A Travellerspoint blog

A Journey Into the Past

sunny 30 °C

Since Ryley's Café was such a congenial place on my arrival in Yangshuo, I treated myself to an Indonesian coffee there upon my departure too; the ever-smiling and giggly waitress helped lighten the journey ahead. 'Oh, you didn't bring an umbrella?' she said as I walked in glistening. I resisted the reflex to tell her it was mostly sweat that was causing the reflections on my head; rain seemed somewhat more noble. 'It's no problem,' I replied, and continued to shift my seat to fill the gap in conversation.

It'd been five days since I arrived, and like many of the places I'd crossed on my path, it could have been so much more. Yangshuo was, in many ways, ideal for me. But the more I travelled, the more I realised that these places were all over the world, choosing one in which to live would be a tough game.

I sat reading, trying to memorise each stroke of the Chinese characters (letters) for 'Huangyao' so that I could find the correct bus in a few minute's time. My coffee sat on the table in front of me, its steam rose and filled my nose with the aroma of Sumatran canephora beans.
Soon enough, the digital face of my shiny Hong Kong watch ticked round to leaving time, and as I strode off back towards the bus station, I stuck the image Huangyao in simplified Mandarin characters on my mind's frontal lobe and scanned for the bus in the parking lot. This journey was not going to be a long one, but getting the wrong bus could change that outlook fairly quickly.

Some time later, the conductor signalled that the bus – with me on it – had arrived in Huangyao. The two and a half hour journey passed by in anticipation as I knew how old this town was and felt sure it would be a highlight. She looked at me with military certainty and gestured that I should alight; the army camouflaged top and trousers giving off an incongruous image to her smile. I hopped off and gazed in the direction of her pointing finger. I could gather she was telling me in Mandarin that I should stay with the man that seemed to be heading straight towards me; he was approaching from the street side. I immediately felt like a delivered package and told myself not to fall into the first guesthouse I saw, but instead to locate the one I circled in my book.

Within thirty seconds, I could tell this was not going to happen.

'How much?' I asked. Along with smiles and warmth, I received a four finger reply. I assumed that he meant forty Yuan. For the next ten minutes we played finger puppets over the price as I learned that what he meant to say was – you can have room number 4.
In my newly acquired room, I briskly swatted some mosquitoes and set out in search of clues to back up the claim that this town was a thousand years old; it looked utterly forgettable on first glance.

I walked a minute or two along the road, trying not to allow my heavily-bearded face to scare the local children; those children looked out from dowdy shop windows and stared as hard as a child's attention span would allow. I looked to my right, immediately noticing a small brick entranceway with faded Chinese characters above its threshold. The lenses in my eyes snapped into focus onto what lay beyond, and it was at this point that I realised I made the right decision to come looking; I had found a portal into the past.
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I stepped past an idle man sitting in the shade of the archway and briefly wondered if I was right to go in. Past my silent questions of permittance was an overwhelming urge to just walk slowly and to journey with my eyes. Warm rushes of discovery washed over me while my gaze moved around from an old sun-faded community wall-painting to a thousand-year-old house to a man pulling a cart full of hay up a broken step on the stone floor; a floor which held itself together with a crumbling sense of ageing stubbornness. My feet led me from one corner to another, I couldn't feel my toes, I was all in my mind. The place looked as though it had not received a lick of paint since its inception over nine hundred years ago, but the few people that did walk past me had an adjusted look in their eye that said it doesn't matter, it's always been like this.
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Old characters loomed in the shadows of doorways. As I stared at the aged skin of each wall and crevice, the whites of eyes turned to face me from darkened lives. Before continuing too much further, I took a moment to collect myself and then paused on each respectful gait so as not to miss anything. Rusted bicycles stood propped against ancient brick, red paper lanterns hung lifelessly outside every house front, the relative silence in the air occasionally broken by the loose steps of passing town folk, and then again an empty street, a millennia of quiet steps fade effervescently into the background of the present day in guise.
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I came out into an opening by a small river. Worn paths led off into dated existence and a curved stone bridge crossed the tumbling water. I wandered as I'd been wandering for the last hour when a small Chinese man approached me and began making eating gestures with his hands; he was offering me food and a drink as I'm sure he could see I was hot and dehydrated from the inexorable afternoon sun. 'Follow me,' he said through a toothy grin. I decided to accept.
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He scuttled towards an inner courtyard, his linen clothes flowing closely behind like ephemeral contrails. I sat down at a thick, circular wood and marble table in a room which made up part of his ageing stone house, the white walls rich in mould. A circa 1970's fan cooled the air and allowed me some respite from the day's heat. The man then virtually fell over himself to get me some green tea, which turned out to be rather more pink than green, and poured it carefully from an ornate brown clay pot before giving me a look to prompt a first sip. He then proceeded to bring me just about everything on his home-cooked menu – tofu cakes, rice, egg, tomatoes and green peppers. 'Beer? Wine?' he asked. 'Bu yong xie,' I replied, testing my newly-learned Mandarin. He insistently gesticulated with a thumb and forefinger that I try a little bit and then proceeded to grapple with a large white plastic keg near the table, whereby he extracted a modest amount and served it to me free of charge. I swirled the whiffy rosé and gave it a sniff, then a sip. Expecting to discover a unique and mysterious ancient secret, I was disappointed that it instead tasted of rice wine and stale grapes. Of course, I saluted his achievement, and spent the rest of the meal willing myself to get through it without hint of an inwardly-scrunched facial expression resembling a regretful chunk of lemon ingestion.
'Noodles?'
'Ah, um, ah, uh, OK,' I replied through filling hamster-cheeks. Once the noodles had joined the immense smorgasbord of food in front of me, he insisted on sitting at the opposite table whilst writing out a Chinese calligraphic business card on a thin piece of scrap paper so I would not forget our encounter. 'Hǎo chī,' I said, complimenting the dishes. 'Thank you,' he replied, and then suddenly pointed to the fan, 'Fan!' he declared, proudly showing his English ability. 'Cigarette!' he said holding up his whispily smoking roll-up. I knew I was now stuck in the 'name game' vortex, but decided to play along nonetheless with the newfound happiness of a satisfied stomach. I wrote the words down in his exercise book so he could study them and learn to write in English as well as pronounce them correctly. It always made me feel like I had a skill when sharing English, and privileged that is was a language carried in high regard; I was happy to help that little bit.
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'Water?' asked the man – whom I now knew as Liang Nai Qun – and before I could answer, he ran to the fridge just three feet away and plucked out a bottle of cold water and began to pour it. 'Beer, egg, wine?' he offered again in an odd mix of flavours. He poured me more of his home-made wine into a small glass cup before making a gesture to let me know he wanted to 'cheers' me. He ran to the corner of the room, swung open the greasy fridge and grabbed another glass, loudly knocking over a china soup spoon in the process of his haste. He gaily poured himself a cup and topped up mine, looked at me with an expectant smile and declared 'Gānbēi!' Which literally means dry the cup. I held off breathing for a few moments after that noxious mouthful.

Liang stood in the middle of the sunlit stone room, 'England,' he said, and began making a football-playing motion. 'China, ping-pong,' he followed, his hands now swiping at an imaginary ball. 'Very good,' I retorted and gave him a thumbs up for effort. Liang was a fair indication of the type of people I would meet in China. And with more than a billion souls, I knew I'd be constantly blessed on this section of the journey.
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It had been a number of months since a razor had touched my face. And since the fancy Taiwanese trimmer I'd acquired in Taipei was no longer working due to a difference in voltages (a pointless divergence if ever I saw one), I spent the five Yuan (50p) on a brief removal of what was left of my receding hair via the local barbers and a quietly staring child within. A quick shave later dropped several more years from my appearance and I immediately felt like a sheered sheep – exposed and aware of myself.

In the throngs of a crepuscular midpoint, I returned to the bygone streets of Huangyao's dynasterial past as the night emerged shadow-like from day. Paper lanterns glowed a meek-yellow, their red Han inscriptions lending an air of film-set authenticity – a comparison ironically misinterpretable due to my inexperience with something so real and exposure to many things that are, in fact, not. The human shapes once dimmed by shadows, were now present by candlelight or by flat screen TV illumination. This was the draw of China's polarity; you're just as likely to see apparent peasantry as you are technological ownership, and within the same community it lingers.
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Lurkers showed in the openness of doorsteps; their dogs barked as I walked past, and if I had any significant hairs left on the back of my neck, they would have been raised. The incident with the pack dogs in Goa had my emotions mixed, and my instincts prick-eared at the sound of canine malevolence, causing a rush of hot blood and a chill that would numb my fingertips. But trusting in likeliness, I walked on through the blocks of absent light and back into dull pastel, leaving the howls and crescent moon behind me.
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I woke early to a mountainous backdrop, the air on the guesthouse balcony scented by wood-burning stoves emanated from a cascading sprawl of Chinese rooftops in front of me. I gathered my washing from the line, packed my bag and took a sighted position of the street bus stop from inside the guesthouse lobby, awaiting the eight-twenty back to Guilin. The proprietor sat close by and asked me how to say dog in English as we looked upon the lazy hound cooling itself on the tiled floor from another hot day. I watched his facial expression as he spoke the simplistic sound and then laughed into his morning paperwork, returning to silence and occasional gesturing benevolence.
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Three hours later I hopped off the bus and felt myself melt into the sun-beaten pavement on Guilin's streets. Inside the train station, I waited in line to buy a ticket for Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. The perspiration dripped from my head, face and back, causing me to look like I'd emerged straight from a swimming pool. It was only thirty degrees, but it was so airless that I felt no relief from its strangling constraints and just continued to sweat more than I'd ever done before.

In China, no one is to wait on the platform before the train arrives. Large, high-ceiling waiting rooms full of baggage and bones accommodate the passengers in a basic degree of comfort before the announcement goes out to approach the waiting carriages. I slept on and off for three hours across three empty chairs in the waiting room, constantly aware of my luggage, my camera bag acting as it often did as a pillow for my heavy head; the logic was that if someone were to snatch it, I would surely notice. What I was beginning to notice was the recurring reality of open stall toilets in China, and that they are the norm, rather than an exception. Private toilet stalls with a closable door was simply not a regular occurrence here. Instead, inside the bathrooms, thick chest-height walls sectioned off each cubicle in which a man was supposed to squat over a channel in the floor and do his business, a channel which stretched the length of the toilet room and transported each man's breakfast like driftwood between your crouching posture. No door, no privacy.

Trying to forget the sight of the Chinese frog-stance, I purchased a packet of unknown sweets and a pot of noodles. The girl behind the counter grabbed the red pot from a selection of ten flavours, which turned out to be roast beef and left me wondering if that said anything about me as an Englishman. I poured hot water from the public urn into my tin cup containing a stash of Taiwanese tea leaves and sat in wait. An urn of boiling water was an ever-present facet of a public space such as this in China, how could you eat your noodles otherwise? I couldn't imagine the chaos this would present if it were implemented in train stations across Essex. The hospital burns unit would be expanded for sure.
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I felt pleased with my decision to cut costs and go for a normal seat, rather than a sleeper berth on the train. My guidebook promised an eight hour journey for less than 300 Yuan, which didn't strike me as odd at the time, but later seemed a tad overpriced. As it happened, I would soon learn why.

My estimated arrival time of 1am receded into the distance, as the promise of my destination loomed on the air of my expectation. I could not sleep, for at any moment I would have to grab my things and alight at Kunming station. 2am passed, 3am, 4am and onwards the clocks ticked. I closed my eyes but daren't sleep a wink. As noon drew near I began to suspect that something was awry, but with a carriage-full of non-English-speaking locals, I had little chance to confirm anything. Besides, I was tired of looking like the clueless tourist, so I waited, convinced I hadn't missed the stop and was on the right train. It was at 1pm when the train pulled up to the platform at Kunming – my body racked with pain from eighteen hours of continuous sitting – that I cursed Lonely Planet's journey times for omitting the suffix 'teen' from the word eight.

I'm sure the receptionist at Kunhu Fandian Hotel had never seen such an indignant face before; the coruscating look of discovery snuffed out, until such time that I could rest my eyes and begin a new day in a new city. Kunming was a big city of over five million people – it was going to take some time.

Posted by kookie888 22:18 Archived in China Comments (0)

China – Charming Lands on a Shoestring

0 °C

The plane landed in Hong Kong and I walked out into the titanic space that made up Hong Kong's modern international airport. Having walked for a good couple of kilometres inside a building, I eventually emerged outside at the bus pick-up/drop-off point.
'Sorry, no change on the bus,' said the driver of A21 in a voice a little too harsh and definite for my liking. I was holding a HK$100 note for a HK$33 fare. He may as well said, No change, don't care, it all amounted to the same sentiment. I looked at his face, obviously unimpressed and strode off towards the ticket counter. I thought it an odd requirement for people who've just arrived in a new country with new currency to need change right away. This wouldn't be a good start to foreign relations if this was my first visit. I procured my ticket and briskly hovered back to the bus which was getting ready to close its doors. I began to walk much faster. I wasn't in a rush per se, I just didn't want to give the driver the satisfaction of driving off without me. Silently revelling in my little victory I sat for the hour-long ride back to Kowloon, looking into his rear-view mirror occasionally for a little 'one-up' eye-contact.

Around the Mong Kok area I surprised myself that I began to notice familiar street signs and intersections; I chose to hop off at exactly the right time and walked up towards Bute Street where I'd once again spend a few days with Elaine and her family. I punched in the security code on the downstairs keypad, nodded at the guy on the desk and went on up to the tenth floor. The familiar metallic coffin of a lift instantly made me feel like I'd never left and left me wondering if the last couple of weeks hadn't really happened. With a turn of the spare key I was back, and there was my friend sitting on the floor watching South Park, laughing to herself; I remember thinking it felt good to see a familiar face.

Another week in Hong Kong passed. A week of bubble tea, noodle soup, wedding receptions that served piglet's head with twinkling, heart-shaped decorations for eyes, eating food from small imitation toilets in loo-themed restaurants, late nights and visa preparations. Today I would be heading back in the direction of Guangzhou and on to Guilin and the beautiful mystique of Yangshuo. I was finally heading to China. A land of more than a billion souls, a rich and textured history, a land of emerging power. If I'm honest, it made me nervous.
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Keen to save some Yuan, I had prearranged with a Yangshuo local named Odar to stay with one of his students during my stay in town, be it a couch, a mattress or bed, I would take anything. So, on the instructions of his receptionist, Jelly, I would rock-up in Yangshuo, call a guy named Vick and get myself picked-up from the bus station, after which I would sleep on his sofa for a few days and talk a bit of English with him. Not a confidence-inspiring plan as such, seeing as I knew virtually nothing about China or where I was going, but in the end I judged it was worth a shot nonetheless. You see, Odar was the Principle at Omeida English language college, and for the sake of English practice and cultural exchange he let English-speaking foreigners that were passing through town stay for a few days with his students. It was the first time I was facing this type of arrangement since Tom and Pavlina, way back in Teplice, Czech Republic.
I didn't know any Chinese, I had no idea about my transport connections, train or bus times, availability of tickets or arrival times. I was effectively saying, I don't speak your language, I don't know anything about you, I don't know when I'll arrive in your town, but can I stay in your house?
Right then, off we go.

It was with peculiar regularity that I would keep arriving and departing from Guangzhou train station, but never actually see any of the city. At the information desk, I came upon an immediate offer of transport. 'Hello, taxi,' bawled the woman behind a desk, which to my mind looked a little too commercial to be the train station's official ticketing counter. 'Bus ticket?' she bawled again. 'No, I want the train to Guilin,' I replied. 'Err, I think now, there is no train, bus only.' Immediate distrust expanded to fill the halls of my intellect. Perhaps detecting my scepticism, she lifted the handset of a nearby phone and made a call, then placed the handset down again with a confirmed look of inevitability, 'No, no ticket available. Train sixteen hours, bus only nine hours.' She was selling the bus ticket a little too industriously for my liking and I still didn't feel I could trust her. Meanwhile, three Americans were hovering in the vicinity, enquiring about an onward train. 'You have to go to the main train station for [the connection to] Guilin,' said the lady. 'Are you guys going to Guilin?' I asked. The female in the group turned to face me, revealing a surprisingly low-cut top and deep vertical line of fleshy cleavage. 'Yeah, but she says the train leaves from the main station, not this one.' I immediately decided it was worth a shot across town. 'I'm going that way too, do you want to split the cost of a taxi?' The girl shot a look back to her two male companions and then nodded in my direction with raised eyebrows to welcome me into their group for a while.

The supposed thirty minute taxi journey wilted down to a fifteen minute swift penetration of rush hour traffic, and surprise of surprises there were sleeper berth tickets available on the 19:47 to Guilin. The risk paid off, I wouldn't have to stay in a city I had no desire to see. Guangzhou was impressive enough in a new China kind of way; it just didn't tickle my taste buds. Getting rid of the driver was more of an effort than expected as he loitered around in hope of getting some commission on a ticket.

The term hard sleeper had connotations of the thinly padded sleeper bunks on one of India's dirty choo-choos, but I can tell you that this train at least, was nothing of the sort. Four berths to a cabin (I know – a cabin), clean surfaces, decadent ivory-coloured bed linen, soft pillows, food service (without the shouting) and super-polite uniformed staff. This was impressive – if not entirely thrifty value – at 367 Yuan (£35) for a twelve hour lolling journey. I ate, stretched out and slept; a grand introduction to Chinese train travel thank you very much.

Trusting in my ability to find Guilin's bus station without taking a taxi, I strolled up alongside Shay, Gary and 'the cleavage' on the arrival platform, and offered for them to follow me to it.
After another bus ride, we arrived in Yangshuo, and again they followed me into town. The three of them were looking for a hostel and if anything knew less about China than I did; the role-reversal felt strange. I watched in forced calm as the girl-whose-name-I-can't-remember-and-so-shall-keep-referring-to-by-her-monstrous-boobs fell down some slippery steps in the rain straight onto her ass. We all offered our embarrassed sympathies and stood around some more while they decided where to go, pretending not to remember the slip in mental replay and smile away in our minds. Eventually the three Americans departed for shelter and wished me well. I turned, laughed at a supermarket sign for Wan Ke Long Shopping Square and began wandering down a cobbled path for a coffee. It was eight-thirty on a Saturday morning. A little too early to call Vick; he was a student after all.
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I stood around at the bus station, waiting for Vick to arrive and occasionally glancing at the limestone karsts that surrounded Yangshuo in a shroud of mist. After a few disorganised phone calls sounding something like: 'Where are you?'
'I'm standing here, where you told me to wait.'
'What are you wearing?'
'Green cargo trousers and a grey hoodie. Wait, is that you? Hey! Vick...Oh, no that's not you, I just yelled at a stranger.'
'OK, wait there I'll find you.' And that he did. We eventually crossed paths and walked back to his private student dorm room just across the street.
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The large, smooth tiled floor, pine furniture and two double beds was beyond my expectation. I was half expecting to be on a bale of hay, although I'm not quite sure why. As Vick and I sat engaged in small talk, we were joined by Sophia, a fellow student and friend. As they sat there, Vick in his casual jeans and t-shirt and Sophia in jeans and a well-fitted, pink long sleeve cashmere jumper, they spoke in excellent English and left me wondering how on Earth I'd managed to arrive in such an ideal situation. Since they were students at Omeida English Language College, they were told to converse only in English for as much of the day as possible. Another student, Tiffany, came in from upstairs and sat on Vick's bed. I was beginning to feel like a centrepiece; a talking point amongst friends. Speaking English with the Briton was an opportunity to get some of the finer points of their second language up to scratch. Tiffany smiled politely and asked open questions with enthusiasm and slightly crooked-toothed smile. She wore a fashionable white top with blue stripes beneath a cute, black, circa 1960's style dress with wide shoulder straps and oversized black buttons. 'I would like to take a short rest,' she suggested, 'Maybe you can call to me before you go out and we can have lunch together?'

I was feeling impressed with the social openness of the students, and so after a meal together we headed down to the river and rented a bamboo raft. This is what Yangshuo was all about. One of the pictorial references of national pride on the 20 Yuan banknote is a spot just North of here in Xingping, on the same river, with the same karst scenery – an area of extraordinary beauty. So, sitting under the canopy, the four of us motored down the Li River and learned to appreciate the natural wonder of Yangshuo in its natural weather – rain and drizzle. I thought back to another stunning location of the world, presented in the same conditions – Milford Sound in the South fjord land of New Zealand. On a clear day it was spectacular, on any of the other 364 days of the year it was itself again. Wet and moody, but still beautiful.
The ethereal karsts of Yangshuo embedded themselves in cloud and mist, water buffalo bathed in the shallows, ducks waddled across the grassy banks and the strength of the current thrust us past it all downstream with considerable force; you wouldn't want to swim in this. I knew the boat ride was mostly for my benefit, but the others enjoyed finding themselves in this, a very fortunate and topographically blessed part of the world.
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If Goldilocks arrived in Yangshuo, I think she'd find that something was just right about this town. I'd been to so many towns, and Yangshuo was a nice size. It had no towering buildings, there were so many authentic touches, lots of up-to-date fashion, an easygoing populace of students and it was surrounded on all sides by fantastic limestone peaks and clouds. Just like Goldilocks, I rested for a great night's sleep. Today, I took that rest knowing that I'd been blessed with good tidings.
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To begin a day with a breakfast that costs only 7 Yuan, well, that's my kind of start. Three dishes, plenty of rice and tea. Myself, Vick and Tiffany tucked into the delicious food that didn't at all freak me out, as I thought real Chinese food might. Vick suggested that he and I take a couple of rented bicycles and go for a spin around the outskirts of town. It was only when the rental lady tried to hand me a pink bike that I became less enthused. That was the thing I loved about these countries, no man felt emasculated to walk in the rain with a woman's handbag-sized umbrella, just like no man would have been offended to take the pink bike. My hand veered towards the dark one and the lady caught my drift with an apologetic smile. I felt a little bad, and more than a little shallow.
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At once, I was reminded at how much more effortless it was to roll around on a bike, and immediately regretted that I'd not hired one up until now in any town I visited on this trip. What had I been thinking? This is fantastic. So many years had passed since I sat astride a bicycle, but it was true that you never really forget. The rain began to fall from a greying sky. I, like so many others, pulled the hold-an-umbrella-while-cycling trick. Now I felt like I really fitted in. But as Chinese tourists passed they smiled like the pleasant folk they were, putting me back in my place as the white boy on a bike. It wasn't so bad.
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Determined to take a couple of days off college, Vick offered to accompany me on a trip to the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces in Dàzhài. So, more than happy to spend a couple more days with him, mostly due to his easygoing demeanour, and partly because he speaks Chinese, I said yes. Before long Vick and I were in Dàzhài, a Yao minority village set amongst a chocolate-box image of what was becoming a Yunnan speciality – freakishly gorgeous environs. China was just too good.
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It had taken 1 ½ hours from Yangshuo to Guilin, 2 hours from Guilin to Lóngsheng and 1 hour from Lóngsheng to Dàzhài. I might have made it this far on three buses, with no English-speaking people and no solid route had I done it solo, but having Vick was proving useful.
I refused to let any of the Yao women carry my rucksack. They stood around the bus and then walked as we walked, the large bamboo-weave baskets bobbing on their backs, empty of my foreign accoutrements. The interesting thing about Yao women is that they never cut their hair, besides during pregnancy. It was a first for me to watch an old woman unravel the beehive on her head and see the long black strands of her life almost touch the ground, swaying beside her youthful calves – calves that had evolved to deal with the thousand steps that made up the footpaths of these hilly villages. I remember thinking those legs looked like they belonged to a Turkish power lifter rather than an old Chinese villager.
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Puffing and sweating mildly, but reeling in personal victory, we placed our bags in the large wooden guesthouse situated in front of a shallow-tiered rice paddy and went for a walk; the room looked strangely like a sauna for all its wooden trimmings.
The higher village of Tiántóuzhài made the term glorious view sound like an understatement. The whole geographical area was one huge network of stepped green terraces; the dragon's backbone stretched long and far; the sounds of trickling water ever present and insistent clouds of misty fog a constant companion.
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Sitting at a restaurant viewpoint, I spent more than a few minutes amusing myself with the spelling errors on the food menu. Of course, English spelling mistakes were a constant source of conversation fodder in a strange country; any traveller can relate to this one, and Asia seemed to have the best of them. Would I have the 'Fried eggplant with pook?' Or the 'Fried moodles with beef?' Tough choice.
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Vick was a whiz with English, but will likely never have a full-comprehension of the complexities of lexicographical gymnastics, as with anyone whose first language is that of any other tongue. I enjoyed discovering that fact, and a few others too. 'The marrow is very nourishing,' said Vick, in a discussion about the benefit of cooking with bones; I was surprised and pleased that he knew such a word as nourishing. But what he flaunted in vocabulary, he then briefly lacked in ethical sense. 'If you break your leg, you should eat the tiger bone,' he declared. 'No, if you break your leg, you should go to the doctor,' I replied with a corrective tone. 'Tigers are endangered, Vick.'
'No you don't have to kill the tiger,' he perked up, 'You can buy it from the shop.' He seemed pleased that he'd avoided the issue of slaying the beast personally. 'And who do you think kills the tiger, illegally?' He laughed with a guttural screech, the kind of screech that comes from closing the back of your throat and breathing in; a sort of reverse laugh. 'It's not funny,' I said, 'There's only a small number left in the wild, what will you do when they're all gone? How about doing that now?' He slapped my thigh as if to say oh, Adam, and the bus trundled on to our destination while I hoped the point would sink in.
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Still in the vicinity of the rice terraces, Píng'ān village appeared in the bus window. We disembarked and walked towards its purpose-built wooden structures that stood at the entrance, and were set up for souvenir-selling. Ordering an overpriced meal at a simple shack, we used the opportunity to leave my backpack in the chef's 'kitchen' and go for a wander up and into the clouds of fog-strewn pathways.
As we began walking, a quiet lingered in the air, just our footsteps beneath us. Up ahead, a small, thinly-wired cage sat on a bench outside a house, and inside, a black and yellow snake. Freshly snared and quietly indignant at its capture, it lay there, possessing enough venom to cause a man a few days of agony. These areas were full of snakes, but despite my efforts, I failed to find one slithering freely in the paddies. The stream by the pathway trickled day and night, providing a wonderfully harmonious sound to accompany the air of purity and peaceful serenity. White butterflies danced on the light breeze; grasshoppers sang. If I could have seen beyond thirty yards, the visual pampering would have topped it off, but a constant supply of new and drifting ivory mist encased me in my own space, revealing only curtain-gaps of clarity between the marching armies of fog.
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Vick pointed a finger at the other side of an open hairpin bend on the pathway as we walked back, 'Look, they are building a house out of bricks, bricks and cemen [sic].' I looked at him strangely. 'You mean cement?'
'Yeah cemen,' he repeated. I blinked a few times before speaking. 'When you say cemen, it sounds like semen.' I carefully explained the meaning of semen, although by now we were way beyond the polite stage – he would lean on me like a Brother, and I'd often tap him on the arm with a closed fist out of jest. 'So, what is the name of the stuff that a woman makes?' he asked. 'Se-woman?' he proposed, falsely answering his own question. He was dead-pan serious. I had to laugh at the thought processes behind his logic, and when I was done laughing, I tried to explain what was what.
At that moment we were passed on the narrow pathway by two men, each carrying one end of a simple fabric stretcher; on the stretcher was a very large pig. It looked as though it had received a knock on the head. The pig's eyes were closed but its face made involuntary twitches like a hungover drunk. A procession of people followed, people carrying strange contraptions, water containers on bamboo sticks and several things that looked a little like Christmas decorations. Vick and I shuffled to the side to let the stream of people past. 'It's a fineral [sic],' he said. 'A funeral, you mean?' I asked. 'Yeah, a funeral,' he uttered. I pushed back the urge to laugh, lest I gargle in the face of the passing widow. You couldn't fault the logic on this one either, I thought.
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Back down the winding road to Guilin, it became apparent that there had been a fair number of recent rock slides. Thousands of angular stones had fallen from the flanking rock face and lay in piles across one or both lanes, leaving only a little room to manoeuvre past. The driver seemed unfazed, as if it were a regular occurrence. One of those at the wrong time could knock this bus off the road and into the valley, was about all I could muster for enthusiasm.

Today was the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, otherwise known as Duānwǔ Jié in Mandarin-speaking parts of the world. It was a national holiday in remembrance of the rescue attempt on Qu Yuan's life, a scholar, who in 278 BC jumped into a river gripping a big stone, committing suicide after he was banished by Chinese royals for a few indiscretions that he may or may not have been privy to. These days, out of respect, people celebrated by eating zòngzi, a kind of tetrahedral-shaped glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in a banana leaf (linked by the fact that the Chinese thought if they threw wads of glutinous rice in the river then the fish wouldn't eat their beloved Qu Yuan's body, and he might be rescued). Secondly, some more energetic types went dragon boat racing, because, well, just because.

Back in Yangshuo, Vick and I rolled up to Omeida College for a zòngzi or two. I sat down at a table of half a dozen smiling Chinese English-language students and allowed Vick to introduce me. Therein followed a whole table conversation based around me as the celebrity in the pack, and although some were initially shy, they sought to converse in my direction and practice with the Englishman. My impression of Chinese youngsters went up another notch. The astonishing thing about Yangshuo, which was characterised by the people at this table, was that it was full of attractive, sweet and charming Chinese females and Chinese males that knew nothing of social bravado, only openness and affability; it was a young person's social heaven. My experience of China had begun auspiciously.

The next morning, I left Vick's apartment and slid the key under the door. I was catching the 11:10 to Huangyao.

It was time to see a little more of China.

Posted by kookie888 12:05 Archived in China Comments (0)

Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, bubble tea

A PERSONAL JOURNEY: PART 2

Yishan and I arrived in Jiufen, a small town perched on a hillside, a couple of hours outside of Taipei. Since its time in the Qing Dynasty, little Jiufen has pulled itself through a few phases. First, it was a small town of little significance, second, a gold-mining town bursting with activity. Now, it is somewhere in-between since the mines shut down in 1971, and since the Japanese (during their occupation) built a nice collection of quaint tea houses that the current day tourists seem thankful for.
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Backpacks in tow, we entered into the maze of wavy lanes, stacked like wedding cake tiers connected by steep staircases. Jiufen's wiggly paths inspired an entire film set for the 2001 Japanese animated, Oscar-winning movie Spirited away. Yishan, with the directions, led the way to a church which offered accommodation to travellers in need of a place to stay. You see, Jiufen had no official hotels, only homestays- a point that came to realisation when the church attendant refused to let us- a mixed couple, to all appearances- through their doors for fear that we'd go to hell for being the opposite sex to one another. As Yishan talked with the attendant in a conversation that seemed abnormally long for what was, in the end, a blunt conclusion, I was happily left propped-up against the church wall admiring the gorgeous view of the hill town, the sea curving against the land in the far distance. Had we been two guys, we would have been allowed to stay. As I contemplated that scenario, I wondered how far into the realm of sexism that was, and ironic considering the church's history with homosexuality scandals. Then realising I was being a little too serious, we followed the lady's directions and found a simple homestay, a homestay with charming Japanese wooden floors and solid, earthy furniture; thankfully, for a modest sum.
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The defining characteristic of Jiufen is its innumerable network of stairs and Chinese lantern-laced pathways, on which lay a village-full of charismatic old wooden houses, shops and further afield, temples. The overall structure of the town was somewhat reminiscent of Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria, only the Taiwanese have succeeded in nursing a more effervescent tourist site in Jiufen, capitalising on its meander-inducing atmosphere. The second-most prominent feature was the smell. Along Jishan Street, stalls were selling solid blocks of caramelised peanut, a woman with an old wooden plane shaving off great pieces in practised swipes. The smell of seafood played second fiddle to sweet almond powder milk drinks, fresh marzipan, fruit jelly, barbecued beef and pork and hot molten ginger drinks. Unfortunately the polar-opposite to this nasal heaven was also in attendance: the most unpleasant odour of stinky tofu. Don't be mistaken, this is no average tofu. Tofu was a delight in Asia and a big part of the everyday diet. Stinky tofu on the other hand was cooked in such a way that it smelled like fishy pants soaked in garbage and fermented sick.
I tried a lot of things, even the tofu, but Yishan was like a kid in a candy shop and discovered Jiufen by mouth as much as by deviant wandering, devouring great mouthfuls of stinky tofu as we sat beside the snaking crowd.
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Before leaving the hillside town on the second day, Yishan and I took one last mooch about and climbed a couple of hundred steps across town to see Fu de Gong- a temple within a temple.
At the entrance of the temple were stone pillars and lightly-smoking incense sticks burning away and surrounding the temple with spiritual aromas. Iron cages wrapped around the lower portion of the pillars to protect the stately, carved structures. On either side, guarding the entrance, was one male and one female dragon, differentiated from one other by a simple anatomical observation. Sections of the outer walls were decorated with intricately and deeply-carved panels and straight, grey slabs of granite with gold-painted Chinese characters deeply embossed. Inside were more incense sticks, a large bell and drum hanging to the left and right of me, numerous pillars, granite walls and oval doorways on each side. In the very centre was a stone pool with a dragon turtle statue being clambered on by two-dozen real turtles. I stepped up to the old temple within. Its old, white, cracked and stained tiles bore hand-painted images of figures in poses of awe, depicted in soft yellows and floral pinks that were still going strong to the present day alongside a rustic brown-grey stone front with bamboo imitation window bars made of more stone. Unravelled scrolls laid above the entranceway.
Inside, hanging red lanterns with long tassels, white tile walls and over six hundred LED-lit, plastic edifices to a bearded man on either side. A wondrous wood-carved piece in the centre of the small temple space completely defeated the grasp of my intellect with the result of what must have been the work of outrageously skilled hands. On the table were many small statues of the same bearded man cloaked in silk robes, stitched in green, blue, pink and yellow. Also on the table were offerings from the local 7-Eleven. I'd have been surprised at that kitschy image if I hadn't noticed a 7-Eleven shop on just about every street corner in Taiwan, or in fact two 7-Elevens within a couple of hundred metres of one another, going about their business, posing as deeply-ingrained cultural institutions, in neon suits. I couldn't help but see that temple as an image of Taiwan, penetrated by man's modern offerings to a traditional base.
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Jiufen had hinted at the old-world, without itself actually being that old. Taiwan felt like a vaguely aged island in brogues and a loafing jacket. On the plane, I expected modern at every turn. After all, this was Taiwan right? The land responsible for the oh-so-ubiquitous imprint- Made in Taiwan. That wasn't what I got. I did meet relaxed people with a natural sense of connection to contemporaneous culture. People that believed in a right to free trade and politics as an autonomous entity in a modern world, but somehow Taiwan felt tatty around the edges and a rather mediocre in-between stage of traditional living and the parvenu in society. In a sense, I didn't feel the pulse of the old in anything substantial and I didn't catch the breath of progression in a big way. Maybe Taiwan's population were happy in the middle. I actually liked it and felt comfortable here. But Jiufen was an architectural spike in Taiwan's cardiac monitor, for which I was grateful. And on the bus back to Taipei, where my sleepy head drooped sideways throughout the journey, Yishan pointed out another.
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'You can see 101,' she said with a mellow tone. And sure enough, through grey skies and busy roads, there it was. Taiwan's greatest modern achievement- Taipei 101. The skyscraper held the title of World's Tallest Building for six years and was only trumped by the almighty Burj Khalifa of Dubai in 2010. The funny thing about this building was that Taipei 101 was so much taller than anything else in the city. It was as if they agreed to construct the tallest building in the world out of sheer boredom, or just because they could. I could see it now:
So shall we build this thing or what?
OK, let's do it.
Done. What now?
Get some bubble tea?
OK.

And since then, nothing's come close to it on Taipei's skyline.
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Determined to show me around Taipei, Yishan led me arm in arm beneath our umbrella around the back streets of Da'an. The cafés and small restaurants selling both Chinese and Japanese foods seemed to whet her appetite for the diverse element in Taiwanese eating habits, but it was the tea house Wisteria that really charmed us both. We turned into the small courtyard off the main road; several koi carp swam in a concrete pond sunk into the pavement opposite the front door. Inside, the building was distinctly Japanese in style with green wood panels on white-painted walls. A polite and appropriately-dressed lady led us to a back room where the floors were covered in woven mats and silver-grey lounge cushions. The table was low and made of a dark wood; delicate, classical piano music played from the speakers. We chose our preferred tea from a menu not unlike a wine list in its complexity. After five minutes, in came the hardwood tray with clay pots and tiny china cups on top. We stared at the tray of trinkets and realised this was beyond our expertise and called the waitress back to show us the procedure. Therein followed a succession of steps so delicate and ceremonious that you needn't come here for the tea at all, just the experience of pouring it. Each cup had to be warmed first by pouring the hot water from the glass teapot, which sat on top of an iron stand with an oil wick burning beneath it, from one receptacle to another and pouring the wastage into a large china bowl. The waitress' graceful fingers swept across the tray, picking up the shallow funnel, which resembled a flat ring, sunken slightly towards the middle, and placed the wooden object over the rim of the small clay pot, and using the long, thin wooden spatula, she encouraged the tea leaves into the pot before adding the hot water. The tea is left for ten seconds before pouring until empty into the ocean cup- a communal cup that when poured from again, ensures an even strength of tea is given to each recipient. The tea passes from the ocean cup into our two miniature china cups, at which point we were told we should take the opportunity to smell the tea, then pour it to a tiny china bowl, then to smell the cup for a second time to savour the remaining aromas before finally drinking the tea from the small bowl. And breathe...

I felt like I was in a scene from The Karate Kid Part II. It was a procedure that seemed respectful, almost therapeutic, allowing you to savour the subtleties of the tea's character.
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Yishan's elegant poise shone even more brightly amongst the environs; her tied-back fringe showing her glowing face in quiet contemplation. She sat with a straight back and beautiful square shoulders; one shoulder was covered by the tan and black sarong that she often tied around her well-proportioned frame; the other exposed but for the hair that swept over it like a fresh brush on fine porcelain. A thin bamboo curtain divided the two halves of the room, separating us from two men on the other side, and there, we drank tea while the rain continued to fall and pitter-patter on the window from a sullen sky.
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The rain persisted while we collected our bags from Meli and Garret's apartment across town. In Hong Kong I had discovered the magnificence of bubble tea, a stand selling the drink sat right next to Elaine's apartment entrance and tempted me to buy every time. Bubble tea was in fact a Taiwanese invention, so you see, I had come to the land of its inception and there was no way I was leaving without having at least one for the road.
The bubbles in bubble tea were small spheres of tapioca, which sank to the bottom of the large paper cup and at each slurp came up through the wide straw into your mouth, along with a refreshing icy-gulp of either black or milk tea, depending on your preference; you could even choose the flavour of the bubbles in some instances.
Like a seasoned veteran of the drink, I found I was rather keen on green grass jelly milk tea, which had a huge block of wobbly jelly at the bottom of the cup, resulting in a long string of jellified sweetness squeezed through the straw with each gulp. Discovering little pleasures that fused me to a country's culture by enjoying the delights of some of its unique concoctions was a source of real enjoyment. I couldn't imagine the Czech Republic without Pilsen, Istanbul without cream cakes and India without Chai and masala dosa. They were interwoven fabrics that patched together the whole experience. Bubble tea was the same, and I knew I would pander for it just like I did the others.
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'We're on the fifth floor,' said Yishan, with five outstretched fingers. I climbed the stairwell, strangely calm that I'd be staying in Yishan's parent's flat and would yet again be saving a few dollars on a hostel. I walked through the front door; the small flat was thoroughly decked-out with lino floors. Net curtains and doilies seemed to fringe every entranceway and surface in what would have been a retiree's dream-scape.
The bedroom I'd be occupying had a slightly raised, dark wood floor and thick duvet and covers laid out directly onto it. Yishan's Mother, stretching to be host of hosts, fluffed and tampered with everything to try to put me into an equilibrium of comfort and correctness, but negated her own actions by stirring up the atmosphere and the unworthy details into fiddle-worthy issues. Yishan brought out the hypnosis hands; I smiled quietly to myself.

I woke at the exact moment Yishan pushed open the door to my room and sat down next to me with a smile. It was a sight that brought comfort in the new and unfamiliar surroundings while I rubbed my eyes awake and sat up in 'bed'.
Out in the front room, Mrs. Lee had already been cooking since early morning and a large pot of stew lay by the coffee table. I reminded myself that I was a guest and should try to eat whatever lay within, but my pride and gag reflex remained alert, just in case. The soup of the stew was strange to the taste. It struck me as familiar, but took me a while to figure out that it was a most unlikely ingredient: alcohol. This was another Chinese traditional tincture where it was believed the alcohol was remedy for a sore throat and chesty cough. I sipped a small portion of the alcohol soup and gnawed on a couple of pieces of chicken on the bone, seeking out the small shreds clinging to the bony lumps. Yishan then served me a rather unusual-looking piece of meat. It was white and kidney-shaped, about the size of a golf ball, with slight purplish veins stemming from the inner section. Yishan happily chewed one of her own; I placed mine non-dramatically into her bowl as I realised what it was. She tried to tell me it was chicken's di-di (penis), but the shape was unmistakably bollock-like in form. I avoided all things testicular and politely refused to try the ball-sack at any price. Thank God for the cold pancakes and ketchup.

Yishan handed me a free day-pass for Taiwan's clinically-run MRT underground train network and presented the idea that we should take a walk around Xien Beitou. The tranquil area and pristine library offered an appropriate level of chilled-relaxation for my last few days in Taiwan.

At Danshui- a quaint area by the river's edge where food stalls emitted concocted aromas attended by smiling adolescents- we slipped into a tiny water-side coffee shop with a frontage just large enough for a small counter and narrow stone staircase leading up to the tiny, covered verandah above. From the darkness of the evening we shuffled past the white cat which stood resolute on the third step. Of the black patches on the cat's fur, one was unfortunate enough to be positioned so as to look like a Hitler-moustache.
On the verandah, looking out over the black expanse of the river and sipping a creatively-decorated coffee, I became embroiled in a sense of calmness. I was happy with the way this trip had gone and the more I remained, the more comfortable and confident I felt. However, I would not be staying beyond the next few days.
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The more comfortable I felt, the more I enjoyed reminding myself where I was and what I was doing. The next day, after eating a lunch with organic Chinese greens- which Yishan's Father grew in a bathtub on the apartment block roof- Yishan and I jumped aboard her little scooter, which judging by the tatty exterior and temperamental starter had seen better days, but which zipped us along adequately on Taipei's moto-mad city highways anyway. We flew along the motorbike lane of the interconnecting roads, 7-Eleven iced coffee in one hand, firm grasp with the other, and reached the botanical gardens of Taipei in no time at all. A bed of lotus plants lay restful across the central pond, a domestic cat prowled on paddling mallards and a Taiwanese man couldn't resist taking pictures of me-the foreigner- with his long-lens SLR, despite me peering straight down the barrel, unimpressed.

Close-by, Taipei 101 sat mystified by a cloud of fog around its upper echelons. Approaching on the scooter it became clear that one can only comprehend the size and grace of '101' when you get to within a hundred feet of it. It was with annoyingly light pockets that we decided not to go up for the asking price of NT$350 (about £8), instead walking around the lower floors and gazing at- but daring not to walk into- the overpriced designer clothes vortex. Despite not going to the top, it was an undeniably impressive sight. And as for the Burj Khalifa, well, I might just have to pay it a visit one day.
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Later that evening, the surroundings of the airport closed-in on what had been a worthy trip. I literally couldn't fathom where the last two weeks had gone. Yishan stayed close-by as we lounged in departures, stretching out the minutes in reflection and wondering where the road would take us next. She had to go one way, and I the other, edging towards security and back to Hong Kong. The time came as she waved from afar. I turned, smiled and watched as the tip of her head hesitantly disappeared down the stairs. And taking a deep breath, in the spirit of travelling, I walked on in positive anticipation, trusting that by doing the right things today, the future would take care of itself.
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Posted by kookie888 21:51 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

Made in Taiwan

A PERSONAL JOURNEY: PART 1

Drug trafficking is punishable by death in R.O.C, read the sign. OK, that set the tone straight from the blocks as I navigated my way towards arrivals in Taoyuan airport. I was on a side-trip to Taiwan, and having landed from Hong Kong via China Airlines, I was meeting a special person from a memory four months old. On the backwaters of Kerala, Southern India, Yishan had become one of those people that you insist will not escape your embracing friendship due to their uniqueness and intriguing personality. And somehow, I had been lucky enough to capture her interest sufficiently for her to enthusiastically plan a two-week trip around her home country for the both of us. Since us meeting in Kerala, Yishan continued her adventures through the rest of India and now lived modestly with her parents, calmly in search of her calling and quietly dreaming of more unfettered travel.

I walked out into arrivals. My eyes scanned the small crowd; I saw someone that vaguely matched my recollection of Yishan's face. At that moment- several people behind- a call and a wave caught my eye; it was her. I first noticed the wide-eyes, eyes that didn't seem to belong to someone of Chinese origin. Then the top, the same faux crocodile-skin patterned top she had worn on that day in Kerala. A length of string used as a bandanna across her forehead to keep her hair back, and lastly the shorts. Slim, shapely, beautifully toned legs stretched down from the frayed hem of her small denim shorts and immediately I knew I'd have to put on my mature-face so as not to stare like a gawking animal in need of castration. I could see she was with someone, but expecting to see her Father I was confused that the person she was accompanied by was female. I doubted myself against all reasonable comprehension that the person was not just a very feminine man. With that thought, I walked the anxious walk between making first eye contact and navigating the crowds for first physical contact; conscious of myself, I embraced her in a friendly hug. When I heard her voice again, I realised it had lost none of its charm. Her high-pitched yet soft vocal, blended with an off-beat rhythm of speech that was both cute and familiar made me smile. Every tone in that voice was a representation of the polite, the pacifistic, the appeasing. Her eyes were gentle, her white-toothed smile welcoming and her body language with its hint of the initially unsure was alluring and hugely mesmeric. 'I thought I'd lost you, I was worried. This is my friend,' she said pointing to the stranger, 'err, we just met now at the airport.' I smiled and shook her hand slightly awkwardly; you're not going in for a hug are you? I thought, detecting the slightest lean forward. The luggage strapped to my front and back was a sufficient exemption from the obligation. You see, in usual Yishan style, while asking around about my flight's arrival time, she had made a friend with the stranger, in much the same way my eldest Sister would bring home a stray dog. Now, we three would be taking a lift with her Father, who was waiting ten minutes away for the call. 'Thank you for coming to Taiwan,' Yishan said with a smile that resonated sweet gestures; her eyes gleaming with anticipation. 'Thank you for meeting me and planning everything for us, I'm happy to be here.' I replied.

Outside, we waited for the car to arrive, and while looking out for her Father, Yishan's in-built politeness ensured she asked about my well-being as she scanned the darkness for first sight of her Dad's Honda. The fact she didn't know the make of her own Father's car was a clue to how far from materialistic she was- something I would later learn and learn to love about her as a pure soul. She offered to take my large backpack several times and placed a hand on it out of sympathy for my back, looking at me wide-eyed in a caring show of compassion. I appreciated her concern for me and while welcoming her attention, I assured her I was fine with the load. Consideration was a strong plus-point for me; I was pleased to see that Yishan was not just a façade of care and attention.
The car pulled-up and we scrambled our luggage into the Honda saloon, I exchanged polite nods with Mr. Lee and with a shuffle and a moment of unshared language we were on our way.

'Thank you Mr. Lee,' I said, with a raised hand, slightly conscious that I was leaving with his daughter as Yishan and I walked off towards the train station entrance. We weren't wasting any time getting this trip under way, heading South on the overnight train to Chishang on the East coast of Taiwan. There, we would spend a night at Yishan's Grandparent's. We slumped our bags down on the platform and waited on the silent night for the arrival of our carriage. As we sat and smiled at each other, I felt positive about our trip and all I wanted to do was disappear over the horizon. A couple of sleeping pills later and we were both dozy on the train, and under the cover of my hoodie, we fell asleep to the gentle rock of the train's path.

We arrived minutes after full sunrise. Chishang station's open design showed off its flanking hill views; the distant peaks faded in morning sunlight and complete with low-slung clouds. Inhaling a lung-full of crisp country air Yishan lifted her face towards the sky, 'I love the air here, it's so fresh.' I strained my eyes to adjust to the new day. 'So where do your Grandparents live?'
'It's close, not far from here.'
'OK.' After roughly ten seconds of walking from the small station exit, Yishan spoke up. 'It's my Mum.' And leaning from the front gate entrance of a house not thirty yards from the station was a woman, tall and white-skinned. 'Wow, the house really isn't far from the station.' If you wanted tickets you could probably shout for them from here. Yishan's Mother was smartly dressed. She wore her hair in a bob, inside a hair net, her fringe sprayed up like a wave above attentive eyes; she smiled and spoke only in Mandarin or Taiwanese, a language I didn't even know existed. The house was modest. It had light wood-framed sliding doors with mosquito mesh; the many structural gaps and off-balance lines spoke of a simple construction method. I was however very grateful for the free stay and the hospitality which would keep us fed and comfortable. I set my things down in my room, perched on the side of the bed and breathed a preparatory sigh to take in the days ahead. Not wanting to appear rude, but instead polite and agreeable, was a little difficult at first, such was the thickness in the air, thickness of expectation. I could say hello and thank you, that was it. So Yishan acted as translator. 'Do you want to rest for a while?' asked Yishan. It was still early. 'Yeah, maybe, is that OK?'
'Yeah.'
Minutes later- 'There's food, we're going to eat. Are you hungry?'
'Not really, it's still early. Do you want me to come out and join you?'
'Would be good.'
'OK.' I left my things in the room and sat at the round table in the kitchen where Mrs. Lee had laid out various bowls of food for us to serve ourselves. Yishan fetched me some rice, placing it in the small bowl and making sure I had some chopsticks to eat with. Serving me with rice was one of the meek gestures that came to represent Yishan's grace and sense of correctness towards me and I appreciated it humbly.
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Chishang itself was a small town, but as with many of Taiwan's towns it had impossibly long streets, heading dead-straight for the horizon. Yishan had planned for us to see some of this region, so we jumped aboard her Grandfather's burbling motorbike and made for Sansiantai, the terrace of the three immortals. The fresh air and coastal scenery, approached by high and winding roads in Taitung county promised much of Taiwan on only my second day. We parked the bike and walked across the eight-arch bridge, which was decorated to resemble the body of a dragon, and led out to a large rocky outcrop with a high peak and waves crashing on its jagged outer rim. Yishan was the type of person who strayed from the normal path in life; unconventional, adventurous and positive. We walked over the sharp ground and climbed rocks to get to the lighthouse steps on the other side, and after the long climb we sat on the top, staring out onto the blue Pacific, breathing the breezy air and doing our best to avoid the hoard of flying beetles that made camp on this island. I was glad to be sharing the sense of freedom with someone. I found the importance of travelling alone was fading slightly as the end of my trip neared. Two months left and I'd probably be home. The satisfaction of accomplishing what I set out to accomplish was hanging like a carrot on a thread and I could smell the familiarity of home to a degree that told me I was nearing the conclusion to a chapter of my life; in the meantime I was happy to be on a rocky hill overlooking the Pacific with great company.
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The next day, after taking the train from Chishan to Taitung, Yishan and I hired another motorbike and set out in the pouring rain for Kenting on Taiwan's South coast. By the time we'd arrived, half a day later, we were significantly wetted from head to toe, despite the plastic raincoats. Yishan showed herself to be a surprisingly good little driver of that motorbike, I felt safe with her, as she did with me as I took my turn in riding the way; it was a significant compliment for both parties considering the thrashing rain and wind that hit us during those hours.
For a small island, Taiwan felt lengthy due to its indomitable highways that careered into the distance for hours on end. If it wasn't for the winding cliff roads and my sense of looking out for Yishan I may have been tempted to have a little snooze.

Kenting was a coastal town like any other, it had streets lined with shops and at night a market selling local food, which unfortunately for me consisted largely of seafood and some strange Taiwanese cuisine that neither stoked my appetite or smelled particularly good. There was a selection of good food to be had, but the ambitious diet of the Taiwanese was going to present a challenge for my relatively choosy stomach. When asked what I'd like to eat, I came up against a brick wall. I'd been eating Asian food now for more than four months, but the variety was such that what existed in one country wouldn't necessarily exist in another. Either that, or the dish would have extra ingredients like prawns, squid, stomach or some such detestable add-on. This made it very difficult to give an answer to that very simple question, consequently I tended to look like I wasn't bothered or was weak at making decisions. It was all foreign food to me and I would have eaten anything that didn't contain seafood or weird animal parts, but naming a dish was near impossible. I didn't want to skim the outside of involvement and appear frustratingly nonchalant. Yishan was an adventurous eater. I regretted that I wasn't, and could only hope she wouldn't resent me for it. I never ate those things as a child: chicken's feet, squid's tentacles, kidneys, black jelly eggs or blood cakes. I wanted to please Yishan, but I thought it unnecessary to dig into a plate of chicken's feet to do so, and to be fair, she wouldn't have expected me to, but I knew she'd have been proud of me for trying.
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We woke in the empty dorm room of Afei Surf hostel much later than planned. Determined to see as much as possible in this region of Taiwan, we set out in sporadic rain, visiting cliff top viewpoints, deserted stretches of solidly-packed sandy beaches and areas of wind-blasted sandstone rocks that had been moulded by nature into...yes you guessed it: vague animal shapes. The one that slightly resembled a dead pig on its back amused Yishan best of all, and that in itself made the little tour worth it. She saw the positives in everything, but to see her tickled like that made me genuinely happy, and of course the Hong Kong tourists behind us took pictures of everything, whether it looked like a bear, a map of Taiwan or a smiley face or not.

Yishan began the journey riding back to Taitung; I took over for the majority of the route. The sky was dark. Where there were no street lights- and this was often- the road was sublimely blackened also. More than three hours of concentrated riding settled down in my brain, writing the tempo: accelerate out of the corner, keep right, full beam on, spot the apex, brake smoothly, turn in, accelerate out, dipped lights, allow cars to pass. On it went, steady and sure, scooter vs. dark mountain road, light rain and tiredness. I knew the vast drop offs and ocean expanses were there like a looming ghost in a Medieval room, I just couldn't see them.
Happily, we made it back to Taitung on fumes. 'You are a good driver, I feel safe with you,' said Yishan, hugging me from the pillion seat. 'Thank you, you too.' Yen had said the same to me in Dalat, but I never took road safety for granted. Eight years ago, I came off a bike in Thailand. As I slid across the gravel and the other guy's oncoming bike hit me in the face, I was sure I'd suffered a bad facial injury; but by some miracle, it was unscathed. The cuts and grazes on my limbs were a reminder of how easily it could have been so much worse.

In the morning we caught the train back to Chishang and I felt glad to be bringing Yishan back in one piece for her Mother. She didn't know we hired a motorbike for that journey and would have disapproved via bursts of angry Taiwanese in Yishan's direction had she found out we covered so many kilometres on two wheels in torrential rain. Yishan had a way of dealing with her Mother, mostly by switching off, sometimes by responding softly and sometimes by waving limp wrists and hypnotic fingertips of both hands in front of her Mother's face to make light of the situation. I deeply admired all three.

'Hello nice to meet you,' I said, shaking the hand of a new character. Meli- Yishan's friend, had come to the house with her boyfriend Garrett to join Yishan and myself on a two-day road trip. Meli was from Borneo- one of the islands in the Indian Ocean, half of which belonged to Malaysia and the other half to Indonesia. Meli was Indonesian and her dark skin, exotic eyes and fine features lent her an appearance that was clearly not of this island. Garrett was Canadian and had been in Taiwan for ten years; he struck me as the epitome of the term stocky, further accentuated by the denim waistcoat and thick limbs protruding out from all corners. I felt glad to have another native English speaker in the group, and to better that, Garrett taught English in Taipei, was a literature graduate and had a terrific sense of humour to round off his agreeable character. Yishan did make me laugh more than I expected; one of the first things to suffer between two people whose mother tongue is not the same, is an ability to use language in humour. Yishan's English was well enough, but it was her quirky and unpredictable combination of metaphor and philosophy that made her special and held us in conversation beyond its apparent limits.
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A void of time passed. The type of void which allows for all the formalities involved in making sure everyone is ready, and that all accoutrements are packed in an appropriately-sized bag. Finally, we set off for a day trip around Chishang and Eastern Taiwan in Uncle Douglas' white BMW. Yishan's Uncle Doug offered to show us around parts of Taiwan that were East of the mountains and smiled a big smile while introducing himself. His tactile shoulder-slapping and cool Uncle demeanour made the day easy and enjoyable. For the first time, I got to see some actual aborigine minorities in Taiwan. My knowledge of Taiwan was shocking, so not only did I not realise they had their own language, I was also surprised to learn that Taiwan had fourteen official minority groups that have a long history on the island. I was encouraged however as Doug spoke with a group of craft-making women on the street side, that he seemed to be learning as much as I was about their lifestyle and language. But if we're talking about amusement, well, that came at the magic road- so named because of the water which runs uphill in a stone gutter, seeming to defy gravity. A group of Japanese tourists disembarked from their time machine and gazed at the freak occurrence. Shutter-clicks and gasping ensued as they questioned the very nature of science from beneath their nondescript, white baseball caps. In reality however, the channel just looks like it is pointing uphill because the whole road is sloping in the other direction. The channel is actually sloping downhill, but to a far lesser degree than the road it is on. I'll never know if they figured that out, but it was fun watching them question life in those few moments. Click-click.

After another civilised Taiwanese train journey, the four of us disembarked at Hualien and picked up a couple of scooters. Yishan and I headed for Hostel Formosa, a comfortable place with characterful, personalised décor and creaky metal bunk-beds, and Meli and Garrett went for a more up-market hotel. If it wasn't for the fact that I met Yishan under the same budget backpacker circumstances in India then I'd have been a little embarrassed. Yishan beamed with glee as she found every detail of the modest and worn décor to be wildly exciting. 'If I had a house I'd like that hanging lamp, and that chair, and that...' One of our little silences ensued as I racked my brains to decode what she was referring to. 'Books?'
'Yeah books, I like those books.' She continued to look around. 'And I like that mat, what about the table, do you like the table?' she asked me. It was a small wooden rectangular coffee table with a painted but worn and scraped surface. 'Yeah, sure, I like the old and sometimes the new as well.' She was so positive about everything, it was easy to objectify how she could be so complimentary about my writing skills; it was an endearing quality.

Out on the open road, one of those endlessly long Taiwanese roads with continually flashing amber lights and dedicated motorcycle lanes, we headed for Taroko National Park, a series of deep gorges and high mountain passes which belied the size of this small island by the enormity of its topographical features. Inside the national park, the visitor centre provided us with all the free maps we could ever wish to decipher. I walked back to the bike in the car park and after a moment or two I heard a revving engine and caught sight of Meli surging forward on the scooter, legs splayed-out as she clung to the handlebars in total desperation, revving the engine even harder and knocking over three scooters one-by-one like dominoes. The three of us looked in utter disbelief as she seemed to be speeding up, heading straight for an oncoming coach, which had just begun to pull out of a parking space. Even worse, she was also heading for the crest of a hill which we could not see over the top of. Time slowed down. I was sure I was about to witness an actual death play out in front of me. 'Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,' burst from my mouth as Garrett initially froze on the spot and spoke out of desperation, 'No Meli, stop, stop, stop!' The coach stopped, Meli didn't, and she avoided it by a whisker. Time slowed further. We all hoped she would either jump or fall off as she continued to tear toward the hill crest at full-speed, the kerb was the only thing in her way now. Having seen the height of some of these peaks, I knew how big a drop it could have been and I felt I couldn't bear to look, but look on I did. Wobbling from side to side she hit the kerb and crumpled into a pile on the grassy pathway. We all breathed an almighty sigh of relief. Garrett ran to her, Yishan followed and simultaneously pointed at our things for me to guard while they checked on her condition. Thank God for the high kerb, thank God for the vision of the coach driver because aside from a few grazes and bruises, she was OK. I had visions of looking over the edge of a cliff and seeing a circular plume of smoke at the bottom like Wile E. Coyote; only not in a funny way. I picked up the panels and helmets belonging to the other machines, placing them back so that no one would notice. 'Is she OK?' I asked Yishan as she came back straight-faced, 'Yeah, she doesn't know how to ride, she just wanted to go round in a circle and then panicked.' After knocking over three scooters and not falling off, I'd say she wasn't at all bad. Once we'd all gotten to the stage where we could laugh at the events that just unfolded, and our heart rates dropped to normal figures, we pressed on.
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The spectacular gorge rose up all around us as we rode the mountain twists carved by the Japanese during their fifty-year occupation of Taiwan in the first part of the last century. The national park was enjoyably drivable because of this spectacular effort. The headlights on the scooter however, were no more powerful than the illuminator on a ten dollar Casio watch, and unfortunately the many black tunnels that forge a path through the national park provided only the feint glimmer of worn cats' eyes and the odd reflective sign to help you pass through their cold interior and back out into the cloud-veiled sun. It was always a relief to come through the other side in one piece, and it made the ride that much more interesting when you did. Stopping to take in one of the beautiful views, Yishan sat next to me and asked me one of the many questions she had about the English language, which I was only too happy to answer.
'Can I say piss?'
'Well, you can but it's a rude word.'
'Is it? What about leave me alone?'
'That's better, it depends in what context you're talking though, it's a bit dramatic if you just want some privacy for a minute.'
'What about please leave me alone?' After assuring myself from the smile on her face that the subject of conversation wasn't about me, I continued. 'Well, again, it could be either dramatic or polite depending on the context. You can say I'd like to be alone.'
She thought for a moment.
'Can I say, I'd like to be piss off?'
'Erm, no,' I said through fits of laughter. 'Why not?' she asked innocently and with a smirk. 'Because it just doesn't make sense.' I don't know how she came up with this stuff, but it was killing me like a thousand tiny arrows tipped in adoration.
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Eventually those burgeoning low-slung clouds let go and drowned our long ride back to the accommodation. 'Poor chicken!' I yelled at Garrett and Meli at one set of lights. Apparently this was an expression to describe a rain-soaked person in the street being synonymous with a boiled chicken in a stew. Rather random, and I never saw the parallel myself, but it felt good to mix in with the locals now an then.

Yishan and I made our way back to Hostel Formosa, and with Yishan in the shower, I decided to hang out some washing in the rear garden. As I slid the patio door to a close, the tiny bolt at the bottom fell into the locked position. Oh shit. There wasn't another soul in the dorm to let me back in. For the entire time it took Yishan to have a hot shower-and she enjoyed long, hot showers- I was stuck outside with no top on, bare feet and more than a hundred hungry mosquitoes buzzing around me. I grabbed my towel, wrapped it around my upper-half and paced briskly around the patio table. I circled that table several hundred times to keep the mossies from biting my feet and ankles, banging loudly on the dorm window on the way round for someone to let me in. One, two- bang, one, two- bang, one, two- bang, and on it went. Each bang was getting nearer an nearer to breaking the glass as I was still getting ravaged by God's worst creation. What was he thinking? Everybody hates mosquitoes. Seconds before Yishan reappeared from the bathroom, one of the hostel employees entered the dorm to let me in, realising what had happened. Twenty minutes and half a dozen big bites was enough to put me in a bad mood for a time. Some female sympathy and a tin of tiger balm was enough to bring me out of it.
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The next day, the four of us visited a sea-view restaurant at Hualien's treacherously wavy coastline. The bare-wood floors and strange mix of colour scheme stood out as wonderfully odd: pink, mauve, green an orange. A piano rendition of Let it be came out across the sound system. Then, You were always on my mind by Elvis. I sang quietly to myself at the table, 'I just never took the ti-i-ime...' A few moments passed. 'You wanna go then?' asked Yishan. 'What?'
'Toilet. You said you wanted to go to the toilet.'
'No, I said I just never took the time,' I replied, bemused at the misunderstanding. 'You know...it's the lyrics to this song, Elvis Presley.' I recognised the puzzled look and so repeated myself, 'You know Elvis Presley don't you?... Elvis.' Yishan shook her head. 'Hold the phone, you're telling me you've never heard of Elvis?' Before she could answer, Garrett interjected, 'Mao Wang, the Cat King,' he said. Garrett spoke Mandarin and knew a lot about Chinese culture. 'Oh, yeah. I know him,' said Yishan.
'In Taiwan he's called the Cat King.' repeated Garrett.
'Ah, really? Why? Why not just The King?
'I have no idea.' It was one of those little differences, a little snippet of information along with a million others that made travelling mildly amusing and randomly smirkable.
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A wet ride back and a few Taiwan Beers back at Formosa Hostel summarised two prominent stalwarts of my jaunt to this little island. Almost every day it poured from the heavens, and almost every day I craved the crisp taste of Taiwan Beer. Along with Pilsen of the Czech Republic and Beerlao of Laos, Taiwan Beer was one of the best.

In the hostel later that evening, Yishan had gotten talking to a couple of characters who'd checked-in that day. The first, Harrison, was an awkwardly tall and squinty-faced Taiwanese-American maths geek, who, credit where credit's due, was cycling around Taiwan in discovery of his lost cultural roots and testing a prototype folding-bicycle which his uncle had designed and manufactured; pretty cool stuff. The second was a Ukrainian-born, Jewish New Yorker with unfortunate, thinly-sliced facial features which made him look rather evil when he smiled through narrow, spectacled eyes. Also a geek of epic proportions, but of the computer game-designer ilk, he and the lofty Asian made none-too-interesting conversation. 'Want to join us for dinner at the night market?' asked Yishan. No, no, no went the machine gun in my head, don't say yes boys. 'Uhm, OK, yeah, great,' replied the Jew Yorker. I suspected they'd never been asked for anything by a pretty girl such as Yishan. Despite my unspoken objection, I couldn't help but venerate her even more after that one for being so indiscriminately inclusive. Hell, among these two, I felt like the Fonze.

Time to leave Kenting. Outside, the sound of the Taiwanese air force bounded in thunderous shrieks across the sky. As a dormant threat, the idea that China will one day breach this island's self-governing borders and reunite Taiwan with China, is strong enough that the Taiwanese feel the need to defend any such occurrence via the financial and military support of the USA, whom have donated equipment to the air force and have effectively said they will play a protective role in the event of this happening.
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At the train station, Yishan and I sat in the main hall and waited for the clock to tick round and match the time on our tickets. I amused myself with a section of my book which told of the peculiarities of procuring a Taiwanese drivers' license. Harking back to my first time in paradise nine years ago, the Cook Island officials declared it a necessity for all foreigners to take a Rarotongan driving test before taking to the roads on a hired scooter. The idea was simple, mount your bike, pull away from the kerb, go round the roundabout and pull up at the same spot you left from thirty seconds prior. If you didn't fall off or crash, or both, congratulations- you've passed. In the case of Taiwan, it was only slightly more involved. 'You have to go backwards in an S-shape manoeuvre?' I laughed. 'Don't you have that?' replied Yishan. 'No,' I said simply.
'So how do you get your license?'
'We drive on the road.'
'Oh.'
'We have to drive around a car park first, then once you demonstrate that you have control of the bike, you go out onto the road under the observation of an instructor who's on another bike with a headset and mic.'
'We do have to do a paper test if you want to ride a bike that's more than 50cc, you know, a heavy one,' she replied, making a 125 sound like a tank on two wheels.'We also drive in a car park.'
'So are you telling me,' I said with an amused sparkle, 'that you can get a full-license without once driving on the road?'
'Yeah.'
'Wow, why don't they make you drive on the road?'
'That would be more dangerous,' she replied, abandoning any rational logic. 'Haha, so you can get your license, go home, get on your 900cc monster and go out on your own for the first time in traffic?'
'If you believe in yourself,' she replied with her hand placed firmly on her chest, and an iced-coffee in the other. 'That's why there are so many accidents; like Meli.'
I neither maximised nor documented all the curiosities that cropped up in conversation with Yishan, but I embraced them with a smile for life and for experience, often reflecting on my fortune to be in a good place.
Plus, the journey was not yet over.

Posted by kookie888 22:16 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

Entering the Orient

It's funny the difference a border can make, I thought as I walked effortlessly through the modern and organised Chinese side of immigration. Only five minutes before I'd spent an hour being pushed and barged in a disorganised Vietnamese departure room, stuck fast by the animalistic behaviour of travellers and the sub-par passport checking system of the officials. I noticed in that barnyard of elbows that the Chinese weren't a particularly short race of people; many of those men were a good few inches taller than me, a feat not unusual in itself, but for an Asian country, quite a surprise, and made the experience all the more unpleasant due to sweaty armpit-to-face proximity.

The bus rolled into the city of Nanning, where both modern and classic designs took form in the buildings around us. Cranes stood next to gigantic cuboid structures covered in scaffold and green mesh. Smart, new apartment blocks of bold angles and glinting sunlight. Cars I'd never seen before rushed the roads; Chinese characters glistening in silver plastic upon their boot lids. Small electric scooters with pedals for extra zip dodged in and out of traffic. Off the bus I found myself following three German girls who were in turn following one Chinese man to Nanning train station. He turned politely every half a minute to make sure we hadn't been left behind or caught by a tricky piece of pavement. I don't know how, that without a map or an English-speaker anyone could have found that place. Everything that mattered was in Chinese. For all I knew I could have been standing in a giro queue. Which incidentally is exactly how I ended up standing in line at a sorting office trying to buy a train ticket.

Inside the correct building, I purchased my train ticket. It was startling to me that as a major global power and rising financial market I had no idea what the Chinese currency was called. Ask yourself now and see if you know the answer to that one. What is the currency of China? The world's most populous and historic of all nations. If you got it without the aid of a search engine, credit to you. It was the first time I'd heard of it. It was the Yuan; roughly ten Yuan made one British Pound, and with my newly acquired Yuan in hand I walked straight past the weird-looking meat fast food restaurant and into the mock-KFC where I felt I knew what was what. As soon as I sat down I was joined by the same three German girls who strolled in, as I did, swerving away from the weird meat place next door. They sat down at a table opposite. 'Erm, what is the time?' one of them asked me. 'Ten to six,' I replied, looking down at my cracked, fake watch from Chiang Mai night market. 'Nein, es ist zehn vor sieben,' I heard another say. 'Ten to seven? Is it really? I didn't know there was an hour difference,' I said from the edge of my seat. If that was the case then what I thought would be a leisurely hour and a bit wait, was now a rush for the train. I grabbed my food and quickly deciphered the platform number by loose logic from the departure screen, making it onto the train with a few minutes to spare. Had those girls not fancied some fried chicken, I'd be cursing that ticket and my timekeeping with a few bad words and a mouthful of chips.

While I managed to get aboard the train, I was still without a seat. Buying a ticket at the last minute was apparently a bad idea in China as seats regularly sold out, leaving only a few spaces for standing passengers. I was one of those. This was a fourteen-hour journey. This was going to be painful.
All seven people in that standing area stared at me. I crouched, leaning against the wall while everyone else stood, and I tucked hungrily into my bag of fried bird. As the people stared more and the obviousness of their conversation became clear, they asked questions between my mouthfuls to establish my name and nationality. After some time the ticket inspector promptly closed the door on our little single-person pygmy-sized box, with four of us within, and the questions continued as I chomped voraciously on a portion of French fries. My face was just inches from one man's crotch standing opposite; I later suspected him as gay for reasons imminently explained.

Those first few questions were put to me, unusually, by typing on a mobile phone. The standard of written English is often better than spoken English, as the students who learn it cram the information in from textbooks rather than formal practice, leaving them rather sheepish is conversation. But, bravely and affably Tan put down his mobile phone and spoke to me in stumbling sentences. He was a young chap, who, by being so open, had already established a BFF status with the other Chinese man in our makeshift booth. As one man left, the three of us and my backpack sat crouched on the tiny floorspace. The space was so small that two people next to each other would be bumping elbows, and two people opposite each other would have a knee firmly dug between the other's open legs. I can't tell you how relieved I was to be sitting diagonally opposite the camp Chinaman. Friendly as he was, he looked at me with gleaming eyes from above his knitting hands and displayed a pursed smile that I felt awkward to return. Soon I would be in Guangzhou, and soon after that Hong Kong. Through a combination of that thought, plus my crushed bones and the vague feeling of self-preservation, I stayed awake through those fourteen hours. I could see how prisoners would go crazy in a cell that was just too small to lay down in. Any longer and I'd have been out the window.

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As far as cities go, there are not many as populated and built-up as Hong Kong. Ceded to the British after the first Opium War, which began when the Chinese burned a large shipment of British-imported Bengal opium in 1841- causing Britain to lash back in force and grab Hong Kong for itself in the Treaty of Nanking- Hong Kong remained separated from China until July 1st 1997 when unification became a reality and this Special Administrative Region was handed back to its former owners. Hong Kong still enjoys an intensely Westernised style of life and a greater GDP than that of mainland China, and one only need fly over Hong Kong Island to see that.
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Upon my arrival in Hong Kong, I couldn't help but feel surprised that the traditional urban sprawl of dark alleys and crazed marketplaces I was expecting to see, was in fact not a reality at all. Instead, grand, modern buildings, tatty apartment blocks, busy roads, pedestrian-packed pathways, red taxis and shop after shop after shop made up the general appearance of this sprawling metropolis. I felt no stress arriving in Hong Kong, but I was unsure of how much that was down to how long I'd been away from home or the fact that I had a contact in Kowloon area with whom I would stay and save some money. Elaine- a friend of mine for the last three years- lived with her parents and Sister in Mong Kok (get the laughs out of the way early,) a large, densely populated area on the opposite side of Victoria harbour to Hong Kong Island, and had kindly offered me a place to crash at the little apartment on the tenth floor of a residential building on Bute Street. I had a week. I could see some of the city at a leisurely pace and catch up with my friend over rice and noodles.
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The view of Hong Kong Island from Tsim Sha Tsui is a wonderful sight. At night the illuminated structures of money and ambition rise from the ground, casting their brilliance on the darkness of Victoria Harbour. The International Finance Centre is the second-highest of all the skyscrapers here-the first being the International Commerce Centre in West Kowloon- and it's a real beauty of subtle curvature and streamlined bullet-like stature; towering above its siblings like the lanky kid in class. The world's largest permanent laser show began at eight every evening and saw swords of light punch into the sunless sky for ten minutes or so as high-tech music was pumped out of the speakers from the Tsim Sha Tsui viewpoint. But if you pre-empted yourself and thought this was an amazing sight, (the laser show aside, which was lame,) you haven't seen anything yet.
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Elaine and myself made the steep journey up on the funicular railway tram to Peak Tower Leisure Complex, a ultra-modern mall of shops, restaurants and a quaint Madame Tussaudes where I told George W. Bush exactly what I thought of his foreign policies. The weather had been iffy all day and as we waited for the rain to stop a huge collection of mist formed between us and the view that defined this little excursion. I stood out in the open, greeted by a fair breeze and thick fog. The white haze was a drawn curtain on one of the world's great cityscapes. I waited, disappointed by nature's refusal to let me see anything but a blank canvass. Resigned to the fact that the tram ride was a waste of time, we prepared to leave just as the wind began to pick up. From the corner of my eye I saw a light through the fog. A few moments later, a second light and then a third. The mist grew thinner. Within thirty seconds the fog had been blown away to reveal what I can only describe as possibly the grandest sight I have ever seen. The air was crisp and clear; the rain had helped disperse the atmospheric pollution and several thousand lights shone as cleanly as a still-wet painting. I stopped breathing momentarily and just exhaled a gust of air in disbelief. 'Wow,' was all I could manage. The might of the Commerce Centre, the grace of the Financial Centre and the support of several hundred other buildings set down on this green and hilly coastal landscape, all lit-up in whites, yellows, reds and blues, commercial but beautiful, pompous but appealing. Lightning struck the ground with silent wrath, illuminating the black sky; showing mankind that she can match his electrifying brilliance from the palm of her hand. Once, twice, a hundred strikes those bolts unleashed. In those thirty minutes I felt I had seen civilisation from an new angle; she seemed silently elegant, pretty as a picture, and from atop that hill I wanted to swoop down on her and float in her midst before she lost her charm by morning.
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Elaine's family had been generous and accommodating, her Father left for the Philippines to get back to work and on the day of the Big Buddha's Birthday and Bun Festival I joined Elaine's Mother, her Sister Mion and Elaine herself on an excursion to Cheung Chau for the parade and festival. It seemed a million other people had the same idea as on the train and Star ferry we were herded like animals through doorways, and walked the streets as cows in a mass farming programme.
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In Cheung Chau we hauled up to a doorway in the main street of the parade and waited for the celebrations to begin. I was unsure of exactly what to expect. Within half an hour the first in a long line of people had begun walking through the streets as part of the procession. Huge right-angled triangle flags were flourished down the street, Chinese dragons with a highly-active soul inside skipped along, followed by brass bands, dancing children, waving adults and everything in-between. The crowd cheered and clapped at the slightest hint of entertainment, a group of ten kids dancing inappropriately-sultry moves to the addictive Korean pop song Nobody but you, a famous face, a decorated flag, it didn't take much to extract awe.
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Then came The Float, several children dressed-up and paraded like candy on a stick, propped up on an optical-illusion set that made the balancing child look super-human, when really their pristinely positioned vestment just hid a supporting thin metal frame holding the child in place. The traditional dress was mostly fine, but the plaster-thick make-up struck me as a tad over-done on what were sub-seven-year-olds made to look like China dolls.
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After two hours the streets were still alive with the resonance of celebration, and as the drums and cymbals continued, several million people walked the same path to join the same line for the same ferry from Hong Kong island back to the mainland. We literally walked for more than thirty minutes to join the back of the queue, it was that long. I've never seen a queue quite like it. Hong Kong was a busy place, it was a mixing-pot of old and new, but never did I feel uncomfortable or lost. There was something inexplicable about its character that made the experience manageable for the Westerner, and for the British in particular. Whether it was the bilingual road signs, the pristine modernity of its many, many shopping malls, or the precedence of English speaking locals, Hong Kong was a place unto itself and I felt as comfortable on its streets as anywhere else in the world.
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Posted by kookie888 18:56 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (2)

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