I Don’t Speak Cantonese

My very last trip was to a small town called Zhaoqing 肇庆 in Guangdong province, just a few hours’ drive from Hong Kong. It was a three day field trip for a class I took on Confucianism. I knew I wouldn’t know anyone else on the trip, so that was okay. What I didn’t know, however, was that the field trip would be conducted entirely in Cantonese. Even though the class was taught in English. Great.

We went to some pretty cool places, but since I didn’t understand any of the explanation and no one was nice enough to translate for me, I really couldn’t learn anything more than what I could see.

We went to an old Hakka village, which was pretty cool to look at, but honestly I have no idea if the place had any historical significance.

Also a couple of temples: one Confucian temple that used to double as a school, and one for the Dragon Mother, a goddess in a local folk religion. Or something like that.

We also took a boat tour around the lake at the Seven Star Crags park, which was gorgeous…

…and hiked to a very beautiful waterfall in Dinghushan.

We had a bit of free time each day, so I got to do some people-watching, too.

It was definitely cool to see a part of China that wasn’t a huge city completely overrun by tourists like Beijing is. That being said, I don’t feel like I really got anything out of the trip. We saw so many beautiful things, but I never knew what I was looking at. I wish I had known beforehand about the language issue – I still don’t understand why they didn’t tell me. I would have rather gone on another trip with friends instead.

Fly Lice

Christmas in Bangkok! By far the least Christmassy Christmas I’ve ever had. I went with one of my friends (hello, I know you’re reading) and her friend from home who was visiting. I didn’t take the same flight as them, so I got to have a fun three hours waiting at the airport by myself, but it was okay in the end. Just like Taipei, Bangkok was mostly temples, shopping, and street food, and I was okay with that.

Our first day, we wanted to go to some of the cool temples near the river. We pretty much got scammed by a tuk-tuk driver into taking a very expensive longboat instead of the public ferry, but as far as scams go, it wasn’t the end of the world. After that though, it was all ferry all the time. Definitely the coolest form of public transportation I’ve ever taken.

First stop: the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. It’s a gigantic statue of Buddha laying down, and it looks even bigger because it’s in a room barely big enough for it. Very impressive. The bottom of Buddha’s feet have a really intricate mother-of-pearl design, and the walls inside the building are painted as a huge, extremely detailed mural. After that, we went to Khao San Road and then Patpong Night Market. So much cheap shopping! Lots of cheesy souvenirs and bad knockoffs, sure, but I managed to find a few decent things. There were also plenty of food carts, so I might as well go into the street food now.

Pad thai pad thai pad thai. I think I had it three or four times, including Christmas dinner. Stir fried noodles with shrimp, egg, peanuts, sprouts, chili, lime, green onions, yum yum yum. Also satay, fresh squeezed juice, Thai tea, scrambled eggs with rice, mango sticky rice, fried bananas, red curry, green curry… We ate so many meals on the street. Pretty much everything I’ve had before, since Thai is tied with Mexican for my favorite cuisine, but obviously it was a lot cooler (and cheaper) eating Thai food in the street in Thailand than at a restaurant here in Los Angeles. What was new to me, though, was coconut pancakes. They’re not like fluffy pancakes, but rather a crunchy shell filled with cream and coconut shavings. We had those our second day, at the floating market.

We booked a day tour since everything we wanted to see that day was at least two hours outside the city. First stop was the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Ratchaburi. Plenty of boats and stalls were selling tourist crap, but I was way more interested in the real stuff. Little old ladies sitting in the water cutting fresh produce or handing bowls of hot noodles to people standing on the side of the canal. Definitely awesome to see. We took a boat through the market and then looped around through other parts of the canal where people actually live.

These houses were gorgeous! Sure, they were all a bit run down, but most were pretty big and almost all of them had tons of potted plants and other decorations out front. It was so beautiful. After that, we hopped back on the bus which took us to lunch.

This meal was really different than I expected. Not at all spicy like Thai food usually is – just really fresh tasting. Tons of bell peppers, onions, tofu, pineapple, cashews, and – my favorite – broccoli. Then we were off to the River Kwai Bridge, and finally, the place I was excited for most: the Tiger Temple.

It’s a conservation center run by monks. Some tigers are born there, but a lot are brought in as cubs after their mothers are killed by poachers. There were so many tigers! You wait in line for a bit, and then get two volunteers assigned to you: one holds your hand and walks you from tiger to tiger, where you sit and rub their adorable tiger bellies for a bit, and another takes pictures for you. Besides that you can walk around the rest of the center on your own. They also have other animals, like boars and deer, and you might run into a monk taking a tiger for a walk. Such an unbelievable experience.

Right near Wat Pho is the Grand Palace, which is half official government buildings, half temple, all tourist attraction. We went on Christmas day. The buildings are really beautiful, completely covered in tile and gold. They have a free tour in English a couple times a day, and we were lucky enough to get there right as one was starting. We got to learn all about what the different statues represent, the types of architecture, the function of each of the government buildings, etc. Afterward we went to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. It has something like 8,000 stalls, making it the largest in southeast Asia. It’s definitely a local market – souvenirs were actually hard to find amongst all the clothes, dishes, furniture, and food. We went more just to see the market than to do any actual shopping, but I did get something amazing:

Coconut ice cream, served in the coconut it was made from, topped with red beans, sticky rice, and pineapple jelly. Merry Christmas to me.

For our last days we laid on the beach and got tans, and then just walked around a bit. Sometimes my favorite thing to do is just walk around and look at people going about their business. The sidewalks in Bangkok are overly crowded with people cooking different foods, and any alley big enough to accomodate a market is filled with stalls of fresh fruit.

Thailand was amazing. I want to go back. Maybe not Bangkok – after five days, I definitely feel like I got a sense of what the city is about – but somewhere else definitely. Just for the food.

Danshui? Tamsui?

I am in America! It’s kind of weird being back, especially with how much happened since my exams ended, but I’m adjusting. Since my last post, I went to Taiwan, Thailand, back to mainland China, and finally came home. I’ll put it all into separate posts so I don’t completely overwhelm you (or me).

So. Taiwan. I went alone, very much against my mother’s wishes. Just stayed within Taipei. Six days of nonstop temples, shopping, and eating. For the most part, it was absolutely awesome. Traveling alone is amazing – you get to do whatever you want! No waiting for anyone else or worrying about what they want to do. You just go. If you want to get up early, you do it. If your alarm goes off and you don’t want to get up, you don’t. If you want to spend an extra half hour somewhere, go for it. You never feel bad about taking a long time messing with your camera because you want to get the perfect shot.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like about Taipei though. For one, I was super stoked to speak Chinese. I thought it would be six days without English for me. Not the case. See, in Beijing, when people would speak to me, if I didn’t understand they would slow down and repeat themselves. In Taipei, they just switched to English. Another thing was spelling inconsistencies. Going from Chinese characters to English letters can be complicated sometimes because there are two systems for doing it, but as long as you pick one and stick with it, you’re fine. Taipei needs to make up its mind. Is it Taipei or Taibei? Danshui or Tamsui? Beitou or Peitou? The names of the subway stations aren’t even consistent on the maps! Maps suck too. At subway stations and tourist areas there are maps of the neighborhood, which can be helpful, except up is never north. Up isn’t even usually the direction you’re facing. Up is wherever the mapmaker felt like putting it.

I stayed in Ximending 西門町, a cute commercial area on the western side of town. I pretty much tore this place apart shopping. It’s never ending, block after block of cheap clothes, shoes, and accessories.

I visited so many temples. Longshan, Baoan, Xingtian, Guandu, and plenty of others I can’t remember the names of. A few I didn’t even plan to go to, I just happened to walk by. Considering I am so completely not religious at all, I really love temples. It’s the smell of incense, the beautiful architecture, and just the sense of quiet you get when you walk in.

Gardens, too. It was a little rainy when I was there, but I still went to my fair share of parks. That photo is from the gardens at the Shilin Official Residence, where Chiang Kai-shek used to live. It’s got this huge rose garden, too. I also went to the botanical gardens, 2-28 Peace Park, and attempted hiking in Yangmingshan National Park until the rain made me quit. So many historical buildings in the city, too, like the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the Grand Hotel, and, of course, Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world.

I also went to the Danshui/Tamsui district, which is a fishing village north of Taipei. I got to walk along the water and visit their morning market, which was very cool. For the most part, markets in Taipei aren’t super touristy – sure, their are tourists, but not a lot of souvenir crap for sale. This market, though, was by far the most real I’ve ever been to. Stalls selling fresh produce, bread, meat, tea, plants, you name it. Almost everyone selling food gives out samples, so all you have to do is walk through it a couple of times and you’ve had your fill of dried fruit and cookies. One stall was even giving out tangyuan 湯圓, one of my favorite Chinese desserts.

One of the coolest things I did was bathe in the hot springs up in Beitou, north of the city. There are a bunch of resort spas where you pay a ton of money for your own private tub, but I chose instead to go to the public outdoor baths. It’s less than US$1 to get in, and it’s where all the locals go. You’re not supposed to take pictures, but I was able to sneak one. Each pool is a different temperature, most of them being hot but one is ice cold. You’re supposed to go to the coolest hot one, then into the cold, then to the next hottest, back into the cold, and so on, to “balance” your body. I couldn’t handle the hottest one though – it was about 120 degrees!!

You have to wear a swimsuit, thank goodness, because I was one of only a few people there younger than 60. All the old men wear Speedos, and all the old women wear the kind of one piece swimsuits with an attached skirt that goes down to their knees. I was feeling a little uncomfortable in my bikini, especially with all of my tattoos and whatnot, but then an obvious tourist walked in and took off his shirt. His chest, arms, and shoulders had Chinese characters scattered on them, so all attention was immediately diverted to him. His tattoos did not make sense. I didn’t know all of the characters, but a lot of it was just random words.

Besides that, basically all I did was eat. Begin the food porn. In six days, I ate in restaurants only twice – street food all day, everyday. The restaurants I did go to, though, were vegetarian buffets. It’s not really a buffet because you pay by the weight of your tray, but whatever. They’re a big deal in Taipei, which made me extremely happy. So many veggies! So much tofu! Happy Alyssa!

Other than that, night markets. In five nights, I went to seven night markets. For the most part, especially in the big ones like Shilin and Shida, the shopping is just regular stores. What makes the change between regular shopping area to night market is all the food carts that come out, selling the most amazing food you’ve ever laid eyes on. Actually, right near the Shilin market is the Shilin food court. Stall after stall of noodles, seafood, these yummy egg pancake things, fresh fruit juice, milk tea, and fried chicken. Taipei loves fried chicken. Actually, out of all the stalls, only one had a line – over 50 people waiting in line for fried chicken. I decided to see what it was all about, which was a very good decision. It was just regular fried chicken until they sprinkled some sort of spice on it. Just the right amount of heat and extra flavor. Amazing.

At Shida, I saw another big crowd around a food stall. Pro tip: if you see a huge line of locals waiting in line for food, get in that line. When you get to the front of the line, they hand you a basket which you fill with noodles, fresh veggies, tofu, meatballs, whatever. You pay for whatever is in the basket, then they cook it all and you choose your sauce. I’m not sure what I chose since I didn’t understand the Chinese and ended up just pointing at one, but it was delicious. Super cheap, too.

Besides that is the night market snacks. So many carts selling fresh cut fruit; when you walk by the hand you little pieces of strawberry or mango on toothpicks hoping you’ll buy some. I ended up getting a guava one of the nights. At the Raohe market, I saw a cart selling fried crab for NT$180, or about US$6. I thought that was a little expensive for a little crab since most of my meals were around $150 max, but it looked good, so I decided to go for it. Next thing I know, the lady hands me a paper bag filled with no less than four crabs inside. I stood on the sidewalk for at least a half hour, crab all over my face and hands. That’s how you know you’re living your life right.

The desserts are great too. I had waffles with strawberry ice cream and raspberry compote one night (top left), and almost every market had these little pancake things (bottom right). Only NT$10 a piece, and they’re filled with red bean or custard. At the Jingmei market I had some fantastic shave ice. They had a huge spread of all sorts of different things: red beans, tangyuan, mochi, sweet potato, jellies, and some things I’ve never even seen before. You fill a bowl with whatever you want, and then the shave ice goes on top with some kind of syrup. I definitely recognized the flavor of the syrup, but I couldn’t think of the name at the time. I want to say it might have been tamarind, but it was awhile ago that I ate it so I’m really not sure.

That was pretty much my time in Taipei. Eating, shopping, and taking pictures. It was a great time. I would definitely recommend traveling alone, and I would love to do it again sometime.

The Final Countdown

My finals are over!! Finally. (Haha bad puns.) Glad I don’t have to deal with them anymore, but it does mean that this semester is actually over. Considering I was supposed to be studying all last week, I did quite a bit. Knocked out a few good bucket list items.

I finally had conveyor belt sushi – something I’ve wanted to do forever, but it’s a little difficult when you’re eating vegetarian. They did have one of those yummy egg sushis though. Basically the way it works is sushi on small plates comes around on a conveyor belt and you take whatever you want. The cost of each plate depends on the color – that purple plate was my one splurge item. Crab and crab roe. Yummy. No, I did not eat all those plates by myself. I’m not that much of a fatty, I was with a friend!

I also took a ferry out to Cheung Chau for a day, one of the smaller islands in Hong Kong. There’s a small neighborhood and a couple beaches and trails. It’s actually so small that there aren’t any cars on the entire island! Everyone just gets around on bikes, even little old ladies. Most of them use training wheels though, which I thought was pretty adorable. Cheung Chau is where they have the bun festival every year, but that isn’t until spring. I don’t actually know much about it except that people climb up this gigantic structure covered in buns. It sounds pretty weird. The buns were delicious though! Just steamed bread with red bean inside, my favorite.

Like most tiny little islands, Cheung Chau also has amazing seafood. We had a gigantic meal of ginger crab, clams with bell peppers in some sort of gravy sauce, steamed shrimp, some kind of fish, and mantis shrimp. Mantis shrimp are also called pissing shrimp, and they’re sort of purplish inside. Really good but not worth all the effort it took to get their shells open.

Whenever I have a really great meal here I’m always shocked by how cheap everything is. All the seafood I could possibly stuff my face with, and so fresh. It came out to less than US$10 per person. Really, the little places with folding tables and plastic chairs are always the best.

On Saturday I went to Ozone, the highest bar in the world. It’s on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carlton in the ICC building.

Super swanky, super expensive. The view was really nice, but honestly I more just went so I could check it off the list. I had an unbelievably overpriced “dragontini,” which was delicious, and got really sad when I remembered I won’t be able to do any of this when I get back home. I don’t turn 21 until next August, so it’s all pretty miserable.

Sunday was probably my best day ever in Hong Kong. The plan was: wake up early to watch the live stream of the dance show at CMU, go to Tuen Mun where my local friend lives for a nice lunch, study, and then finish up with a free concert. I made it through the dance show (which was AWESOME guys, so proud of you! and so jealous I wasn’t in it this semester!), but then about ten minutes before I was going to leave for Tuen Mun I started feeling really sick. Spent the rest of the day going back and forth between sleeping and throwing up my guts. It was a fun time. I still don’t know what got me so sick, but I woke up on Monday feeling great again.

So that was my week, besides two finals and an essay. The next couple of weeks until I go home are going to be absolutely crazy, so I don’t know how much time I’ll have for blogging. I’m off to Taipei tomorrow, then Bangkok and back to mainland China before I leave Asia for good. Well, not for good, but for now at least. I’ll be back.

Someone Ate All the Buns

Last week I went to an absolutely amazing dim sum place in Mongkok. Definitely one of the best in Hong Kong. On a weeknight, we only had to wait a little over a half hour, but I tried to go again on Sunday afternoon and was told to come back in three hours.

This weekend a friend from school was here, so I got to be a cool local and show him around. We went to the observatory on the 100th floor of the ICC building, plus basically every market ever: ladies’ market, Fa Yuen market (well, what’s left of it after the fire last week), goldfish market, bird market, flower market, jade market, Temple Street night market… Lots of walking. And eating. I made a video, so instead of telling you about it, I’ll just show you.

This is the last week of classes, and I’m feeling pretty sad. I have 26 days until I go home, and 15 of those days will be spent in other countries. I don’t want to go home! I don’t want to leave this:

Most of all, I don’t want to go back to school and have to deal with snow.

Take Off Your Necklace

Traveling has given me this terrible identity crisis. My looks confuse people, I already knew that. At home, the most frequent guess I get is Hispanic. I’ve had people come up to me speaking Korean, Japanese, and even Armenian, completely shocked when I don’t understand. That’s why I was so excited when I came to Hong Kong – everyone here knows I am Chinese! 9 times out of 10, people speak Cantonese to me before English, even if I’m surrounded by people who are obviously foreign. Of course, I hate the look of disappointment on their faces when they realize I have no idea what they’re saying. That’s what made Beijing so awesome – I could actually respond! Usually I just said, “Please speak slowly, my Chinese is terrible,” but it’s something at least. Then I went to the Philippines this weekend, and it started all over again. So many people asked me if I was Filipina, and were surprised when I said no. People ask where I’m from, I say I’m American, and they say “But, but… you don’t look American.” How does one “look” American, anyway? That’s beyond me. But I’ve realized that I can look like a local pretty much anywhere I go. I’ve decided that from now on, when people ask where I’m from, I’ll give them a random answer and see if they call me out on it. Next time, I’ll be Vietnamese. Maybe after that I’ll be from Guam. Then Indonesia. I bet they would believe me.

Anyway, I spent this past weekend in and around Manila. The city is really unlike any I’ve ever been to. It’s beautiful, but very run down, and there are homeless people everywhere. I can deal with people begging, I’ve seen that before, but I wasn’t prepared to see so many homeless children. You walk anywhere in the city and a three or four year old child will run up to you with their hand stretched out.

Since the city is kind of (really) scary, we took two day trips on Friday and Saturday, and just spent half of Sunday around the city before our flight. Friday we went to the Taal Volcano, about 30 miles south of Manila. We took a van to Tagaytay, then a small boat across the lake to the volcano, which got us completely soaked! My friend said she saw online that we might get a little wet on the way, but we thought it couldn’t possibly be that bad, and turned down the offer for a plastic poncho. By the end we were completely drenched.

Once we made it to the island, we rode horses up to the top of the volcano. I don’t know if you could really call them horses… They were all very small. But definitely way too big to be called ponies. I don’t know. But mine was named Jericho and my butt still hurts from his stupid saddle. When we finally made it to the top, we were greeted by one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Back down the hill on the horse, back across the lake on the boat (we got soaked again), and there was lunch waiting for us at the boathouse. When they had asked me if I wanted my fish fried or grilled, I didn’t realize it was actually my fish. That is, they gave me a fish. A whole fish. Tilapia. With scales and fins and a face. A FACE. Staring at me. Making me feel terrible for eating him. But he was delicious. He even had bell pepper and onion fish guts inside. They catch them out in the lake; I’ve definitely never had fish that fresh in my life.

On Saturday, we were supposed to go to the Pagsanjan waterfalls, but the weather had other thoughts in mind. Instead we ended up at Villa Escudero, a coconut plantation about two and a half hours outside Manila.

This place was weird. They’ve tried to make it into this tourist attraction, but it just came out all strange. You ride in a cart pulled by a water buffalo to the other side of the “resort,” and all along the way are these cheesy colorful statues made to look like people working in the plantation. The weirdest part is the museum, which is a huge hot pink building made to look like a church.

It’s not really a museum. It’s a bunch of crap collected by the Escudero family all stuffed into one building. They’re pretty much just rich hoarders. There’s a ton of religious stuff, like crosses and awkward Jesus statues, hunting knives and the heads of animals killed by the guy, coins from around the world, old perfume bottles, spoons, WWII memorabilia, and tons of Chinese porcelain. They won’t let you take pictures inside, and the guides continuously stress how rare and expensive all the items are.

The coolest part of the whole place is the restaurant. There’s a fake waterfall and you sit right in it. You take off your shoes and sit with your feet in the water. Such a neat idea! And it’s a big buffet of Filipino food. My favorites were the jicama just because I love jicama, green beans with pumpkin or some kind of squash, and the fried bananas. I must have eaten three or four of those. Yum.

This was the first time I’ve eaten a big piece of chicken since I started eating meat again. When I have to eat meat, I prefer it cut up into little pieces so I don’t really have to look at it. With the tilapia, I could at least use a fork, but I had to use my hands for this. Freaked me out a little. Okay, a lot. But I was determined to try everything.

On Sunday we went around Manila for a few hours. We rode jeepneys to the national museum, Rizal Park, and finally to Chinatown. If you’re ever in the Philippines and are in the mood to buy useless crap, Chinatown is the place to be.

I kept my eyes peeled for Taco Bell the whole time I was there, but never found one. Manila has even more American fast food than Hong Kong. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Dairy Queen, even Krispy Kreme! I really could have gone for a seven-layer burrito though…

Gobble Gobble

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I made you a Google Doodle to celebrate!

It’s official – I go home in less than 40 days. The whole thing is pretty bittersweet. I miss home, my family, my friends, obviously, but I really could stay in Hong Kong forever. That being said… I have no Asian food to talk about this week! Terrible, I know. It’s not that I didn’t eat any, of course, just nothing blog-worthy. Although I did go back to that Japanese place, Miso Cool, and had some melt-in-your-mouth eel.

On Sunday I went to the horse races in Sha Tin. Since I obviously know absolutely nothing about horse races, I decided to bet on the horses with the coolest names: Dreams Maker and Forest Fountain. I wanted to bet on Super Pistachio, but that race wasn’t until much later in the day and we didn’t want to stay that long.

Well, Dreams Maker did not make my dreams. Neither did Forest Fountain. But I only bet about $5USD, so it was okay. The guys I was with did win, though, so of course they had to gloat.

On Monday I walked around TST looking for a new lens for my camera. Everything is all decorated for Christmas already! I swear, Christmas starts earlier every year. They’re building an ice skating rink right by the school, but I don’t understand how it will stay frozen since it’s outside. Outdoor ice skating rinks in Pittsburgh make sense. Pickwick in Burbank works because it’s inside. An outdoor rink in Hong Kong? How is that possible? Anyway, I walked all the way to Harbor City, a ridiculously expensive mall, and they had a huge Toy Story Christmas display. They Toy Story section of Disneyland just opened up a couple weeks ago, and I am so excited to go!

Of course, Christmastime doesn’t really start until after Thanksgiving. Depressed over missing out on a huge dinner, most of the Americans went last night to Outback Steakhouse, the most American restaurant within walking distance from the dorm (besides McDonald’s). It was the least Thanksgivingy Thanksgiving I have ever had, and it was great.

We got a Bloomin’ Onion, of course, which was inhaled in about three minutes.

Instead of my usual Tofurkey, I had shrimp and mushroom alfredo. That’s what the Pilgrims ate, right?

For dessert, no pumpkin pie. Instead, the Chocolate Thunder From Down Under, the most ridiculously named brownie a la mode ever. Also inhaled within 3 minutes.

It was a pretty great evening, I must say. Plus, in case you couldn’t tell, I got to use my new lens! It’s 50mm f/1.8. I’ve been having tons of fun with it. There are honestly about 3 camera shops per block in Hong Kong, so no shortage of new toys to buy… I might end up coming home with a couple more.