China, Taichung, Taiwan, Uncategorized

Lost and Confused. Wandering around Taichung, Taiwan.

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Most travel blogs offer up splendid narratives of perfect trips to exotic locales.

We edit our memories and photoshop our pictures, to offer curated, professional presentations, free of embarrassments and blemishes.

Maybe a dash of Conde Nast pretense mixed with TripAdvisor exactness.  Dissect the grass-fed gastro-pub where you ate a fabulous, instagram-worthy meal.  Use the word “artisanal.”  Stay somewhere unique and picturesque.  A boutique hotel in a re-purposed nuclear cooling tower.  A treehouse over a Kirghiz goat abattoir.

Or a hipster heaven, with fantastic hallway art and organic hemp matting, known only to the cognoscenti.

Learn to pronounce cognoscenti, and make sure it means what you think, and isn’t some sort of pasta.

Model the llama wool & gum wrapper serape you discovered at a haute couture shop, with unique designs-for-the-skeletal.

 

This story is not like that.

This is a tale of misadventure, confusion, poor planning, and random wandering . Two regular schmoes who really shouldn’t be allowed to go around the block on their own.  And a weird non-place that turned out to be not-quite-Taichung.

In the old days, they’d call it “A Cautionary Tale.

Wikipedia lists three elements to such a tale:

> A taboo, prohibition, or danger is stated.

> A narrative of someone disregarding the warning.

> And finally, the good part, the payback, comeuppance, karma-is-a… well, you get the idea.   “An unpleasant fate…frequently related in expansive and grisly detail.

OK, expansive I can do, but in fact, I kind of had a pretty good time, and nothing grisly to report, other than sometimes the chicken soup.

Both of us in the story are from New York, so by birth we’re pretty comfortable with chaos, snafus, fubars, foul-ups, and general weirdness.  Kind of bummed there’s no “gruesome or disgusting imagery” to reinforce the taboos, but I’ll work on that in my next story.  Maybe visit New Jersey.

But let’s get this ramblin’ wreck on the road…

While spending a semester at a university in Hong Kong, I impulsively booked a last-minute trip to Taiwan with my new friend Elliot, a fellow New Yorker, also in HK for a semester.

I hadn’t really planned on visiting Taiwan. But as I had no money to fly further afield, didn’t have the right papers to get into the Mainland, and had a busy school workload, it seemed like a decent idea for a 3-day weekend.  It was only an hour-and-a-half flight.

[ Violation of Taboo/Warning “Be Prepared”]

We didn’t do too much research, just saw that it had some cool attractions, found a cheap flight & cheaper hostel, which looked ok on the website, and off we went, with only the slightest grasp of Cantonese, even less Mandarin, no Lonely Planet guide, etc. that’s for wimps.

In the thinking part of my brain, otherwise not involved in this trip, Taiwan also attracted me as sort of a political enigma, a country no longer recognized by the U.N. since 1971 — a strange entity, which is sure of itself and its independence, but which the rest of the world isn’t sure how to categorize.  A complex history of colonialism, mixed cultures, authoritarianism, and democracy.

Taipei is the bustling and touristy capitol, home to one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, a thriving food scene, and a huge international destination for tourists starting their Asian grand tour.

So we didn’t go there.

We picked the third-largest city, in the island’s center, called Taichung.

So.  As far as our plans to see stuff, this trip was…not great.  In fact, as far as seeing the stuff we wanted to see, that part, totally crapped out.

 

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[Narrative of the Doomed & Clueless Wanderers] 

No problem finding a taxi at the airport.  But getting the driver to understand where we were heading was tough. Cantonese was useless, and Elliott repeated the basic phrases he knew in Mandarin, to no avail. The taxi driver, a very patient man, finally pulled out a list of all the hotels/hostels in Taichung with their English translations. We looked the list over and over three times each, and our hostel wasn’t on the list. Already a bad sign.

I kept showing the driver a paper copy of the reservation, with the name and address, until he finally, vaguely, seemed to grasp that (1) we wanted to go there, and (2) we wanted him, specifically, to drive us there.

So then, we drove, for what seemed like a very long time.  And finally arrived, we supposed, at the address on the reservation.

We had a minor problem.

The hostel was gone.

Not in the sense of a business changing hands and becoming a new sort of enterprise, but in the sense that this location was burned to the ground. Gone, baby, gone.

The three of us looked at the charred remains, and to his credit, the taxi driver seemed hesitant about leaving us, but finally seem to decide that he’d taken us to the address he’d been given, cabbie honor was satisfied, and he took off.

Elliot and I, having decided, or at least, decided to hope, that the hostel still existed, somehow, un-burnt, somewhere near, since we’d just been emailing back & forth  with a manager, so we walked around a bit, thinking that it wouldn’t be too hard to find out where it was.

Actually, we walked around a lot.  Surprisingly, the hostel did not appear in front of us, like Brigadoon, at any time.  After calling the hostel several times, with no answer, I began to think that perhaps the building, and its phone, had in fact burned to the ground.

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We found a bus station, and thought that might be a likely place to find some information.  After wandering around the building for fifteen minutes,  we realized it was, actually, empty.  Completely un-staffed.  No one behind the desk, the bathrooms were empty, and the whole building was vacant.  Except for one corner, where we found a small family was watching TV, and very determinedly ignoring us.

Elliot’s smartphone could only be used with wi-fi, and then we realized something far worse. Even with a wi-fi connection, we simply could not pull up a useful map of the city, either GPS or digital.

Our theory:  the city is perpetually prepared for Mainland China to land paratroops and commandos at any moment, and so, like WWII Britain after Dunkirk, the locals had erased any directional aids.  Which made getting around nearly impossible.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but it is the most elegant excuse we’ve come up with, and I’ve grown fond of it, and intend to keep repeating it.  At this point, I realize, I, for one, believe it. Cool.

With this newly acquired skill, someday I can run for office.

(Maybe the idea of an information void, as part of a defense posture, is not such a crazy idea.  Even in an urban area, we passed countless fortified buildings surrounded by barbed wire, towers with guards, German Shepherds, glimpses of helmeted soldiers in barracks, and what looked like an antiaircraft missile battery.)

 

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Postcard “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here, where am I?”

 

So, we ended up walking the first day, for about eight hours, lugging around our backpacks,  increasingly disoriented. We could handle Hong Kong with its signs, lights, and generally English-speaking population. Here, we saw no other Americans or Europeans, no one seemed to speak any English at all, and all the maps and signs seemed wrong to us, perhaps deliberately misleading.

Hong Kong was eighty degrees (Fahrenheit),but this was a much colder city.  The polluted air, full of exhaust fumes, began to chill us. Seeking refuge from the cold and our endless walking, we wandered into what we discovered to be a “teddy bear” cafe.

Which might sound cute.

But it was not.  It was freaking terrifying.

Instead of a uniform, the staff wore giant teddy bear costumes.

Meant to look friendly, I guess, but they looked demented and I didn’t want them serving me, or watching me eat with their huge glassy eyes.

The food was excellent and reasonably priced. But we elected to eat outside in the cold.

To avoid the large and terrifying teddy bears.

 

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So after fleeing the teddy bears (looking over our shoulders for blocks, to make sure they didn’t follow) and more wandering around, we were actually happy to see something familiar, and stopped in a Starbucks.

Three things struck us:

1. They spoke English, but only enough to ask for money.

2. It was the first time we saw people who looked like us, except they were Russian tourists and claimed to speak no English (though I swear I heard them speaking it, as we walked away)

3. Starbucks had WiFi, warmth, and coffee.

So, it sounds dumb, but things turned around once we reached the bastion of overpriced western culture.  We were able to reach the hostel on a the phone, finally.  Elliot, speaking a mixture of English and bad Mandarin, while gesticulating wildly (which they couldn’t see, of course, as this was a phone call) was able to reach Eddie.

That was great.   Except, I wondered, who the heck was Eddie?

I had a confirmation from Charlie, the owner of the hostel. No one mentioned Eddie.

Eddie told us to walk back to the old hostel (he didn’t know where the Starbucks was it seemed) where we would be picked up.

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Following Eddie’s directions, we make it to the dark burned-out shell of the old hostel.  An all-black car pulls up. A black-tinted window rolls down (it was 10 pm and dimly lit) and a man with a black leather jacket and a wicked scar across his face, smoking an acrid-smelling cigarette, leans out to us. He tells us he is going to take us to the hostel, and I begin to wonder if this hostel is a mob-controlled front. I’m hesitant to get in, but Elliot, who’s from Staten Island and used to stuff like that, has already trundled inside with his backpack, and I felt my odds of survival were better with the two of us.

Reluctantly I jumped in, and we were off.  The car pulled up to a 7-11 store and parked. I thought perhaps the driver was stopping to grab something to drink, or a pack of cigarettes, or more ammo, but instead he tells us to get out. I looked at him and tried to explain that I wanted to go to the hostel, not to some grab-and-go store. He kept insisting we come with him.

Another chain-smoking, black leather jacket guy was waiting by the door. He followed us as we walked into the store, where the driver peeled off and disappeared. I had assumed that perhaps we would end up sleeping in the 7-11, because my attempts to explain what I wanted had taken me nowhere.

Instead the other guy walked us through the back of the 7/11 and into an unlit corridor. I stayed back, holding the door, assuming that this dark hallway was going to be the place where this gang liked to rob and murder tourists.  Instead, he turned on the light and the corridor turned out to be a courtyard full of about a dozen mopeds.

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There was no alley or gate, so apparently the mopeds went in and out through the 7-11.

(These bikes were everywhere during our visit, being driven badly, including zooming by us on the sidewalks going in both directions — it was insane.  The traffic cops must have a life expectancy of weeks – they’d yell, and wave their red batons, and no one gave them a glance.  It was like an out-of-control rehearsal for a budget version of The Wild One, that Marlon Brando motorcycle flick.  And apparently scooters are allowed in 7-11’s, too.  When they say Express Lane, they’re not kidding around.)

I still felt this was odd and began to protest that we were trying to get to our hostel, not a used moped lot, when he showed us an elevator. Elliot marched into it, and I decided, again, that it was better if I went along, so we didn’t get separated.

15 floors up, and there we were, at the hostel.

More surprises were inside. One, neither Eddie or Charlie was there, but instead, an old lady.  I believe she was their Mandarin-only-speaking mother.  She was friendly, but refused to give us the key to the private room, the room I had paid significantly extra for. Instead, we got a shared room, and despite showing the reservation to her, she just handed me the key without a word. We opened the door to find a large group of tourists.  They turned out to be pleasant folks from Taipei, and they volunteered to join their friends in another room.  So, in a sense, we got our private room. For one night, anyway.

The next two nights, to our horror, we were stuck with another American, who was also seemingly lost, some former-Marine-turned-unemployed-English-tutor, who was dejected and pretty drunk for two days running. He kept us up all night with his hiccups and his frequent trips to the bathroom.

So the hostel wasn’t all that great, and finding it had wasted almost a full day. But, we figured, the rest of the trip should be enjoyable.

In may ways, it was. Everyone was extremely friendly.  And we ate very well.  Everywhere we turned, there were places with delicious food.

In terms of everything else we’d expected to see (planned is just not the right word), not at all.

Always lost, and unable to find anyone to help us, we couldn’t find the museums, temples, I. M. Pei-designed chapel, or even the city center.  We basically wandered for hours and hours, among high-end malls and some of the most beautiful apartment highrises I’ve ever seen, dodging the damn motorbikes, and eventually gave up hope of seeing anything the city is known for. We followed the signs and yet never reached the destinations we headed towards. We marched on and were led in circles, being stared at and photographed endlessly the entire day.

People did double-takes, pulled out cameras, or held up their cellphones and peeked over them.  An old man watched us fixedly over his newspaper, but yanked it up in front of his face, whenever we turned his way.  When we’d look back, some would turn and watch our reflections in shop windows, like an old detective movie.

An old, old Nissan, maybe the original model, passed by, hit its brakes, and crawled by us. Five times.

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Finally we decided, late in the day, to  go to the famous Feng Chia Night Market, the largest in the country, actually found it, and enjoyed it a lot.  Especially since it involved more eating, including authentic Western food, which we’d been missing for a long time.  We had fantastic Italian food, which we’d both been missing;  the waitress could recite the menu in flawless English, but when we asked a question, we found she had simply memorized it, without any understanding of the language.

The next day we decided to  try to see something, in the vast nothingness we had wandered through, and so we ended up at a local pastry and coffee shop, where we were again photographed by the locals.  But we saw nothing else we’d hoped to see.

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[Comeuppance, Kismet, Fate, etc. ]

The punchline?

Back in Hong Kong, back in the world of Information, we researched to figure out what the heck had happened — and discovered the secret to this whole weekend.

We actually never reached the city proper.  We’d been wandering in a huge suburb.

This isn’t quite as dumb as it sounds.  Because it was so densely developed, chock-full of high-rise apartments,  shops, and parks, etc., we just assumed we were in the city itself.  The zone we wandered was a large as all of Hong Kong.

A fiasco, right?  Terrible. Dumb.  I don’t even have a big punchline – – nothing horrible happened.  Everyone was friendly.

We returned to Hong Kong, foot-sore, well-fed, bewildered.  But in some bizarre way, almost happy that we had done this trip this way. It became a bit of a joke. An unscripted adventure into a strange confusing place. Kind of the opposite of relaxing, and far removed from the great photo-sharing trips that people often force upon their hapless acquaintances, but it was such a strange place to us, it was interesting, we had a few laughs, enjoyed a lot of great food, stayed friends,  and that’s worth something, too.

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Hong Kong, horse racing, Study Abroad, travel

Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong Island.

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A Horse Race in China.

I believe that China has the most ardent gambling fans of any nation.

Americans like to gamble, but not like the Chinese — to them, it’s a basic, essential part of life, like fine food to the French, or dancing to the Spanish.  I suppose it stems from seeing life as a gamble — you have to take your chances, competing for a job when everyone else has exactly the same skills and mindset.  And in the industrial zones of China, your life is being gambled away for you, as you attempt to survive the job-site, the drinking water, and the air you breathe.

In Hong Kong, like everywhere in China outside of Macau, every form of gambling is outlawed — with one exception.

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The exception is the horse race. There are two racetracks in Hong Kong — both famous, world-class, and impressive.

My friends from Lingnan University decided to meet at the Happy Valley Racecourse, in the center of heavily-developed Hong Kong Island.  Happy Valley is home to the biggest single jackpot in the world for any horse racing event – 400,000,000.00 dollars.

L0055568 Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. Viewed from the hill. The village of Wong Nei Cheong can just be seen at the far end of the racecourse. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Racecourse, Happy Valley, 1868, credit John Thomson, Wellcome Library, London.

Originally, the land was swamp and rice paddies, appropriated by the British back in the 1800’s.  The city grew around it, and the track is now surrounded by skyscrapers.

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The owner of one building, a particularly enthusiastic fan of racing, built himself a penthouse with a special viewing balcony.

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The Tram. Looking a bit like J.K.Rowling’s Knight Bus

The trip there from the New Territories was an entertaining saga if its own — getting lost repeatedly, while trying various unique modes of transportation, including a 110-year-old tram.  Getting home took even longer,  and only people familiar with the absolutely indescribable impossibility of keeping any group of Asian college students on track and moving, can understand. (Because enjoying being together in the group is the goal and the reward, rather than actually getting anywhere in particular!)

The racetrack is an amazing sight in its own right:  7 stories of free seating, and 3 more decks for those who want to pay for the privilege of getting VIP seating. The stadium was also very Hong-Kongish in that it was full of food stalls that were randomly placed around the track, and simply full of people everywhere, tens of thousands. I don’t know the seating capacity, but it must have been in the hundred thousand range. In typical Asian fashion, it was crowded, full of animated conversations, clouds of cigarette smoke, and cell phone “Selfies” being taken.

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Having finally found the track, getting up to the seventh story to find our friends was a challenge in its own right — the elevators we found took us into the kitchens for some reason, and others were just for use during fires (which didn’t make sense to me, since in America elevators are what you don’t take when there’s a fire). So we took the stairs — also challenging — they were crowded with people, but none of them were actually going up and down.  The glitzy decor of the rest of the stadium wasn’t there, and the stairs were full of cigarette butts, old gum, torn-up betting slips, and countless people sitting quite comfortably on the steps smoking cigarettes, despite the signs saying: NO SMOKING. They clearly weren’t bothered by that. The looks they gave us seemed like they were daring us, “Go ahead, tell us to stop.”

When we arrived at the 7th tier, it hit me, that we were having a distinctly Hong Kong experience. Yes, there were about 10,000 reserved VIP seats, but really, as far as your neighbors at this track, all bets were off (pun not intended) — you could sit on the crowded benches literally rubbing elbows with a CEO on one side, and his shoe-shiner on the other.  It put everyone on an equal level.

 

Horse running Mulbridge LOCBetting was also interesting, as it was a very complex process. We had three Korean women in our group, who seemed to have mastered it with their system — they placed a bet on every single horse!  They were betting in several categories (win, place, show) and despite the initial cost, they won by default every single time, sometimes winning enough that’d they’d break even or even make a bit of money.

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The Lingnan U Betting Club

The most vivid memory from Happy Valley is something that screams “CHINA” to me. When we got to the final round of races, we all decided to place bets. I had been carefully studying the directory, and placed my bet on a favored horse to win. Everyone else was going to do the same, when a shirtless, mostly toothless old-looking man approached them. (This isn’t an uncommon sight in China, another difference between here and there). This man whispered in the ear of the Chinese-speakers and then stood behind them as they placed their bets. I thought he was just some oddball and then proceeded to watch the race.

Well, apparently he was a wizard. My horse lost by a hair, or a nose, to the horse that was the underdog — who was the one the old mysterious man had told my friends to bet on. He was right. They split the winnings (several thousand HKD) between them and had a great time rubbing it in my face.

They turned to thank the old man, and he had vanished. The time he disappeared was the only time that there was no crowd in our part of the stadium, so it seemed like he honestly vaporized into the night air. I don’t know why, but that disappearing old shirtless man is probably the most distinctive image I have of China, of all of the images I have saved mentally. It just seemed so incredibly Chinese to me, maybe because that does not happen anywhere else!

I didn’t need any time to realize that this was a distinctive experience — it struck me as suddenly as the little old man vanished. As we left, I was disgruntled over my lost bet, and my friends were ecstatic that they won (even though divided up, it came to very little money).  We walked out of the stadium through a literal downpour of papers from the betting tables. Showers of papers riding the humid air currents and slowly falling to earth closed the scene.

Of all the things I saw, felt, smelled, ate or heard, during my time in Hong Kong, this day was China.

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History, Hong Kong

Tai O

 

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Say “Hong Kong” and it summons images of skyscrapers, glistening and modern.

Every popular image of the city portrays an incredibly bustling and modern metropolis.

That is the image Hong Kong sells.

Hong Kong rocky coast

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But like anywhere that has been inhabited for thousands of years, the city has remnants of an older society, some hidden beneath the urban jungle, others overlooked on the periphery, but still very much alive.

 

HK fishing village 2One of these mysterious places, stuck in time, is Tai O, on Lantau Island.

 

The island is practically its own city-state, separate from Hong Kong in many ways, connected by a single bridge. Lantau, with its tiny population, seems distinct from the rest of the shiny metropolis, even from the less glamorous “New Territories.” Ironically, farther along the same coast from Tai O, is the city’s huge airport, built on fill into the ocean, and its convention/retail complex, even a golf course, swarming with trade shows, cable cars, etc.

And on Lantau’s southeast shore, in a beautiful region of pristine and mostly undiscovered beaches, hiking trails, mountains and small lakes, is Tai O, a village lost in an older day. It is a tiny enclave, partly on an island, along a little river where it enters the South China Sea, and almost walled off from the rest of Lantau by forests and mountains.

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Even though it’s become a tourist attraction over the years, its inhabitants almost treated as a spectacle, the village truly is existing in another era. The jets come in overhead night and day, but a visitor to Tai O encounters a fishing village virtually unchanged from those the British would have come upon, when they sailed into Hong Kong harbor in the nineteenth century.

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Yes, there are electric lights, fans, and motor boats, and cable TV in some houses. But Tai O is still very much stuck in its traditional, precarious ways — ramshackle houses perched perilously over semi-polluted water, threatening to collapse and be swept away, come the next typhoon. It’s said that every year there is a special evacuation for these people, during super storms, and many lose their homes. Despite this, and perhaps because of generous subsidies from the government, they’re able to continue living a traditional lifestyle. Their houses look both temporary, and at the same time, as if they have been there for many years. I assume their houses recycle materials from earlier, wrecked houses, but don’t essentially change.

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To get to Tai O, I joined a group of friends on a bus, hailed in Tung Chung, and we rode across Lantau on roads hacked into the volcanic mountainsides, at hair-raising speeds, taking the turns faster than I thought a bus could manage. When my eyes weren’t closed, I realized we were passing some beautiful areas, inaccessible by foot, with some of the most beautiful beach areas I’ve ever seen — found among the dense forest land and at the bottom of jagged volcanic mountains.

The bus ride, while fast and offering very pleasant views, remains in my mind as the longest ever, as I had stupidly chugged three bottles of water before I learned the drive was 90 minutes long. While everyone else was alternating between terror, and oohing and aahing over the countryside, I was concentrating on my bladder. By the time we arrived in Tai O, I ran as fast as I’ve ever moved towards the dimly-lit public bathrooms, usually avoided at any cost, but that day, not concerned about the smell, dirt, or anything else.

After surviving that terrible episode, the rest of the trip was great. We wandered around narrow alleys, between dingy houses, many on stilts, with shops selling fish, tourist items, and some wonderful restaurants (hole-in-the-wall but with amazing food and desserts).

There was even a tiny museum. Despite the number of outsiders roaming Tai O, the residents were not at all concerned by having people literally in their backyards, or front yards for that matter. Many of the houses, in the hot summer months, don’t have a complete fourth wall, so the section facing the street is half-exposed, giving us a view into their simple houses, like a series of stage sets. Living rooms, kitchens, and tiny dining areas were on display, with only the bedrooms and bathrooms thankfully covered by a wall. On some stretches, stepping aside to let someone pass, you’d nearly be standing in the living room, usually with a sweaty, shirtless fisherman lying on the couch staring at the TV. Truly a unique, albeit odd, experience.

fishing village 3 HKI realized how much the sea permeates the lives of these people. The souvenirs for sale were all sea-related: bits of decorated coral, lamps made from puffed up blowfish (grotesque), and even an entire dried shark for sale (I assume for eating, though it was looking a bit rough after days in the sun).

In the West, we often read about the impact of the oceans’ conditions on the people of distant countries. Those articles always meant very little to me — describing faraway lands, and lives that no one really thinks can be that primitive or dependent on the sea. And then you arrive in Tai O and see for yourself, that the ocean is everything for these people. A hard life. Many villagers looked wrung-out and fairly unhealthy, though strong, and yet, all had posters up in several languages: “Protect our oceans” “No pollution in the rivers” and “How to conserve our water”. To the villagers, their livelihoods and way of life, antiquated as they seemed, depended entirely on the oceans. And they see the oceans despoiled by foreigners and their own countrymen, even the other residents of Hong Kong.

The modern Hong Kong I was living in, seemed very distant at that moment. I think it’s not a perfect analogy, but I imagine the people on Kowloon or HK Island think of Tai O’s residents, in the same way we think about homeless people in the US. We’re slightly aware of them, but if possible, we pay them no attention. One difference, though — in the US, most people do not pay admission to visit the homeless encampments, while many urbanized Hong Kong’ers travel to tour this part of their city.

The folks in Tai O choose this lifestyle, and were taught their fishing skills by the generations before them. They choose a traditional lifestyle that does not require anything more than a no-frills home and a working boat. I also suppose that having typhoons and flood waters regularly knock your house to bits ( I could see the mud from the last flood on the walls of some houses), would make having a fancy house seem a bit pointless. These people are content to live simply, putting them totally at odds with every other person in Hong Kong, save perhaps for the “cage people” of Kowloon’s roughest slum.

We have people living “plain” lives in the US, and the Amish around my hometown are the first to come to mind. But the Amish generally live distant from major urban areas, while these people in Tai O, were a half-hour ferry ride from one of the world’s most advanced mega-cities.

I enjoyed visiting Tai O both as a tourist and as a historian. I was given the chance to see the Hong Kong that the first colonizers would have seen, a bit of the city that William Henry Seward would’ve seen in 1873 when he sailed in from India for a few days. It is one thing to see a museum display about Tai O (which you can visit at the Hong Kong Museum of History, and definitely worth a trip, too) but not the same as actually standing among villagers that are living much as they have for hundreds of years. It is still a living, unembellished village, and experiencing the honest-to-God, actual fishing families, living here in this old-fashioned style, was really cool.

The time-travel sensation was intensified by starting my day on alpha-city high-tech Hong Kong Island. Going from a cityscape like Central’s, modern and impressive, to a small collection of glorified huts on stilts, huddled along the edge of a volcanic mass on the Pacific, was really neat and further showed how China truly is the land of extremes.

Life in a fishing community is not for the sentimental.  Or the squeamish.  As we walked along the maze-like streets, looking at the houses and fishing huts, we passed by a small area where there had been a successful haul, and the fish were being stored in freezers. I watched a guy throwing live, still-flopping fish into the freezer, and we said, jokingly (a joke that the Hong Kong kids didn’t get, we realized) that the man doing that was “Ice Cold”. They didn’t get it. But, and despite how horrible it sounds, the best thing we saw was nearby.

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A fish-seller, a little old lady, was sitting down watching a tiny TV set on an outdoor bench, with tanks of fish all around her. One of these fish, a particularly big one, flopped out of its tank, and seemed like it was trying to make a run for it. The ancient fish-seller rose very slowly… and then with lightning speed bludgeoned the fish to death with a hammer.

And then nonchalantly returned to her TV program.

The sudden brutality, with such indifference, struck us as a total surprise– we were horrified but also laughing for weeks.

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A distinct highlight of Tai O, other than stopping at a tiny restaurant and eating what I will always remember as one of the greatest desserts of my life, was sighting the pink dolphins.

The Pearl River is the only place on earth, except a part of the Amazon, where you can see pink dolphins. You can pay a small fee, collected by rather shady-looking people, to sail out on a boat, driven by equally shady-looking characters, looking for pink dolphins. To do this, I had to put out of my mind, every one of the news stories I’ve ever read, about the safety issues of Chinese ships full of people. I boarded a ship loaded way over capacity, piloted by what looked like a pirate way past retirement age. Ignoring the thought that no one at home would know I was on this boat, in a random part of the Pacific, I boarded.

And I am glad I did. As we pulled away from Tai O, I got to see it in a new light, in the way the locals see it — from the water.

From water level, the ramshackle shacks now looked very impressive, perched atop massive beams. While tiny next to the skyscrapers in Hong Kong, the houses towered over our boat as we sailed towards open water. And, ten minutes later, we were out in the Pacific, with waves rocking our fast-moving boat. I remember looking back, and Tai O was gone, replaced by the impressive sight of a massive volcanic island, with jagged green ridges. We sailed among oil rigs, expertly dodging giant tankers and container ships, some (from the water) appearing as large as Lantau Island.

(dolphin, but not a pink dolphin)

(this picture is not an Indo-Pacific pink dolphin, but it’s a related bottlenose, and also the only decent dolphin picture I’ve taken!)

And finally, we found the pink dolphins. Three of them, frolicking in polluted waters, indifferent to the camera-wielding, mostly Asian tourists in the boats, they went right alongside and did a few jumps for us before disappearing. I felt even luckier when I heard that this was the first the pilot of our boat had seen of them in two months. A unique experience. Really more a pinkish-gray, and I had been expecting very vibrant pink hues, although when one did a barrel roll, it exposed a soft Easter egg pink belly, and that was cool.

On the bus ride back to Tung Chung, I had just thought “I bet we can see the Buddha statue,” and literally at that moment, the Big Buddha, over one hundred feet tall, perched in a valley between the two biggest peaks on Lantau, appeared in the distance. I was struck by just how big he really was, because it was about 3 miles away and I could see it very clearly.

An oddity on this drive: we passed an incredibly modern village, with many cars, so the inhabitants must have had some money, but it seemed to be a village with no name. Miles from Tung Chung, here were about 500 homes, tucked away in the middle of nowhere, that no one could tell me anything about, including the locals.

Cow LOCBut the most striking thing during the drive, was the cows. When the English landed at Hong Kong, a bunch of cattle were released from the ships onto Lantau to graze. Mountainous and full of steep jagged hills with sharp curves, Lantau seems like the worst possible place for cattle. And yet, 150 years later, the descendants of whatever cows were hardy enough to survive are roaming the streets. If I was in India, where you hear of such things, I wouldn’t have been so taken aback. But, this is Hong Kong. And yet, there were about fifty cows, standing in or next to the road, and our bus driver was busy yelling at them, cursing and honking the horn to get them to move. Being cows, they didn’t care, so we had to wait a bit while they lazily wandered from the road toward the unnamed village.

There were more cows, and the oddest sight of the trip, a mile down the road:  Beach Cows.

I mentioned the beautiful beaches earlier, visited by very few humans. But, I swear, I saw three cows on the beach, walking along, half in the water, half on land. Apparently mimicking the human beach-goers, and others were just basking in the sun.

This other world, the “other” other Hong Kong, almost a world of its own, was a magical experience for me. And, whenever I hear people talk about Asia, I think, they have no idea, they’re sold on the image of buildings the size of mountains, gold-plated super cars, crowded streets, and bullet trains. But when I hear “Hong Kong,” I have three images, all competing for space in my head and yet all distinct and simultaneously appearing, the image of the modern urban mecca, the image of the wilderness, and the image of Tai O, clinging to its stilts above unreal blue hues of waters.

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Hong Kong, Study Abroad, travel

The Night Market. Fu Tei, Hong Kong

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A lot of the lights in HK are still lovely neon, not LEDs. I don’t know if my hand shook on this shot, or if it was a reflection, but when I went to delete it, I realized it looked like musical notes. And so I kept it.

As any traveler to Asia knows, the “night market” is the place to visit while traveling for amazing food, and for a taste of local life. I cannot imagine Hong Kong without its night markets.

 

To a newcomer from the U.S., it is a wholly new experience.  We might have grown up with a “farmers’ market” — perhaps a great chance to meet some local farmers and crafters, and get fresh produce, but often it’s pretty limited – – just same-old vegetables on some bare-bones stands, or a handful of crates and cartons on the tail of a pickup, maybe a few baked goods and handicrafts, set up once-a-week in a village park, plaza, or parking lot. If you’re lucky, or in a bigger town, someone might make fried dough or doughnuts.

But in HK, a whole secondary city exists, popping up everywhere, every night, stalls with lots of lights and signs, selling everything, almost like a traveling carnival, open until midnight, then disappearing again by morning.    Everywhere you turn you’ll encounter them — from the famous Temple Street market that takes up several city blocks, to Mong Kok’s Ladies’ Market, where anything (and I mean anything) can be purchased, legal or illegal. But of the many night markets, the one nearest and dearest to my heart is the Fu Tei Illegal night market.

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Next to Lingnan University, Fu Tei is a huge housing estate – so big, it has its own postal district.  Several times a week,a semi-legal night market would semi-magically appear in front of the estate’s small shopping mall.

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Diagon Alley East

And that is my single most quintessential image of Hong Kong:  a shopping center with food stalls in front, teeming with people, saturated in cigarette smoke, and food smells wafting toward you through the humid air.

There were only a dozen food stalls in this particular night market, making it among the smallest. But this place was perfect. Despite their limited or nonexistent English, the cooks never messed up my order, and there was always good food for very little money. It cost more for me to get a bag of chips in the nearby Circle K, than it cost for a full meal at the night market.

I’d go three or four times a week to get my fix of spicy peanut noodles (dry) and my dumplings. Sometimes I’d get the soup noodles but they always found a way to make them too spicy, though still delicious.

The reason it is only semi-legal is that they are only allowed to operate certain times without a license, which most can’t afford. However, they would run the market every night of the week, crossing the line, and it wasn’t uncommon to have them pack up and run when a cop approached, though they wouldn’t be prosecuted and they always made sure everyone got what they wanted before leaving, making it the most relaxed illicit activity in the history of crime.

When I think of Hong Kong, five images come to mind, and most of them are the stereotypical images one would expect: the skyline, the harbor, the Big Buddha, the swarms of people. But that night market is always the fifth and possibly what I miss most about the city.

Westerners who have never been to Asia simply cannot understand the night market. It is a strange concept. The idea that random strangers, many toothless, missing limbs or sporting large wounds and dripping cigarette ashes into your food, are serving you random foods, that you cannot name, from a cart that isn’t even legally allowed to be there, does seems strange. But seven million customers can’t be wrong. The food is often better than what you’d get in a restaurant:  cheap, in generous portions that are agreeable to a westerner, and wildly addictive.

DSC02597The western business people and high rollers visiting Asia, they’ll go downtown in places like Hong Kong or Tokyo and drop five hundred dollars on a lobster that’s actually steeped in pollutants and glowing with radioactivity.  But the high rollers of Hong Kong, along with the bottom-of-the-barrel types, all know that you go to the night market for the action.

Nothing says Hong Kong like seven steaming dumplings wrapped in paper, served with a box full of peanut noodles with random things on them that I still couldn’t identify to this day.

I miss it .

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Hong Kong, travel

Photos of the Big Buddha. Lantau Island, Hong Kong

For most visitors, the gateway to Hong Kong is the airport on Lantau Island.

And if you are on Lantau Island, you must go see the Buddha.

Hong Kong, and most of East Asia, have many representations of Buddha. But this particular statue is worth seeing. Massive, presiding over a beautiful site on top of a peak, overlooking the island and the ocean, over one hundred feet tall, this figure is incredible.

I visited several times and was always impressed by the fact that, even during stormy days in Hong Kong harbor, during every visit, the Buddha remained bathed in sunlight.

Easy to reach by cable car, although a bit scary for those afraid of heights, the Buddha is most impressive when approached on foot via a hike on one of Lantau’s incredible mountain trails.

Walking along the rocky slope of Lantau Peak, I stumbled out into the clearing where the Buddha serenely rests. Not a spiritual person, I nonetheless found myself struck and humbled by the figure, and even felt unexpectedly inspired at that moment to begin learning more about the Eastern religions. While a modern creation, not the most historic or storied image of  Buddha, it is worth a trip to Hong Kong solely to see this statue.

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hiking, Hong Kong, travel

Hong Kong. On Top of the World.

 

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One of the clearest and best memories I have from Hong Kong was taking a hike.

I took many hikes in Hong Kong, mostly solo, or with one other person. This hike was the only one I took as part of a group (save for a memorable day on Lantau with the Filipino Mountain Club).

A bunch of Lingnan friends and I planned to hike the “WWII Trail,” that connects all of the relics from the war — from old pillboxes and bunkers, to gun emplacements, to a part of an old plane — where soldiers from England, Scotland, India, and Canada, as well as professional and volunteer soldiers from the city, fought the Japanese invasion force in 1941.

This plan, like most plans I made in Hong Kong, didn’t really work.

First, I hadn’t counted on the fact that the trail wouldn’t be completely connected. So even when we found part of the trail, we realized another whole section was totally missing. Wandering between the Cricket Grounds, beautiful stretches of highway lined with forest, mountains thick with trees, and even the “Riviera” of Hong Kong…we never found the trail.  So, we improvised.

The “Riviera” is an area of Hong Kong known as Repulse Bay, and it was here we could see how the “other half” live, or really, how the 1% live.  Mansions lined azure waterways and were nestled into tropical hillsides, dense with vegetation and money. A smugness pervaded the area, but, maybe due to the public beach or the walkways leading right to their homes, the area felt welcoming. They wanted to impress you with their wealth by letting you see it up close. It was a unique experience, one you’d never get in America, with our gated communities and irrational fear of those outside our circle.

It was to this neighborhood that my friend and I rode a bus, stuck in the back away from the rest of the group, and overheard what we thought might have been a hit man speaking, a man with a huge scar across his face…and yet he was willing to give us really complex directions for the trail.

Complex, and wrong.

As I mentioned, they didn’t work, and we never found the trail connecting the 1941 battle sites.

But we did find other places to hike, settling on the “Wilson” trail, since anyway, some members of the group felt it was a less strenuous hike.

They were wrong.

DSC02717Climbing almost straight up a mountainside on a sand path, we hiked up through five zones of vegetation, and, just as some began to wonder out loud why they came on this hike, we reached the top.

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HK flowering tree

The top of this mountain, the dividing line between Hong Kong Island Central/Downtown, and the rest of inhabited HK, gave us a stunning 360 degree panorama of the city. Victoria’s Peak is touted as the best view, but that’s wrong. The best view is from on top of this random mountain. We looked down on Victoria’s Peak, hundreds of yards below us. Kowloon stretched out before us, and Hong Kong Island of course. We couldn’t see Shenzhen from there, but we could see all the way to the other half of Hong Kong Island, and see the South China Sea. It was there I saw the largest ship I’ve ever laid eyes on, so big I thought it was part of the Island. And then I noticed it’s wake. This ship could’ve held all the other ships I’d seen prior to this and still had room, it was incredible.

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The defining moment was when we reached the top, and had this view — we were seeing Hong Kong from up high, giving us a view that few in Hong Kong, and even fewer foreigners, would ever see. And it helped me to see Hong Kong in it’s true form — from up high the sounds and smells died away and I saw only the dreamscape of the city.  I could see from one end to the other, so I saw how thickly packed it was, and how tall, and how this seemingly endless city was really only a tiny part of the Island.

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The idea of traveling and studying abroad is to gain perspective. Having a new way of thinking, which you gain from conversations with locals, or what you see, or how you feel. This day was literally a new perspective — standing on top of a city and looking down. I also took this hike at one of the biggest moments of self-change in Hong Kong, when I began to question everything and wonder about the world, my world, and myself a lot more. And then this reset my mindset quite literally.

The day was perfect.  Often, in Hong Kong, I loved the city-feel, but wouldn’t consider myself to be elated moment-to-moment, as I dodged millions of people on cramped streets, and even when I enjoyed myself I often found myself wondering, how can anyone live like this?

But on this day, those negative feelings were gone. Perhaps cause we weren’t in the crowds — we woke up early to get to Repulse Bay and Stanley districts for the hike, walking in a beautiful and pristine wilderness part of the city, almost like being somewhere totally different than Hong Kong.

We ended the day by eating in Wan Chai, one of my favorite districts and the least visited due to it’s location (with my schedule, I tended to avoid going to HKI more than parts of Kowloon or the New Territories). While we were in Wan Chai, we ended an amazing hike by eating on a streetside restaurant, everyone grabbing green plastic chop sticks and devouring delicious Shanghai and Singapore noodles, sitting on small stools outside of a smoky restaurant. We sat curbside, below the street level.

I found this ironic — one minute we were literally on top of the city, and our view was better than the penthouses of any of the towering buildings below us, and the next, we’re sitting at a table with people’s feet above our heads.

I think I was the only one who had the energy to notice the absolute flip in perspective  —  my less-fit friends all being too exhausted and hungry. Admittedly, I just slurped down noodles and didn’t ask them if they saw the irony of our new perspective, but looking around, I saw only the look of sheer tiredness from the climb, and now a pervasive contentment from the meal.

As we took the train back, soaked in sweat and with our stomachs full, I thought, this had to be the best day in Hong Kong. It wasn’t THE best, but it remains one of my fondest memories.

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History, Hong Kong, travel

Star Ferry to the Imagination. Hong Kong.

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One of the most iconic images of Hong Kong is the sight of the Star Ferry, crisscrossing the harbor since the 1880’s.  IMG_5556

A ride on any of the ferryboats offers amazing views of the city’s waterfront and skylines.

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The crossing from Tsim Sha Tsui to the central city has wonderful views, but the most stunning trip is from Lantau to Hong Kong Island. The view from the water seems almost like a dreamscape of impossibly tall buildings in extraordinary settings, backed by mountains peaks.  All these millions of people, sounds, smells, lights, and colors coalesce into sensory experience that can seem both exhilarating and overwhelming.

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The ferry ride from Lantau is only a half hour, perhaps even less if you don’t account for embarking and disembarking time. IMG_5530You might think that essentially, it’s just a commuter ferryboat, but the ride is extraordinary, as your little vessel sails through greenish-blue waves past rocky crags of dormant volcanoes, and past island-sized oil tankers and container ships.

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Here and there, a traditional junk is still sailing, like a time-warp relic, with complicated wooden hulls and strange sectioned sails, sometimes colored dull red.  Then, after this exciting ride through the ship traffic, in the distance you see, as if rising straight out of the ocean, dozens of skyscrapers. It seems like a fantasy, to suddenly have buildings that reach the sky rising up from sea level.

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NYC from the water is also spectacular, but the sudden drama is absent, because you see the buildings gradually rising up, from miles out to sea.

IMG_5549If you happen to be crossing Hong Kong harbor in early evening, the “Symphony of Lights” is an added bonus, perhaps the largest sound-and-light show in the world: music, colored lights, lasers, and spotlights shooting up from dozens of buildings all around the harbor.  It’s a magical experience. You can ride boats around many East Coast cities or Great Lakes burgs, but this dreamworld effect is exclusive to Hong Kong and Hong Kong alone.

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