Hong Kong Trip 4: The Big Buddha & Monk on Holiday

16 Apr

On my second day in Hong Kong I made it over to Lantau Island, the largest island in Hong Kong. It’s famous for the Big Buddha, which apparently even Buddhist monks get excited about. (I guess it makes sense, since not every monk gets to be a Big Buddha monk, it just seems like Buddhist monuments would stop being exciting if it’s your profession? Whatevs dude that guy is putting his pics on facebook.)

The prayer line to the right was very ritualized–people would pray a bit, then take a step up. I’m not sure if they were aiming for a specific number of steps (a holy number?) or what. The Buddha is 112 feet tall, made of bronze, and was finished in 1993. That’s right, ’93! He’s a spring chicken of a monument.

Nearby is the Po Lin Monastery.

The above is a view from the monastery. You could see the monument from all sides, but this was a particularly nice angle. The monastery itself wasn’t a particularly remarkable temple complex, but they served fantastic vegetarian dim sum. I put it in my mouth and it was delicious.

By this point in the trip, I was already fairly tired, as you can see below…

Tired, but happy.

Next time: I visit a fishing village (Tai O) and watch a dude make STREET WAFFLES.


Hong Kong Trip 3: My Continued Struggle to Accept Potable Water and Victoria Peak, which is a Metaphor for Victory

11 Apr

This view from the the Circle Trail at the top of Victoria Peak is a metaphor for potable water, which is a metaphor for development, which is a metaphor for what I was deprived of in Changsha, which is a metaphor for love. I’m not saying the developing world is devoid of love. I’m saying that Changsha was.

I’m also saying that metaphors don’t obey the transitive property.

About two hours later, on the other side of Victoria Peak, this was the view:

The Victoria Harbour, seen above, has been shrinking due to land reclamation projects for two thousand years, starting during the Western Han Dynasty when beaches were reclaimed into fields for salt production. Major land reclamation projects have been conducted since the 19th century, when the British first colonized the area.

The entire urban area of Tsim Sha Tsui (one of the many names I carefully avoided saying during my grueling 2.5-day stay in Hong Kong), for example, was reclaimed from the Bay. It’s the part of Kowloon that I was staying in, and where many of the territory’s museums are now located.

As I was staring out at this extremely historically-charged view and considering the epic wonder of human continuity, inevitable geological change, and glittery lights, an attractive Indian-Canadian man came and struck up a conversation with me. He casually offered to take a photo of me in front of the view, which turned out terrible. He took one without flash, which turned out worse.

Then, said easy-on-the-eyes gentleman invited me to take a turn about the Circle Trail with him in the deepening twilight. Ever quick on the uptake, I unhesitatingly said, “No, I’ve been going clockwise on the path, I don’t want to go backwards.”

I guess the moral is that when they called me “task-oriented instead of people-oriented,” they meant “borderline autistic,” and I will probably die alone. But at least my children (born out of wedlock) won’t have a weird Alberta accent.

Next: Katherine stops bumming us all out with romantic incompetence and takes us all on a trip to see A MASSIVE STATUE OF BUDDHA ON A MOUNTAIN. Will there be vegetarian dim sum? Will there be pictures of large quantities of dried fish?! Only time can tell!

Hong Kong Trip 2: The Ladies’ Market Ain’t Just for Ladies

9 Apr

I went to the Ladies’ Market of Hong Kong, and saw garments meant to present the male genitalia in ways Western civilization is not ready for. A hint: a nether-region so-clad would wind up resembling an exotic bird.

In case you were wondering, the Ladies’ Market is in fact located in the aforementioned Kowloon (northern Kowloon, in fact, significantly removed from Victoria Bay and Hong Kong island). For those of you still doubting, as apparently Western businessmen still do, as to whether Kowloon is developed enough for you to deign to visit–I tell you this: before I stepped into the market area, I bought a cup of coffee at Starbucks. A few minutes later, I was seeking shelter from the relentless crowd, and I walked straight into another Starbucks–with the same unfinished cup of coffee in my hand.

As you can see, Kowloon is pretty freaking posh. In addition to designer clothing stores, there were a ton of nice sit-down restaurants, as well as a couple more basic food stands. And in this gourmand paradise, just in case you wanted to feel like you’re in The Puritanical  States again…you can go back to Hong Kong island, and visit a restaurant with nothing but salads.

You’re welcome. 😉

Next time: the view of Kowloon (and etc.) from Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong island!

Hong Kong, Land of Potable Water and Colonial-era Firetraps: Part I

6 Apr

My hostel was this sketchy little quarter-of-a-floor in a weird massive building with multiple elevators to non-adjoining wings. It was pure luck that I actually found the darn thing in under 20 minutes, as opposed to 3 hours. Luck plus good signage on the ground floor, I guess…there were like a hundred hostels in the building, which was this colonial-era firetrap called the Chungking Mansions (actually only one mansion?? more like the Chungking Sketchy Apartment Building, if you ask me). The ground floor was absolutely filled with Indian dudes conducting business (specifically men, not women for some reason). At the front were money-changers, and there were little convenience stands and restaurants sprinkled throughout–but when I wandered towards the back of the floor I got lots of stares as a white lady alone. I also got delicious gulab jamun for breakfast because no one could stop me, and a random semi-date with a nice Finnish boy because I was young, free and in Hong Kong for a weekend.

The Chungking Mansions: Source of hostel beds, gulab jamun and Finns

My hostel was located on Kowloon Peninsula, not Hong Kong island proper. The difference between the two areas, in feel, is this: the “Central” district of Hong Kong island is the business district, where all the foreigners have traditionally hung out. It feels pretty much like the financial district of New York City–tall buildings, impersonal, lots of gray and neon.

Kowloon, on the other hand, feels like the area right next to the financial district of New York City, where you might actually be able to buy food for under $50 while still feeling fairly ritzy, still surrounded by tall buildings, gray and neon. It seems foreigners have traditionally shunned this area as “too Chinese to deign to visit,” because the Sort of Foreigners Who Go to Hong Kong Regularly For Business are apparently kind of d-bags. (citation: my friend Dora who is from Hong Kong, also Lonely Planet I think).

Separating the two areas is Victoria Harbour.

I was excited about Hong Kong’s potable water, but less so the firetraps. I heard that the best way to find cheap housing in Hong Kong was to live in the harbour. So I purchased the below boat.

Next time: Did Katherine really spend the rest of her year abroad living on a traditional Chinese junk in Victoria Harbour? What about spring semester? What about AMERICA?! The mystery continues

Trip to Shenzhen: The Armpit of China

4 Apr

At the end of my fall semester last year, my Chinese tutor xiao Pan invited me to visit her older sister’s family in Shenzhen!

“That’s in the south,” I thought. “It’s getting cold up here in Changsha, time to follow the sun. Besides, it’s in Guangdong province–home of dim sum. Civilization!”

I also had wild dreams of making a run for it into Hong Kong, before my January trip to America. Xiao Pan wouldn’t be able to come with me, since she was a mainland Chinese citizen, so I’d have to brave the trek across the Luohu land boundary alone.

Xiao Pan and I took an overnight train to Shenzhen, and I was not groped-while-sleeping, kept-awake-all-night-by-curious-passengers, or subjected to any of the other inconveniences I’d been warned that foreigners suffer on Chinese trains. I was kept awake part of the night by giggling with my good friend xiao Pan, pictured above on the right with her little nephew. But that was another matter.

Shortly after we arrived in the sooty, chilly town of Shenzhen (it was snowing in Changsha by then, so I couldn’t complain), I broached the idea to xiao Sarah.

“Where is the dim sum?” I asked.


“Dim sum!” I said, making hand gestures in the shape of small fried rolls stuffed with unholy parts of the pig. “Sum dim. Dim sum?”

She stared blankly at me, and we spent a few minutes Googling things. Then, after a few image searches, realization dawned.

“You mean yum cha.”


“Tea tasting. I’ll find a place.” So that was settled.

Meanwhile, we went out and bought ourselves a rock-hard mattress that was placed in the loft next to her sister’s bedroom. I called it our marriage bed. It was cold at night, we didn’t have sheets and there was no heating. During the day, my favorite thing to do was cuddle up in our blanket with xiao Pan and watch Merlin. That’s right–we were classy.

One day that week we decided to be classy, and go on an expedition. Xiao Pan had never seen the ocean before, and Shenzhen has a coast, so we made our way down to the seaside.

When we got there, it was about 50 degrees and windy as shit. I tried to explain to her that the homeland of my people–San Francisco and/or Oregon–was exactly like this, and that it was traditional to buy a commemorative sweatshirt and have fish and chips while staring into the grey and angry waters. But she’d apparently had her heart set on LA surfer-type weather complete avec shirtless copper-skinned men (okay, I might be embellishing slightly) and was extremely disappointed.

And so it was that the normally Pollyangelique-xiao Pan grew to detest the chilly, smoky city much like most of us jaded foreigners do. She cutely stamped her cute foot into the pavement of the sidewalk, saying, “I hate Shenzhen! I hate Shenzhen!”

Hopefully when she finally visits me, San Francisco will be having its one sunny day that year.

Sarah's nephew eating dinner with his grandpa!

After an extremely frustrating and unpleasant 3-hour trip across the city via public transit our dim sum trip turned into dim NONE (haha see what I did there), and we reassessed our options. It turned out we were staying not in Shenzhen proper but in a suburb, which is like staying not in the armpit of China but in an orbiting sweat-covered dust mite. So we decided to cherish the fact that we were in a shopping mall that had, like, stores in it, and restaurants not-serving-Changsha-food.

“That restaurant serves Thai food,” said xiao Pan helpfully, pointing to a facade in a small food court. I was sorely tempted, but I hadn’t yet given up on the dim sum idea.

“Let’s go look for dim sum, and if it doesn’t work out we can come back.” At this point in life, I had figured out that pad thai can solve almost any problem, even those caused by six hours of public transit for basically no reason.

We spent about twenty desperately hungry minutes searching, and then wandered back to the original restaurant.

“I can’t believe there’s Thai food in this place, I haven’t had any since coming to China.”

“There’s Thai food in Changsha,” said xiao Pan helpfully. “It is tasty, I like it.”

We sat down in the restaurant, and I looked at the menu. I looked at xiao Pan.

“I like Taiwan Province food,” she repeated. “Have you tried it?”

“Thai…thai-wan?” I said, staring blankly. “Not Thai-LAND?!”

“In my opinion,” xiao Pan said, misusing the phrase, “Thai-land is Thai-wan Province.”

And then I did not kill one of my best friends for the sake of lost pad thai. I’d say it was big of me.

This baby cried whenever I looked at him for more than 2 seconds. The grandmother, luckily, thought his fear of foreigners was HILARIOUS.


Hangzhou Trip Part 4: The Smiling Buddha in the “Paris of the East”

25 Mar

Lingyin Temple

Lingyin Temple, originally founded in 328 AD, is the most famous Buddhist Temple in Hangzhou. It makes an easy day-trip from where I was staying on the south bank of West Lake.

On the way from the bus stop to the temple, you have to go past some truly epic carvings–IMHO, even better than the temple. Buddhist monks carved scenes into limestone cliffs over a period of hundreds and hundreds of years. The whole area is called Feilai Feng, or “The Peak that Flew from Afar.” It gives me the mental image of a winged mountain, flying a great distance to land next to Lingyin Temple.

From which “afar” did it fly? Stories vary–some say it flew all the way from India, the origin of Buddhism. The Laughing Buddha, pictured below, I think dates from the Song Dynasty–the golden age of Hangzhou.

Supposedly, if you rub his belly your wishes will come true. But I think you have to climb the cliff first…

The Laughing Buddha

Hangzhou is sometimes called the “Paris of the East.” I think the two towns have more similarities than you’d think–both are a consistently aesthetically pleasing experience (assuming you spend lots of time walking past the Seine, anyway), and both can be SUPER touristy (just try the north bank of West Lake). But both draw tourists for a reason. Sure, the Eiffel Tower is all rusty up close, and the lines to go up are awful. But you can get lost in Pere Lachaise cemetery for hours, wandering between the graves of 19th century artists, and stuff like that makes Paris epic.

West Lake, with its utterly inauthentic, Disney-ified good looks, makes Hangzhou pretty. But stuff like epic, centuries-old carvings of Buddha (and the twelve apostles?! or something) on the side of a cliff is what makes Hangzhou really cool. The rolling tea-covered hills just outside the city don’t hurt, either. I can’t wait to go back in spring sometime, when the villagers fry tea on the street and everything is blooming.

Verdict: Hangzhou is definitely worth a visit, even if you find Dragonwell tea yoǔ diaň cù (a little bitter).

Next time: Shenzhen (I swear I had good reason to spend a week there, because miracles do happen!)

Hangzhou Trip Part 3: Tea in Autumn, Silk in Fountain(?!), and Unseen Looms Looming Luminously

23 Mar

I love this shot because it captures the two best things to do in Hangzhou–drink tea, and bum around West Lake. It’s a glass of chrysanthemum tea, in case you were wondering–and yes, it is hard to drink it around the flowers.

My week in Hangzhou was really quiet. I spent a lot of time wandering through museums, drinking tea, thinking and writing–it was actually National Novel Writing Month at the time, and I was just starting Nine Circles. My friends back in Changsha thought I was crazy, but I wrote most of my 50,000 words by hand that year. A small notebook turned out to be more portable (and less steal-able) than my laptop!

I think that’s basically what a week in Hangzhou is supposed to be like, though. People said I was missing out because spring was the best season since the trees around West Lake bloom, but I have no cause to complain because the autumn had scenes like this:

The color palette makes it look like something out of a postcard, but I was really there (staring with mouth gaping like an idiot before I fumbled for my camera). It’s from the garden of the tea museum. The Hangzhou Tea Museum & garden are surrounded by fields of–you guessed it–tea.

Tea’s a strange plant. I had ample time to go and poke it (no, don’t worry, I did not actually sully your future tea with my greasy little hands–I just stared at it a lot), and it’s so…well, shiny! I expected it to look dull in the light, dry like what you wind up putting in a tea bag/strainer/yuppie tea-making implement of choice. But of course that’s tea leaves that are ready to exude tea-ness when immersed in hot water–that is, tea whose leaves have been made permeable. Permeability in water is probably not a good thing in nature, for most plants, most of the time! So natural tea apparently comes with an outer layer of shininess, which is presumably removed in processing.

At the Tea Museum I learned and promptly forgot more than most of you will ever know about a single beverage. Among the most interesting random facts I have more-or-less retained:

  • the tea plant is sort of originally from India, by way of Yunnan Province
  • Changsha (my teaching site) was actually an important tea trading town, in ancient times
  • there exists something called Dark Tea which is distinct from Black Tea in that it is more oxidized or something
  • back in the day, they used to drink tea REALLY WEIRDLY. Like, they would mix in onions and spices and random stuff. It sounds like a soup more than anything, really. This modern purism thing is completely different from the “authentic” ancient preparation of tea.
  • Tibetans drink butter tea, which is a whole different thing
  • Back in the day, tea used to be packed into cakes for transport, because really how else are you going to do it? loose leaf is for us extravagant moderns
  • in a Chinese tea ceremony, it is proper (and fun) to pour hot water over absolutely everything first, to cleanse and heat your serving cups and pot
  • China mostly exports green tea; black tea is largely from India (even though my favorite black tea, Yunnan tea, comes from China!)
  • From now on I want my tea in the form of cakes transported from Yunnan province by llama, then I will add onions and cinnamon to it and make my friends chug it
  • Not really

There was also the silk museum, which had a huge gorgeous fountain out front. Presumably the statue’s sash is meant to be silk…getting wet?! It’s a tragic fountain!

The silk museum was pretty groovy–lots of beautiful clothing (that I didn’t get good shots of because it’s all behind glass), plus some interesting stuff about silk worms and different historical looms. Looms are crazy, you guys. I saw so many looms from different eras of history, from ancient up to today. Think Babbage and early computation. Think about Odysseus’s wife weaving and unweaving her tapestry to ward off suitors…I don’t really remember what loom she would have used, but it is just impressive that she had a loom. Loom loom loom.

Okay I am clearly sleep-deprived so I am going to cut this entry short. Next time, I will wrap up my Hangzhou trip with some photos of Lingyin Temple and ancient cliff-carvings of Buddha!