Hong Kong Part 1

Weekend Getaway:

Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China

Part 1

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.

Saturday

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.


No comment.

Stuart ordered for us his usual, two heaping servings of char siu bbq pork (the soy and color red glazed slabs hanging bottom left) and siu mei, which is a fatty cut of cured roasted pork that looks like bacon (pictured bottom right). The meat is served over unassuming white rice, drowned in a sweet soy sauce blend with a handful of delicious sauteed Chinese greens for roughage and color variety. A rather odd complimentary soup is served but only a fool would waste stomach space on such an undertaking when the challenge of way-too-much-meat lays before you.

A wise nuclear family man once said, “You don’t make friends with salad.”

Zen and the art of pork

We stuffed ourselves and were content upon leaving to the point that both of us could’ve used a good old-fashioned siesta. Still we decided to go back to apartment to change and then head back out to explore the Stanley district and its Repulse Bay.

Repulse Bay

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.

Sunday

Completely spent from Saturday’s FULL day we took it easy on Sunday. We had a nice dim sum brunch with the Japanese friends from the night before and walked around the Causeway Bay area.

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.


Filipino Sundays

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

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Day Trip to Jiofen & Jinguashi

Day Trip to Jiufen & Jinguashi, Taiwan’s Northeast Coast

The daily grind of life here in Taipei has definitely caught up to me. I picked up some extra hours at work, which has helped to fill my empty account at the Hua-Nan Bank of Taipei but has ultimately taken away from my precious free time. I am currently finishing up my second month of Chinese classes at the Taipei Language Institute. These lessons fill my mornings Monday through Friday from 9:30 to 12:30 and have greatly improved my abilities to blend in here. Fewer hand and body gestures are now needed for me to order a glass of juice or a bowl of soup and I feel more confident talking to random locals I meet on the street.

My busy schedule has also made it difficult to get some traveling in, which is one of the main draws for living here in Taiwan for the year. I work every Saturday from 9 in the morning to about 3 PM, which destroys the day and makes weekend getaways fairly difficult. These past couple weekends I was also primarily staying in Taipei to attend the recent Taipei International Film Festival. With most of the screenings on Saturday and Sunday, this too made getting away from life in the big city difficult.

This past Sunday I escaped to the North East part of the Island to the small village, Jioufen, and its sister city Jinguashi. Jiufen is one of those quaint little towns that draw lots of tourists for shopping, scenery, and local eats. The town itself was an old mining base back in the day and Jinguashi, a gold mining village further up in the mountains, also has a great deal of Japanese influence seen in its architecture.

Click the map for a bigger jpg (I hope). Jiufen & Jinguashi are at the top of the Island, Northeast of Taipei.

I left Taipei Main Station by local train to the town of Rueifang, which serves as a hub to both Jiufen and Jinguashi by bus. All three of these towns are technically part of Taipei County, which means public transportation is on the same card system as Taipei City’s MRT, a pleasant surprise that enable me to squander my coin kuai on various street snacks and tea.

It’s easy to forget that a mere twenty minutes outside of Taipei’s busy downtown there are lush green hills, mountain views and picturesque streams and rivers bisecting various suburbs. Further North and East you head towards the Pacific, and then things start to get truly breathtaking.

Sundays are understandably busy tourism days and Jiufen, which lies roughly an hour outside of Taipei, is a popular hotspot for locals and foreigners to escape to for the day. The train was crowded, though not as uncomfortable as my Dragon Boat Fest weekend, which, if you’ll recall, had yours truly crammed into a hot train car like livestock on the way to the slaughter.

Chicago had its cows, Jinguashi has its own version. Bulls on Parade!

My friend and I early on decided to save Jiufen for later in the afternoon to hopefully steer clear of the other hordes of tourists hitting the town for lunch and shopping excursions. We decided to ride the local bus from Rueifang past Jiufen to the far less popular but ultimately more rewarding Jinguashi, which, like Jiufen, was also an old gold mining town in the early 20th century.


Jinguashi is probably best known for its access to the Gold Ecological Park, one of Taiwan’s many national parks. The Gold Ecological Park is noteworthy for its abandoned mine (fully accessible for tourists but a bit too juvenile for this intrepid traveler), and its sought after Golden Waterfall, which I learned was only accessible to by car, scooter, or three hour hike into the mountains.

35 ft tall war God perched high above a temple in Jinguashi

The town itself is nice but it’s the stunning coastal view of the Pacific that is worth the trip and the 45-minute hike down a mountainous path.

In 2002 the town of Jinguashi and its neighboring park was a possible candidate for inclusion to the oh so sacred UNESCO World Heritage Site master list, a trekker’s Holy Grail catalog that has been teasing travelers with the vast exploration opportunities around the globe since its inception.

The main tourists attractions–the old mine, the various colonial Japanese estates that are now museums and the Temple of Gold–are nice for a peek but the true wonders lay off the beaten path towards the sea. A long trail winds around the mountain side, goes through a beautiful old temple and 35ft-high War God shrine, and eventually ends at a scenic overlook at the Pacific and a small fishing port below.

After surveying all there was to see by foot in Jinguashi we headed back to Jiufen to eat and soak in the town. Between Jiufen and Jinguashi there are thousands of small traditional Chinese burial plots in the hills. These ornately decorated ceramic and stone shrines are the resting places for only the richest and most fortunate of deceased because of their quality and the feng shui of facing both the mountains and the sea. If you are somebody of great worth or fame you may very well be fortunate enough to spend the afterlife in these peaceful green hills.

Jiufen is a pleasant enough village built on a steep hill overlooking a misty bay of hills and one pyramid island. The town is famous for its tight, semi-indoor market that is a maze of vendors slinging salted dried meats and seafood, fish ball soup, dense and sugary pineapple cakes, gooey dumplings, various treats on a stick, all the chotchkies one could want. The town’s other major draws are the many teahouses that have sprung up over the years as the crowds started flocking in.

For those who know me well you will remember that I am a bit of a tea enthusiast back in the states. My dear friend with a knack for dry humor and sarcasm, Jake, once said I have nothing more than a love of “dirty water.” In Taipei I have discovered a number of low-key coffee/tea cafes around the local university that serve up delectable pots of various East Asian aromatic teas. Other than that, I have really only scratched the surface on what is available in this part of the world. My trip to Jiufen proved that artisan tea is way beyond my enthusiasm for green and oolong chá.

But before diving into my memorable experience at The City of the Sky Tea House let’s get through the obligatory offering of food porn.

Fish ball soup is exactly what it sounds like, unappetizing white balls of dough and protein that floats in a rich broth with vegetables and the occasional surprise mystery meatball thrown in for kicks. Since Jiufen is fairly famous this dish I felt obligated to try it out. For all the hype fish balls are about as boring as they sound. Perhaps I chose the wrong vendor but a general rule of thumb is go to where the locals are, and this particular hole in the wall was hopping.

Rice with savory minced meat is a common side dish in all of Taiwan. Best not to ask what’s in the grind.

After eating sparingly at the fish ball soup stand, we made are way to another Taiwanese delicacy, Ba-Wan, translated to ‘Meat Circle,’ which are large, gelatinous meat filled dumplings served either in a thick sauce or accompanied with soup.
There were at least seven shops selling these curious culinary wonders, which look very much like the treacherous jellyfish that wash up on beaches around the world. Are particular stand looked decent enough from the outside so we gave it a shot. Later on as we were navigating through the gooey mess of bamboo shoots, mushroom and odd pieces of meat, we noticed that two Buddhist nuns sat down next to us and were also enjoying what we thought were pork filled dumplings but were in reality all vegetarian. Turns out of all the shops in Jiufen serving up Ba-Wan we ended up at the vegan stop. The pieces of red protein were either tofu or some oddly formed piece of gluten.

The red balls of protein do not come from any animal I am familiar with.

Our first hint that we were dining vegetarian.

The dish was actually very tasty and is something that I would like to try in different incarnations some time down the road.

My Lonely Planet guide lists a number of “famous” teahouses in Jiufen, all of which served pretty much similar forms of brew but differed in their interior atmospheres and their views of the sea. Walking down a narrow side street we stumbled upon The City of the Sky Tea House, a charming little three-story café fully furnished with folk art pieces, antique furnishings and a stunning view of the port. Like most of Jiufen the café was perched high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific and in the distance Jinguashi. After settling in on the balcony of the third floor we ordered a rather expensive bag of locally grown and aged Oolong tea.

One thing about Asia that I’ve learned is that even the simplest of things, like tea or as I’ve mentioned chicken, are ultimately a lot more complex than you might think.

This was hardly my first experience with artisan tea however, I was clearly unprepared for the proper (and traditional) preparation and serving of tea of this quality. Whereas most of the world casually throw some tea bags or loose leaves into a pot of boiling water or even the unromantic mug of H2O, the Chinese are very particular about the order and purity of the tea tasting experience.

The shop’s proprietor did not speak English so I had to rely on my limited vocabulary and my friend to interpret the woman’s directions.

First off, the tea set that our tea was served in was a piece of art in itself. We learned that the sets were custom made for the teahouse and were modern interpretations of traditional sets. Basically with tea of this caliber your water is boiled over coals on the floor in a large ceramic teapot. The tea itself will never go near this pot, which is nothing more than a utility vehicle for water at a constant boil.

Instead, the boiling water is slowly poured into one of the two larger white ceramic bowls seen below where it is left to cool to a perfect 85 degrees Celsius, the optimal temperature for steeping tea leaves.

After the water has rested a bit it is poured over the loose tea leaves that are resting on the top of the small teapot, the only piece on the table set that has a top. It is given a couple minutes to steep then is poured off into the second large white boil. From there it is poured into the two smaller drinking cups, which offer only two or three small sips per serving. It seems like a lot of work for nothing more than the aforementioned soiled water, however, there is something quite romantic and beautiful about this system. It’s nice to know that people have been drinking their tea in this manner for thousands of years and that the procedure is still practiced today.

Homemade Oolong tea cheesecake.

Every piece in the set had a purpose. The pot for the tea leaves was specially made to strain the loose tea leaves, the small cylinder on the left side of the tray was made to rest the teapot’s top, the small curved piece in the back (shown in photo above) was for scooping the dried tea leaves from the bag into the pot, and the small aromatic twig hiding in the back was for tidying up any wet tea leaf that stuck to the top of the pot. The large dark ceramic bowl was for the wasted water or cold tea. Only the purest form of the brew is supposed to be taken to the lips. If you let it get too cool or leave it steeping too long, it’s best to just dump it and start over.

Our tea choice was very good. The local specialty was naturally sweet, with a hint of bitterness. It tasted different served in a small sipping cup, rather than a larger Western mug and overall the experience was very refreshing even on a hot day summer afternoon.

The tea that was served ended up lasting at least three hours and we ended up waiting for the sun to set before heading off into the maze of Jiufen again. Please break for a series of scenic photographs that really don’t do justice to just how stunning our view was during the precious twilight hours.

It started to rain right as we boarded the train back to Taipei City. Damn I’m good. Our train ride back was standing room only, which was a bit of a drag but we opted for the faster rail line so the time passed with ease.

I’m hoping to head down South to a famous waterfall in the town of Wulai during my next weekend excursion. I won’t be able to do any serious travel in the far Southern regions of the Island till I have an entire weekend to devote but there is plenty to do up in Northern and Central Taiwan till then.

Till next time, your devoted lover of filthy water and gooey meat circle enthusiast.

What would a day of photography be without the obligatory moment when I ruin a perfectly nice photo.

Dragon Boat Festival Day 2


Dragon Boat Festival Day 2: Day Trip to the Caoling Historic Trail

 

Packed Like Sardines in a Tin Can – It’s Hot – Climb to the Top ­– A Flora and Fauna Report – A Fellow Traveler – An All Girl Taiwanese Punk Band and The Shit Disco

After a successful adventure in Danshui the day before, I decided to take another day-trip outside of Taipei proper, this time heading to Taiwan’s stunning Northeast Coast. I left the house on the early side with the intent of catching a morning train to the town of Daxi (spelled on signs as Dasi, but more on the various forms of Chinese Romanization another time). Sure enough I arrive at Taipei Main Station ten minutes after the 8:40 train departed, with the next one arriving two-hours later. Way to go. 

My original plan to skip a weekend trip to the Toroko Gorge National Park was fueled by the notion that the park would be flooded with tourists and that all accommodations–hostels, trains, buses etc.–would also be hindered from the holiday travel rush. Of course this logic should have worked for every remote destination in Taiwan and my two-hour train ride to the East coast was proof of how unbearable crowded travel in Taiwan can be. 

Let’s begin: This trip was my first experiment with the Taiwanese Rail system. Taipei has its MRT metro, a foolproof system that connects the entire city and more remote destinations like Danshui. The rest of the island relies on brand new Japanese engineered high-speed trains, middle-grade passenger trains and bottom of the barrel antique city commuter trains that somehow have been converted to accommodate long-distance travel, think an “L” train car running from Chicago to Springfield. 

My guidebook tells me that the Taipei-Daxi train takes 90 minutes and costs NT$104. I use this information to find what I assume is the only train to the small coastal town. The train turns out to be an aforementioned old city train, a la the pre-MRT era in Taipei. There are seats but the majority of the train is standing room only. Since the cars don’t have reserved seats of any kind this also means that there is no limit to how many suntan lotion soaked passengers can be squeezed in. 

I get on along with a hundred other eager passengers running to the sliding doors to ensure a spot. The air-conditioner is working but cannot keep up with the volume. I am sandwiched between a group of university age students, two couples, a family and a young child who immediately starts gorging on a pastry of sorts filled with warm chocolate goo. Not ten minutes into the trip and the train already smells like sweaty ass and Nutella. Later an older gentleman in one of the seats cracks open a tea egg, which only adds to the array of unpleasant odors circulating in the stale train car air. 

The 90-minute trip is extended to a little over two-hours since we stop at every station on the line and are idle for five to ten minutes at a time while station platform hopefuls attempt to squeeze in the already overstuffed cars. At one stop there must have been at least 200 people waiting and maybe only 20 got on. Damn. 

I am the only foreigner in my particular throng and most definitely stand out. I attempt to grab my camera to shoot the inside of the car, which is a wall-to-wall mess of people, but I am unable to get into my bag without sending a bony elbow or knee into my neighbor. Taipei MRT cars can get crowded but I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Five stops before Daxi (an hour and half later) two-thirds of the passengers get off at a popular beach destination allowing for a bit of stretching. As we approach smaller village stops, old ladies wait on the station platforms with pre-made lunch boxes. 

On the few chances to look out at the passing scenery I see aqua blue rivers and streams with locals fishing and basking in the sun. We pass through mountain tunnels, happen upon lush green forests and eventually catch a glimpse of the Pacific. Taiwan’s West coast is fairly industrial and is home to the island’s three most populous cities. The East coast however is where the Taiwanese escape to for the serene, natural beauty, the half of the island that epitomizes the Portuguese’s coined phrase, Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful island.”

The trip was worth the temporary unpleasantness. Looking back on the trip I figure it was only a matter of time before this sort of transportation fiasco would happen (I suppose it’ll be even worse in parts of Southeast Asia and on the mainland, where buses ignore occupancy warnings).

The Caoling trail is a 16KM hike connecting the sleepy surfing village of Daxi with the town of Fulong, home to a popular public beach. The trail is the last remaining stretch of a longer early 19th century trade route that spanned from Taiwan’s Northeast coast to Danshui. The actual Caoling Historic Trail runs 9KM along a mountaintop valley overlooking the Pacific to the East and the Central Mountain Range to the West. Trail extensions have been added over the years bringing the full trail to around 16KM. 

It’s hot and right away I realize that the one coat of suntan lotion that I applied earlier in the morning will probably leave my skin its usual summer coat–lobster red splotches with a 75% chance of peeling. 

I’m not five minutes into my ascent up the steep stairs leading to the top of the mountain when my refillable Taiwanese brand Nalgene water bottle falls from my camera bag and cracks. Strike-two Warner. 

I keep climbing. I learn quickly from the amount of people I see coming down the mountain that most people start their journey from Fulong and end up in Daxi. Others only do small stretches leaving the 16K hike for soon-to-be-dehydrated Americans.


The first hour of the hike is all dense forest. While I’m shaded from the sun, the forest ceiling creates a saunaesque effect. It’s hot. I greet some of the locals coming down. Halfway to the top I bump into an American who is just finishing the full 16km hike and tells me that I’m doing the hardest part now. He also tells me that once I hit the mountaintop valley I will be blown away. Promises like these keep you going.

A taste of what’s to come…

Just shy of the first “rest stop,” a picnic table and a chart documenting local plant species, I surprise a large snake bathing on a rock off the trail. We don’t have snakes in Chicago, save for zoos or in the terrariums of pre-pubescent Middle School boys. When I startle this particular serpent, the kind that could guzzle down rabbits or small lap dogs with the ease of someone slurping up broad noodles, I keep my distance and wait till it’s slithered its way back in the deep brush before continuing. 

The American from earlier wasn’t lying about the mountain valley stretch on the trail. The climb to the top was arduous but the pay-off was oh so worth it.

Vast grassy hills, a strong and cool breeze, and the Pacific are in full sight. The sky is clear, and the ocean, especially the areas hugging the coast, is a light, aqua blue. In the distance I can see c two small islands, both of which I learn later, can be visited by ferry from Fulong. 

A third of the way into the valley stretch (about 7KM of ascents and descents) I begin to see more people, a lot more, and as I approach I stumble upon about a hundred grazing water buffalo, famous to this region but a bit surprising considering we’re in the mountains. The buffalo are apparently a nuisance for hikers as they block trails and litter overlook rest areas with their dung. Save for some stray cats outside Fulong, this wraps up the Caoling Flora Fauna Report.

At one particular overlook I meet another solo walker, Ricky, from Taipei. I ask him to take a picture with my camera (as seen below) and offer the same service. We begin chatting in English and end up walking the remaining three and a half hours together.

Mind you, I could have easily done the universally recognized reverse peace sign/Nixon victory finger salute

Ricky, a 29-year-old computer programmer from the Yongan neighborhood in Taipei, tells me he is always looking for ways to escape the busy city and get into the mountains. He studied English and Computer Sciences at University and took a job that he tolerates but does not love, a norm with people his age he tells me. His English is surprisingly good and when I tell him this he always responds with a, “no way! I only know little bit.” When I tell him towards the end of the trail, “Listen Ricky, we just spent nearly four hours talking about a wide range of advanced topics in English, and I understood everything you had to say,” his humbleness quickly changes to pride.

Along the way I ask him about life in Taipei, his travels around the island and Northeast Asia. We discuss the cuisine of Taiwan. He tells me where his favorite hole-in-the-wall haunts and night markets are. We discuss America, President Obama, Chicago style deep-dish pizza, which he can’t seem to comprehend (“Chicago pizza is how big??” making hand motions) and baseball (I of course realize that not only does he know more about modern American baseball than I do but he is also more familiar with the Cubs and White Sox’s current lineup). Strike three.

Ricky tells me that he would love to do exactly what I am doing, that is take off for a year to travel and explore different cultures, but he said that it is very hard to leave family for long periods of time. If I haven’t mentioned already, family is very important to the Taiwanese. Most of the young people in this country live with their parents till they’re into their late twenties, often later. Sundays are often reserved for meals or an outing with relatives, and it is frowned upon to leave home for extended period of times (students studying abroad in the U.S. or Europe are exemptions, especially for those seeking two-year master degrees abroad). He tells me that when he is older he would very much like to see more of the world and I tell him that he is welcome in Chicago any time. The deep dish will be on me.

The Earth God shrine was surprisingly a bust. Basically just another picnic table rest stop.

By the time we reach Fulong (it should be noted that while the last hour was all downhill, the steep descent, mainly on jagged stone steps, reeks havoc on the knees) we are both pretty exhausted but proud of our accomplishment. Ricky tells me that he’s only done this trail twice before but never all the way through.

We grab some drinks and a snack at Fulong, which by 7PM is a bustling mess of sunburned beachgoers and locals all waiting for the train home. It turns out Ricky was on the same train earlier in the day and tells me that the government should run more trains on holidays but sadly do not leaving travel a constant hassle. He ends up setting us up on a better, faster train home (with fewer stops and reserved seats!) for the same price as the earlier train. When I ask him why he didn’t take the nicer train earlier from Taipei to Daxi, he rather oddly replies, “Oh, it doesn’t work like that.” I will get to the bottom of the train system on this island soon enough. 

On the relaxing ride back we continue talking about Taiwanese culture and its history. He gives me a brief but thorough cram course in the island’s geopolitics over the years, starting with the Portuguese and Dutch explorers/settlers, carrying on through China and Japan’s occupation up until Taiwan’s current status as a breakaway republic of the mainland. We discuss the various islands off the coast of Taiwan, some off-the beaten path havens for indigenous Taiwanese tribes, others military bases. He also makes it a point to go through my guide book and correct a number of key vocab words that Lonely Planet managed to fudge up, mainly pertaining to traditional Taiwanese cuisine. 

At Taipei Main Station we exchange cell numbers and plan on meeting at some point for dinner. He tells me that there are all kinds of local dishes that most foreigners never find but are very popular with locals. Perfect.

Ricky is yet another example of the kindness found with the Taiwanese. I am constantly approached by locals of all ages wondering where I’m from or what I’m doing here in Taiwan. All are legitimately interested and everyone is welcoming to their country’s guests.

I get back to my apartment completely spent. On the way I grab some dumplings and have every intention to relax and eventually pass out. My housemate Ant has other plans for me. 

Ever since arriving in Taiwan I have been keen on finding good live music venues and up until this evening I had my doubts that such a place existed. Enter The Wall, Taipei’s gritty underground punk and drum & bass hall. 

I meet up with Ant, a fellow Kiwi named Steven (who shares similar tastes in music and runs his own Taipei live music blog, Gig Guide), and two Chinese-American girls from Northern California. Jenn has been here for at least four years, Lisa for three and both are thrilled to show me, “the newbie,” the ropes.

Ant, Jenn, & Lisa, plus  my usual stupid, non-photogenic pseudo-gang hand sign – Photo c/o Jenn C. 

The Wall is officially my new favorite nightlife destination. The subterranean bar has the feel of Chicago’s Metro theater–small, intimate setting with a decent crowd of music enthusiasts. We arrive for the final set of a local DJ, who in ten minutes manages to trump all the previous DJ’s I’ve seen at local nightclubs, the majority of whom play nothing but recycled 90s hip-hop and the occasional Kylie Minogue record. Next up, an all female electro punk ensemble, Go Chic.

Nice.

The next group, an ensemble from Glasgow, Scotland called Shit Disco play a four-hour DJ set. The Carlsberg was flowing, the bass was loud enough to make your nostrils itch, and everyone was dancing. All in all, a perfect end to one of the better days here in Taiwan.

Photo c/o Jenn C.

Up next, The Dragon Boat Race, A Day in the Life, Tales From Beginner’s Chinese Vol. 1, Culinary Adventures #2: The Lunch Box, and Singing the Ghostbuster’s Theme Song at a Giant Karaoke Bar with two Indonesian girls, a Handful of Taiwanese, a Guatemalan, and a Cheap Bottle of Taiwanese “Whisky.” Who ya gonna call.

Adventures From Week Two

Week Two:

Settle In – Start Teaching – A Trip to the Hospital – Bike the Riverfront – A Hike in the Mountains – World’s Tallest Mall

It’s okay for a 25-year-old to have a blue Snoopy pillow, right? Buying bedding for my new room was a bit more difficult with the language barrier. The bed in my room came as is: desk, wardrobe, mattress, chair, and the occasional fly. I had been told that any night market would have a store with sheets etc. I settled on a small neighborhood joint near my apartment, where I figured prices would be cheaper. I was able to tell the nice (and patient) lady that my bed was a double size but somehow I still managed to walk away with two fitted sheets and a baby blue pillow with Peanut’s beloved beagle plastered all over it. Walking down the street carrying my purchases definitely made me stand out more than usual. Still I had my sleeping arrangements down. 

My apartment was a perfect choice all around. For starters my roommates are all very friendly and have been showing me some of the ropes around the area. The rent is low, my room is quite spacious, and the location is ideal–an eight minute walk to the MRT station, close to a nice riverside park and tucked away down a quiet alleyway, away from loud scooters and serious foot traffic.

As you can see from the photos the living room is guarded by two Japanese Samurai suits of armor, which Ant (the Kiwi) picked up in Japan a while back. There is also a Zeus statue that may or may not have once been an elaborate lamp of sorts. My bed is basically a box spring thrown on the floor, though it surprisingly did not take long for me to become accustomed to such rigid sleeping habits. I found out that the Taiwanese sleep on bamboo bedrolls that are supposedly good for the back and actually cools you down when you are sleeping.

A good night’s rest was needed for my first week of actual classes. Actually I have a fairly easy schedule with only afternoon classes (4:30-8:30), save for the unfortunate 9am-3pm schedule on Saturday mornings, which includes an early class for incoherent zombie 8th graders, followed by a two-hour unpaid break, and then my only Kindy class for a six energetic five-year-old girls. 

My first week goes well. Much of the curriculum is by the books so that as long as I cover all the material at hand, I’ve done my job. There is room for adding your own two cents and coming up with clever ways to convey certain sentence patterns and grammar points is entirely up to the teacher. 

I’m thinking I’ll eventually get around to writing an entire entry devoted to what goes on in the classroom, but until then I’ll give you a basic rundown: All classes start with a vocabulary quiz of words from past lessons and homework. This is followed with the reading exercise of the day. Depending on the class this could be a short passage taken from a workbook or a short children’s book. For my more elite Treehouse class (I have them three days a-week as opposed to the others which I get once-a-week) they have a series of short books including the current Candy Disaster, which follows closely the adventures of a brother and sister team as they navigate their way through Toffee Typhoons, Chocolate Fondue Volcanos, Cotton Candy Tornados etc. 

In another class we read about Jesse Owens’ triumphant gold medal sweep at the historic 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Trying to explain to a class of puzzled kids how Owens’ victory was a humbling moment for the Nazis was as difficult as explaining to them (in simple English mind you) who this man Hitler was. Can you say H-O-L-O-C-A-U-S-T? Heavy reading choice if you ask me.

The students seem to like me and while most of them know my name by now, there are a couple of troublemakers who still insist on calling me Teacher Water. All of the students pick their “Western” names at an early age, which still manages to surprise me. I have a chatty gal in my Treehouse class named Apple. There’s Rock, a lethargic gentleman who sleeps through my Saturday morning class. A bright lad named Gilbert has a promising grasp of the language. Gigi, Cherry1 and Cherry 2 (or Little Cherry as we call her) like to gossip in my Thursday afternoon class while Angel and Mitch are both brownnosers. Anyway, you understand why taking attendance the first week was a treat. 

I am still in the process of obtaining my ARC card or Taiwanese work permit, an essential document that allows me to stay in the country past my 60-day tourist visa. Part of this procedure meant getting a health exam, you know, to make sure I don’t teach these kids English and what contracting Swine Flu feels like. 

Taiwan has universal healthcare and from what I hear, it is quite good. On a Wednesday I am asked to come to school early to leave enough time to make a trip to the hospital. My co-worker Calvin has been helping me with all my transitions so he is in charge of making sure the check-up goes accordingly.

Calvin, like most Taiwanese, is the proud owner of a scooter. The hospital is at the other end of town. Upon arriving to the school I am handed a child-sized Pokemon bike helmet and told not to move while in transit. With an enthralled Pikachu covering my skull and my legs crammed on the side of a bike clearly made for one, we ride. 

Scooters are everywhere in Taipei and no doubt play a large part in the city’s smogosphere. The trip to the hospital can only be described as exhilarating. Every turn is a close call with fellow riders. Buses ride our tail at red lights. At one point we pass a savvy individual carrying two propane tanks on his bike, most likely for his food stall stove. While normally the sight of a scooter bomb would make me a bit nervous I can’t help but think, wow this is a lot of fun! At times red lights don’t imply stopping. Left hand turns are a free for all. One treacherous pothole and I’d bounce off the back of the scooter like a bucking steed throwing his rider.

The hospital is more of an efficient medical procedure factory. I go through some basic paperwork and pay a standard NT$700 (a little over $20 USD) visitation fee. The first exam tests my height and weight, which gets a “wow! You are tall.” from Calvin. Then my vision and hearing are given the okay. After this I am asked a series of questions pertaining to my health history. I am led to the X-Ray room where they do a full scan of my chest, I suppose to make sure I am, in fact, human or to ensure that I am not playing host to some alien chestburster. When I explain to Calvin that in the states X-Ray tests are generally not common practice in routine physical exams, he asks, “well, why not?” Then we get into a discussion about the monetary highs and lows of the American Healthcare System while waiting in line for the lady with the long needle to work her magic. 

After a blood test and with a sore shoulder, we hit the scooter and return to school. With a valid work permit I am granted full healthcare coverage, including dental. If I were to get hit by a reckless scooter driver a trip to the hospital will be fully covered by the government. I pay $200 a month from my paycheck (roughly $7USD). 

I celebrated my 25th birthday here in Taipei, an age that doesn’t really hold a lot of meaning to me. My theory is once you reach the goal age of 21 each subsequent birthday is just a reminder of how much older you are. While I was hoping for some rustic facial hair for my birthday, possibly a goatee, I settle for the thoughtful cake and Happy Birthday serenade I receive at the school. I learn that it is custom to eat cake with a toothpick and that it is also a Taiwanese custom to applaud someone on their birthday, as was the case with all of the students in the building. For example, if I walked to the bathroom during break I was followed by the sound of hands clapping. Great job, you’re about to have a piss!

Calvin gave me his old and untouched bicycle for my birthday, a Taiwanese version of a Huffy. A generous offering I must say. One day I casually expressed the desire to find a bike in Taipei. It could be Calvin had been waiting for someone to unload his bike on. Perhaps who is just that nice. Anyway, the bike is made for someone half my size, but I of course accept the gift and later have a fairly difficult ride home.

The school is a good 30-minutes from my apartment by train and there is a riverside bike path route that I assume would take about an hour to complete. The bike, I discover, has brakes but everything else is a mess. The seat cannot be raised and the gears don’t exactly do what they’re supposed to. As a result the ride home takes roughly two-hours, includes having to backtrack a bit to find the bike path entrance and reeks havoc on my knees. Remember the clowns at the circus that ride the mini bikes with their legs hanging off the side, well that’s me. I don’t even get a bell to truly make my presence known as I breeze along the path with normal bikes passing me at every chance.

Taipei has a fairly extensive system of bike paths that run along the rivers that bisect the city. The trails aren’t exactly the picturesque as you pass under giant bridges and industrial waste pipes, but the fact that the Taiwanese have a chance to have peaceful rides is nice.

Note that on this particular afternoon it was particularly overcast with a chance of pollution. 

The bike will do for around the neighborhood, but I would still like to eventually get an actual Warner size set of wheels to really take advantage of the bike friendly part of the Taipei.

On Sunday, my only full day off in the week, I check out one of the Taipei’s many hiking trails, which, like the bike paths, offers residents an escape from the hectic and polluted city life. Taipei is built around mountains and hills and the city has done an amazing job keeping the trails up and running. One minute you’re staring down a scooter’s exhaust pipe, the next moment you’re in the tranquil surroundings of the mountains overlooking the city below. The air is cleaner, or at the very least, a lot more lush and the only faint sounds heard are those of birds and large insects chirping. Along the way I come across a giant ass spider (seen in the photo below), some equally large caterpillars and two Taiwanese women who start up a conversation in English with me, which eventually morphs into a free English lesson. I am hoping to hit up all the trails in the city, which, according to my map, includes at least 20.

My final tourist moment of the week was a trip to Taipei 101, the massive edifice that can be seen pretty much anywhere in the city. The 101 is currently the world’s tallest building although once Dubai’s Burj mega-building is completed Taipei will forfeit this fairly meaningless title.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

From an engineering standpoint the skyscraper is a modern marvel (after all the Taiwanese were able to successfully build the tallest building in a region known for its Typhoons and Earthquakes). The building has a large spherical tuned mass damper suspended from the 92nd to the 88th floor that acts as a pendulum and balances the building during high-winds or earthquake tremors. They say it is the world’s most stable building.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

The building’s inside is fairly underwhelming mainly housing various offices. On the ground floors there is a run-of-the-mill shopping mall, a number of high-end restaurants (one which curiously uses Picasso’s Guernica painting as its welcome emblem) and a massive global food court.

The Taipei 101 Marketplace may be the building’s one impressive feature. The sprawling eatery has just about everything you could imagine and more. Want some spicy Malaysian laksa? Care for some sushi served on a conveyor belt? Even the grocery store had an array of international goodies ranging from New Zealand packaged meat to a Korean kimchi bar.

The area surrounding the 101 is definitely Taipei’s wealthiest borough and was worth a walk-through but is forgettable compared to the city’s smaller neighborhoods. Taipei 101 is one of those tourist trips that all must take at some point. Do I see myself going back to the area any time soon? Probably not, in case, of course, I’m in desperate need of a Versace suit.

Up next, do the Taiwanese like dogs? Also, more adventures in Taipei’s culinary underbelly, more Canadians, and an examination of bubble tea.

Until next time, your teaching extraordinaire and scooter enthusiast. Keep On Keeping On

Can anyone guess what this curious subway ad is selling?