Hong Kong, where it all came out
singapore sunset
amw
There is a lot to write about in the space between the last entry and this one. I am currently in Shenzhen. The good news is that LJ is not blocked by the Great Firewall. The great news is that the food is phenomenal. The less good news is that i am completely exhausted. I will write more about mainland China in a future entry, because first i need to talk about Hong Kong.

Or perhaps i should say i need to talk about my grandfather.

Grandpa P was a lifelong expat. Although i believe he was a New Zealand citizen, he worked for the British Council. My father was born in Nigeria and spent much of his childhood in boarding school in England while his mom and dad circled the globe. That distance took a toll on my dad. I wonder if the lifestyle was hard on my nan too, because in my earliest memories she and Grandpa P had already separated. There are photographs of me visiting them as a toddler in Kenya, i believe, and i do remember Nan's place in Essex, but my only real memory of Grandpa P is of a holiday in Hong Kong.

I don't know how long we spent in Hong Kong, or when exactly it was, but i suspect it was for a week or two back in 1987. It was the coolest fucking place i had ever been in my life. Up until that point i had grown up in Europe. I might have seen a few public housing blocks and seaside hotels, but there weren't any skyscrapers in Europe, and certainly nothing of the density to prepare me for landing in Hong Kong. It was like being transported into Miami Vice.



But Hong Kong wasn't just about the skyscrapers. It was all the people, the flashing lights, the smells, the tastes, the excitement, the hustle and bustle like nothing i had ever seen before. That trip made a huge impact on me as a child. I remember statues and pagodas and the smell of joss sticks. I remember steep hills and narrow alleys and giant insects and tiny digital watches. I remember flying a kite on top of a mountain and watching kids far more skilled than me engage in battle. I remember spotting junks in the harbor, seeing boats going every which way.

I don't remember much of my grandfather. I think he was always busy with something or other. Maybe he just wasn't one for dealing with kids. I remember his new wife, who was very sweet to us. I remember "the help" - i even remember their names - who took me and my sister out to explore the islands. I have a vague memory of being taken out to eat at some point. I can't remember much more, but no doubt it was a fabulous Cantonese banquet that went over my head at the time, because i do know my grandpa didn't do anything by halves. My dad tells me he was the most generous guy he knew - to a fault, because he neglected his family as a result.

After that holiday we moved to New Zealand, where i spent years bullied and bloodied up for being an immigrant with a funny accent and nerdy hobbies. Then my parents divorced, which was extremely rough on our family. Perhaps i held on to that memory of Hong Kong as one last moment of happiness before a stretch of time that was the most miserable of my childhood. I did see my grandpa again, briefly, but i think there was too much going on with me by that point for it to make an impact.

So i did what i am wont to do - my nerdy hobbies including reading and writing and daydreaming - and fan-ficced my grandfather. Occasionally i got updates via dad - he had another back operation, he moved to Phillipines, he had another stroke, his wife passed away, he has cancer, he is gone. But in my head he remained a globetrotting man of mystery, a friend to all cultures, a life-long immigrant, a gregarious gentleman, a joker, a fixer, a drinker. Who knows if he was any of those things? I guess it doesn't matter. That's what he was to me because i was never privy to anything else.

When he died, dad revealed to me that all the time he had been keeping Grandpa P up-to-date about my goings-on, he had neglected to mention one important thing: that i had changed my sex and was living as a woman. I can imagine the conversations. "Oh yes, he's doing fine. Yes, lives in Australia now. Yes, nice girlfriend, good job, no kids yet." In our family there was a signet ring passed from the first son to the first son to the first son. It should have been mine, but i am a poor first son. I will never have kids, and i don't even have my birth surname any more. Perhaps dad wanted to protect that illusion Grandpa P had of me, just as i had mine of him. Still, i was really upset when i found out. Somehow it felt like it took away what little second-hand relationship i thought i still had.

So all we did have was Hong Kong. That short holiday when i was a bairn. Going back was going to be a pilgrimage for me.

I was prepared for disappointment. Pretty much every other place i have visited from my childhood has changed in ways that busted the memory. But you know what? Seeing Hong Kong again this week did justice to every memory. It's still the most vibrant city i have ever visited. It is fast and dense and chaotic and beautiful. It's fierce and unfriendly and that doesn't really matter because everyone is swept up in it all. And when you find a rare abandoned clearing or rooftop, the rush of peace feels almost sacred.

Of course, it wasn't all roses. As a kid i didn't pay for anything so i didn't really see that side. I can tell you it's hideously expensive. I was in shock when i left my hotel and couldn't find any meals under 100$ (~12€). Happy hour beers started at 50$. The outrageous cost soured me on spending any more time there than absolutely necessary, so i started to check things off my "memory lane" itinerary on that first night. In the search for affordable food i stumbled upon a street market where one vendor hawked plastic toys and robots, just like i remember. I found a crab shack where i sat down on a plastic stool across from some sweaty, topless men in flip-flops. Dinner was two 20$ bottles of Tsingtao and a 40$ plate of water spinach and an 8$ samosa from an Indian place. Then i walked up to the Star ferry terminal and looked over at the Central skyline - much higher now, but as spectacular as it ever was.



The next morning i took the Star ferry over to Central. I remember there being a lot more harbor traffic 30 years ago. I guess there are a half dozen bridges and tunnels now. It was still awesome crossing the harbor in one of those old boats, especially with an epic tropical storm overhead spraying rain onto the deck and crashing thunder all around. Climbing up to the mid-levels was amazing too, just getting lost on funny little mountain staircases and private passageways with water cascading down around my ankles. I remembered it all.

Eventually i made it to the British Council building, which i do not. The current building is new and surrounded by luxury hotels and people in suits. I burst into tears when i got into the lobby. I choked out some explanation to the receptionist, then ordered a cup of tea and cried for an hour. I don't know what i expected to find there. Maybe some photos. Maybe an oldtimer who knew him, who could tell me a story about the good old days. But my grandfather was just one old expat amongst thousands. The only things he left behind are online - some passing diplomatic mentions and a record of his OBE. The current British Council in Hong Kong looks like little more than a buxiban for the new generation who grew up as residents of a Chinese SAR, not a British colony.

Though, i have to say, Hong Kong still feels quite British. They still drive on the wrong side of the road. They still use grotesquely oversized power plugs. They still have double decker buses. It feels provincial in the same way Britain itself does - justifiably proud of past successes but perhaps also a bit too stuffy to slot into place as a small player in a larger region.

After my breakdown i thought the day couldn't get any more emotional. I was wrong.

It was raining too much to try to climb a mountain or take a trip to Lantau, so i decided to wander over to the west side of the island. A whole bunch of old town along the way has been invaded by hipsters, but that was a given. I stopped in at the Lo Pan temple, mainly because Lo Pan is the name of the baddie in Big Trouble In Little China. If you ever wondered how i explore cities, by the way, this is how. I don't look at guidebooks or websites. I just look on the map and see a funny name or geographic feature and then walk there without any information about whether it is actually going to be "interesting" or not. Often it's not, by tourist standards, but the journey is fun. The Lo Pan temple was closed, but i enjoyed the walk.

Back down on the waterfront i found a bar where i sat down for a (fucking expensive) beer after grabbing a cheap bak choi and tofu noodle bowl at a Cantonese hole-in-the-wall. It was an expat bar. I cued up a bunch of gay-ass 80s music on the jukebox. I drank many beers. I started getting chatted up by a random Chinese guy called B. I talked to the bartender. And then the police arrived.

At some point in the evening, someone had found a suicide note from the owner of the bar. Apparently he comes in every night but that night he didn't. Everyone was a regular and they all knew him. It really put a damper on the proceedings. Being in the middle of all that emotion - plus my own memories of friends lost to suicide, plus my emotional breakdown from earlier in the day - just made me want to escape harder. I let B lead me to a new bar where everyone except the bartender was speaking Cantonese. I got drunker, and then had to fend off the attentions of B who had hit the point of drunkenness that he was no longer too shy to tell me he was fascinated by my exotic gender and stature and started getting handsy. It annoys me when people try it on when quite clearly i have something more important to do than get laid and that is drink my beer. He left after he realized i wasn't going to leave with him, but his nonsense had pissed me off so i shut the place down. I took a night bus back across the harbor and then had to walk from the ass-end of Kowloon to my hotel, past a bunch of guys trying to sell me shit at some ungodly hour of the morning on a weeknight. I ignored them and bought a beer for the road instead. Hong Kong, where the hustling never stops, even if the bars do. I collapsed in my hotel room and woke up with the mother of all hangovers.

Because that's how i wanted to face the Chinese border control. Dear God, was that a miserable morning. The highlight was pork buns. Many, many pork buns. But i will write about Shenzhen later. This was my Hong Kong story.

RIP, grandpa, you never knew me, we barely met, but you were a fantasy role model in my mind. My childhood trip to see you stuck with me for 3 decades. Bye bye, Hong Kong, you crazy capitalist colony that still stretches and glitters and feels like the most awesome city in the world. I'll be back, though i can't afford to stay long. Perhaps that's the best way, racing fast enough the wind can dry my tears.

rain, beer and the people of Ximen district
singapore sunset
amw
The weather is getting to me. I knew before i came here that i'd be arriving in the middle of the rainy season, but i had hit my last straw at work and wasn't going to delay my trip a couple months just to get some sun. And besides, the monsoon is just a normal part of life here, so why not embrace it?

The problem is that it's altering how i can enjoy myself. My greatest pleasure when traveling is just wandering around on foot, but when there is a constant torrential downpour, walking is not much fun. If i wear my jeans and sneakers, they get soggy after an hour or so and become uncomfortable to move around in. If i wear shorts and sandals (like most of the locals), i can't walk for hours anyway because they're too slippery. Add to that having to carry an umbrella all the time, and not being able to sit down anywhere, it just kinda kills the feeling of freedom i normally enjoy when walking.

So, what to do? Spend the time inside, i guess. But spending time inside either means spending money (shopping, movies, eating) or sitting in my windowless hotel room with no phone signal and flakey wifi. I guess i could spring for a more expensive room with a window and good wifi, but that would be no different from frittering my money away in a mall.

It's funny, i spent three weeks "trapped" on a cargo ship with nowhere to walk, no internet and no restaurants and was quite happy to just read and doze. Here i feel like i would be a waste to do the same. There's a whole city out there - shouldn't i go and see it?

I have spent a fair bit of time out and about. I walked around most of the neighborhood of my hotel - the Ximen district. And i walked to the river. And under many overpasses. I walked through the botanical gardens and the government areas and out to Taipei 101, which is a very cool building. I walked up past the oldtown and found a delightful old Christian chapel and a temple completely surrounded by food stalls and a fabric market. I started going into department stores and food courts. I took a subway up to the expat area near the international school on a tip that i might be able to find Western-sized clothes there. Given that i can't even fit into Western-sized clothes when i go shopping in a Western country, that was a fool's errand. But i bought a coffee and sat down at a convenience store and watched pizza delivery guys come and go and felt very American until this Hunter S Thompson looking Chinese guy sat down next to me with a Louis Vuitton bag and three cans of premium beer and started smoking a cigar. That was peculiar.

Each day i got very wet, and stomping puddles back into my hotel room i realized i kind of like this district better than any of the other ones in the rain anyway.



Yesterday i went to one of the vegetarian restaurants i found, and ordered a rice plate with a bunch of fake meats. (On my first day here i ordered a kimchi rice cake soup at the same place and it was terrific.) As i sat down, a stranger who was also alone asked if we could eat together. Of course i was fine with that, so we struck up a conversation. He was a local, born and raised in Taipei. I asked if he had traveled much and he said that recently he biked around Taiwan, which i am realizing is a popular way for both locals and foreigners to see the country. He asked what my favorite city was, a loaded question if ever i heard one. I said i liked Kaohsiung, but tactfully added that it was hard to compare because Taipei is so very much larger; it feels vastly more cosmopolitan and there is a lot more going on.

What a wacky coincidence, it turned out he was a software developer. He seemed quite surprised to hear i have spent my career working as a developer too, because he found his colleagues very shy. I said developers come in all shapes and sizes, though it's definitely a job that has more than its share of socially awkward characters. We talked shop. It was refreshing to be able to speak so much English. He said i should get in touch if i wanted to visit a night market or do anything. In another country i would've thought he was coming on to me, but now i know Taiwanese are unusually friendly (and, honestly, i think they pity me traveling alone), we exchanged Facebooks and who knows if i'll see him again.

One of the waiters at a gay bar the other night might have been coming onto me, though perhaps that's just wishful thinking. Turns out there is a little cluster of gay bars in one corner of this district and i sat down to have a beer at one of them after hearing tribal house blast out of the speakers. I haven't been out to a gay thing in ages so it was funny to see how similar the scene is. 20 years on, other side of the world, there are still bears and twinks and daddies and gym bunnies and fruity cocktails and pumping house music and waiters dressed in muscle shirts. My 15 minute crush was on the waiter with big hoop earrings and red lipstick and his hair back in a high ponytail. He looked like a beautiful girl, but still kind of manly. When i left he came up and lamented my early exit. "Will you be back tomorrow?" I nodded, but it turned out i had somewhere else to be.

My intent was good. I have had a bit of an itch to go clubbing here, since i know there is a small rave scene in Taipei. I was all lined up to head out to Korner nightclub on Saturday, and what better place to go for pre-drinks than the gay bar with the hot waiter who asked after me? Well, honestly, i think i am either getting old or stuck on the Berlin day-clubbing schedule, because i was in bed before the club opened. I didn't even make it to the bar.

I went to one of those izakayas for dinner. There are a bunch round here, but i ducked in and out of several because they were not my bag. Very expensive, lots of sake and sushi and fishy things on the menu. Eventually i settled at one situated in a side-alley where i could sit outside and watch the rain pour onto the tarmac as i ate. I ordered a beer and some rice and king oyster mushrooms and tofu skin with garlic. The latter was the best thing i have eaten since coming to Taiwan. The tofu skin was thick with garlic paste - something you don't find at many vegetarian restaurants here because Buddhists avoid garlic as well as meat - and then pinned into a roulade. But it didn't stop there - the roulade had been flame-grilled till the tofu skin flaked and blackened. The crispy texture was awesome. After that i ordered some of the regular tofu too, which was also delicious. And this, at a BBQ joint with dozens of meat dishes on the menu.

Actually, it wasn't just a BBQ joint. It was a BBQ joint and bar and graffiti and tattoo place. According to the menu blurb, a local crew just wanted to create a place featuring all of the things they love. Ximen is full of graffiti, by the way. It is very different from the political graffiti of Europe, it's not gang or sport related, i'm not even sure much of it is kids tagging either. A lot of it is gorgeous street art, well-organized and presumably sanctioned by the city. But, in spite of the district's glossy façade, i had ended up in an alley whose character got deeper as the night went on.

The rain didn't let up. The music coming out of the bar was an odd mix of 80s hi-nrg and new age warbling. Kids in increasingly bold and colorful outfits walked by, huddled under umbrellas. The lights of passing scooters reflected in the puddles. Paper lanterns swung overhead. And then a dude with dreadlocks walked out of the bar with a meat cleaver, which he used to trim jagged edges off a board and staple up some event flyers. A tiny delivery van zoomed past with a grim chap inside, cigarette dangling from his lips.

At some point the waitress came out for a smoke and we started chatting. She said she loved Kaohsiung. It seems a lot of people love Kaohsiung but no one lives there. I guess all the jobs are up here. She was from Taichung area "in the mountains". She rushed back inside as a cluster of guys with tattooed hands and necks walked in for a late-night feed. Back in the alley, a toothless old man yelled out "hello" to me. I smiled and said hello back. "Hallelujah! Black power!" Those were the two least-likely things i expected to hear out of the mouth of an old man in a Taipei back alley.

The waitress came out again a bit later with a pint of beer, sighed and sat down. I asked her about the music, since it seemed to me that surely no one here would be old enough to remember it. Was it a retro/revival style? She said no, but these were songs that everyone knows, the sort of thing you can sing at karaoke. "Singing modern songs at karaoke is no fun." I confessed i have never sung karaoke despite having been out with friends a bunch of times. She asked if i sung along with songs at home and then said it was the same thing. She said even when she goes to karaoke places with a stage ("like when i go with my mom"), she is shy but always sings.

I said i don't really know the words of many songs because almost everything i listen to is house or techno. But, then, there are some old songs - like this 80s pop style - that i go back to when i am feeling sad and want to mope instead of enjoy music purely for the music. She said she is the same way, that if people ask her what her favorite music is, it's gangster rap and hip-hop. But if she is honest, any time she is feeling sad she secretly listens to pop music - because it speaks to her heart.

She pondered a little about how sometimes she likes to go out to the riverbank and sit down with some beers and smoke a cigarette. "People probably think i'm homeless, but i don't care." Apparently it's okay to picnic with a group of friends, but not alone. I said the kind of people who will judge you for sitting in the park having a drink on your own are probably not the kind of people you want in your life anyway. "It's true. I don't care what people think, i will dance and sing on the street if i want."



She talked a bit more about why she doesn't like Taipei. She said the people here are very "cold". Like they will be nice to your face, but it's fake. At her last job she had a colleague she thought was a friend, they went out to eat and so on, but then she found out that she'd been gossiped about behind her back. It was interesting for me to hear her talk about the drama because i don't really experience it, not being young any more, or having very complex friends groups. She said people back home were very different. "All my good friends are straight." For a moment i wondered if she was gay, but i think she meant straight-up; honest or trustworthy.

I asked about "back home" and she said she didn't know the right word, she said "we are... mountain people". I asked if she was a Taiwanese Aborigine and she said "yes, that's the word". She said several of her colleagues and her boss here was too, and that it was a nice feeling. Suddenly that fact put into perspective some of her previous comments. It also suddenly clicked why some of the music sounded new age-y. One of the tunes i recognized had been the Deep Forest collaboration with an aboriginal couple that Enigma ripped off in Return To Innocence. The original song is called Elders' Drinking Song, which i think is awesome and will now be my Taiwanese theme song.


Difang - Elders' Drinking Song

She said it's hard sometimes to watch the news and see that the government or big companies want to develop her mountain, destroy the nature. "There is a lot of racism here." We talked a bit about the Dakota Access pipeline fight and how it has raised awareness of indigenous rights and environmentalism across North America and much of the Western world. I was getting drunk and a bit choked up recalling the injustices my indigenous friends have suffered. Fuck all white people. Well, here i guess it would be fuck all Han. I wondered about the old guy who called out "hallelujah" earlier. Most Taiwanese Aborigines are Christian.

I would have enjoyed chatting longer, but i was done. Before i left i took a photo and the waitress pointed out that the portrait spray-painted across the alley was an aboriginal pop singer we had been listening to for the last couple songs. "She knows the owner and comes to eat here sometimes. She's really great."

I left with a completely different view of Ximen, a part of the city that up until that point i had felt to be spectacularly bourgeois, with all the chain stores and flashing lights and fashion trends and pan-Asian mish-mosh. But, also Ximen: a diverse crew of hip-hoppers painting the walls and cooking up delicious food and sitting down to share a beer and some straight talk with a drunken tourist.

Tags:

Zhongli → ??? → Taipei
singapore sunset
amw
I am really getting into these restaurant/bars. I have started to recognize what to order and how to get a continuous stream of veges - baby corn, water spinach, mushrooms, bell pepper - while i drink. I have also found out how to spot them - aside from the beer sign out the front (invariably Heineken), they also tend to have elongated red paper lanterns. Not round ones or yellow ones - those are both reserved for temples - but long, like painkiller capsules. Noticing that made me wonder if these bars are the Taiwanese version of Japanese izakayas.

This place is much, much classier than any of the places i visited south of here, though. Probably why i noticed the lanterns. It's not an open or tented space out on the street, it's an inside room with a front door and air conditioning and all that fancy stuff. It doesn't have plastic stools, it has wooden stools. Made out of real wood too, not plywood and laminate. I feel a bit out of place, but the crowd is still wearing flip-flops and smoking and shouting and pouring beer out of 40s which i guess is what makes it a bar and not a regular restaurant.

I went to the nearest night market and it was exactly like the "famous" one i wasn't impressed by in Kaohsiung. So fucking suburban. I mean, they have lots of funny looking meat and deep-fried everything, but it doesn't feel unique. Perhaps i am biased because i am trying to find vegan-ish things, but i still think my favorite night market in Taiwan is the one i went to out the east side of Kaohsiung (somewhere in Fengshan district) where i got stinky tofu and mushroom soup. I get the feeling that night markets as a tourist destination are overrated. Almost everything you can get at a night market you can also get at mom'n'pop restaurants during the day, and during the day there isn't a line. You just need to walk around a bit more, because mom'n'pop restaurants and daytime food stands are scattered around everywhere. I guess night markets appeal to people who want to go somewhere busy and popular. Tourists aside, that would also explain why there are so many teenagers.

-o-

And that was the the last sensible thing i wrote in my notebook. Here is my review of Zhongli: best bars since leaving Berlin. Because, deary me, i blacked out most of Tuesday night and Wednesday i spent curled up in a ball in my hotel room with the mother of all hangovers.

Let's see what i remember. After leaving the izakaya, i stumbled upon an expat bar. Unlike the one in Kaohsiung, it wasn't serving steak and chips and whatever garbage food expats inexplicably like to eat, it just had a bartender who spoke English and beer on a tap. I got mightily drunk.

One thing i learned from listening to the bartender speak to a friend of hers was that there are valley girls in Taiwan. The one Chinese phrase most people know is "ni hao", which is used for hello (literally it means "you good?"). What i noticed was that it can also be used the valley girl way of "like, hell-ooo". Interesting discovery. I need to learn a lot more Chinese before i can use it that way.

I chatted to a couple of drunken businessmen. One was from Zhongli and his colleague was up from Changhua, the local was showing his friend around town. He told me Kaohsiung was great - best bars in Taiwan. I can dig that. Then he lamented the salaries. This is a common complaint - that even companies in mainland China pay better than Taiwan. It is causing brain-drain. At the same time, local house prices have exploded, so right now it's actually cheaper to rent your entire life than it is to buy a house. This was my first serious chat about the economics of Taiwan, and i hope i can get a bit more out of people in the future. I love learning about politics from locals. Of course, a bias is that most working class locals in Taiwan don't speak English, so i am likely to only hear from the (upper) middle class.

I also "came out" to the bartender. She asked me about my left wrist tattoo, which although it's my most simple tattoo it has one of the most complex stories. It's based on the black triangle, which was the Nazi symbol they used in concentration camps to classify homeless, prostitutes, mentally ill, alcoholics and so on. The lesbian community adopted it at some point as their pride symbol. About 10 years ago i felt lesbian but conflicted. I'm an old-school trannie so i don't subscribe to that modern view that i was born a woman in a man's body, i will always be a woman, i always was a woman, bla bla bla. I believe i was born male, i grew up as a boy, i got a sex change, and now i am socially considered a woman. That gives me great insight into the minds of both men and women that people who are not trans will never have. But i don't really consider myself either a man or a woman, and that's totally fine. I think gender is stupid. Still, i am a lesbian because society perceives me as a woman and i am only really attracted to people who identify as women. That makes me feel like a broken lesbian because God knows i don't share the childhood history and oppression of natural born women. Hence the broken black triangle on my wrist. Which - by chance - looks a lot like the Adidas logo, the shoe brand i have worn exclusively for 15-20 years. So, bonus.

Anyway, i spewed out all of this to a complete stranger in a town full of Asian expats. Significant because although Taiwan is relatively gay-friendly, most other Asian countries absolutely are not. It's a testament to my level of comfort in the joint - and my drunkenness - that i let all of that out.

At some point i left the expat bar, and then things got very murky. I know i went to at least one local bar, because i have a drunk Facebook status update and a business card in my wallet to prove it. I also have a photo of the door of another bar i am not sure if i visited. I think i was pleased to leave the expat bar because they started playing nu-metal and showing the NBA finals and ... really? Really? I mean, i like basketball, but nu-metal? Could you be more tragically bro-merican? The local bar was playing Taiwanese pop, and some guys were playing darts, and they had cheap beer, and i drunk-texted at least until 3am... Something something something...

It was an epic, epic night. I woke up around noon the next day, completely slept through breakfast, yelled at room service for trying to come in, then eventually showered and pulled myself out of bed around 6pm. I bought a vegetarian "beef" noodle bowl from 7-11, and some seaweed rice crackers, and a banana, and ate it all, and then passed out again.

When i woke up today it was raining. The train to Taipei was a blur of suburbs and cities and the odd mountain popping out in between. No more rice paddies. Taipei itself i have to reserve judgement on. It's been pissing down, so i haven't gotten to walk around as much as i would normally do. I did case the whole neighborhood around my hotel. According to Wikivoyage it's the Taipei version of Harajuku, which i can't believe because i didn't see any gothic lolitas walking around. There are tons of chain stores, though - almost only chain stores - and hipper-than-hip bars and gamer cafés and manga billboards and graffiti and neon lights and hi-nrg music... Pretty much everything has translations in English, Korean and Japanese. There are (relatively) lots of white people. It's wildly more cosmopolitan than everywhere i have visited yet. Perhaps not more multicultural than Zhongli, but that was working class multicultural. This is a bunch of shining happy kids with lots of disposable cash and their finger on the pulse of everything happening in Tokyo and Seoul and Hong Kong. It feels a lot more "Azn" than everywhere i was before, which felt more... Chinese. Ironically, perhaps, given the south is reknowned for having their own Taiwanese identity whereas the north tend to support the idea that Taiwan is the "true" China who will one day reunite with the mainland "when" they dump Communism. To me Taipei so far feels more like what i imagine Japan to be like and not very Chinese at all. But, yanno, i've only visited one neighborhood and i've never been to Japan outside of a layover, so what do i know?

Moral of the story. Zhongli, i remember almost nothing of the city, but i am quite sure i had a brilliant time there. Taipei? If i can make it through the rain i am sure i will enjoy it, in the same way i "enjoyed" (not really) NYC. Expensive, clean, safe, largely boring. Almost certainly big enough that cool things happen despite the boring. I got 4 days to find out, and after that it's Hong Kong and on.

where are the photos?
singapore sunset
amw


I am still finding it difficult to incorporate photos into my writing. Writing in general is a hobby of mine. Even for short emails i can sink hours into composition because i like the process of turning things over in my mind and seeking language that fits. I wouldn't consider myself a particularly good writer, but i am at least a mindful one.

What i am not, is a photographer. I don't really enjoy spending hours perfecting my photos. When there are so many people out there for whom photography is a hobby, and who are traveling to the exact same places i am, it feels gratuitous for me to post my dumb little happy snaps. I am primarily moved to take a picture when joy catches in my chest, but invariably the result doesn't do justice to the beauty of the moment. How could it? My camera phone is a cheap tool, whereas my vision is a spectacular mess of biological input twisted through a lifetime of memories and experiences.

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jungle hike and beach therapy
singapore sunset
amw
I woke up this morning determined to get out and explore. I wandered about looking for breakfast and grabbed a 花生豆花 (huāshēng dòuhuā), which is now my backup douhua when the place doesn't have my favorite floating-in-soy-milk version. Huasheng means peanut, but in the context of douhua the peanuts are soaked in water, so they are very soft, almost like mushy peas. Every time i find a douhua place i feel grateful that at least one thing i eat that day will be vegan, because it's tough as hell otherwise.

After breakfast i grabbed a coffee and jumped on a bus out to a town called Nanzhuang, which is a tourist destination in the mountains. After yesterday's debacle i wanted to try hit both the mountains and the coast in one day, but the bus took longer than i expected - we were really heading out to the sticks. The whole country looks completely different up there. There are trees everywhere and buildings are tucked into nooks and crannies and cling to ledges. The usual thin, low-rise row houses still cluster in the villages, but i also saw fully-detatched villas up on the odd crest. The streets wind and curl and meander and it gives the place a quainter feel than the industrial plains.

Nanzhuang turned out to be a little larger than the other villages we passed, with 2 or 3 main shopping streets. I wandered up and down looking for lunch and started to get exasperated at all the people trying to usher me into their joint. It's the first place i've been where almost every restaurant had photographic menus outside - it looked like a street full of "China restaurants" in Germany or Czech Republic, and was definitely geared for pulling in tourist groups.

Eventually i picked one and had to do a double take because the prices started at 200元. If i was in Europe i wouldn't balk at that, but here it just seems insane. Some dishes i recognized were mapo tofu, stir-fry meat and snow peas, yuxiang eggplant, garlic water spinach... Those were the cheap dishes - the more heavily meaty ones cost more. But when i know i can get all the same stuff at a cafeteria and my plate comes in under 100元 it just seemed excessive. I even tried to ask if they could make it small - xiao - but she looked at me like i was crazy. So i left, and in my low blood sugar grumpiness saw a place making wide rice noodle and just told them to give me whatever. It had garlic and spring onion and beansprouts and a light dusting of ground meat and cost me 45元. It was fabulously tasty.

Once i'd eaten, my plan was to take a walk, because as charming as this village was with all its little alleyways and temples on hills, it had pretty much all the same stuff as Lukang. I am becoming familiar with the Taiwanese tourist trinkets now, and i am not here to go shopping. But, for a change, i went to the visitors' center instead of just striking out on my own, because this seemed like a real nexus of Stuff To Do. I wasn't wrong. There are tons of Aboriginal villages and lakes and retreats and things to see and do around the area. There are lots of B+Bs up there too. If i'd know i would've brought my bag and stayed the night. But instead i asked if there were any nice places to walk. On the (English) map she gave me i could see countless hiking trails, so i kept asking whether i should take one or the other and she kept shaking her head nervously. She barely spoke any English, so we mostly used our phones to communicate. She showed me her phone: "very few people". Over here you are considered crazy if you want to go somewhere where no one else is. I nodded and tried to say that is exactly what i was looking for. Eventually she pointed at one trail and suggested it should only be a few hours and i could take the bus back from Xiangtian Lake at the other end.

I realize now that she probably hadn't walked any of the trails, or even known anyone who had. But at the time i picked up a bottle of water at 7-11 and a few little red bean cakes from a street vendor and headed out. (I can't give you the translation of the red bean cake because i don't know the name, i just ask for "red bean". It's basically two little halves of a pastry filled with either red bean or egg custard, then cooked on a waffle iron and folded over to make a dry package that is crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside.) Out of town it was much quieter. I couldn't find a trail head after walking back and forth, but i did see several small roads heading into the mountains and one of them had a bus stop next to it, so i figured that had to be the one. Spoiler alert - it wasn't.

I started climbing a road that was not marked on Baidu or OpenStreetMap, but it did show up on Bing so i didn't feel totally lost. Well, i didn't until my GPS signal disappeared off into the mysterious gray hole where there were no roads on the map, but i was still on the same road as before. And "road" is putting it generously. It was a raised concrete pathway barely wide enough for a car. Given the incredible humidity, the concrete was mostly covered with moss and, due to the steep incline, was also very slippery. I walked past a couple of houses, then a couple of shacks, then a rusty shipping container, then the road split in two and i just chose the fork that led up.

Every now and then i got back onto my GPS road, but it was pretty clear this wasn't a hiking trail. I started getting a little concerned. The foliage blocked the sun and the wildlife was deafening - buzzing and screeching and whining and squawking. Up in a tree i saw something like a racoon. At one point i feared one - or something worse - was behind me, from the thrashing and scurrying, but i refused to turn around because i thought it'd be better to keep walking in ignorance. Also, i needed to keep a steady footing and dodge the lazy butterflies. Just when i was about to give up, i heard an engine. I rested on the walking stick i had fashioned from a tree branch along the way, and watched a guy in a battered Mitsubishi Delica roll past. He just smiled, like seeing me was the most normal thing in the world, and pointed upwards. So i kept going upwards, even as my shoes found no grip on the slime, even after the crotch of my jeans tore out, even remembering my recurring nightmares of exactly this situation.

When i got to a crest where my phone had a bar again i considered my options. I've done enough hiking to know when you get to a certain height, there isn't going to be a bridge going to the other side of the ravine, you're just going to have to wait for the path to go back down and ford the creek. Even though i hadn't caught up to the guy in his van, i made a decision to head back the way i came - i figured it didn't make much sense to climb down the far side of the mountain on the gamble that the path would go where i needed it to go. If i lost the gamble, i'd have to climb all the way back up. That was the best decision i made all day, because about 10 minutes into the descent the clouds opened up. I was already soaking wet from the sweat and humidity, but the thick tropical rain found new ways to drench me.

Halfway down i noticed that there was a scooter parked near a clearing and i heard an odd mechanical buzz from somewhere in the jungle. I walked in and saw a guy up on a hillside using a weed-whacker to cut a trail. I wonder if perhaps that was the trail i was supposed to take, but hopelessly overgrown, or if it was an attempt to build a new trail. If it was America i would have gone up to ask, but here i know there's not a hope of being able to have a conversation with anyone, so i continued down the hill, reassured that there were at least two people besides me on this insane path today.

I took the bus back to Zhunan so i could recharge my phone and dry out a bit. Then i went back to my original plan to go to the beach. Yes, it was pissing down with rain. I was a little annoyed, because i had checked the weather reports and rain radar this morning and it looked like today was going to be fine, but perhaps the wind moved faster than expected. Still, i'm a dumb tourist and ain't no one gonna stop me doing stupid things in a foreign country, so i walked out in the direction of the beach. On the way i saw a truly gigantic statue of Mazu and walked briefly through the temple, which was ridiculous and deserved a longer stay. But i was on a mission to get to the beach for sunset, so i marched through rice paddies and over an expressway and under a freeway and past a bunch of seafood restaurants and then - lo - the fucking sea.

It was beautiful. I swear, i almost shed a tear. After 2 weeks on a crowded island where every direction you turn there are more buildings, to see the sea again - an unbroken horizon - it was something else. Oh wait, hyperbole. Of course the horizon was broken. There were offshore rigs and windmills, but let me have my moment. I skipped and danced across the wide, flat beach. There were only two other people there - one guy walking his dog and collecting seawater for some reason, and a girl with the same idea as me - paddling in the waves and taking photos of the sunset. It was perfect. I jumped and waded and splashed seawater on my face and took photos of the stormclouds and windmills.

When i got back to the city, i decided to treat myself. Up until now everywhere i have eaten has either been a cafeteria or a street stand. I have rarely eaten indoors, and aside from those restaurant/bars i haven't ordered off a paper menu at all. I saw a Thai restaurant and went in. Not that i don't love Chinese food, but i needed a pampering. I needed to be able to order something without having to point and gesticulate and feel like a complete fool. It's the same reason i picked up a bánh mì when i was hungover the other day. You have no idea how fucking awesome it feels to confidently yell out your order until you have spent a couple of weeks having to turn even the simplest orders into a song and dance. So i sat down and i pointed at the "fried meat" and said "pad krapao?" And she said "pad krapao!" And i praised the Lord, because pad krapao is my favorite Thai food and (when i still ate meat) my most commonly cooked dish at home. And He was smiling on me this day, because the pad krapao came out and it was ground pork - not that abysmal watered-down nonsense with chicken breast strips and bell pepper - and it had a fried egg on it and it was spicy as all get-out and i smiled. I also got water spinach and a beer. And then they brought me some cherry tomatoes with sugary salty spicy dip and red bean in coconut milk, because i think they thought it was cute that on this rainy Monday night a soggy gweilo walked into their empty restaurant and started orgasming over the most basic thing on the menu. It was a feast. It was banquet prices. The whole lot cost 350元, but it was worth every fen.

Tomorrow i go to Zhongli, my last stop before Taipei. It's a bit more big smoke than the last few places, back to highrises and urban parks. I hope i can find somewhere to buy pants. The next week the whole island is going to be thrashed by tropical storms, so the city is a good place to be. I might just chill and give myself a bit of a breather and time to plan my mainland excursion. That is going to be much more difficult than here because downloading offline maps of mainland China is illegal and the Great Firewall may potentially block tourist information and other communication. I have already decided i want to come back here after the mainland so i can go back down the east coast and visit Kaohsiung again. I really loved Kaohsiung.

After that? I'm not sure.
Tags: ,

Changhua → Zhunan
singapore sunset
amw
I finally found a bar-bar. Not one of those hip cocktail bars and not one of those restaurant/bars, but a legit bar-bar.

I am in a town called Changhua. It's about halfway up the island and the point at which the train line splits between mountain and coast. I wanted to continue on the coast line, so figured this'd be a good spot to overnight. What i did not expect was the astronomical hotel prices. Up until now every hotel i have stayed in has been around 20€ on the cheap end and 40€ on the expensive end. This weekend 40€ was the hard floor, and that for a barrel-scraper of a hotel with the clerk behind glass and a parade of ants in the bathroom. But that was just the beginning. There were hotels up to 400€ a night at some of the smaller destinations along the coast line. No fucking joke. If these prices keep up i'm going back to the south and no regrets.

On the other hand, i found a legit bar. It's dark. They only have beer, champagne and rice wine. Everyone is smoking. Taiwanese pop music is on the TV screens. In every way it is like the kind of dive bars i am used to, except for it only opened at 8pm. I got turned back at 7pm so went to a fried chicken joint and ate Kentucky Fried 杏鲍菇 (xìng bào gū) - king oyster mushroom - while i waited. I was still the first customer.

-o-

That night got gnarlier the longer it went on. Just when i was thinking i was tired enough to give up, something happened. Fucking karaoke happened. But it was like no karaoke i have ever seen. Instead of having people get up on stage, a wireless mic appeared at one of the tables and they passed it round taking turns singing more Taiwanese pop songs. No one watched. No one clapped. No one paid any attention at all. Even at the same table as the mic they continued their conversation. If you just walked in you might not even notice, because both karaoke and regular video clips had subtitled lyrics. It was just a few drunk kids singing along to the songs they liked on a sound system loud enough that the whole bar could hear their efforts.

So i have to revise my thought that karaoke is about performance. At least the kind of karaoke they have here is about something else.

I found the whole thing so fascinating (and, let's not lie, i was getting drunk) that i stayed till midnight. It wasn't just the karaoke, it was also the video clips themselves. The thing that immediately struck me was that whiteness is still a prized feature even in a country where everyone is a "person of color" by western standards. Although some of the male singers were a little darker, the female idols and love-interests were universally whiter than me. What kind of wack beauty standards.

Another thing i noticed was how Taipei-centric it all was. Most all of the video clips snuck in a gratuitous shot of Taipei 101. I wonder how the kids in the south feel when all they see on TV is the north? Maybe they don't care. Aside from Taipei 101, almost every shot was a generic urban background. On an escalator, under an overpass, in the middle of the street. Not places i would consider beautiful or glamorous. Maybe pop clips have always been like that - it's been 20+ years since i watched any - but it seemed poignant because it's how i am starting to see the country. Even in the "wilderness" of the badlands farmers were eking out a living. Taking the train north all you see is apartments, factories and farms for miles and miles and miles. I guess Europe is largely the same, but it feels bleaker here for some reason. Maybe it's the lack of graffiti.

-o-

I'm back in one of the "regular" restaurant/bars tonight. I am mightily sunburnt after a day in a town called Lukang. It was tremendous. There is a famous temple there that draws crowds, but there are several famous temples on the west coast Mazu (goddess) route. What makes Lukang specifically a tourist destination is the history - aside from Tainan it's the oldest town in Taiwan. To me it doesn't look much different to anywhere else, but there are some alleys with historical plaques, so people come to take photos next to those.

I should mention i didn't see any white people, so it is most likely a local tourist destination, but that made it much more interesting to me. I got to be a tourist watching another culture be tourists. The whole town is lined with souvenir shops and people hawking dozens of local speciality snacks and knick-knacks. Everyone has to get a photo of everything. Gotta get a photo in front of the temple, in front of the guy blowing glass, in front of the "half well", in front of the frickin not-Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Oh yes, it's like Taiwanese Niagara. Although i generally hate tourist destinations due to the throngs of people and mediocre food, there is a certain point where it hits peak tackiness and wraps back around to delightfully kitsch. Lukang is that.

I checked in on Facebook when i arrived, as i have been doing in every town i visit. Yes, i am prostituting my privacy for the convenience of being able to tell my family i am not dead. Lucky for me, my expat friend/acquaintance replied with a string of Chinese logograms suggesting i take a taxi or bike there. Facebook is a piece of garbage so i couldn't copy/paste the location, but i opened up Baidu Maps and just scrolled around till i found the logograms and decided to jump on a bike. Yes, folks, i gave up on my "walking only" rule, largely because it was fucking hot and Lukang is surrounded by paddies with no shade and my curiosity was piqued.

At first i decided to bike to the seaside, because since i left Kaohsiung i haven't seen the sea. That was a mistake. It seems like the seaside in Taiwan is primarily seen as a useful place to situate factories. I cycled out to the dyke and climbed up and all i could see was mud, garbage and chimneys. The sea was the color of dishwater. I took a photo of the tiny shrine on top of the dyke and marveled again at this country's similarities to Holland and then got back on my bike to head to the mystery location.

The mystery location turned out to be a temple made of seashells out in the middle of nowhere. The temple had an unusual layout, and an even vaster array of ominous demons and gods and goddesses lining the entrance than normal. Inside the temple was a tiny, rickety staircase heading down with an arrow pointing to it. Well, what was i going to do, not follow the arrow? I followed the arrow, and ended up in a long, winding tunnel also made out of seashells, then came out in a bizarre aquarium. Or was it a pet shop? Tons of fish tanks stood about with small tropical fish inside. The roof was made of translucent green corrugated plastic, and water streamed continuously off it into pools on each side of the building. In the pools were tortoises and carp and all manner of water critters. Baggies of shells and beads and charms lay haphazardly about the place, some with price tags, most not. It was one of the most surreal places i have ever been.

Eventually i found a person - an old man who sat me down on a stool and spent about half an hour showing me photos and talking to me. I literally did not understand a single word he said, but he didn't seem to mind. I went back into the temple and found an old sign in English explaining that this guy had built the temple from scratch with no building experience at all, it took him years, labor of love etc etc. I realized then that this was a Taiwanese version of one of those odd roadside curiosities. The peak of the artist's "fame" probably happened 20 years ago, judging by the yellowed newspaper clippings. Now the place is shabby and deserted, but somehow even more wacky and endearing for it.

After that experience i wasn't sure anything in Lukang could top it, so i resolved to head back to Changhua. When i dropped my bike, a complete stranger came up to me and said i was "hong". I think he said 红 (hóng). This is a very important logogram to learn because if you combine it with bean (豆) you get red bean and if you combine it with tea (茶) you get "red tea", which is actually the Chinese word for black tea. Anyway, the stranger gave me a bottle of water out of his bag and would not take no for an answer, even though we were steps away from a convenience store. Random acts of kindness! After i finished the water i picked up a tea to match my face - 红茶 - with less ice and less sugar - 少冰 (shǎo bīng) and 少糖 (shǎo táng). Slowly i am learning more casual phrases so i don't need to say/mime "5, 5" any more.

On the bus i was quickly joined by someone who asked in English "can you speak Chinese?" It is so unusual to be addressed in English over here that i often find myself flustered and unable to respond properly. Then, after the shock subsides, i start to gush. Turned out she is back in Taiwan to visit her parents and has been living in South Africa and Australia for 30 years. Her home is Adelaide, the city where my mom lives. She asked which suburb and i wasn't able to answer. For someone who flies halfway round the world to visit her mom every year, it probably seemed odd that i haven't visited mine in over 10 years and don't have the slightest idea of her street address.

She said she was happy to be spending 5 weeks up here this time because finally her youngest got her drivers' license so was able to be left at home alone. I should have asked a bit more about that. Why does a kid need a drivers' license to be left alone? I guess because they live in some ass-end exurb with no public transport? I forget those sorts of places exist. Her older kid is almost finished with university and wants to travel. He has his heart set on Montreal for some reason. I had to reassure her that Canada is a relatively safe country, at least as safe as Australia.

Anywho, we chattered on and she talked about how much she loved Australia and how it's so multicultural and bla bla. It was interesting to hear that from someone with visibly Asian features and whose first language is not English. When i arrived in Australia it was a time of openly racist attitudes toward people of East Asian descent. During the 10+ years i lived there, the hatred slowly migrated to people of Middle Eastern descent, culminating in major race riots in 2005. Refugees from all over Asia faced inhumane conditions in notorious prison camps and to this day they still do. I witnessed indigenous friends suffering blatant racism from cops, bartenders and random people on the street. I consider Australia the most racist and obnoxiously intolerant place i have ever lived, and was very happy to leave. And yet, millions of people love it there, my mom and sister have become citizens and people emigrate from all over the world for the lifestyle. And here, on a bus in the middle of nowhere, a Taiwanese-born Australian spoke wistfully of home and worried about her kids leaving for dangerous countries like Canada. I guess a lot comes down to the circles you run in.

-o-

This morning i woke up with a hangover, again, so i grabbed a porkalicious bánh mì before taking the train north to Zhunan. I wanted to take the coastal line because of a picture on the Taiwan Railways website that made it look beautiful. It wasn't. I am going to venture a guess that it was a picture of the east coast, which is behind a mountain range and apparently features far more natural beauty than the west coast. This local line was just more factories and rice paddies. The highways are never far from the railroad and snake across the country on stilts all the way, making the whole place look like an endless intersection. I presume it's to avoid flooding. Of course, viaducts are also kinder to local wildlife than ground level roads, but i suspect the wildlife under these highways is limited to mud carp and pop singers shooting videos.

The most interesting sight was the thousands of trainspotters who had lined up to take photos of a steam train that we passed in Qingshui. People rushed onto our train and jumped out at the next station, sprinting to the end of the platform to try secure the optimum spot. Qingshui station was filled to bursting, so i understood their urgency. But as we continued on i noticed the really smart anoraks had driven or biked out to the country and crowded overpasses or jumped fences to sneak their way onto the tracks to get the perfect shot. The most ingenious of the lot was a guy who had set up a tripod on top of his car. I'm not sure where the train was headed, but at Dajia station there was an honor guard of temple musicians standing around, so perhaps it was just doing that short run.

Dajia was one of the places i originally wanted to stop, site of one of the most famous Mazu temples, but alas lacking any hotels that i could find. So i trundled on to Zhunan, past a couple of small villages that actually looked like proper seaside towns, though my standards are now greatly lowered after my Lukang experience. In fact, in Zhunan there is supposed to be a real beach where people go to do beach-y things like kitesurfing. I was going to walk down there, but with this hangover i am not sure i can make it. Also, my hotel room isn't ready, so i have been sitting around awkwardly in a coffee shop typing up these notes. The coffee shop is in a very modern and classy-looking neighborhood. It's all low-rise apartments and yoga studios and hair salons and palm trees. It feels very much like i am sitting in a beachside suburb somewhere in California. If i was in California i'd feel a bit out-of-place somewhere this preppy, but right now i am relishing the soft chair and smooth jazz and locals gossiping as the baristas foam milk and pour lattés. If i can't nurse my hangover in a hotel room, i could do worse than right here.

-o-

That simple black ice coffee turned out to be 100元, which is more expensive than any non-alcoholic drink and many meals i have had in this country. I hope it's not another sign of the north. I am so seedy and sunburnt i just want to collapse now my room is ready. I might book another night so tomorrow i can do the sightseeing i should have done today.

Tainan → Chiayi
singapore sunset
amw
Tainan has been a bit of a let-down after Kaohsiung. I think it's the main tourist destination in Taiwan (for foodies at least), but to me it just felt like a small American town. And not in the good way. Sure, it has a quaint old train station and a few clusters of old buildings that all the tourists flock to, but between that it's just chain stores and long stretches of nothing.

Well, not "nothing". There are some residential blocks. But not interesting residential blocks, just soulless new condos or smart little row houses with no stores for miles around. It's extremely pedestrian-unfriendly compared to Kaohsiung where you can (and i did) walk for 10km in every direction and never stop seeing food stalls, mom'n'pop stores and other pedestrians. I can get why tourists like it - there are some very well-signposted sights, and most of the chain stores have English and Japanese translated menus - but... eh. Boring.

So i spent yesterday doing laundry and bumming around in my hotel room. The best thing i found in this city is 豆花 (dòuhuā), which is silky tofu with simple syrup - aka 糖水 (tángshuǐ) - poured on top. It's prepared like and eaten as a dessert or sweet treat. The best thing is that it's not over-sweet; great for someone like me who doesn't really like sweet food. Also, no bloating, no phlegm, none of that grossness of eating pudding made from eggs or milk. It is ridiculously delicious. You can augment it with red bean, peanuts and more, but my favorite version is 豆浆豆花 (dòujiāng dòuhuā) - just floating in soy milk with a drop of syrup.

Aside from that, it's actually harder to find vegetarian food than in Kaohsiung because all the chain restaurants only serve meat, and there are far less street-side cafeteria/food stall type places where you can point and smile and explain what you (don't) want.

Today i looked around and discovered there is a badlands "nearby". Since badlands are my favorite lands, i tried to figure out a way to get there on foot. All the guides give directions to rent a scooter or bike, but i don't want to do that on principle. I want to support public transport wherever i can, plus walking is the best and purest form of travel - nothing to worry about but the clothes on your back. After a couple hours researching with Google Translate, Wikivoyage, Wikipedia and some not-very-helpful English-language blogs, i found a way to get there. There are two buses that together would take me kinda-sorta in the right direction. The first took me to 新化 (Xīn Huà).

Or, should i say, the first bus took me Sin Hua? Or Hsin Wah? Trying to find your way around is made vastly more difficult in Taiwan because they do not consistently use pinyin for romanization. Even different street signs in the same town can contradict one another. This, incidentally, is also why most Chinese restaurants overseas write stuff like "kung pao" instead of "gong bao" - they are largely run by Hongkongers, Macanese and Taiwanese who were not subject to the 50+ year old mainland China ruling that everyone should use pinyin. If you google, Xinhua will be called Sinhua because fuck my life. From this point on i will use pinyin, unless it's a major city like Kaohsiung (Gāoxióng).

Anyway, i took the bus to Xinhua, which is a rural exurb of Tainan. It's in a farming area surrounded by rice paddies and pineapple plantations and mango trees. How do i know this? Because by the time i found vegetarian breakfast this morning in the miserable vegetarian desert that is Tainan, i missed the connecting bus to 岡林 (Gānglín) and now i am here.

I have three hours till the bus leaves, at which point i will have just a couple hours before the bus back to the city. I hope the badlands are close enough i can walk there and hang out, but otherwise i will just dopily walk around some roads in the countryside. Which, i guess, is not much different to what i did in Utah and Nevada, so that's fine.

-o-

Latest delicious meal is 杏仁豆腐 (xìngrén dòufǔ) or almond tofu. I am familiar with this from dim sum, where you get a tiny little cube of almond jelly and it costs a fortune, but this is the fucking country. I got a bowl-sized slab of almond jelly on top of a heaped mound of shaved ice for about a dollar. And then the girls at the counter brought me out the aforementioned douhua too, with copious syrup, because "you have to try!" This is the kind of hometown specialty i can get behind.

Xinhua is like a little wild west town, complete with a Main Street with 100-year-old façades and red brick bungalows still (barely) standing a block or so back. Except the bungalows have curved rooves, and then you remember you're in a country that both the Chinese and the Japanese occupied. That's capped off by the century-old Japanese-era dojo that still has a spring-loaded wooden floor. Awesome.

-o-

Yesterday was interesting. After spending a few hours in Xinhua, i was still determined to see the badlands, so i took the bus to Ganglin. Ganglin is basically a bend in the road with a police station, a restaurant/bar and - unusually - a Christian church. I walked out in the direction of 草山 (Cǎoshān), which is not even a village as far as i can tell, just a rural area with a few farms.

The scenic area is called 草山月世界 (Cǎoshān Yuè Shìjiè) or Caoshan Moon World, due to the moon-like landscape of the badlands and mud flats. In reality, it is far too wet and humid to look like a real desert moonscape, but when you are surrounded by jungle, even just a hint of a place where nothing grows is notable. The farmers valiantly try to shove pineapples, bananas and mangos in the ground, but a lot of the area is just thick and thorny bamboo. And - Lord almighty - if you have never walked through a bamboo forest alone, it is something else. Creaking, whining, knocking, barking (!) and rolling, rolling thunder like the sky is about to fall. It is awesome and terrifying. And every now and then you pop out at a river bed or a crest where you can see mountains made of mud and giant fucking spiders. Most of the publicity photos of the area are taken after the rain when the mist is rising and it looks like a Chinese watercolor, but i was humbled by the beauty on just a plain old summer day.

The walk exhausted me. I went about an hour and a half before turning back, planning to take the penultimate bus and knowing there was a bar there where i could drink while i waited. The bar was basically an open shed with a wok, refrigerator and tables and chairs. They had beer and tofu and standing fans. All the necessities. The men i had waved to when i had first gotten off the bus were still there, very drunk. Despite considering me crazy for walking a few hours in the late afternoon, they delighted in inviting me to their table where they finished off their beers and rice wine while i cracked a cold one. They knew about 50 English words between them. So we laughed, and we drank, and we laughed some more.

The biggest joke of the night was "no 3 no 4". I had no idea what they were talking about. I thought it might have something to do with the "out of 10" scale that a lot of Taiwanese tea shops use. For example, if you want half sugar, half ice, you say "5, 5". 10 is full sugar/ice. But when i got back online i translated back to Chinese and looked up 不三不四 (bùsānbùsì). Turns out the number one translation for no-three-no-four is "shady". It sounds like some kind of slang, but i noticed it also means the idiom "neither fish nor fowl", which made me wonder if they were commenting on my gender-confusing appearance. That would be in-line with my experiences in rural America, where being confronted with a fearless trannie completely does their head in. On one hand they have an idea of what a trannie should be and fear and hate that thing, on the other hand i walk into their dive bar dressed like a farm worker, covered in ratty tattoos and order the same cheap beer they do. So it doesn't compute. Usually people get over it. I leave if they don't. I guess i'm lucky i haven't suffered the Matthew Shepard treatment. I've had bigger problems in suburban and touristy areas of big cities where douchebag straight men feel like they have something to prove. True country boys don't tend to care much, as long as i don't rock the boat.

Around 6 i headed across the road to the bus stop. Most everyone else had left in dribs and drabs. Of the remaining two, one was passed out over the table, and the other came and sat next to me at the bus stop. He was a gentleman who refused to let me wait alone. He called his wife and she approved, you see. After about half an hour, he invited me on his scooter and said he would take me back to Xinhua. Against my better judgement (he was very drunk and i had no helmet), i jumped on and we started cruising the winding roads back to the big smoke. About 5 minutes in, the bus passed us in the other direction, so he turned around and took me back to the bus stop. It took another half hour of being bitten alive by mosquitos and listening to the crickets and watching the dogs strut around like they owned the whole place till the bus showed up, an hour behind schedule.

On parting, Mr X - as we shall call him - shook my hand and gave me his business card. I made it home safe and sound with a dead phone and a head full of memories and a heart full of love for rural Taiwan.

Imagine my surprise when i googled Mr X and found out he was a senior elected official in the DPP - the major left wing party of Taiwan. He has a Wikipedia page and everything. He kept lamenting his drunken state and apologizing to me every time he walked off to pee (or puke), but i am not sure we had enough shared language for me to say i totally get it. We've all been there, and the journey down is always a blast. The last thing he said to me was "come back to Taiwan!"

-o-

Today i took the local train to 嘉義 (Jiāyì) or Chiayi, a city whose name i will never be able to pronounce correctly. It was a leisurely hour or so across rice paddies and past factories and row houses and the odd highrise. The country here looks so much like Holland it's uncanny. Low, wet, gray.

Arriving in Chiayi was nice. Unlike Tainan - which has almost 2 million residents - Chiayi is a legit country town whose main claim to fame is that it is the terminus of the branch line to 阿里山 (Ālǐshān), Taiwan's most famous mountain and its most famous national park. I guess Chiayi is like Taiwan's Merced. And yet... it was immediately charming. There is hustle and bustle in the streets, the smell of fivespice and oolong wafting out of storefronts, and - most importantly, as a pedestrian - no boring gaps.

Also, there is a shit-ton of coffee shops. There are even guys on bikes selling ice coffee. It puts the cities south of here to shame. I wonder if this might be a sign of my slow progress north towards Taipei and its (presumably) more Japan-influenced coffee culture?

-o-

So, i am totally down with Chiayi. Its other claim to fame is a baseball team with a Hollywood story. They were a team of Taiwanese Aborigines and Han Chinese who - back when Taiwan was colonized by the Japanese - beat the Japanese-only Taipei team, then went on to Japan to compete in the nationals. Against all odds, they made it to the finals where they lost, but nonetheless became heroes. I think baseball is one of the most boring sports ever invented, but the stories are truly great. I walked up to the stadium, and then i kept on walking to a reservoir way out on the east side at the foot of the mountains. It's wild, standing on the dam and seeing houses way below on one side and water a stone's throw away on the other.

I walked back to town around sunset and found a busy farmers' market that was just winding down. All manner of fruit and vegetables and fish were there that i have never seen before. I was tempted to buy stuff, but then i remembered i only booked one night in this hotel and will probably leave tomorrow. These are the times i wish i had an apartment for a few days and could nestle in and cook some shit. Anywho, i continued on and found a night market and a bunch of stores and restaurants where i sampled the famous Chiayi turkey rice. You actually just ask for 鸡肉饭 (jīròu fàn), which is chicken rice, but the local specialty is turkey and that is what you will get. Similar to the famous Hainanese chicken rice of Singapore, it is literally just chicken (well, turkey) on rice. That's it. No vegetables, no seasoning - not really - just the meat on the rice. Much like Hainanese chicken rice, i have no idea why this is famous, but somehow the simplicity is endearing. It was well-cooked turkey, and well-cooked rice. And it cost a 30 kuai, which is a buck. So fuck it.

After that i walked back to a douhua stand that i had seen down an alleyway because douhua is heaven. I got hijacked by a young dude with a ponytail and his younger friends. He spoke perfect English with an American accent and said he was born in Chiayi and they were hunting tourists to ask about what they could do to make the city more appealing. He almost seemed disappointed when i said i really liked the place. He said it was boring and they wanted to make a video to point out that the city should be more exciting and do more to attract tourists besides being "close to Alishan" (they were surprised to hear i wasn't planning on going there). After chatting for a while they taped my answers - the only thing i thought they were missing, like the whole of this fucking country, is a bar that is open in the day time. Not sure if it'll get the kids a good grade at school or make a compelling YouTube video, but hey, i did my bit.

I gotta admit, i totally get where they are coming from. I love traveling through rural cities as an adult where i can hang out for a bit and then move on. But if you're a teenager in a town of a quarter million people a couple hours from anywhere with nightclubs and diversity... yeah, that sucks. I hated it when i was a teenager in ass-end-of-the-world Toowoomba. Fucking taking Greyhound to go to a rave, ffs... When you're a kid you can't understand that old people have done all that shit when they were younger and kinda like pottering about living the simple life. But God knows if i ever had kids, if i could give one piece of advice to any of my friends who plan for kids, it would be: move to the city. Kids will hate and resent growing up in the burbs or in a rural town. Big cities are where young people bloom and flourish and get to figure out who they really want to be. I am always baffled by the thought process that leads to my urban friends moving out to the burbs to have kids, it seems so cruel to stick them in a place that will suffocate their dreams.

Anyway, bored but optimistic rural teenagers aside, this middle-aged kid thought Chiayi was bomb. After my Ganglin experience, i finally figured out how to find a bar in Taiwan. It's not like a western bar. It looks just like any other restaurant, only difference is there are beer signs out the front (not all restaurants here serve alcohol). Up until now i avoided those places because they seem to be exclusively meat, but this time i sat down and struggled with a wait staff who spoke no English at all and did not understand my Mandarin either. They kept trying to push meat on me. Eventually i got tofu skin and baby corn, fresh off the BBQ. The thing is, i didn't want any food at all, i just wanted beer. But that's the thing - bars here, they serve food and beer. Nobody orders just beer. There are cocktail bars, of course, but they only open at 9pm and fuck that noise. That's where the young people go, all dressed up and shit when i am already lying in bed. No, if you are old in Taiwan, instead of grabbing snacks - 小吃 (xiǎochī) - at a night market, you go to these seedy restaurant-bars and order a beer and xiaochi like they are tapas and pour that beer in tiny little glasses and cheers and laugh all night. Since i have no friends here, i just quaffed the tiny little glasses alone and read China Daily for the comedic propaganda reports from across the strait. Good times.

Yeah, and then i picked up a few more beers at the 7-11 on the way back to the hotel. So, tomorrow will be awesome.

language nerdery and cultural learning
singapore sunset
amw
I mean, you know, then you find a place like this, a large concrete blob in the middle of the highrises that called me. Turns out it is some kind of art gallery or performing arts center and there is a huge covered courtyard out the front with mirrored pillars everywhere. It's like a massive public dance studio. Right now there are 3 troupes rehearsing and a bunch of solo dancers perfecting their moves. It's a wide open space, but everyone has their ghettoblaster just loud enough to not annoy the other crews.

There is also a group of kids who set up picnic blankets and are sitting down having a sushi feast. This isn't the first time i've seen a picnic being held on a covered concrete space here. I guess it makes sense in a city with a rainy season. It's always hot, and often wet. The public space is so well-utilized. What's striking is how respectful of the public space people are - everyone and their dog is out and about, but no one is loud or obnoxious or getting in the way of anyone else. That's why i found the security guard's behavior last night so peculiar.

I mentioned it on Facebook, and a Canadian ex-pat acquaintance of mine said it's more likely that the security guard was honestly trying to make a kind gesture. To be honest, that almost makes it worse. I am really not comfortable with people doing "nice" things for me. I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Now that you did this for me, what's my obligation to you?

But, perhaps that is part of the culture here i still need to learn. Kindness without obligation. Although, just kindness - sure - that's something i enjoy and i also spread around. What i find really awkward is someone taking me into their private space, making a sacrifice of their freedom for me, that feels like a debt i can never pay back. I have to keep reminding myself that "normal" people don't see private space as a fortress of solitude like i do.

These dancers are lovely. There is an old guy with white hair bouncing around like a thing on a spring, and an old lady going through tai chi moves, and a toddler in bare feet stomping around and looking at her reflection in the granite.

I feel like a big fat slob.

-o-

Okay, that's confirmed it. Random acts of kindness do appear to be a Taiwan thing.

Today i sat down at a restaurant where i recognized the logograms for vegetarian food - 素食 (sùshí). This phrase has caused me no end of trouble here, because if you pronounce it without knowing pinyin you might be tempted to say sushi, like the Japanese dish of rice and seaweed. Here's where it gets interesting. Taiwan used to be occupied by Japan, so some older people know Japanese but not English, and they recognize the pronunciation "sushi" as the Japanese word 寿司. The Chinese word for that dish is also spelled 寿司, but in Mandarin that's pronounced shòusī. Forget about the tones - the point is that in Mandarin the sh- and the s- sound are reversed to English and Japanese, so it should still be easy enough to differentiate, right? But just to fuck with you even more, Taiwanese have their own special accent of Mandarin, and in the Taiwanese accent sh- and s- are both pronounced s-. What that means is that when i say sùshí they think i am speaking Japanese even if i do get the tones right. Eventually they realize i mean vegetarian, which pronounced in the Taiwanese accent sounds like SuSE, the German Linux distribution.

Anyway, i asked for rice, but it wasn't a buffet or anything so i couldn't point and smile. I said 米饭 (mǐfàn) and they came back to me with a flurry of language where the only word i recognized was 面 (miàn), which literally means a surface, but i also know from eating noodles all over the world that anything that sounds like the English words "me" or "main" is probably a noodle. Eventually they threw up their hands and ushered a kid out from inside the building to translate. He said "do you want noodle?" Here is another problem i have with this language. There is no word for "yes" in Chinese. If someone asks you a yes/no question and you want to answer positive, you have to reuse the verb they used in the question. If you don't know the verb they used, you are fucked. Anyway, i said yes in English and got a big bowl of noodle soup with fake beef plus broccoli, bak choi and winter melon on the side.

Bak choi is the only thing i know how to ask for. 青菜 (qīngcài) is the Mandarin phrase, and it literally means green dish. The reason we call it bak choi in the west is because it is the Cantonese pronunciation for 白菜 (báicài), which means white dish. In Mandarin if you say báicài you mean napa cabbage/won bok. Good times. Anyway, i have learned you can ask for qīngcài and it basically just means greens - whatever greens.

As i was eating my noodles they plopped a jar in front of me and said 豆瓣酱 (dòubànjiàng), which i recognized vaguely as meaning some kind of spicy chili paste. The only reason i knew this is because since i have been on the cargo ship i have been practicing flash cards of Mandarin phrases using a tool called Anki. It automates picking flash cards, progresses you through the vocab and makes sure you don't study too much each day. As a kid i hated learning vocab, but now i am in a country where no one speaks English i understand the value. So, last night i started to build my own deck of flashcards specifically for food, using Wikipedia and Google Translate and photos of menus to put it together. I realized that i can't learn the whole phrase without context. For instance, for 辣豆瓣酱 it is easier for me to remember as hot-bean-segment-sauce instead of the complete translation which is là dòubànjiàng, a type of hot sauce we don't have a name for in English. Breaking it up helps to recognize things like 辣 (là) - the same word used in 麻辣豆腐 (málà dòufu) - numbing-hot-bean-curdled. Bean-curdled is, of course, tofu. There is something endearing about a language where new words are built up out of groups of smaller words.

When i finished my meal, the kid plucked up the courage to come over and introduce himself as J. His English was very limited, but a lot better than my Mandarin. He apologized that there wasn't any meat in the soup and said it was because his parents are strict Buddhists. I said that's exactly the reason i sat down to eat here! He asked where i was going and what my plans were, and then he suggested a few places i should go to see. One recommendation was the Pier 2 Arts Center, which is a converted warehouse in the old train station district i walked through a few days ago. He showed me a map and explained how to walk there, and how to take a train to Tainan.

J also explained my mistake in ordering rice. I had come to a "soup noodle" stand and asked for a side of rice. Soup-noodle being the direct translation of 汤面 (tāngmiàn) or, i guess, what we would call ramen in English. He said the choice was between soup noodle or dry noodle. Literally, 干面 (gān miàn), dry-noodle. I was thrilled by this, because i had already put 豆干 (dòugān) into Anki as dried tofu. Then he said they did have rice, but it was glutinous rice, so it was called 糯米 (nuòmǐ). I had expected it to end in fàn like fried rice - 炒饭 (chǎofàn), but it seems when you have these two-logogram words, you can sometimes leave one out when building a new word. So although rice, noodle and tofu are all technically two-logogram words in Chinese, different preparations of them may only use one (like 豆干 instead of 豆腐干). This might explain why sometimes the same ingredient is translated differently on the same menu in Chinese restaurants in the west. This sort of nerding out is stuff that helps me learn better, so i'm glad i'm getting plenty of opportunity.

Eventually i was feeling a bit awkward from all the fawning - though thankful for getting a free Mandarin lesson - so i took out my wallet to pay and he said don't worry, the meal was free. Now, granted, it was probably going to only be 50 kuai or something, but still. Then it started pissing down with rain again (did i mention there has been torrential downpours in Taiwan this week, roads have been washed away etc?) and he gave me an umbrella. He gave me, for free. Along with my free food and my free Mandarin lesson. I asked what can i do? He just said "come back to Taiwan". Not "come back to this restaurant", but "come back to Taiwan". Of course, cynical me is thinking that it's in the interests of Taiwanese to garner foreign friendships because thanks to China they are living in a limbo where they are not recognized as an independent country but also do not operate as a real province of China either. Their diplomatic limbo is comparable to Palestine, but perhaps worse because America could turn off Israel's gravy train to solve things there very quickly, whereas there's not much anyone can do to put the thumbscrews on the biggest, baddest country in Asia. Anyway, forget politics, we're talking about random acts of kindness.

I walked away from that experience kind of dumbfounded. I know Buddhism preaches a culture of giving, and that the concept of karma is a part of that tradition too. I didn't think when i gave away all my stuff before leaving Germany that i'd be collecting on that karma already. I didn't expect to be collecting at all - i gave selflessly and without conditions. I guess now i've been on the receiving end. I need to learn grace in accepting this stuff.
Tags: ,

Pointing and smiling through the first 4 days
singapore sunset
amw
The smells here are incredible. Every step is either a tug on my memories or it sets my stomach rumbling. Often both. Fivespice, joss sticks, fresh flowers, humidity, oolong tea, welding fumes, smog... I expected a soulless cookie-cutter burg, but this is far more interesting. Little furniture shops and scooter mechanics and cafés and tea houses and fruit stands and bike shops and machine shops and clothing shops and kitchenware shops, all the things you need to get by in a walking distance.

Aside from congee for breakfast, i got a "vegetarian" lunch of green beans, napa cabbage, fried egg, rice and a ridiculously delicious piece of tofu that tasted like it was brewed in tea. Then the vegetarian-ness was broken because the rice had bits of oily mystery meat on it, almost as a garnish. I shall boldly guess it was pork, but, eh. Compared to my meals of the last 3 weeks it barely counts. 65 fucking kuai. I mean, that's like 2€.

I'm sitting on a bench at the foot of a hill and watching a tough old lady in pink and turquoise sitting opposite me smoke her cigarette. She scootered in a few minutes ago with a bamboo and twig broom on the back and several bags of garbage. I am not sure why she is scootering around with bags of garbage. I'm glad for the "company", if only to confirm my suspicions that the wild dogs skulking about the place are harmless.

I expected far more people, but i am overjoyed at the lack of them. I don't think it would have gone well to drop me into the thick of it all. I don't know if Kaohsiung is just a sleepy town, or if i happened upon a sleepy part. Admittedly, my usual method of exploring a new place is to walk down the least-trafficed streets and change direction when i see a chain store. No one speaks English, not even a little bit. No one understands my learned-on-a-cargo-ship Mandarin and i don't understand their slow baby-talk, whether it's because of my poor pronunciation or their Taiwanese accent. It's also possible they don't even speak Mandarin - the local dialect is an offshoot of Hokkien. It's fine, though. Pointing and smiling goes a long way.

Her hat is an umbrella, the pink lady. She is now sweeping her way up the stairs i am about to climb. It doesn't look like she's working - she's not wearing a uniform - but she just turned on her radio to some music with flutes and synthesizers and monastic chants, so i guess she'll be there a while.

-o-

I wonder if sweeping the steps is a religious thing? Maybe it is some kind of penance, or a meditation. This whole hill is riddled with tiny overgrown staircases through the jungle, and several of them have brooms at the bottom. It is really bizarre, because most of the paths are completely overgrown, the concrete stairs are crumbled with rebar sticking out the sides, old benches and signs have completely rusted through, tree trunks and wild dogs block the way, and then you pop out in a tiny pagoda where a guy is sitting on a plastic chair making tea like it's the most normal thing in the world.

After climbing the steps and looking at more pagodas and temples and a view of the city, i came back down and ended up at a tourist bar. Or, at least, the first time i have heard English spoken and the first white people i have seen since i arrived yesterday. Bunch of heavily-tattooed, loudmouthed Northerners. And here comes the prejudice. Oh gawd, listen to that fucking obnoxious Geordie, him and his ilk Brexited us. I have a knee-jerk reaction to rust belt England because they selfishly stripped away my citizenship out of spite and hate. Yeah, and then one started talking about the plight of the Taiwanese Aborigines and mentioned he'd been living here for a year and i realized my mistake. You can be a bunch of rowdy lads but still be well-traveled. I guess they were oil men or engineers or construction workers, the kind of guys my dad works with.

Looking back at the river a gondola is pushing off. The gondola driver is serenading the couple. Better than Venice? I think so.

-o-

It's been ages since i've been in a jungle. Probably since i left Brisbane, well over 10 years ago now. It is stupendously green. Not just green compared to the yellowy-brown of my favored steppe climates, but an eye-searingly bright, rich, luscious green. And the flowers erupt forth in every shape and size and color. It probably helps that we just had an epic tropical downpour. Everything is shining and dripping. It's like the whole hill is one big, breathing organism.

I remember how much i hated the weather in Australia, and i'd probably hate it here too if i had to work. Or perhaps i would care less these days about smudged makeup and sweat spots on my boobs and damp jeans chafing my thighs.

I still find the jungle claustrophobic, despite its beauty. Somehow i find it easier to deal with than more temperate forests, though. Perhaps it is some kind of ingrained cultural phobia. My lizard brain knows that the jungle is full of dangerous plants and creatures, it's thick and misty and much of it unpassable. My hormones adjust going in and i walk through it alert. Apparently in Taiwan i am as likely to meet my doom as an old guy in flip-flops making tea. "Regular" forests, though, they just cause me anxiety. Not seeing the sky makes me feel trapped, i get an uncontrollable fear of psycho killers hiding in trees, crazy hunters with guns, and besides, i might step on a snail or a slug, or slip on moss and get mud all over my butt. I'll take a jungle over that any day.

-o-

The greatest thing i have discovered in Kaohsiung so far is the garbage trucks. For the first day or two i thought it was the cheerful melody of an icecream truck echoing through the buildings. Today i followed the happy tune and found a garbage truck, and people rushing out of buildings to dump their stuff in it. Perhaps that's why the pink lady was carrying her garbage. On the hunt for a mobile, musical dump.

-o-

I decided to book another 3 nights, because i feel like i haven't quite "gotten" this place yet. I realized when i bumped back into the same fucking ex-pats from the night before at another bar that i needed to expand my walking circle. I am not sure if Taiwanese go to bars, or at least, not during the daytime like us loutish Brits do.

So, i walked out of the bar in another direction and found a night market. I recognized the sign for bean (豆) and some pointing and smiling ended up in my first "stinky tofu" experience. Reports of its stench are greatly exaggerated. It smells funky, but it's not much worse than a strong cheese, and it tastes similar but with a better consistency (crunchy and chewy on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside). I also ate a selection of deep-fried mushrooms. Bubble tea on the way home. A kick-ass spinach bun on the way in. This afternoon i ate at a place that in America would have been a soul food joint. Fried chicken, greens, okra, cabbage, potatoes. I ordered all the green veges and rice and spicy black bean pickle and a tofu dish i now recognize (similar apppearance to mapo tofu, but there is no meat and it's a bit sweeter). 50元 - under 2€. Insanely good. Every dish i try here is fresh and delicious.

The exuberant temples make me want to take up religion too. They are all so colorful and elaborate. Many have iridescent dragons and fish dancing off a pagoda-style roof, a stark contrast to the squareness of the surrounding buildings. Inside they have statues of demons or spirits or saints, i am not sure what. Fairy lights and flashing LED signs and paper lanterns advertize their presence for a block around. Sometimes you get there and it turns out it's just a ground floor room in some guy's tiny apartment. I think those are the best ones of all.

The coffee shops make me smile too. Coffee here seems to have an association with kawaii - it is something to drink with sweets and cakes. I am sitting in a coffee shop decorated with pink glittery curtains and a giant human-sized teddy bear is sitting at a table across from me. It's funny how in the west we see tea as being something whimsical, like the Mad Hatter's tea party, or a child's tea set, whereas over here coffee seems to be that way.

Of course you can also just get a coffee to go like Americans do. Don't get too carried away in my hyperbole, i'm just writing for fun. It's a nice place to sit down and write.

-o-

I have been walking north today on the hunt for something different, and i just found it. Most everywhere i have been up until now has felt like Chinatown, but city-sized. Just miles and miles of mid-rise buildings with shops downstairs and (presumably) apartments upstairs. Mom and pop stores selling everything under the sun. Food stalls. Markets. Pedestrians zig-zagging between parked and moving scooters. There are main streets where the banks and chain stores are, and there are alleyways where the rats and cockroaches are. You know, a city like a city is supposed to be. That changed when i hit the north loop of the Love River.

On the south side was a sad, abandoned-looking park where i climbed up a rusty old lookout. Even the abandoned parks still have schoolkids whizzing through on bikes and joggers and old folks sitting about the place. When i say this city isn't busy, i mean by standards of a European city, not an American one (most of which look like ghost towns). Here there's never no one around, there's just less people. Anyway, when i ducked across the bridge to the north bank, there was even less people. Eerily less. I ended up on a higgledy-piggledy road barely wide enough for a car and navigating through a "village" of busted-up, desolate buildings. Beat-up old cars. Broken windows. A whole pack of rabid dogs jumping up against the fence growling and barking at me. This city has tons of dogs - wild and not - all off-leash, but these are the first ones that made a sound or seemed threatening. I tried to defuse any situation ahead of time by putting on my dopey tourist face and asking one of the residents how to get to a street on the other side. Pointing, smiling. Now i knew someone might have my back if i got mauled.

5 minutes on i popped out under a skyscraper with statues of angels and goddesses and other frou-frou, European-looking nonsense at its base. Security guards out the front. Mercedes pulling in. Give me a fucking break. After the poverty on the river, literally one block south? No stores on the ground floor, unless you count 7-11, and some of the buildings didn't even have that. Gotta have space for a fountain in the lobby, right? It's horrible. Disgusting. The living cliché of condo hell. And i am trapped in the middle of it. I wonder if the Chinese new cities are like this? I wonder how long it will take for any character to come back here. This is really abysmal.

I know there is a night market somewhere nearby, so let's see if i can find it.

-o-

That last section i wrote last night. It's now around lunch time on Saturday and i am typing up all these notes.

The night got worse. I found the night market, which is the most popular and recommended in Kaohsiung. I should perhaps mention that night markets are one of the biggest tourist draws of Taiwan. They are street markets that open around 6pm and stay open past midnight selling all the usual market stuff, but most importantly unique food and drink. Anyway, i walked through this night market and... it was alright. I did feel i learned a little more of the culture, seeing people line up for ages to get fried chicken, like it was the last dodo or something. Forget the fact there are 3 other stalls selling the exact same thing in the exact same market. It's all about which stall is highly acclaimed, which stall was the first one to invent the dish, which one has the most storied history, bla bla bla. All the same kinds of reasons foodies use in other countries to justify lining up or paying through the nose for their dinner.

I love food, but i'm not into hero worship, so i picked up a passion fruit green tea, and looked at all the sad shrimp and crabs waiting to be boiled to death, and inhaled the smells of deep-fried everything, and marveled at those wacky cubes and spheres of mystery meat, then left to pick up a meal at a cafeteria somewhere among the condos.

And then it happened. I had accidentally picked up the "to go" container instead of the "eat in" container, and then i felt too stupid to eat in with my doggie bag, so i decided to find a quiet place to sit down. I walked around and found a parking lot without many people and sat on the curb to have dinner. Within about 30 seconds, a guy comes out and says "ah, you are welcome to eat your food inside". First guy i have found in town who speaks excellent English. Even at my hotel noone speaks English. He was one of the fucking security guards from one of the fucking condos. He acted all polite, like he couldn't possibly let me sit on a curb and let's be gracious letting you sit on a chair in the lobby, and here let me offer you a drink of water, some coffee, bla bla bla. But what he really meant was "people in my building don't want to see westerners eating rice on the curb".

In all the rest of the city i have been pretty much ignored, people sit around on planters and bollards and plastic stools that i swear fall from the sky because there are so many of them everywhere, now some guy comes up to me and "invites" me to eat inside. It was the most awkward thing and ruined my night even worse than walking into the condo hell had already ruined it in the first place. He probably lost face because after i refused coffee three times he still brought me one anyway and i refused it again, but i am so not here for that shit. For the first time i felt completely out of place. Ironically, it was in the part of town that most resembles parts of Toronto and Melbourne, places where friends of mine actually live. The experience made me realize how universal this idea of wanting to live in a squeaky-clean, family-friendly, 100% residential neighborhood is. And how very, very much i hate it. I know now never to waste my time in places like that, even in a culture very different from my own. I high-tailed it out of there on the subway and emerged "downtown" (?) where i picked up two cans of beer from a corner store and a fresh sliced guava with salty plum powder from an old guy on the street. Hotel room dessert 😊

It's hard to find information about the districts and villages of Taiwan because most of it is in Chinese, so i can't really find out what happened, but i don't need wiki to tell me that area just got hit by the gentrification hammer. It's funny, because this whole city is pretty new. Even the "oldtown" area, which it turns out is where i have spent most of my time up until now, is less than a century old. But i dig that tacky 20th century stuff that's all shabby and run-down now. People live there. There's almost no graffiti - i presume that's a cultural thing since this isn't a police state - but in the older buildings you can tell the character of the place by the little stickers around the door and the curtains and the letterboxes, or by the local temple on the block and the people sitting out front playing cards, smoking and drinking tea. I know high-density living is more efficient and humanity needs to embrace high-rises for the sake of the planet, but there has to be a way to make them feel like mid-rise city streets instead of hospitals or shopping malls. Then again, it seems a lot of people actually like it that way. Sigh.

This has been a majorly lazy morning. I think i am going to take the ferry to Cijin, the barrier island in front of the city where everyone says i should go. I usually try not to go where everyone says i should go because fuck tourist traps, but after yesterday i do need to see something a little bit less sterile. Or i could take the day in my room and just veg. I miss those days from the boat. First i need to find something to eat.
Tags: ,

Tanjung Pelepas → Shekou → Kaohsiung
sparkles
amw
May 24 - Day 16 - The Electric Company

Breakfast: "milk rice", canned fruit
Lunch: beef and vege broth, "baked chicken" (parmiagiana-ish), gravy, rice, mixed veg (peas, corn)
Dinner: stir fry beef, rice, mystery pickle

At sea.

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May 25 - Day 17 - World Port

Breakfast: french omelette, tomatoes
Lunch: egg-drop soup, pan-fried pork, french fries, mixed veg (cauliflower, cabbage, zucchini)
Dinner: fish roulade, rice, spinach and garlic

In port.

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May 26 - Day 18 - Terraphobia

Breakfast: apple pancakes
Lunch: tomato soup, deep-fried fish, rice, salad
Dinner: braised beef, rice, spinach and tofu

At sea.

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May 27 - Day 19 - Fade To Gray

Breakfast: scrambled egg, tuna, tomatoes
Lunch: mystery gruel (meat scraps, lentils, potatoes), frankfurter sausage
Dinner: "chicken curry" (with rice, boiled egg, pickle, tomato, onion - almost a nasi lemak!)

At sea.

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May 28 - Day 20 - Pearl River Limbo

Breakfast: scrambled egg, cucumber
Lunch: steak, french fries, mixed veg (cauliflower, zucchini)
Dinner: buffet!

At sea.

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May 28 - Day 21 - Smells Like Guangdong

Breakfast: scrambled egg, "luncheon meat", cucumber
Lunch: chicken noodle soup, pork schnitzel, rice, mixed veg (zucchini, carrot)
Dinner: bbq chicken wings, pickles, rice

In port.

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May 29 - Day 22 - Bonus Day

Breakfast: "Hawaiian toast" (grilled cheese and pineapple)
Lunch: cauliflower cheese soup, grilled white fish, rice, salad
Dinner: roast beef, gravy, mashed potato, red cabbage

At sea.

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