China, Taichung, Taiwan, Uncategorized

Lost and Confused. Wandering around Taichung, Taiwan.

FB_IMG_1471270636384Confused

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.

 

dsc03517-1

[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.

FB_IMG_1471270629027

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.)

 

dsc03538-1

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.

 

FB_IMG_1471270655348

 

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.

FB_IMG_1471270623628

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.

FB_IMG_1471270681750

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.

FB_IMG_1471270666981

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.

dsc03635-1

[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.

==========================================================================

 

Standard
England, Not humorous, Study Abroad, UK, Uncategorized

Stompin’ the Blues Away. Hull, England. A Study Abroad.

IMG_8298-002

 

     A man walks down the street
     It’s a street in a strange world…
     You know I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore…     
     Paul Simon “You Can Call Me Al

 

Hull Church 1A couple of years ago, I spent a half-year at the university in Kingston-Upon-Hull, on the east coast of England.

At the time I lived there, Hull was a city on the rebound.

The city’s economy had turned from old-time shipbuilding and fishing, to healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and the university. It was right near the fantastic Humber Bridge and the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds, Vales, Dales, and other expanses of heather & gorse or whatever, all dripping with healthy picturesque outdoorsy-ness.  Yachts in the marina.  Aquarium. Ferry lines carrying a million people a year to the Continent.  Beautiful museums, theatres, and art galleries.    About to be named the UK’s “City of Culture” for 2017.

 

Personally, I was a bit in the dumps.

It was a big adjustment, to move from a college in subtropical Hong Kong, to northern Yorkshire, in the wintertime.  Hull is about the same latitude as Minsk, perhaps not quite as festive.  I missed my friends at home, and the new friends I’d made in Hong Kong.  I missed the beautiful neon swirl and perpetual energy of HK, too.  I even missed the snow back home.  This place wasn’t as cold as Upstate NY, but it was often chilly and gray.

IMG_8296

So here is my unvarnished recollection of a “study abroad” semester.

 

 

 

 

The Student Ghetto

I’d chosen the U of Hull for some history courses that sounded really interesting, and they turned out to be fascinating.  But it was a tough semester – I was playing catch-up in an unfamiliar field, and unused to the British approach to learning.  Some rainy days, I felt unhappy and claustrophobic in my tiny house in the student ghetto, surrounded night and day, inside and out, with drunks, bad pop music, and racket.

I know this sounds “snarky.”  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a party on Saturday night, and love music, but to cross the Atlantic Ocean, think you’re safe, and then wake up at 2 AM to find that Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus have followed you, and crawled ashore, making their crappy noise?  And sounding waterlogged, because you have a head cold.

I also love English beers.  But by the glassful, not the gallon.  And as a rule, not for breakfast.

There were days when the constant uproar made me miserable.

The actual classes, I loved.  The professors and my classmates – they were great.   Some of them were locals, former ‘Ull fishermen and sailors, being re-purposed for the new, improved UK.  Their deadpan jerkin’ and muttered comments on the professor’s knowledge of ships were hysterical.  But somehow, I had set up a schedule at odds with everyone else’s, making it hard to hang out with classmates or housemates.  The courses themselves were excellent, even if the readings were sometimes the only thing that could put me out at night.

Other than at the library, I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep.  The University had converted an entire street of tiny row-houses into student housing – mine wasn’t bad, but featured dripping pipes, an unpredictable, malevolent little cooker that kept incinerating my dinner, and a bunch of housemates practicing The Tao of Alcohol:  Beer As a Way of Life.  With that goal in mind, the kids in my house had chosen only afternoon classes, so they could go out every night, and crash home about 3 AM. Every night.

 

IMG_8292

Most of the American, African, and Australian students in the ghetto didn’t give a damn about the University.  They were there to drink.

Hull followed an old seafaring pattern – take aboard as much cargo as you could, tack to the other end of the street, careen & offload the cargo.  I guess the old competitive drive that built the Empire still exists — even on a wet Tuesday night in February, Hull produces more drunks than an entire New Orleans Mardi Gras.

So every night, the Yanks, Brits and Aussies in the street, outside my ground floor window, gave off clouds of cigarette smoke and unloaded gallons of used beer from various orifices.

And then they sang.

At first, the singing was kind of endearing.  Seriously.  Hulking rugby players, weaving down the street, or in the back alley, falling over the dustbins, singing songs from “Frozen” in their bizarre accents.

By the end of the week, it was not so amusing.  And there were months of this to go.

Hull Church 2

Walk the Walk

So, since I couldn’t concentrate or sleep, I would walk.

All winter, I wandered the town’s confusing back alleys, church yards, windy narrow roads, cobble-stoned rows.  Many secluded and private in that peculiarly British manner.  In the U.S., there’s always a sign, alerting you to dead ends and cul-de-sacs.  In England, streets may just peter out without warning, stranding the walker, as if it was just a road crew’s oversight, or lack of interest in going any farther that direction, or maybe they ran out of macadam, and decided to put up a house instead.

Leaving 1 Cottingham Road, I’d slip out, usually in a bad mood, angry at sloppy-drunk roommates, my horrible cooking, the gray weather.

Based on the day, the time, and which way the freezing rain was driving in from, I would either wander until I arrived on the far side of campus, or make a right turn, and arrive at a Chinese-owned deli. Because I know a few words of Cantonese, the deli’s owners would always question me in depth about things in Hong Kong, no matter how many times I ‘d explained, I was in fact an American who’d just spent one semester there.

National Health’s “Early Retirement” Squad, gunning for victims.

Zebra Crossings.  Run, Robbie, Run!

On my longer walks, I’d begin by taking my life in my hands.

Meaning, I’d try to actually cross the street.  Hoping that this particular day, the insane and homicidal bus drivers that define life across the pond, were in a mood to stop at the light.  Or else, I’d walk down the avenues near Cottingham, pass the fenced-in yard of the old school, and scramble across the street, toward the Tesco and the battered women’s shelter.  Those two institutions were an interesting combo to be sure. One of the local merchants actually explained to me that he believed there was a connection – the denizens of that Tesco, according to him, were a wife-beating mob.  One Supposes that the More Enlightened might only Purchase Provisions & Provender at Marks & Sparks.  Whole Foods in all its pristine-ness has not yet reached Hull.

One plus:  walking angrily in England means that those who normally ignore you stay clear out of your way.

When I wasn’t looking deranged and angry, and sometimes, literally feverish, it was slow going.  Sleep-deprived and cranky, it seemed I was endlessly weaving through lumbering throngs, not accustomed to moving at a New York pace, and as I negotiated the crowds in the poorer neighborhoods, of local shoppers or pub-hoppers, in my hyper-irritated state, they seemed to be a consistent mass of  the chain-smoking, heavy, and alcoholic.

But sticking to my weaving, in-and-out, gradually I’d make headway down Newland Avenue, and my black mood would lift.

As I arrived somewhere that I loved. This street was full of vendors, hawking fresh produce, a bakery, a Polish grocery where no one smiled or spoke English, a tailor, several barbers, clothing shops, night clubs, pubs, coffee houses, and trendy joints for all the hip young monied English folks. Everything you need, could be had on Newland.

Fish & Chips & Vinegar

Another Tesco was there – you could grab the overpriced produce, that went brown by the next morning, and bread that either went bad in two days, or else never went bad at all.  Pale-skinned chickens, onions with strange case of spots, frozen cod or haddock. You’d make small talk with the friendly cashier, one of the few locals who’d chat freely with an American kid, and so you’d stop in more than you should normally. Same goes for the fish-and-chips shop, a chance to chat with someone cheerful and normal.  I’d stop in after a weary day and get rejuvenated with the warm, crumbly haddock and vinegar-soaked fries. So good.  The British have delicious malt “Win-a-Gah,” as the shopkeep called it.

Or, I’d go to Pie 2, a local chain, and get savory meat pies, for five pounds, not a shabby deal, seeing what food costs in that culinary-dreary student ghetto. On nights when I couldn’t hack my own cooking, I’d get these meat pies, stuffed with anything, all of them really, really good.  Or I’d go to the Greek gyro place, or the “Macau” house – although I’d often regret eating their odd fusion of Asian and British foods.

 

Back on the walk, I’d only made it to the antiquated rail bridge over the street, that announced you’d arrived on Newland, and I had a ways to walk. I could make a right, head down a beer bottle-strewn back alley, into a very lovely part of town, with nice homes of the Victorian style, interesting European cars, and nice, respectable-looking folks milling about, in their slow and awkward Yorkshire manner.

IMG_8295

A Walk in the Park

At the end of the way, I’d pass the old pub and arrive at Pearson Park. An old Victorian park, indeed, the old queen herself was sitting there, cast in bronze.  On days I was short on time, I’d make this my destination, and just wander around the little gardens and manicured lawns. Somewhere around here, Hull’s resident poet Philip Larkin had lived, scowling out his window no doubt at the lovely trees. Here, among fountains, statuary, and a greenhouse that offered some respite from the North Sea’s cold winds, constantly blowing into this city, I’d go and feel refreshed.  Until seeing all the happy couples, families, and friends  hanging out together, while I was on my own, made me feel blue again.

IMG_8290

I’d then race down the next set of streets to hit downtown, passing by the more upscale shops and restaurants, stopping once to eat some incredible Moroccan food.

After this lovely jaunt in the park, I’d roar by all the hip places in town. If I went straight down the way, past the Polar Bear pub (which can be seen in The Hubbards “Is it Me?” video), you’d arrive at the KC stadium.

Tigers Tigers Burning Bright

I only watched one match at the stadium, with my roommate Jaden, to see Hull City play Newcastle.  We cheered and had a great time, and the local crowd turned out to be great, even when watching with dismay as their proud footy team was dismembered by the Magpies, and the cheers turned rather vulgar. Here, for the first time, I saw Brits from all walks of life come together. And to their credit, the Hull fans demanded that the Newcastle people get kicked out, when they turned unsporting, and to nasty jeering.  To the Hull fans, singing a few bits of profane lyrics about genitalia and the other team’s manager was sporting, anything beyond that was not. I was proud of them.

IMG_8293

Sometimes I’d head down to the old city. Passing by a sketchy part of town, with a housing project for recovering addicts, you arrive at the theater, the new hotel, and the wonderful train station,next to the gorgeous George Hotel (Saint George? King? Prince? something George hotel, where Larkin used to hide out, when he couldn’t hack living with people).

 

IMG_8288

Old Town

The hotel marked the start of the old part of town.  Walking along the cobbled streets, among pubs from centuries ago, next to modern shops, where all of the English lads would come out with trendy clothing, looking like very hip tablecloths. Old restaurants, arcades, museums, and cool old pubs were the highlights of this part of the town, culminating with the gorgeous harbor along the river.  The museum street also housed the oldest pub in town, the no longer PC “Ye Olde Black Boy” from the 1300’s.  The publicans and drinkers, to my surprise, would listen to my accent, stare at me a bit, and then quietly nod and make me welcome.  Friendly drunks would insist on jumping in and posing for my photos.

IMG_8291

Walking along past the excellent Maritime Museum, the BBC regional studios, the big glassy mall, and remnants of the old city gate – where the Civil War began, when the King was denied entrance. Ran across William Wilberforce’s house by accident. The old warehouses along the river side, now converted to clubs and bars. Wandering along curved walkways on echoing cobbled streets, it was easy to get lost. And I often did, stumbling along and arriving by statues of people I’d never heard of, by old pubs, arriving at some point by the magnificent church, and pass “The Smallest Window in England” which always make me laugh for some reason. It was here, in this old part of town, I spent a lot of hours, wandering and exploring.  And I’d have spent even more, if the restaurants weren’t so prohibitively expensive on a student budget.

IMG_8289

 

Starting to get cold.  The house lights coming on.  I’d head back before it got dangerous, after all, late nights, Hull does have a reputation for occasional violence.

As I read back through what I’ve written, I guess this isn’t a particularly inspiring tale of “study abroad”?  And not an very organized or enlightening city tour.  But for some reason, I replay these walks sometimes in my head.

I close my eyes and re-walk it, passing through distinctive zones, from the public-lavatory-brick-student-ghetto, past dreary Victorian row houses,  through a winter-gray but lovely park, to docks, winding old lanes, hallowed pubs, and the ancient-modern combination that defined the downtown.

Hull Church 3

This was my survival stomp through Hull, and it got me through.  Spent time in a real place, not just the university bubble.

After all that grousing —

I’m glad I went.

I learned a lot.

I came to feel some affection for a place pretty foreign to me.

But, still, years later,  whenever I hear a song from “Frozen,” I smell cigarettes, secondhand beer and rugby players.

Standard
Germany, travel

Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Hidden soul in “Meinhattan”

IMG_7513

 

I arrived in Frankfurt am Main on my 21st birthday, and I didn’t know a soul in town.

IMG_7514But my friend Andreas, a native of Bremen, and currently living in Stuttgart, drove over to show me around “Meinhattan.”

 

The Manhattan nickname stuck, because this is Germany’s city of skyscrapers, the economic heart of the country, and banker for the whole EU.  Andy described a sleepy river town, suddenly grown into a huge commerce center, and into the most expensive city in the country.

 

IMG_7507

 

I’d already visited a number of other German cities:

Mainz – old, historic, and charming, nestled among vineyards along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine.

Hamburg – impressive seaport, impressive industries

Cologne – a university town with a fun atmosphere

Dusseldorf  – giving off a feeling of establishment and security.

IMG_7517

So perhaps because I was so impressed with these other cities, my first impression of Frankfurt was not favorable.  A glassy and tall city with no soul.

IMG_7524We walked along streets of investment firms, Deutsche Bank, IG Farben, the Stock Exchange, and the European Central Bank.

Companies, corporations and conglomerates.  Businessmen in expensive cars and suits, emerging from skyscrapers at lunchtime to be served kebabs and doner by the poorer working people.

IMG_7515

Euro-World, the corporate amusement park

Even the old center of town felt like a designated meeting place for ad execs and CEOs;  the old buildings surrounding us, were now converted into offices for Lufthansa, etc. or stores selling watches and clothing.  The riverfront was peaceful and beautiful, but felt devoid of real personality.  Among the half-timbered buildings of the Altstadt (the historic district) or inside the Frankfurter Dom (their cathedral), the modern city felt far away. But the medieval-looking buildings were all post-war reconstructions, and looming over them were the skyscrapers of European capitalism.  The crowds of businessmen and the tourists, many from Eastern Asia, taking pictures of currywurst and pseudo-antique buildings made the city center feel hollow.

 

IMG_7502It was only after Andreas left for his home in Stuttgart, that I crossed the Main river and began to feel the place had an actual soul. Here, a bridge away from the hubbub of the central city, you can walk among modest homes, little shops, cafes, and a beautiful park with old buildings, now housing museums.

I visited the museums, and then went into a small grocery to buy water, and just sat down in the park for a while, after a day of walking on cobblestones, on the hottest day I experienced during my trip.  It was April, I had just survived a winter in Yorkshire, and I’d dressed for Hamburg and frigid Copenhagen, and to me, Frankfurt felt like the Costa del Sol.

IMG_7506

IMG_7516This was the last day of my spring break, and I had loved everything about both Germany and Denmark, but the whirlwind of trains and meeting people and seeing places, had left me unable to assemble my thoughts.  Finally at rest, sitting there in a small park with people chatting pleasantly, and a few dogs playing, I was able to realize how much I loved Germany, and my entire experience of the country and its people.

Frankfurt is what I remember best of my time in Germany, even if I liked the other cities better.  I can clearly remember details of the port of Hamburg, the lock bridge of Koln, the taste of a currywurst in Dusseldorf, walking along the old walls of Mainz, etc. But Frankfurt always is freshest in my mind.  I was no longer worrying about trains schedules, finding my way to meet up with friends at a specified hour, finding hotels, etc.  I could just relax and take it all in. And, after I realized that Frankfurt, like everywhere, has a character or soul, just hidden under the mighty corporate piles, I was able to enjoy the city more, feeling it’s subtle vibes, and finding the old city in among the new.

IMG_7503

I have often been critical of cities that seem soul-less (Washington, D.C. being the sterilized poster boy), and have always appreciated the cities that have maintained a unique character and an infectious vibe.

Frankfurt surprised me, and in a good way.   Despite its steely, glassy look, it turned out to occupied by human beings.  I looked down at it from the cathedral tower, looked up at it from the river, watched it go by from a park bench, and somehow fell in love with Germany.

IMG_7504

Standard
Germany, Uncategorized

Cologne and Dusseldorf ~~~~~~~ A Tale of Two Cities…and Two Beers. The Great Kolsch-Alt debate

IMG_7072

Incredible stonework of the cathedral in Cologne

 

Part of my journeys across Germany involved discovery of the country’s food and beverages.  And of course, the most famous German beverage is beer, so I was duty-bound to try each region’s brews whenever possible.  And generally speaking, in Germany, it is not just possible, but expected.  Beer is part of each regions’s identity, a staff of life, and the stuff as dreams are made on.  Yes, I get poetic when thinking of German beer.

While not famous outside of Germany, two types of beer, Kolsch and Alt (or Aldt) have an interesting history. Kolsch comes from Koln (Cologne), while Altbier is Dusseldorf’s darker contender.

The two cities, now friendly rivals, much the same as New York and Boston (though I don’t know any New Yorker who calls Bostonians friendly), used to have a much different relationship. From the Middle Ages through the 1800’s, before Bismarck’s unification, they were two city-states,  often at war. For many years, one could test your loyalty with a simple test: Kolsch or Alt? A person in the “old days” — meaning as recently as the 1970’s — could be beaten up in Dusseldorf for asking for Kolsch, and vice-versa in Cologne.

I was informed of all this by a German friend.  I knew that I had no choice but to try both beers, in their respective cities.

And, like Champagne, genuine Kolsch (there’s supposed to be an umlaut over the “o” but I don’t know how to to that on WP) can only be brewed in Cologne — breweries elsewhere can produce kolsch-style lager, but it cannot be labeled Kolsch.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47de-31c7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

 

 

 

IMG_7067

Cologne’s “Lock Bridge” — sweethearts have their initials engraved on padlocks and add them to the railings. The Pont des Arts in Paris had to remove theirs, due to the sheer weight.

So, the first day of this quest was spent in Cologne. A beautiful and ancient town along the Rhine, it has a friendly laid-back vibe, partially due to its huge student population.

 

IMG_7068

A Work of Art. so I had it framed.

A moment for time to stop and to remember forever — I had my first Kolsch at a riverside restaurant, on a beautiful and still sunny day, with the Rhine’s brownish water slowly flowing by.  The locals call a round tray of beers a “Kranz” which means “wreath” and that seems appropriate, to celebrate this wonderful drink and a great city.

 

I will remember having this first sip of Kolsch, from the Gaffel brauhaus — it was fantastic. So crisp and light, the locals often jokingly call it “American Beer”. It was one of the most delicious and refreshing beers I’ve ever had.  And I drank it sitting alongside the legendary Rhine, surrounded by the sound of many relaxed conversations, and a plate of Currywurst, and time to talk with my friend.

A Really Good Day.

 

 

IMG_7066

The “Lock Bridge” at Cologne

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e3-3476-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wWhile, at the time, I was relaxed and content, I didn’t fully appreciate the complete pleasantness that defined and permeated that day, and, as my taste-memory triggers strong recall (as smells do for most other people), I can vividly imagine the way the beer tasted. More than that, when I think of that particular glass of beer, I’m transported back to that spot along the Rhine, with the lock bridge, and some statues just barely visible behind a clump of trees — trees planted specifically to shade the lucky patrons of restaurants by the Rhine. I remember seeing the Viking river cruise boats chugging by, the delicious ice cream I had in that town, and the Gothic beauty of the Kolner Dom.  nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e3-3477-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

 

IMG_7065

A statue of the mysterious person known only as “The Man Who Could Never Get That Bird Off His Hat”

 

IMG_7073After a long hike up winding stairs, the Dom, a magnificent and mighty church, offered us views of the entire city, as it stretched along one of the world’s finest rivers.   (Brown-hued, but busy, impressive, and certainly a more pleasant river than the Hudson back home, with its PCB’s and three- headed fish.)  I remember ending the day at the Chocolate Museum, and the smell of cocoa wafting through the air.

IMG_7063

The Chocolate Museum.

 

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47da-a691-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.rThe next day, in Dusseldorf, was even more pleasant, if possible.  I had been staying with my friend Alicia, who I knew from Lingnan University, and in Dusseldorf, I got to meet up with another friend I’d met at that school, Tobias.  I felt very lucky to have made friends with these great people – they seemed happy to show me around, were excellent guides, and even better company, .  Tobi was actually a Koln boy, but had spent lots of time in Dusseldorf.  I had my first experience of the Autobahn driving down from Koln, and having survived, was ready to walk around Dusseldorf.

 

IMG_7057

This is the second-richest city in Germany (after Munich), and Germans from other regions had told me it is seen as being…sort of snotty. But I found the people there to be even friendlier and warmer than Cologne’s.  Cologne, despite being a college town, was busy but didn’t seem to have much of an energetic vibe — the slow river giving it a relaxed air. Dusseldorf, on a faster-moving stretch of the same river, seemed far more alive. Not as loud, but more bouncy and hip.

Dusseldorf captured my imagination as much as the much more historic and picturesque cityscape of Koln.

IMG_7064

IMG_7054And here, we of course tried Alt, their local beer.  Dark, heavy, I liked it far less than Kolsch (I didn’t say this out loud) — but thinking about that beer, takes me back to that day as well. It’s “old beer” style (that’s literally what “altbier” means), interesting dark copper color, strong/clear flavor, and the impression it gives of “thickness” embodies the town in which it was made, much the same as Kolsch reflects the lighter vibe of Cologne. Dusseldorf’s layers of history came out with the flavor of hops and dark malt. Though sunny, the weather in Dusseldorf fluctuated several times in the course of one day, and we wandered the city, seeing the old town by the Rhine juxtaposed against the modern bridges and towers of their industry.

IMG_7061

The city has the world’s highest population of Japanese executives outside of Japan!  SONY, Toshiba, Sanyo, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and several other large Japanese companies have regional headquarters in Dusseldorf, some since as early as WWII. Therefore, there is a large “Japan Town,” where we had lunch that day, first having more traditional German snacks. This too is part of enjoying the unique and deeper flavor of Alt.

IMG_7060

Look carefully at the steeple – – age and human error have left it twisted like a soft-serve ice cream

The architecture of the city is also very “European” — churches with steeples bent by the ages, right next to modern structures — some of Frank Gehry’s earliest designs — with an unusual and almost imaginary-feeling set of houses along the river. Here we saw displayed the money that the city is famous for — glitzy condominiums, vehicles costing several hundred thousand dollars, and stores with suits that might have cost as much as the vehicles.

IMG_7058

Frank Gehry

We took a short side-trip out of the city, to the palace of an old king, still close enough to see skyline of the old city.  This palace, I think, was actually the king’s summer home (though I’m not sure), and it reminded me of a Southern plantation — a huge estate, surrounded by undeveloped tracts of land, now converted into a public park.

IMG_7059

On the day we were there, a group of wealthy Persians were having a wedding inside the 17th Century ballroom, and, with their exotic wedding garb, it struck me that this is how a ball would’ve looked at that time, perhaps with less form-fitting dresses. The grounds too were beautiful — lawns and topiary and statuary and fountains.   I was in for another treat, when we ended up along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine, with container ships drifting by, and the cityscape visible across the bend in the river, and people lounging around outside on a beautiful day.

IMG_7056

I’ve been telling people for years about the frog-people, but this was the first time I got a good picture, when they clambered out of the Rhine and scaled this building.

These are the memories invoked when I summon up the taste of the beers, as interesting as their cities. For me, the culinary journey is part of what brings a city to life, and it is vital to try something local and authentic to get the most out of any experience.

IMG_7055

My friends Alicia and Tobias in front of the Alt house. Technically, this is the longest “bar” in the world, but in reality it is several open buildings with street seating. Or standing.

Standard
Hong Kong, horse racing, Study Abroad, travel

Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong Island.

DSC00491

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.

IMG_6366

 

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.

IMG_6367

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

IMG_6365

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.

IMG_6368

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.

IMG_6364

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Standard
History, Hong Kong

Tai O

 

neon fish

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

Tai O-001

 

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.

fishing village 4 HK

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.

fishing village 5 HK

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.

HK fishing village 1

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.

straw hat HK

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Standard
Hong Kong, Study Abroad, travel

The Night Market. Fu Tei, Hong Kong

DSC02876

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.

DSC02754 (1)

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.

apothecary

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 .

Standard