Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Day 2

Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Day 2

Taxi Cab Confessions—Bus to Malacca—A Mosque—Curry Under the Finger Nails—A Disappointing Chinatown—David Byrne—Strange Fruit—Tales From Kampung Baru Night Market: First Night— Hookah and Tim Allen—The Durian Nightcap

When making plans for Kuala Lumpur, I gave myself an extra day to venture out of the city. I knew the main focus of this trip would be KL and all its glory, but what about the rest of Peninsular Malaysia? I went through my Lonely Planet, talked with a friend who traveled in Malaysia last fall, and ultimately settled on the former colonial port town of Malacca, from which the Straights of Malacca are named.

This historical port city once served as the landing point for the Dutch and Portuguese to make their claims of parts of Malaysia for trade in the East Indies. The city, which is protected under UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, was written up as having a surprisingly European feel with all the diversity of modern day Malaysia. Situated a mere two hours south of KL by bus, it seemed like the perfect day trip and a chance to be near the coast.

I woke up twenty minutes before my alarm was set to chime due in part to an older Australian lady who checked into the mixed-dorm room at dawn and made all kind of ruckus. I would later run into said woman after showering, while I was applying my contacts at the communal sink and mirror.

“Oh my, you’re a tall boy, aren’t you?” she said padding my shoulders, mid left contact lens application.


I made casual small talk, trying to be friendly though I was not quite awake and ultimately granted her the podium. I gathered from her rambling story that she was on an extended two-four month tour of Southeast Asia, solo, and had just come down from Thailand where she told me she has many friends. The woman seemed friendly enough, albeit a bit chatty for 7:00 in the morning. I’m always impressed at the older travelers you meet in hostels, which are no longer globally type-casted as Youth Hostels. Most older wanderers either fall into the category of veteran travelers who favor lively hostel settings to lonely hotel rooms or of travel newbies who seem to be touring to fulfill the “better late than never” mentality.

As I gathered my day pack and was heading out of the dark dorm room, I passed her in the long hostel corridor heading towards our slumbering room in a long white nightgown with two shopping bags full of 7-11 goods. I pitied the sleeping souls who were about to awake to plastic bag wake-up call she was surely going to issue onto the fellow travelers.

I caught a taxi to the bus station and was pleasantly surprised to find the driver spoke perfect English and was instantly curious to talk to me. The man was from KL, originally, but had spent much of his life working on a freight-shipping vessel that took him all over the world. He instantly had an opinion of Chicago, a city he had stayed in back in the 70s after living in New York City with a brother for six months.

He told me that I would like Malacca and recommended that I take advantage of the seafood offerings. I told him that wouldn’t be a problem.

He seemed excited to talk about world travel and I got the feeling that while he was happy in KL with his family and his job (he hinted to making a decent living working as a driver and owning a shop on the side) he enjoyed the freedom of his shipping days, particularly pulling into foreign ports. It was obvious that man had a number of stories he was dying to share but sadly the cab ride only lasted ten minutes.

The bus to Malacca was uneventful, though the scenery shifted from the suburban sprawl of KL to lush rolling green hills and palm trees that seemed to go on forever in every direction. The main bus terminal for Malacca was actually outside of the town’s center, which meant I had to find a local bus to take me into the town. Here’s where the trip started to get interesting.

The local bus fare rang up to about 20 US cents and my carriage to the city looked like it had seen better days. Aboard were several Muslim women in headscarves, including one woman’s daughter who navigated her way around some melted pocket chocolate for the majority of the ride. A loud Chinese gentleman made his presence known early on and continued to chat with people around him (his is the louder voice heard in the video below).

I reached the city center and instantly realized that this was a hot spot for tourism. In the city’s main square, which is situated around the Christ Church that was built by Dutch settlers circa the mid 18th century, there were countless Chinese and Indian tourists with cameras perusing the local market and pricing the many bicycle rickshaws that run tours of the city.

The rickshaws were especially fun to watch. Most were ornately decorated with colorful flowers, umbrellas and many were outfitted with some sort of make-shift speaker system that blasted obnoxious Western and Eastern pop music, as if the drivers were competing for loudest bike. One nervous-looking older Western couple seemed unsure of their rickshaw choice as they were pedaled away to Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” blaring from the sleigh’s florally vibrant canopy.

Malacca is a charming city that does truly have a European feel to it. It’s a bit overrun by tourists but there are still untouched sections of the village that are perfect for the more ambitious walker. Malacca’s most obvious connection to Europe comes not from the Dutch and Portuguese architecture but rather from the fact that the city is built around a series of canals and river boardwalks, all of which flow into the Straights.

I checked out the usual sights–the aforementioned Christ Church, a Portuguese fort, a shipping vessel turned museum on water, and the Stadhuy town hall. The most striking sights were the two major Mosques in Malacca, the Tranquerah and Kampung Hulu Mosque, both fully active and quite beautiful.

At the Kampung Hulu Mosque I came across a Muslim man throwing buckets of water on a car parked outside the Mosque entrance. I watched for a good ten minutes from across the street as the man would casually walk out with a plastic pale full of water, throw the contents all over the car’s hood and windshield, all while mumbling something to the driver. He would then return to the Mosque’s cleansing pool to refill. I’m not sure if the car wash was out of anger for her parking choice or if he was truly cleansing the woman’s Nissan hatchback.

Inside the Mosque I did my best to keep myself out of sight, out of mind. The aforementioned water thrower was very kind and told me to meander around even before I had a chance to ask. There were men conversing on the outside porch, a woman and her kids were in a small female prayer room off to the side and one long-haired man was praying near a large drum situated above the main entrance gate.

After wandering around Malacca’s Indian neighborhood I found a small restaurant that looked promising, that is to say there were a number of people eating at long, communal tables.

The food was served on large banana leaves and not a single person was seen using a fork. Custom calls for using your right hand to scoop the food into your mouth, usually by taking clumps of rice or bread to soak up the sauces. The technique is a lot harder than it sounds as you must rely partially on gravity to help drop the food from the hand to the mouth.

I ordered banana leaf rice, which includes rice or freshly baked nan bread and FOUR different side dishes, which are spooned onto the leaf by a man carrying a giant metal tiffin set. Later another more flesh oriented waiter comes around with various meat, vegetable and fish dishes that have already been prepared and portioned out for guests. I was given a fork without even asking for one but decided to do like the locals and dove in, my left hand sitting idle to the side.

Picking up the rice proved to be harder than I had thought, especially after a waiter poured a hefty portion of steaming lentils over the then nicely clumped rice, as if to challenge my competence. The experience felt primitive in a good way.

After I gorged myself on spicy curried lamb and fresh fish, cucumber salad, lentils, and various stewed vegetables I headed back out to explore. My stomach was full, my pores were sweating turmeric and there was a good deal of curry getting cozy under the fingernails.

After seeking out Malacca’s other notable Mosque I headed towards Jonker Street, also known as Malacca’s Chinatown. The main drag was flooded with window shoppers and was clearly the one part of the city that was truly overrun by tourists.

Tacky gift shops ran most of the street. Every restaurant advertised chicken rice ball, the unofficial delicacy of Malacca’s Chinatown. One thing I’ve noticed having lived in East Asia for the past seven months is how locals here are drawn towards anything that is advertised as being a specialty. Long lines immediately constitute a place as being, “a must-visit” and hype goes a long way.

Taiwan’s many regions and cities are all famous for one or more items that one must either buy or see when visiting. If you visit say, for example, the port city of Keelung north of Taipei it is expected that you seek out the Keelung sandwich, a greasy donut like submarine roll that is slathered with mayonnaise, sprinkled with diced cucumber, green tomatoes, and given a helping serving of hard-boiled eggs and Chinese sausage. It doesn’t matter if said sight or delicacy is good or not, it’s expected that as a tourists you must make the pilgrimage to seek it out. The same applied to Jonker Street, particularly with the Chicken Rice Ball. At one particularly restaurant it looked as if an entire tour bus of Chinese tourists had been dropped off in front of the building and were waiting to taste what this place (most likely written up in a guide of some sorts) had to offer.

I wandered around for another hour or so snapping pictures and popping in various shops. There were a number of cool antique stalls selling relics of the old Malaysia, particularly cool hard currency from yesteryears. Still, all goodies were being sold for antique prices.

Eventually, I made my way back to the Christ Church where the city bus had dropped me off. At around 4PM there were already a number of travelers waiting to get back to the central bus station for a return to either KL or possibly down south to Singapore. It should be noted that the city bus ride TO Malacca’s center took roughly 20 minutes or so. The trip back to the bus station during Malacca’s “rush hour” would’ve taken up to an hour, maybe longer, according to the ticket seller and another passenger who spoke perfect English. Understandable considering Malacca’s tight European streets aren’t made for giant busses and hundreds motorbikes to share.

Knowing that I had to be back for the 5PM bus back to KL that I had already bought a ticket for, I jumped off the bus and walked to a cab stand of sorts to flag a taxi to the station.

The first driver who saw me instantly flagged me over and started his engine. He gave me a good price up front to get me to the station and assured me that I would definitely make my bus.

“No problem. We fly there. You’ll see,” he said.

The driver was friendly in a casual sort of way, jumping right into the basic precursors to small talk. I told him where I was from in the States, what I was doing in Taiwan, and why I had come to his country. While he hadn’t traveled to Chicago, the city’s reputation preceded him. He even referenced John Dillinger, which may or may not be a result of the recent Johnny Depp Dillinger film, considering the biggest gangster reference linked to Chicago is always Al Capone.

We chatted about Malacca and K.L. His name, I would learn, was Pak Frankee and besides driving the taxi (which he said was merely a part-time gig for supplementing his income) he ran boat trips over the Malacca Strait into Indonesia, ran a hostel in Malacca and also conducted jungle tours of the Cameroon Highlands in inner-Southwest Malaysia. Like the driver before him who had taken me to the bus station in KL, it was clear this man had his share of stories to share. One in particular caught my attention instantly.

“Do you know David Byrne? Musician. From America,” the driver said, as my ears perked up with intrigue.

“Well, it just so happens…” I said, carrying on about my lifelong admiration for Byrne and Talking Heads.

Turns out Pak Frankee once gave David Byrne a ride from Kuala Lumpur into the Cameroon Highlands for a jungle trek to record orangutan sounds. While he couldn’t recall the exact year he said he thought it was in the early-80s, right around the time Byrne was wrapping up Talking Heads’ masterpiece, Remain in LIght, as well as 1981s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, his “recorded-sound collaboration with Brian Eno that prominently features found sounds recorded around the world and paired with synthesizer symphonies.

Frankee told me that Byrne (who was also accompanied by his girlfriend at the time) was “down to earth,” his words, and that he was very interested in learning about Frankee’s life and the history of the region.

The story was too bizarre to be made up (and Byrne is too abstract an artist for Frankee to just make the story up, had he said say, Michael Jackson or Jon Bon Jovi, I might have called his bluff). The ride to the bus station was enjoyable and when I was let off a part of me wanted to find out more. He gave me his card and told me that if I were ever back in Malaysia that I should call him out for a tour. I will take him up on this offer should I ever return.

After a long and rainy bus ride back to KL through rush hour traffic, I met Stuart at the hostel and we set out for a late dinner at the nearby Kampung Baru night market that the proprietor of the hostel told me was a must-eat destination.

Night markets in Asia just might be the single greatest culinary offering to the world. They are bustling havens where eating is not merely a refueling for the body but rather an exploration for the taste buds. While I am spoiled here in Taiwan with the plentiful night markets at my disposal, the Kampung Baru market ended up being the highlight of my trip to Malaysia and would be the one constant throughout the rest of my time in KL.

The market, which runs the length of three fairly unassuming streets in Chow Kit is an amalgamation of different cuisines, often all sharing the same roof. A fruit and meat market lies at its entrance offering a multitude of bizarre fruit choices, including one that both Stuart and I were virgins to.

Photo c/o Stuart Wallace

The small, hard fruit called salak looks like a medium garlic clove that has been covered with reptile skin, creating something that is truly unique to Southeast Asia, possibly only in Malaysia. The taste was bitter sweet, with a hint of banana, which is why, I suppose, one online blogger referred to the fruit as “a banana wrapped in a snakeskin”. I ate what I could but was ultimately more excited about the prospects of trying a new fruit than the actual flavors the salak had to offer.

For our proper dinner we settled on the first open-air seating establishment we could find that smelled good and more importantly had people eating. Our first stop was commenced with a toast of teh tarik frothy tea and two steamy bowls of peasant soup–one with the always good base of oxtail, the other a sour seafood stew.

Moving on with bellies not quite content, we stopped at a place across the street that sold grilled whole fish of the mysterious family. Served with a bit of spicy soy on the side, the fish was fresh with a nice hint of smokiness. By this time it was about 9:45 and the places around us were packed with locals socializing and eating.

Afterwards, we moved to a larger open-air food bazaar that had a large projection screen TV playing local KL channels. It makes sense that the satay man and his makeshift habachi grill was set up at the market’s entrance, and it makes even more sense that without thinking we ordered up fifteen pieces of the mixed variety. At pocket change prices, these glorious skewered offerings were more like meat lollipops.

We ordered some regular hot tea (which we found out would be sweet nevertheless) and sat near a hookah stall in the corner while Tim Allen’s 1994 “everyday man becomes Santa Claus” family comedy, The Santa Claus was projected onto the large screen for the mostly Muslim audience to enjoy.

We shared a fruit-flavored nargila, which used a piece of fresh pineapple as the base for the tobacco and coals to burn, over conversation and the reality that yeah, we’re sitting in Kuala Lumpur, smoking, eating skewered meat and looking at the Petronas Towers lighting the distant sky to comfort us. The scene was perfect and we knew that we would return again, and as it turns out, again until we both left the city.

After a couple of hours we decided to head back, first insisting on stopping at an equally bustling stall across the way that sold freshly baked, sweet rodi bread with a standard yellow curry for dipping. On the walk home we tested our stomach’s durability one last time with a night cap of “The King of Fruits” and a staple of Malaysia: the durian.

Photo c/o The Internet

The durian is the kind of fruit that makes you wonder, “who ever thought to eat it this bizarre alien fruit?” For starters, the fruit’s spiky exterior shell places it nicely in the “treacherous-poke-your-eye-out” genus of weird Asian super fruit. The fleshy interior, which has the feel of three-day-old pudding skin, emits an odor that can be best described as ass meets rot. Still, the taste is something truly unique and dare I say, besides the mess involved with eating this fruit, it’s pretty good. I had had durian in Taiwan but Malaysia is where it reigns king and the quality and freshness was unprecedented.

Content and exuding funkiness from our pores, we returned to the hostel, checked email and eventually crashed for some much needed rest before another adventure in KL the following, Christmas Day!

To be continued…


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Hong Kong Part II

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

Part II

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

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.

Fruit vendors, miscellaneous dry goods sellers and knock-off purse pushers occupied the second floor, which only required a quick walkthrough. The third floor is where the magic was though.

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

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.

Jesus. Michael Jackson.

I stumbled upon a Church of Nazarene on my way to work the other day. The dancing, the pink shirts, the electric drum set, it was almost too much to take in. The voice you hear is a recruiter trying to woo to an evening concert. Further down the street was an Episcopal Church.

Michael Jackson’s passing disproved any theories that his popularity had diminished since his goblin transformation and various courtroom battles. I stumbled upon this tiny music vendor in the middle of a nigh market who has been playing this Jackson concert DVD in a loop since his death. I had some time to kill so I watched a version of “Black Or White” (clip from the nostalgic music video starring a young Macaulay Culkin precedes the actual performance), stayed on for the following performance of “Will You Be There” and eventually left during an over the top version of “Beat It” filmed in Bucharest, Romania of all places circa 1991-92.

I was not the only onlooker. Jackson’s passing has been a much needed reminder to how big he was on a global scale.

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.