerners (primarily Brits) the city at times feels like a New York City of the Far East. Having not ventured to other East Asia metropolis’–Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, and Osaka–this is merely my initial reaction. That Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay, a decadent part of the city that is one of the most expensive places to live in the world, is on par with say New York City’s Fifth Ave, only furthers this comparison.
The city is extremely diverse (something I’ve come to realize Taipei is not) with not only its European and American pockets but also large clusters of immigrants from India and Pakistan, the middle East, West and North Africa, and of course most corners of Asia proper.
Coming from Taipei where English is seldom heard other than amongst foreigners (or in my case at work) Hong Kong was also quite a shock when I discovered how easy it was to speak my native tongue.
As part of China’s Guangdong Province, Cantonese is the preferred language but the British rule has the left most of the city a linguistically pleasurable city. With the comforts of the English language at every corner and all the luxuries of Western culture at your disposal it’s easy to get lost in the city’s glamour and even easier to forget you are in China.
My gracious host in Hong Kong is one Stuart Wallace, my ex-housemate during my Salamanca, Spain stint, a fellow traveler and to readers of this travelogue, my first and only out-of-town guest in Taipei.
The best way to describe Stuart in Hong Kong is comfortable. He openly admits to being spoiled by the city he has resided in for over a year and a half now. His job is the kind of teaching gig most serious foreign teachers strive for–a well-established Japanese International School, tucked away in one of Hong Kong’s wealthier districts that pays a generous salary, grants extended PAID vacations, and allows for all the perks of living in Central Hong Kong. His demeanor throughout my stay in Hong Kong was that of a jovial king surveying all that was at his disposal.
He shares a flat with his old college buddy who previously worked for the International Herald Tribune (sigh…) and now has a cushy publishing job. Hong Kong can be an expensive place to stay so I was fortunate to be welcomed into Stuart’s world for my four day sojourn.
Hong Kong is made up of a series of small islands, with Hong Kong Island serving as the central hub for all commerce, in many ways a miniature Manhattan. To the North is the Kowloon peninsula, which is a much more realistic look at Hong Kong’s Chinese influences with only subtle Western influences, primarily in regards to shopping. The northern regions bordering Shenzhen and Mainland China are referred to simply as the New Territories but are hardly as menacing as they sound. The New Territories are the result of what happens when you can no longer build UP in a densely populated urban center–it’s a sprawling suburb district of dotted high-rise utility housing complexes.
Shenzhen lies directly over the border with Mainland China proper and is also, in many ways, a suburb of Hong Kong, although its notoriety as the fastest growing city in China and one of the fastest growing cities in the world seems to proclaim that the young city is catching up with Hong Kong as a major East Asia port.
Shenzhen’s close proximity to Hong Kong (it’s on an extension of the city’s MTR metro train line) makes it entirely possible to live and work in Shenzhen and commute to H.K. for play. Shenzhen is also predominantly a Mandarin speaking city, despite its location in the Cantonese-speaking Guangdong Province, due in part to an influx of immigrants from other parts of Mainland China coming to the region for work. If I head back to Hong Kong (and after this trip I’m almost certain I will at least once more) Shenzhen will be toured.
Let’s get back to the trip.
The October 10th weekend in Taiwan is a celebration of the island’s independence from China. For foreign teachers, it’s a free Saturday, which meant early on that some sort of trip was in place.
I left Taipei late on Friday after my classes, catching the Airport Express Bus, which is, I might add, anything but. At the bus stop I met a nice Dutch woman who was heading back to the Netherlands for three weeks to see family. She’s lived in Taiwan as a missionary for the past 20 years and what she had to tell me about her experiences was fascinating, filling the entire duration of the bus trip, and spilling over into the time spent walking to our individual departure gates.
She came to the island through a missionary training program that paid for intensive language lessons in return for volunteer work with the homeless, female prostitutes, drug addicts and other parts of Taipei’s underbelly, many of whom are kept well-hidden from the general public’s knowledge.
I’ve noticed that there are certain parts of the city that have homeless problems and the old ladies who collect my trash and recycling on Saturday nights (a self-made form of social welfare–a couple kuai dollars for each bottle of Taiwan Beer, etc) seem to have been left behind in Taipei’s economic boom of the last couple decades. Still what I heard from this woman was shocking.
Taipei’s homeless men are exploited by the local crime syndicates through identify theft. They don’t have many options it seems but the ones they do come across only bring eventual doom. People will pay or offer drugs to these poor souls in exchange for their identity, which is then used to obtain marriage certificates for women from the mainland looking to cross the strait for a better life (one, mind you, that is often in the seedy human sex trafficking industry). Once on Taiwanese soil, the women split, leaving the men with the bulk of the blame if officials get involved.
Drug addicts I learn are rarely granted opportunities for kicking the habit and instead are locked away in over-crowded prisons with the keys seemingly thrown away.
The conversation was of course not all bleak in theme. We compared teaching stories, discussed Taiwanese food, which I’m starting to think is a terribly underrated world cuisine, just waiting to be discovered, and, like all fellow travelers, discussed our past and future adventures.
Before boarding the plane I picked up a thank you gift bottle of Green Label from the duty free shop. Scotch is surprisingly cheap over here, which I must say is a net positive for all parties involved.
The flight across the Taiwan Strait is just shy of 90-minutes, though you wouldn’t have guessed it on the luxurious China Airline 767 that flew me over. A meal was served as soon as the Seat Belt Sign went dormant, I had a wide selection of movies to view on my personal LCD television (though I was buried in a secondhand copy of Lonely Planet’s Hong Kong guide for most of the flight), and the plane’s leg room was just begging for me to stretch my shit out.
At 11 PM Hong Kong airport was bustling with business travelers from all over the world. An American suit spotted my passport and approached me in the immigration line. He told me of his past two weeks of business trips from Boston to Hong Kong by way of Zurich, Tokyo, Osaka, and now H.K. He noted that he did, however, fly Business Class the entire way, which he cited as reasonable at just under $7,000. I’m not sure if he saw the serious businessman in me hidden beneath my giant-ass hiking boots and traveler’s backpack but my indifference to his travel tale caught him off guard.
Hong Kong is best summed up as a city of commerce. Everywhere I went it seemed like some deal was being made and I seldom strolled down a street where I wasn’t offered heavily discounted designer suits, “copy watches,” and cocaine, which may or may not aid the fast-paced nature of this city. After all before Redbull energy tonic, there was blow to keep the markets rolling.
The airport express train, a futuristic modus operandi, which looked like the inside of the plane cabin I had just left behind, was packed with business travelers of all types with their neatly packed carry-on suitcases tucked away in a the train’s luggage compartment like perfectly erect black rolling monoliths.
Arriving late Friday night didn’t allow for more than a bit of catch-up conversation. We were both tired and Stuart had to put in a half-day shift at work the following morning.
I rose early and left with Stuart towards one of many hiking trails that wrap around Hong Kong’s outlying hills. I’ve been a bit spoiled in Taiwan with its abundance of hiking opportunities but Hong Kong still managed to deliver.
The Wilson Trail is an impressive 78K trail that goes from Hong Kong Island and continues on into the New Territories. I started at around eight in the morning and had until 12:30 to explore. A co-worker of Stuart’s told me that Stage Two of the massive undertaking offered the best views of the city and the smaller islands. This particular day the trail was a bit congested with locals participating in a massive 78K thru hike sponsored by the Hong Kong chapter of Raleigh International, a British adventure travel and outreach organization.
There was an unfortunate haze settled over the city but the views were still superb. The city’s sea of tall edifices look almost artificial from the hills, like a city planner’s twisted dioramic vision of a perfectly efficient city by the sea.
Along the way I encountered some pleasant surprises–a dam lake, a quarry of sorts, and most notably a shrine of various porcelain effigies that sit by a clearing just waiting to be stumbled upon.
This particular leg of the trail descends down into a densely packed urban residential jungle, a more realistic look at the vast array of towering buildings I peered down at before.
The high-rise apartment complexes are truly remarkable in a looming and hideous fashion. They bring to mind the Soviet era concrete slab housing projects that are scattered all over Eastern Europe.
These homogeneous utility dwellings dare onlookers to conduct mental calculations of the number of windows to people ratio. The speckles of garments hanging on lines outside each window do however rescue these sights from being completely bleak by adding a human element to their otherwise sterile nature.
At the bottom of the trail I rehydrate in a small park while watching the local elders play Go. The rules and strategy of this game continue to elude me but the Chinese (and Taiwanese) can’t seem to get enough of it.
At around 12:45 I rendezvous with Stuart at a landmark near his house and we head off for lunch, which, after the long walk, “must be,” as I explained, “an orgy of meat.”
Hong Kong is a foodies’ utopia with a steady diversity of cuisines, not just Chinese, and it seemed appropriate that the first proper meal be pork or duck related.
Siu mei restaurants are essentially hole in the wall establishments that specialize in glowing bbq meat products hanged window side from glorious hooks and skewers to beckon streetwalkers. Char Siu pork was described to me in an earlier email from Stuart as, “BBQ pork that will make your pants wet.” This is a prime example of Stuart’s twisted way of embracing food that instantly brought back memories of our culinary adventures in Spain, particularly with the drip off the bone goodness of Serrano ham.
Stanley is a charming albeit Westernized boardwalk getaway that is a simple double-decker tram ride away from Central Hong Kong island. There are tourist shops, over-priced lemonade stands and plenty of English style pubs with outdoor seating overlooking the picturesque bay.
We walked the area and ended up finding a place for a beer before hitting the beach for some casual Frisbee and a sunset swim.
The leisurely swim out to a stationary floating raft (which instantly brought to memory Northern Michigan lakes) with the city lights of the hills around us and a series of small islands lit from the descending sun brought on that daily feeling of pure bliss when I need to blink to realize that I’m really here in this part of the world.
Later that night we grabbed a quick sandwich at a Doner Kebab joint near Stuart’s house (despite the fact that neither of us were hungry it was agreed that it was necessary to prepare our stomachs for the tortuous libations that we were undoubtedly going to indulge in later on in the evening).
Our first stop on the booze train was Hong Kong’s legendary Lan Kwai Fong street, which is an overwhelming and fairly obnoxious Central nightlife drag that is unlike anything you would find in the States. The street, which is built surprisingly on a rather steep hill, is a cluster of open-door bars that issue loud club music and even louder inebriated foreigners. The closest thing I can compare it to is a similar drag in Lisbon in which nobody actual drinks in the bars but rather congregate in the street forming one massive amalgamation of belligerence.
We walked the area twice soaking it all in. Later we popped in a tourist trap Russian restaurant for a taste of vodka in its refrigerated ice bar. The bar is decorated with, well ice and its female patrons are greeted with the option of wearing lavish fur coats, you know, just like the Siberians. I hear the desert oasis city of Dubai has an ice bar, which is equally if not more ridiculous, and is truly a piss in the face to environmentalists all over the world.
A ten-minute walk away from the lights and noise of Lan Kwai Fong brought us to Makumba Africa Bar where we met up with a number of Stuart’s Japanese co-workers. The girls were sipping exotic cocktails and a live afro-funk group was just warming up. This was my kind of place and something I probably wouldn’t be able to find in Taipei.
The night was capped on a ritzy rooftop club overlooking the impressive night skyline and the towering IFC Building, which was where that latest Batman film staged a remarkable paragliding stunt. While the club itself was hopping none of else felt any urge to leave the amazing view before us.
Too tired/hung over to notice, Stuart and I somehow managed to wear similar shirts to Dim Sum at H.K City Hall
There is a large population of Filipinos working in Hong Kong, primarily as housekeepers and nannies for the city’s middle and upper class. Sunday in Hong Kong is Filipino day.
Diasporas have always interested me in my travels. Certain places seem to attract particular ethnic and cultural groups and when you find their tightly knit communities it’s always intriguing. Moroccans have flooded parts of the Netherlands in recent years, Portugal has a surprisingly large Eastern European population, primarily from Ukraine, and sweet home Chicago at one point was rumored to have had more Poles than the city of Warsaw.
In most cities you find these groups congregated in their own neighborhoods but in Hong Kong most of the Filipino women are live-in helpers for families, therefore the city’s public corridors become their meeting areas, and every Sunday they gather, like clockwork.
Sunday is their citywide day-off and the majority of them spend the entire day picnicking with friends on blankets or makeshift hoboesque camps outside of MTR stations, covered underground walkways, and around Hong Kong City Hall and various other building vicinities. From morning to night they socialize, often over the sounds of small radios. They play cards, share food, both homemade and bought, and seem to ignore the rest of the world around them. It’s their day and they know exactly how they want to spend their free time.
It’s a fascinating sight to see and I actually felt like an intruder with my camera out, hence this sole snapshot. We have a fairly large Filipino population here in Taipei, many working as kitchen line-cooks in restaurants. I have yet to find their common ground, if it even exists. In Hong Kong its damn near impossible not to stumble across these charming gatherings. At one point I asked Stuart why they chose these mundane concrete settings–underground walkways seemed to be the most populous of all the ones we encountered–over say, a nice city park. His responded with the intriguing, “oh the parks, those are the Indonesian’s turf.”
Sunday afternoon we somehow made are way to a hookah bar that Stuart had been to once prior to this excursion. Unlike most casual hookah/tea cafes that you find in most cities this particular setting was a seedy night club of sorts that seemed to be just cleaning up from the previous night’s escapades at four in the afternoon.
Over an apple flavored shisha we reminisced about the nargile café we frequented in Salamanca, switching between English and Spanish the entire time to let the nostalgia truly sit in. It didn’t take us long to figure out that the bar itself had another agenda especially after an eager Indonesian girl in a skimpy outfit approached Stuart while I was in the bathroom. The Turkish men who may or may not have owned the place seemed to have a number of these wide-eyed girls hanging around. Later after an hour or so we realized we were the only ones left lingering in the establishment and the upstairs office room overlooking the bar had a heavily fogged window.
That night we dined on Malaysian curry and made are way to a Salsa bar, where Stuart and one of the girls from work take lessons every Sunday night. While I wish I could put “Salsa dancing skills” on my resume, I simply can’t. I’ve tried at various stages in my life and it’s safe to say these hips DO lie. Normally I blame my awkward dancing skills on the fact that I tower over most dancing partners but a 6’4” gentleman who must have been well into his twilight years terminated this plausible excuse after he repeatedly humbled everyone in the bar with his masterful moves on the dance floor. Later, after I had spent a good 20 minutes trying to get a simple twirl step down, he had the audacity to ask me if I was having fun, while we occupied partnered urinals. The bastard.
Up next, tales form Monday and Tuesday.
A Trip to the New Territories, Spanish lessons, Indian food at the Chungking Mansion, Warner sits like Buddha, and an examination of Hong Kong’s market scene.
A glimpse at the amazing Tai-Po indoor market
A Day in the Life of a Foreigner in Taipei
The High Fiber Cockroach Diet – Horoscopic Hounds – The Boss – Speaking Chinese – “Can You Fly A Kite? / Yes, I can. Yes, I can. Yes, I Can” – Pho – Life’s Big Question
Ever since truly settling in, my life has suddenly become a lot more of a routine than I had originally anticipated. My days aren’t monotonous but they do tend to blur together with weeks and months flying by. Part of this sudden change was due to my decision to sign up for an intensive Beginner’s Mandarin course Monday-Friday, from 9:30 in the morning to noon.
Working the standard six-day teaching week doesn’t help and I’ve found it more difficult to get away on weekend adventures. Still I’ve been able to soak in all that Taipei has to offer and more these last couple months, and there is more than enough to see in the island’s Northern corners.
I attended various screenings at the 11th annual Taipei International Film Festival, have attended two separate music festivals, and I recently discovered I enjoy traversing up climbing walls like a 6’5” spider-man thanks to a trip to a local indoor sports center.
When I’m not exploring the city or making a fool of myself in front of a room of Taiwanese Karaoke enthusiasts, my life is very much a daily grind, with the occasional surprise adventure. The following is a day in the life of Teacher Warner, written in the key of Sgt. Pepper.
7:15am-Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. Found my way into the kitchen to get a glass of juice. Surprise the morning cockroaches as they enjoy their high-fiber feast of my housemate’s bottom-of-the-sink oatmeal remains, then head for the shower.
7:25A.M. – Showering is a bit of a challenge when the showerhead sits (or rather, hangs) just above the nipple. It’s hot in Taipei so cold showers generally do the trick. If I’m feeling up to it I’ll sing a little jingle while I crouch around the low-pressure showerhead. The Lovin’s Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” is fun, and timely. (SIDE NOTE: Since I started writing this piece we remedied the Hobbit shower nozzle, now enabling the cold water to flow down from the heavens, rather than at crouching height.)
9:00A.M. -After goofing around on the computer, checking nytimes.com, looking over my Chinese workbook, and going through some listening pronunciation exercises, I head towards class, which is about an ten minute walk from my apartment.
9:02A.M. -You can often tell how your day is going to be depending on the mood of the dogs that hang around outside my apartment door. If they move out of fear (or respect, I suppose) when my building’s metal door opens, confidence will be high for the rest of the day. If the dogs growl and stare me down like a tall and lanky Milk Bone, then who knows where the day will take me.
From left to right: Vincent, his brother Jules, and Horace
9:10 A.M. If I’m feeling hungry I may stop along the way at one of the 30 or so different breakfast sandwich shops that I encounter on my route to school. These tasty little egg/meat/cucumber sandwiches are extremely cheap and are more than ample to hold you over till lunch. They seem to be the breakfast staple in Taiwan and are on every corner. Many of the proprietors seem to only tap into the breakfast market, which makes you wonder if there’s good money in fried-egg sandwiches or if these people have other jobs on the side.
Along the way I generally listen to my iPod since I have long discovered that the most mundane parts of life, i.e. walking to class, can become amusing when set to the right soundtrack. For my ‘songs in the key of Taipei’ I often mix it up. Frantic or tired mornings often call for something more drastic. Lately, in mourning of a canceled Nine Inch Nails concert that was supposed to make my day last month, I will start my fast-paced mornings off with something like, NIN’s “Mr. Self Destruct” or Pantera’s “Domination” (yes, Paul, I still dig “Domination”).
More relaxed mornings will call for something lighter. Amadou & Mariam’s new album has been a favorite, as has St. Vincent’s “Actor” and Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” which is still hands down the best album of 2009 thus far.
Sometimes shuffle mode is needed, which often brings on pleasant sonic surprises. One recent sunny morning I got to sashay down the street to the 0ne-two punch of Bruce Springsteen doing the wild and innocent “E-Street Shuffle,” and The Traveling Wilburys “Margarita.” Both are curious diegetic samples that shed an interesting light on watching the Taiwanese begin their daily routines. Case in point, the Boss line, “Well the kids down there are either dancing or hooked up in a scuffle / Dressed in snakeskin suits packed with Detroit muscle,” paired with the image of an old laoban (shop owner) crouched in gutter washing a soup pot with a makeshift hose while her husband slaves over a scorching hot wok that issues a heavenly aroma.
9:30A.M. The first hour of my Chinese class at the Taipei Language Institute is generally spent going through new material, primarily vocabulary building. Lai Laoshi (laoshi meaning teacher) is very nice and helpful but she will not let you slide on your pronunciation, especially when it comes to mastering the tones.
My class started with seven and has now dropped down to three. There was my pregnant Japanese classmate Yuki, who must have delivered by now though nobody really knows. Riette is from South Africa, Michael is from San Francisco and for the first two months we had an extremely young albeit ambitious high school kid, Drew, from Oklahoma who was in Taipei for a couple months learning Chinese and exploring. He is pictured below with a hat that he so generously gifted me when I told him of my admiration for its message and my desire to pay him for it. I own one baseball cap that I’ve had since Junior year in High School. It has a kangaroo on it. It’s blue. I can now wear this hat with pride.
Calf to Carcass. Brilliant.
10:30A.M. We’re on our second teacher for hour-two. The first one disappeared randomly without telling anyone. The school gave us the excuse that she moved on to a different job, but I believe witchcraft was at play.
Our new teacher tries to only speak to us in Chinese, which is challenging but ultimately very effective in terms of soaking up all the sentence patterns. I like having fun with the teachers and am always trying to conjure up new ridiculous sentence that make use of whatever vocab words or new grammatical structures we’re learning.
Case in point, my recent smartass Chinese sentence offering: “During the morning I ride to school by horse.” It should be noted that my third teacher Li-Li Laoshi’s (listed below) response to this silly sentence was, “Impossible! It is too expensive,” ignoring the obvious fact that riding a horse in the middle of Taipei is fairly ridiculous. The Chinese language is like this. “Impossible” isn’t as simple a word as you might think.
11:30A.M. Li-Li Laoshi is my favorite of the three. She’s older but wise in her age. She’s been teaching forever and seems to have the respect of all the students and teachers at T.L.I. She’s tough but fun, thorough in her lessons, but easy going at the same time. Eventually I hope to take some one-on-one classes at the school to either supplement or replace my current group class. If I do, Li-Li Laoshi will be high on my list.
12:20P.M. Lunch has also become a fairly routine part of the day since I’ve found a number of different haunts in my neighborhood that can feed me quickly and on the cheap.
My noodle lady knows by now that I’m the “hen la,” or very spicy, foreigner. I have a lunch box place that serves an incredible Japanese eggplant dish, paired nicely with grilled tofu and a fried egg. Paigufan, or pork cutlet over rice, seems to be the national lunch dish and is everywhere. Tasty but like most things you can only eat so much of it. If I’m not too hungry there is the steamed bun lady that makes a mean steamed pork bun (zhurou bao). She knows me as the tall one who smiles and always practices new Chinese phrases with her while dishing out the hot sauce.
1:00-3:00P.M. There was a time when I had a solid two-hours of break time between Mandarin classes and work. Those days are over ever since my boss added a new four-day a week class to my roster. Before I could use the time to add to this blog, study some of what I just learned, explore some of the city or venture out on a hunt for future lunch destinations. Now I generally race home with a quick bite, check my email, change into my teaching garments (basically blue jeans and a tee shirt/polo) and head to my school for a 2P.M. class.
This is my schedule Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Those days tend to fuse together into a giant amalgamation of Chinese vocab words and sentence patterns and various English language songs, like “Yes, I Can,” the elusive “What Kind of Meat Do You Want?” and little memory joggers like, “He/She/It—SSSS.”
Tuesday is my “easy” day. Mandarin classes are the same as always but I only have one English class to teach (my young girls who you might remember from the aforementioned Goodbye Song video). This gives me two and half hours of down time between class and work, the perfect amount of time for a nice lunch and possibly a haircut, which is an experience worth blogging another time.
On Tuesday’s I finish at around 6:15, which allows for me the luxury of a night free to explore more of Taipei’s various eating neighborhoods and night markets. The hunt for fresh sashimi is my current priority for Tuesdays and sure enough there are a number of places that deliver, often for a fraction of what you would pay in the states.
2:00-8:30P.M. For the other four days of the workweek (not counting Saturday, which is also part of MY work week) I am at work. With the addition of my new class I am now up to 30 teaching hours a week, which is a lot, if you take into account that each of the two hour classes require at least 30 minutes of prep time and transportation time to boot. Still, I am really enjoying the job. My students are all, for the most part, very respectful and willing to learn, even if they need the occasional incentive or dose of humor to get them to wake from their zombie state.
This is pretty self-explanatory
8:30P.M. -1A.M. If I don’t eat at work (delivery dinner boxes are often the cheapest and most convenient way to go) I grab some late night eats on my way home. The Shilin night market, which was the setting for my first escapades into Taiwanese cuisine, is now just another night market, albeit one that is always far too crowded for its own good.
Ahh pho. Comfort in a bowl. I lived off this and chicken curry during my Le Colonial days
My time spent in the evening is entirely based on my demeanor. If I’m feeling motivated I’ll get some Chinese work done. If I’m lazy I’ll put on an episode of Mad Men or get some reading time in. Weeknight bars are always a possibility and there are some decent joints to get a beer or whiskey. Roxy Rocker is the love child of many of my inner music dork fantasies, a music junkie’s cantina with a proper beer selection, lounge setting, great rock music and a separate, soundproof record room with a private DJ and a wall filled with LPs ranging from Abba to Zappa. On one night the DJs played a string of 90s alternative classics followed by The Pixies “Mr. Grieves,” Zeppelin’s “In the Light” and The Clash’s “Career Opportunities.”
The Blue Note is the best jazz bar I’ve discovered here in Taipei, an unassuming and fairly low-key lounge with live music almost every night and a library of music DVDs and jazz staple LPs to fill in the gaps. On my first night there I knew I was somewhere special when the bar’s owner put on a live concert DVD of Paul Simon performing Graceland in Lesotho after the all-female piano trio wrapped. Sipping my drink and watching the mouths of all around me singing along to “Boy in the Bubble,” “Crazy Love, Vol. II” and “I Know What I Know” gave the inner music junkie in me a fix of pure.
At least once a day, be it while I’m riding the MRT, walking to work/class, eating in a hole in the wall food stand–wok up front, condiments tableside, and friendly owners–or merely laying in my bed with the headphones waiting to sleep, I’ll have the ubiquitous, “damn, I can’t believe I’m here” moment. My decision to come here still seems random to most people I know (even to me at times) but it’s this spontaneity that makes this experience thus far so rewarding. Even in the daily grind of life as a teacher there are still those memorable moments of adventure and surprise.
These aforementioned “What am I doing here?” moments are quickly erased when I think of all I’ve seen and done so far. When I look back at all that has happened and then imagine the possibilities ahead of me, these nourishing reality checks are followed by a large grin.
Dragon Boat Festival: Day Trip to Danshui, Northwest Taiwan
Efficient Public Transportation – Sleepy Port Town Comes Alive – Pigs Hold Down the Fort – A Mob With Firecrackers – Stalking a Parade
The last weekend in May was the Taiwanese Dragon Boat Festival, a national holiday observing the three-day Dragon Boat Race in Taiwan and Mainland China. The festivities kick off on Thursday, the races run through Saturday and as a result the Taiwanese enjoy a four-day weekend, a rarity in these parts.
I’ve come to realize that the Taiwanese are hard workers. They work long hours, and they rarely enjoy breaks. For example, at my school I work alongside three other Western teachers. If we have two classes each day we might come in at 3:30 for a 4:30 class, including prep time, and we’ll usually stay till about 9PM. The Chinese staff, the local teachers who sit in on all of our classes and teach their own classes, often in the local tongue for clarity, come in around 1PM and stick around till maybe 10PM. We all work six days a-week, although my Saturday classes are only in the morning to early afternoon and I enjoy a fair amount of free time throughout the week.
When it comes to holidays, there are few nationally recognized days off. Dragon Boat Fest’s official day off is Thursday, however the government here allows businesses to take off Friday as well (ensuring the four-day stretch for travel) on the condition that the workday be made up, usually the following Saturday or Sunday!
I’m still new here so the bureaucracy of this system doesn’t bother me yet, however, I knew that I would have to do something for this nice holiday.
My original plan was to head down South to the Toroko Gorge National Park. I hear from locals and other expats who have been here quite some time that the Gorge itself–basically a giant hole in the ground–is underwhelming and overly touristy. Coming from the flat Midwest and having just tasted a bit of the serene mountain life on a trip to Colorado earlier this year, I was still eager to check out Taiwan’s most popular destination.
Of course since it was Dragon Boat Weekend, I was not the only person with this vision of grandeur. All the hostels in the area were booked, my Lonely Planet guide book read, “avoid at all costs on National Holidays” and the two-hour plus train ride wouldn’t be worth the time or money for a simple day trip.
I decided instead to use the free weekend to explore some of the many day trips offered outside of Taipei.
As far as big cities go, you couldn’t really ask for a better-situated one than Taipei. Sure it’s noisy, polluted, overcrowded at times and void of most natural life, save for the surgical-masked hordes that crowd the streets, but by way of a simple city train or bus outside of the city center you’re suddenly staring up into lush green mountains or sunny seaside towns.
The most popular daytrip from Taipei is Danshui, a little port borough located just Northwest of the city proper, and conveniently situated at the end of the Red Line on Taipei’s MRT Train system, a NT$45 trip from my apartment, cup-o-noodle prices people.
Public transportation, at least Taipei’s metro system, is one of the best I’ve ever encountered. It could be that since it is not even ten-years-old the city was able to really plan ahead for the future. The system connects most of the major points in the city and is the perfect vehicle for getting away for a simple daytrip to places like Danshui or the natural hot springs at Beitou, another future destination.
Danshui is to Taipei, what Coney Island is (or once was) to New York City. It’s a festive getaway by the shore with its own boardwalk, its own unique cuisine (Coney Island has its dogs, Danshui, its squid kebabs), some monuments and sights, a beautiful temple, games and other forms of entertainment and its own ferry across the Danshui river to Bali, another, road less traveled coastal community.
I arrive early afternoon Thursday along with a train car full of Taiwanese, dressed in their sun hats, children and elders at their side, smiles on their faces. It’s a bit more overcast than I would have like but this setback doesn’t stop the crowds.
Immediately upon exiting the MRT station I am thrust into a busy plaza of food stands, toy vendors, bicyclists (Taiwan is a wonderfully bike-friendly country I should add!!) and local musicians singing to pre-programmed tunes off a PA-rigged, 90s era Casio keyboard, you remember, the ones that played all classics but with the sonic finesse of say, Nintendo.
I grab a quick snack before heading off for some daytime sight seeing. As you might have seen from the previous entry, Danshui is known for its seafood and quail eggs. My first foray into the countless tasting possibilities were steamed shrimp balls, served, predictably, on a stick.
I make my way towards the first of Danshui’s three most famous sights: the Fuyou Temple. Like the awe-inspiring cathedrals of Europe, or the lively and ornate mosques in Turkey, I can’t seem to get enough the many temples I’ve come across during my time in Taiwan so far
For starters, all the temples, even the oldest, are still active and always full of people of all backgrounds. The Fuyou Temple is small and is located on Danshui’s busiest drag, a busy shopping street by day, and a bustling night market by night.
I spend a good twenty minutes or so seated in the corner and out of sight and watch locals and tourists flow in, each carrying a long stick of incense. The temple has an open roof but the sanctuary still floods with aromatic smoke. Large wooden tables play host to various offerings–boxes of noodles, sweets, tea leaves, a couple pieces of bread, etc. I feel uneasy snapping photos but I can’t resist.
Next up was the Fort of San Domingo, one of the few remnants of the Spanish occupation from 1626 to 1641. The current sight is actually a rebuilt imagining of the original structure that was either destroyed by the Spanish prior to the Dutch take-over in 1642 or by the Dutch or Chinese later on. Nobody really knows for sure I learn. The current fort is a bit disappointing on the outside, although the hilltop view of the coast and the city of Danshui is worth the hike up.
Next I head over to the old British consular residence, located adjacent to the Fort of San Domingo. Like its neighbor, the building itself is average but the spectacular interior with original furniture and masterful colorful tile work from the British Raj era.
One of the most rewarding aspects of being a wandering traveler, the kind of curious soul who uses the map sparingly and often heads off the beaten path, is stumbling upon the truly unexpected and outrageous. Such a moment befell this writer while heading off the tourist map towards what looked like a hidden, more industrial part of town.
I happened around a corner and noticed two large beasts outside of what appeared to be a fish house or rundown bait and tackle shop but ended up being a food stop/convenient store/betel nut depot. Two dogs? Perhaps. The Taiwanese do enjoy their four-legged friends and many leave their pets tied up outside stores and restaurants back in Taipei. I never suspected to find two, full-grown, elder hogs standing guard outside a rundown corner store.
A nasty sight: flies hovering around their nether regions, saliva drooling out of their gluttonous maws. Still, I can’t turn away and ultimately continue to photograph the giant show-pigs to the merriment of the toothless old shopkeeper inside (on a side note, the betel nut is essentially similar to chewing tobacco only far more disgusting and destructive to the mouth. The nuts are shelled, wrapped in betel leaves, soaked in lime and chewed by the elders in Taiwan who then spit the vile but colorful excrement all over the streets and walkways, staining the ground a bright red. The lime reeks havoc on the teeth and gums, as was confirmed by the proprietor of the two watch-pigs, possibly this woman’s twisted interpretation of Taipei’s Betel Nut Beauties). I end up buying a bottle of water from the shopkeeper who asks where I’m from but doesn’t bother following up after my response. She is, however, impressed with some of my Mandarin and the few Taiwanese phrases I’ve picked up.
Danshui’s boat wharf, a curved mile-long wooden boardwalk that hugs the northern most part of the shore, is the perfect spot for watching the sunset and proves to also be a popular destination for the recently married. I spend a bit of time by the shore, soaking in the sights, occasionally interacting with some locals. I meet a tall Swede and his Taiwanese girlfriend both on a similar daytrip away from Taipei. The Swede has been in the country for over a year and gives me some advice on what to see, where to go and what’s good to eat. “You must try the squid!” he exclaims.
After snacking on the Swede’s recommendation while also picking up a refreshing orange bubble tea of sorts, that is chock full of orange and papaya pieces not to mention weird looking tapioca shapes and jellies, I head back toward the main drag and stumble upon the start of Danshui’s Dragon Boat Festival Parade.
Mind you, the decision to visit Danshui was random and I had no real plan for my time in the town. I also had no idea about the festivities ahead of me.
On a previous day adventure in Taipei I randomly walked into the middle of a large political march for the Taipei DPP party. Here in Danshui I stumble upon the start of something even bigger.
Throughout the middle were local dancers, and walkers, some donning traditional garments, others in full-face paint. The parade moves at a slow pace due to the thousands of people crowding the narrow streets. Firecrackers are set off at various times, always around large groups of people, each eruption numbing the ears and filling the streets with heavy smoke.
It is hard to maneuver through the masses, but my ability to see over the heads of most around me an unfair advantage. I snap a ton of photos often-beckoning participants and onlookers to flash the universal Chinese sign for peace or hey (hand facing outward, index and middle fingers standing tall mimicking a rabbit ears or the Nixon “Victory” gesture).
The music is fantastic. Simple drum rhythms played on large stretched-hide wooden barrel drums. The Taiwanese marching bands put their cymbal players to work filling the ear with a shrieking clang of metal that rivals the intensity of the nearby firecrackers. Children and some elders play wooden flutes, the face-painted clan of colorful demons (or dragons) dance and jive down the street, and the spectators watch in awe or walk in and out of the streets. The scooter traffic is minimal but present. The rhythm of the parade is understood.
Just when I think the parade is beginning to wind down the line makes a turn and heads towards the MRT station and continue down a long, more modern stretch past irritated cars and scooters stopped at street barricades.
At 10:30PM my feet are spent and I head back towards the train station and pack into the train car along with everyone else back to the city.
While I should’ve assumed that the first night of Dragon Boat Fest would be anything but average, I had no prior knowledge of the festival in Danshui. A similar experience happened when I was in Eastern Europe two summers ago on a backpacking trip.
We arrived late in the evening to the Southern Polish city, Krakow, made are way down an unassuming street towards our hostel and literally shuffled into an incredible outdoor concert festival in the town’s central square–the final night of a week-long celebration of the city’s 750-year history. We spent at least two hours staring at the large stage and the breathtaking orchestra playing. Had we been just a day later we would have missed the whole event. As luck had it, with no prior knowledge about what was scheduled that night, we stumbled upon a moment that I’ll undoubtedly cherish the rest of my life.
It’s safe to assume this will not be the first traditional parade I happen upon here in Taiwan or anywhere else in East Asia, however, taking into account the trip’s serendipitous nature, this was one hell of a memorable night.
Up next, Dragon Boat Festival Day Two: Day Trip to the North East Coast of Taiwan, a16KM walk between two towns, water buffalo, and a new friend.
Until next time, your trusted long-legged wanderer and guard-pig enthusiast.