長城. It snakes along mountaintops for over five thousand miles. It can be seen by astronauts, who gaze down on Earth from their orbiting spaceships. It is a testament to the unwavering human spirit and the unimaginable achievements that can be accomplished. Finally, it is the stuff of dreams and childhood fantasies.
My first realization that something existed beyond my own home, parents, and pre-schoolmates may well have been catalyzed by an image of the Great Wall. It was in some far out, fantasyland called “China.” Yes, there is a whole wide world out there, waiting for you to discover it. However, to my young mind this immensely long wall in a distant land called China was as real as Thomas the Tank Engine and Big Bird. It was conceptualized in this same mythical, illusory manner for quite some time.
All of a sudden, I am twenty years old, moving my freezing hand across the weathered stone of an ancient wall that stretches before me, watching the sun burn the sky as it slowly ascends the horizon line. I am absolutely stunned.
It all starts at the Dongzhimen Public Transport Hub. After hours and hours of intense research on the internet, I have decided how I want to experience the Great Wall of China. I want to see it in all its rugged, majestic glory. I hop on a cheap public bus, headed for Huairou, an outer suburb of sprawling Beijing. After a little more then an hour, I am in the city, but unsure exactly where to get off the bus to continue the next leg of my journey. The problem is solved for me when a taxi driver spots me glancing out the window at one of the bus stops. Before I know it, two separate taxi drivers board the bus and quickly usher me off it. It is low season, and they are ravenous. I take out my map and point to where I want to go, a small mountain village called Xizhazi. Both drivers take a quick glance, then the frantic bidding for my business rapidly ensues. After around a minute of effortless negotiation amid unintelligible shouting in Mandarin, the fare is down from ¥100 to ¥40. This is fine by me, so I let the male taxi driver literally drag me by my arm, which he has been intensely grasping throughout this process, into his cab. To make sure we are on the same page, I show him the map again and point to Xizhazi Village. After a minute of silence, he hands me his cell phone, which displays this short message: “60km.” I nod my head. “Yeah, I know its far.” Of course, he cannot understand me in the least bit. He then says “60. Far. You pay 100.” Now wait one damn second. Did we not just agree on 40? After a few minutes of complaining, each of us in our own respective languages, I concede. What am I supposed to do in this situation? I cannot negotiate because I only know two words in Mandarin, hello and thank you, and we are already 10 minutes down the road. Always make sure you are on the same page with the taxi driver before you enter the taxi, no matter how chaotic the situation is. Lesson learned.
When I finally arrive in Xizhazi, the sun is going down. I must quickly find a guesthouse for the night before it gets dark. The cab driver drops me off at the first guesthouse in sight. Being the trustworthy man that he is, and seeing that he knows the woman who owns the place as we walk in, I have my doubts. I am not expecting to be impressed by a guesthouse in a tiny rural Chinese village, but for ¥140, this place seems awfully uninviting, and I know that it is not the place that I have read about. After setting my belongings on the bed for about a minute, I quickly grab all my stuff and head out to see what else the village has to offer, under the guise that I am simply taking pictures. I find Zhao’s Guesthouse on the opposite side of the village, a minutes walk. Not only is it the place I have read about, but it looks much more inviting and is ¥60 cheaper. I quickly pay.
The village is reminiscent of Agallacampa, a mountain village I visited in the Peruvian Andes last March. The people primarily live off of the land, growing corn and collecting it into large metal containers, where it is easily accessible as a winter staple. There is a donkey. Houses are made of bricks. Life is quiet. Life is slow.
When the sun is down, I wander into the kitchen and ask about dinner, through gestures of course. I am met by a middle-aged Chinese couple, who quickly usher me to sit down and waste no time offering to share their many dishes of tradition rural Northern Chinese food. The man gives me a small glass of baijiu, China’s cheap, potent, rice-based liquor of choice. He takes great delight in watching me sip away at this immensely strong potion. I try some traditional corn porridge. I order some noodles. We laugh and smile and I observe, understanding only gestures and body language as they talk in Mandarin. He offers me more baijiu, and with a “gan bei” (a toast, literally translating to “empty glass”) it is gone. We take some pictures. This continues for quite some time. The simplicity of our interaction is beautiful and free from the complications of language. The kindness and generosity of these people demonstrates the sometimes limitless compassion of human beings. The unreal nature of this dinner forces me directly into the moment. I am now. This is life.
Just before I go to bed, a familiar woman appears at my doorway. It is owner of the first guesthouse. She wants something from me, I can tell. She is explaining in Chinese. Finally, she pulls out her cell phone (to think that ten years ago cell phones were a luxury among the wealthy) and calls someone, then hands me the phone. “Ni hao?” I say, expecting the person to speak Mandarin. To my surprise, a man with perfect English responds. He sounds like an American expat. He explains that the woman assumed I was staying at her guesthouse, despite the fact that I had been gone for the last three hours, and that she already made preparations for my stay. She wanted compensation. He is clearly on her side. You have got to be kidding me? Out of pity, I pull out a 20 and offer it to her. She shakes her head, indicating no. She wants more, something like 60, but I politely refuse and attempt to continue my business. But she just will not leave. Finally, my new Chinese friend comes to the rescue. With some brief words in Chinese, he gives her the 20, and leads her out the door and off the premises. Friends, it seems, can be found anywhere, and are always of great value.
The next morning, there is a knocking at my door at 5 am. No, not the angry guesthouse owner, but my Chinese friend. With his flashlight, he beckons me up and out the door. From what I understand, we are hiking to the wall to see and photograph the sunrise. We take off on a nearby trail in the dark and brave the below-freezing air. The silhouette of the towering mountains where the wall rests can barely be seen. On the way, we encounter a number of forks in the trail. Thank God I have knowledgable company. After more then an hour, we finally reach the top, and I have my first encounter with the wall, conceptualizing what was once a childhood fantasy into reality. I am twenty years old, moving my freezing hand across the weathered stone of an ancient wall that stretches before me, watching the sun burn the sky as it slowly ascends the horizon line. I am absolutely stunned.
We watch the sunrise, take pictures and hike along the wall. We approach Tianti, literally the Stairway to Heaven, and then descend back down into the village.
Back at Zhao’s, I say goodbye to my new friends, leaving my contact information in English on a piece of paper. The man gives me his phone number, which won’t be all that helpful. Regardless, maybe one day I will receive an email from my long lost companions. I continue with my original plan, which is to hike the treacherous Jiankou Wall all the way to Mutianyu, a restored tourist section of the wall. I take a trail up the steep mountains, and join the wall for the second time today. This rugged and collapsing part of the wall clings to the precipices of cliffs, steeply ascending and descending the spine of the mountain range. I can see my first destination, a the distant watchtower which can be seen on the right in the picture below.
Hiking along this section of the wall all alone is humbling, exhilarating, and scary.
After climbing up a number of extremely steep and sketchy sections of the wall, I finally make it to Zhengbeilou Tower and take a much needed break.
From here, I have a 360 degree view of the surroundings. Beijing lies in the distance to the left. The section of the Jinakou Wall I just hiked along, and then some, lies in front. Look closely and the wall can be seen wrapping around a distant mountain range. Slightly to the right, the small Xizhazi Village can be seen in the valley below.
I am now, once again, meditating in the entrance of the Zhengbeilou Tower. I take the picture of myself using a tripod.
I continue along, conquering a section called Arrow Nock, and finally find myself at the Mutianyu Wall. There are other people here (gasp!). The wall is restored, but it is still breathtaking. It is nice to see both the restored and unrestored sections of the wall.
It is 1:30 pm. I have hiked almost nonstop since 5:15 am. I am exhausted and dazed, but also high on adrenaline and exhilaration. I hesitantly leave Mutianyu behind with a parting glance, then pay a small fee to descend down to the entrance below via toboggan. A company has created a metal luge track to ride down on. It goes quite fast and has me thinking about trying my luck at the sport of luge.
A public bus directly back to Dongzhimen arrives at 2 pm. Within two and a half hours, I find myself in the middle of China’s second largest city once again, surrounded by throngs of people.
Just like that, what was once fantasy became real and then fantasy again.You see, it just can’t be real.
China. A nation of 1.3 billion people, an endless history, a rapidly growing economy, a rising international powerhouse, and a culture so very different from my own. In the last five days, I found myself swimming in this very reality, as I traveled to China for the first time to none other than the capital city of 北京 - Běijīng.
Upon arrival, I immediately sensed what would be the predominate feeling throughout my brief experience in China. This country makes you feel small, extremely insignificant, tiny. From being shoved through the subway doors into a dense sea of people struggling in an already overflowing train car, to walking the vast and expansive avenues of central Beijing, to hiking on the seemingly endless Great Wall of China, everything here is massive, dramatic, and flooded with people. I spent quite a lot of time preparing for this trip and I felt reasonably confident that I was ready. I was wrong. This adventure was fascinating, but it was also learning experience. More than anything, it was humbling.
In the beginning, I wake up a little before 6am on Friday morning, and scramble to the airport to catch an 8:30am flight. The journey to Hong Kong International takes longer than expected. I arrive at the Air China check-in desk at precisely 7:48am. “We are sorry, but you are too late. All passengers must check in at least 45 minutes before take off.” And so it begins. Three damn minutes. I wait until 9am, call the Air China office immediately after it opens, and with an extremely accommodating click of the mouse, the amazing assistant transfers my reservations to a 12:30pm departure. Problem solved, free of charge.
After successfully finding the Peking Yard Hostel, I drop off my baggage and immediately set out to make the most of the night. Unfortunately, I don’t really know where I am going, but I somehow end up on a famous avenue called Wangfujing Dajie. On a side street, an traditional alleyway famously called a hutong, I stumble upon a large night market. It is filled with people, mostly tourists. There are food and souvenir stalls and lining the sides of the crowded hutong. I am famished.
The food at these street stalls is nothing like I have seen before. You have probably heard the stories about exotic Chinese delicacies: turtles, snakes, insects, frogs, baby pigeons. I want to reaffirm that these stories are in fact completely valid. It seems that almost nothing is off limits for eating. After having a few relatively “normal” foods, including a crepe-like snack, grilled lamb on a skewer, and a yogurt drink, I decide to venture into the exotic realm. Scorpion is the delicacy of choice tonight. Four small and very alive scorpions are assembled onto a wooden skewer, where they wriggle in attempt to escape their tragic fate. I point to the array of skewers, and the chef takes one, nearly getting a venomous sting, and throws it into a vat of hot oil. After a minute, he removes the skewer of insects and hands them over. With slight hesitation, I crunch on one. To my surprise, it is not half bad. In fact, I would eat these things as a substitute for potato chips any day.
Frog on a stick!
Later that night, while walking on the avenue, I am approached three separate times by “students” who wish to “practice their English.” Having read up on Beijing, I know that these are scammers. It is a bit disheartening that the first people that “welcome” me to Beijing are trying to use me.
In the morning, I rise to have what is the most popular breakfast in Beijing: youtiao (fried twisted dough sticks) with a bowl of hot, fresh soy milk. It is amazing how much better soy milk is in Asia. I then take the inevitably chaotic and crowded subway to Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City.
Chairman Mao is looking good as always in his massive portrait above the entrance to the Forbidden City. It is fair to say that I vastly underestimated the size of this place, as I did with the entirety of Beijing. The city blocks here are easily 20 times the size of an average city block in the United States. I don’t know how many times I looked on a map and told myself “Oh, its only two blocks” only to find myself halfway to my destination twenty minutes and 3 kilometers later. I have never walked so much in my life. In an average day on the trip, I walked for the majority of the fourteen to fifteen hour days spent sight seeing. I would honestly quote my mileage upwards of 15 to 20 miles per day.
I have seen MTV Cribs. I have been impressed by 50 Cent’s castle and Tony Hawk’s mansion, but in a competition for the most extravagant crib the Chinese emperors would surely win. The Forbidden City, the imperial palace of Ming and Qing Dynasty royalty for almost 500 years, is extravagant and gigantic. Intricate craftsmanship is apparent on every ceiling and walkway. Riches are scattered in every possible place. Hallways are long. Doors are large and red. Gardens are expansive and beautiful. There is no limit to the amount of times that you utter “incredible” or “unreal” to yourself as you stroll through this palace.
When I am finally satisfied with my tour of the Forbidden City, I make my way across the street to Jingshan Park and hike to the top of a hill that houses five spatially arranged temples. Once to the central temple on the top of the hill, I am met with a panoramic view of central Beijing. The majestic Forbidden City sits in front of me, with its endless structures disappearing into the smoggy haze.
From here, I move west towards Beihai Park. En route, I find myself in a unique hutong, a traditional marketplace to be exact. This is wonderful cultural immersion, as I witness the day to day activities of Chinese locals. I feel like I could time travel backwards for a number of decades, and the scene would be virtually identical.
The photo above speaks volumes about Chinese culture. First, it is impossible to miss old King Sparky there on his push cart. These push carts are everywhere. Also notice the plastic KFC bag. KFC is the most successful American chain in Asia, surpassing McDonalds and sparking the envy of Starbucks, which is struggling with integration into Asian markets. Next of course is the bucket of boiled sweet corn, which is sold by individuals all over the city and seems to be the favorite snack among the locals. In the background, the golden autumn foliage and another popular street snack: tanhulus, fruit, usually tart crabapples, on a skewer coated with caramelized sugar.
In Beihai Park, I walk around and see the sites, including the White Dagoba, and enjoy the people and the bounty of fall. The young boy above is genuinely enjoying a tanhulu in Beihai Park. Upon exiting the park, far from the subway station, I stupidly avoid a cheap taxi and walk all the way back to Tian’anmen Square. This endless walk is not entirely uneventful, as I pass quite a few guarded and gated government buildings and the National Center for the Arts, an egg shaped architectural marvel.
It is strange to think that inside these government buildings, the leaders of this massive, powerful nation, are planning their next move. Outside every important building, a guard or two stands on a red platform, all day long. Seeing these men in full uniform and rigid posture reminded me that this country is most definitely still Communist. At Tian’anmen, as I imagine thousands of rebellious citizens protesting in the huge square in 1989, it dawned on me that this place is China’s Washington D.C. I have never been to the Washington Memorial or the White House, yet I am standing in front of the Monument of the People’s Heroes.
As the night approaches, I walk down the central axis of Beijing to Qiamen Dajie, explore a few hutongs, and spend far too long trying to find a restaurant for dinner. While eating, I am invited by an elderly expat to come by next door when I am finished. I hesitantly sit down with her and three young Chinese locals, who are grilling meat on a small makeshift grill in the middle of a picknick table. I try to ask for some local advice, but most of the expat’s answer focused on why I should move to Beijing and study here. In the end, these new “friends” steer me towards my next destination.
Lao She Tea House. I try to find a traditional Beijing Opera house, but due to lack of preparation, I have no idea where to go. Under the guidance of my post-dinner friends, I find this place. It is more touristy than I would have liked, and quite expensive, but I buy a ticket anyways, not knowing what else to do in my exhausted and uninformed state. The show is decent, featuring an array of different Chinese acts, from an acrobat to a short opera scene to tea ninjas. I do like the concept of the tea house, which seems like a more social and cultural version of the modern coffee shop. After the show, its back to the hostel for some much needed rest.
The next morning, I jump on the subway and head to Tiantan Park. It is a large, beautiful park south of Tian’anmen. In this park, I feel an overwhelming sense of peace. For some reason, I never thought that I would find the classic Confucianist ideals of peace and harmony in Beijing, underneath all the chaos, Communism, and consumerism. However, as my trip progressed, it was not hard to see that this place and these people really are quite happy and peaceful. I am sure the late autumn foliage and the cold, which made it seem like the holiday season I have been missing in Hong Kong, add to this sensation. Honestly though, it is impossible watch the locals in these parks—playing xianqi, dancing in large groups, practicing their Chinese yo-yo technique—and not see what I mean.
The defining feature of this park is of course Tiantan, otherwise known as the Temple of Heaven. It was used by emperors for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. The building itself is a stunning example of Chinese architecture and craftsmenship.
After a long walk back to the subway station, I go to Yonghegong Lama Temple, a Tibetan style Buddhist temple and monastery. It is one of the largest Buddhist temples I have been to. I spin the prayer wheels, observe the waving of incense and the collecting of ginkgo fruit, and am tempted to bow before the 26 meter tall Maitreya Buddha statue in the last hall. After a bit of “searching through reflection,” it is time. It is Great Wall of China time.
My adventure at the Great Wall of China will be examined in the next blog entry.
I return from the Great Wall in the evening, the next day, absolutely beat. Despite this, I have to see the Olympic Sports Center. I arrive as the sun is descending under the skyline, with the iconic Bird’s Nest National Stadium before me. It is much smaller than I expected, but still awesome. I can’t help but imagine this place during the Games, with the electric energy of the opening ceremonies, the triumphs of Phelps and Bolt, and the thousands of excited spectators.
The Beijing National Aquatics Center, or Water Cube, is very cool as well. The outer wall is based on physics and mathematics, specificaly Weaire-Phelan bubble geometry. I pay a small fee too explore the inside, and see the pool where Michael Phelps made magic happen. The truth is, I have had an addictive fascination with the Olympics for as long as I can remember.
The next morning, I head to the last major stop of the trip. It is a long subway ride, but eventually I arrive at the Summer Palace. It is another gorgeous, gigantic park, and it has everything: temples, pagodas, bridges, stone boats, long corridors, a lake, an island. It was a summer resort for various emperors, and had to be repaired significantly after an Anglo-French invasion in 1860. Below is a view of Longevity Hill, Kunming Lake, and a stone dragon that guards the entrance to the Seventeen Arch Bridge.
After a long morning in the park, I head Shishahai Bar Street for lunch. I once again spend way to much time selecting a place to eat. One thing leads to another and by the time I arrive at my hostel to pick up my bag it is 3:45pm. After a stressful scramble to the airport subway line, I reluctantly realize that am too late for my 5:30pm flight. Needless to say, I immensely screwed up and have to deal with some pretty severe anxiety and self deprecation. China Air turns out to be a godsend, with its frequent BJ to HK flights and two magically free-of-charge, painless flight changes. Even though I played with dragons and avoided multiple crises, I think, I hope, that I have learned my lesson.
All in all, these five days were…insane. Nonstop sightseeing. Mistakes. Endless walking. Culture shock to culture appreciation. Massive language barrier. Temples. Guards. Scorpions. As the trip came to a close, I could feel my body and mind failing. I have not been that exhausted and drained in a very, very long time, but that is the reality all-out independent traveling. I will miss Beijing, and for a whirlwind five days, I offer a simple xiexie. Thank you, 北京.
It is that time again. The leaves are slowly turning from green to red, the pumpkin patches are spotted with large orange orbs, and turkeys are beginning to fear for their lives. But wait…the leaves aren’t changing colors here, there are no pumpkin patches in Hong Kong, and duck and chicken take precedence over turkey any day of the week. The temperature is definitely changing though, from a hot and humid battle to a comfortable and breezy atmoshpere. As the end of October came and went, I tried to experience deep autumn as best as I could.
This meant nothing other than more exploring.
Incense rings at Man Mo Temple.
A quiet afternoon in Sheung Wan.
One week before the end of the month, my roommate and I went on a popular Hong Kong hike to Lion Rock via Monkey Hill. We essentially walked from sea level striaght upwards for 500 meters and number of hours and finally reached the dramatic pinnacle. It was quite hazy and smoggy, but this didn’t take away from the breathtaking, expansive, massive city before us.
Of course, no hike is complete without monkeys. Now, these guys were no Curious Georges; they meant business. Hyper-aggressive, threatening, fearless monkeys. This one nonchalantly walked passed us and leaped onto a man in attempt to steal his bottle of soy milk. Another one tried to intimidate us with its hissing and a chest pump, in the same way that a gangster would try and fake out his opponent before a fight. It was hilarious.
The next weekend, I journeyed to the Yuen Long District, in the New Territories only a couple of stops from Shenzen. Here I wandered along the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, a series of historic and traditional buildings of the Tang Clan, including the oldest pagoda in Hong Kong and a series of ancestral halls. It turned out to be an awesome area, a world away from the streets of Central and a photographer’s dream.
The following two pictures were taken in Ping Shan, and are some of my favorites thus far among my large collection of Hong Kong images. The more I photograph, the more I am intrigued by the photography of people.
The first image portrays a young girl playing badminton in the largest and most important ancestral hall of the clan, as a ray from the setting sun sneaks through the entryway. The second is of an old Chinese man, and I’ll leave the rest up for interpretation.
After this adventure, it was back to school to prepare for Halloween. My roommate was nice enough to hand-select a costume for me earlier that day. When the sun went down, I unleashed my amazing matador costume, and a group of us headed to Lan Kwai Fong for what would be a chaotic and immensely fun Halloween night. As we exited the taxi in LKF, we were greeted by thousands of people in full costume, a large police force that would not stop yelling into to loud speakers, congested streets, drunken Pikachos and bloody nurses. Insanity confirmed.
Here’s to another month of magic.
One of the most amazing and intoxicating parts of travel is the simple fact that what lies in front of you is new and unfamiliar, waiting to be explored and understood. There is an enchanting potential in each new place, and any new experience for that matter. An invisible force is at work, which leads us to heightened perception of both our surroundings and our thoughts, to a state called “Deep Travel” by author Tony Hiss. This is the fundamental reason why change is essential. Change opens unfounded doors and fosters unique creativity. What happens, though, when this novelty recedes, and familiarity and routine once again take a stubborn hold of our perceptions?
Living in a foreign country for the first time has given me the privilege to experience this inevitable shift of reality, which is not possible when traveling. When I first arrived in Hong Kong almost two months ago, I viewed the city from a magical “travel view.” What I mean is that the novelty of this unfamiliar place ushered me into a state of increased awareness and observation, where every new object, food, sound, person, or place projected a feeling of pure excitement to my consciousness.
Now, when I hop on a minibus to go to the city, it feels…routine. When I walk through the chaotic streets of Mong Kok, I daresay the throngs of people annoy me rather than fascinate me. Part of me feels like this happened overnight, but when dig past a stubborn selective memory, I begin to understand how familiarity gradually took hold.
Perhaps this is an obvious trend: the longer you live in a place, the more become accustomed to it. Routine is important. It structures our lives and helps us function optimally in a given environment. But why is it so vapid and mundane? It frustrates the hell out of me. I don’t want the magic of a new place to vanish within two months and make way for familiarity and routine. I want the excitement of novelty and the structure of routine. I want to see a familiar place differently every single time, which should not be so difficult since both myself and the place are in constant flux.
To regress, this is not to say that I am not still utterly fascinated and excited by many things here in Hong Kong. My fascination is simply a different one than when I first arrived, and it requires more conscious effort rather than spontaneous emotion. I feel that my mindfulness and fascination with all life experiences, from having a short conversation to feeling a cold autumn breeze, is slowly increasing with deliberate effort and thought. I do alright. Still, I cannot help but wonder if it is possible to live a (“normal”) day to day life while simultaneously maintaining the levels of excitement and perception associated with new experiences. This could be an unreachable ideal, supplemented by unconsciously glorified memories of past experiences. I like to think otherwise. Perhaps someday I’ll unlock this great mystery, breaking the barrier to pure, seductive experience.
An interesting piece about the merits of travel by Jonah Lehrer. Not only is this guy a great writer, connecting science to humanities and pop culture, but he is a Columbia grad, a Rhodes scholar, the author of two books, a regular contributor to a slew of top media giants, and only 25 years old. Inspiration.
A song I wrote, recorded, and mixed on my own at the end of last summer. Enjoy!
It seems that the temperature of the big pot that holds the worlds economic super powers continues to rise. China’s attitudes and methods for dealing with diplomacy will definitely continue to irk the United States and other countries such as Japan. The question begs, what happens when the boiling pot starts to uncontrollably steam?
Going Long Liberty in China - Thomas Friedman
China To Halt Some Exports to the U.S. - Keith Bradsher
I have already written a journalistic entry about my adventure in Malaysia, and despite its length, I do not find it sufficient to explain my experience. What I learned about the culture and the people while traveling through Malaysia is, in my opinion, much more enlightening and important than my day to day itinerary.
When I boarded the plane to Kuala Lumpur, I honestly had no idea what the culture would be like at my destination. In some ways, this actually makes perfect sense. Unlike a country such as China or India, where there is an overwhelming majority of one ethnicity, Malaysia contains three or four ethnic groups, none of which dominate the culture. It is the epitome of the “melting pot” metaphor. Muslim woman wearing traditional head coverings can be seen migrating to the mosques after the echoing call from the minarets. Hindu Indians sell traditional snacks and sweets from street stalls, craft intricate flower garlands for special occasions, and celebrate deepavali at the many Hindu temples. Chinese take pride in KL’s Chinatown, opening restaurants that serve traditional Chinese noodles and selling souvenirs that are not much different from the ones in Hong Kong. Finally, the Malays, a mixture of each and every one of these groups with an added local flair, take pride in Malaysia’s great traditional food and unmatched Petronas Towers. This mixture is accentuated in Penang, where every type of religious center is present in every corner of the city: Mosques, churches, Chinese temples, Hindu temples, Burmese Buddhist temples, and Thai Buddhist worship complexes. This potpourri of cultures, which somehow manages to combine and create an aggregated essence that is Malaysian culture, was by far the most striking thing in this country.
Upon arrival, I was surprised at the amount of Muslims I was immediately greeted with. I had no idea Islam was such a prominent religion, and have since learned that it is in fact the official religion of Malaysia. I found being in a predominately Islamic country extremely interesting, especially since I believe the religion is one of the most misunderstood cultural practice in the United States. I love the amazingly intricate architecture and geometric art that adorns the mosques and other Islamic buildings. Even the Petronas Towers are based off of traditional Islamic architecture. Hearing the calls for prayer from the top of minarets always seemed to immediately put me in the moment, reinforcing my location in the world. Interestingly, one effect of religion here is the popularity of flip flops and slippers, especially Crocs. Praying multiple times a day, whether in a mosque or a temple, requires the removal of shoes, and who wants to deal with laces?
As for crossing the street, any adrenaline junkie can be sufficiently pleased with some blood pumping “human frogger” at any moment in time. It is a sport. People fearlessly cross everywhere, whenever they can. As soon as I found myself being bold, I was immediately humbled by a racing motorcycle or a large bus. To make matters worse, the ubiquitous motos even wander on to the sidewalk, giving unaware pedistrians quite the scare.
The people themselves were friendly and helpful, and thankfully almost everyone in Malaysia is multilingual. I only encountered one man who did not speak English. Many Malays speak three or more languages, usually Bahasa Malay, English, and either Arabic or Hindi depending on their backgrounds.
Finally, Malaysian food is similar to their culture. It is a combination of different cuisines which combine to form one unique result. Many classic dishes are what I would normally consider Southeast Asian, similar to Thai cuisine. Others have more Indian flavors, while Middle Eastern and Chinese influences follow close behind. Whatever the origin, the food was delicious.
In the end, it seems that the defining trait of Malaysia is that is lacks one. There is no such thing as a definitive Malay individual, a cuisine that is distinctly Malaysian (perhaps satay), or a language that is dominant. In fact, as the world returns to its “flattened” state, it would seem that this is the case everywhere. We are all just human beings.
This past weekend, from Friday morning to Tuesday evening, I traveled to Malaysia in attempt to experience…well, to experience something. In truth, I was not really sure what to expect. I booked the plane tickets to Kuala Lumpur less than 24 hours before departure and did not have anything remotely close to an itinerary until about 1am the morning of. I did not have a credit card or a funcional ATM card, and instead very carefully stashed wads of cash throughout my belongings. I very nearly didn’t even go to Malaysia, contemplating the draws of Taipei or Seoul instead. Finally, I was alone. What I’m trying to say is that the trip was just a smidgen spur of the moment, a little risky, and contained a spontaneity that always translates to chaos. With travel, things never go as planned.
Note: This is a long journalistic piece. For thoughts on Malaysia as a country and a culture, see the upcoming piece entitled ” Thoughts - When traveling alone, the thinking never stops.”
The basic itinerary of the trip was as follows: Walk, wait, see, eat, walk, walk, wait.
On Friday afternoon I arrive in Kuala Lumpur in the late afternoon, take a few trains somewhere, and navigate to the surprisingly pleasant BackHome hostel. Almost immediately after arrival, I leave to conquer the city on foot. I eat at a relatively pricey vegetarian Indian restaurant recommended by the host then walk to Menara, otherwise known as KL Tower. It is essentially the Malaysian version of Seattle’s Space Needle, and my twenty minute nighttime stay at the top before closing was not quite worth the 40 Ringgit. No matter, I then walk to the nightlife district, which is overshadowed by one of the most impressive buildings in the entire world: the Petronas Towers.
This brings me to Saturday morning. The plan is to wake up early, rush to the Petronas Towers, and get a ticket to the “Skybridge.” The ticket desk opens at 8:30am, and I have been warned to arrive early, at or before 8:00, to avoid disappointment. I wake up at 7:15, rush to the Petronas Towers, and upon arrival find a chaotic mass of people in a longer-than-Disneyland line. “Alright,” I said “Just going to have to wait this one out.” I have no idea that I will be miserably standing in line for the next two and a half hours, with nothing to do, as the bustling and unseen Kuala Lumpur awaits outside. I finally obtain a ticket at 11:45, and am whisked up 41 floors to the Skybridge. Here I experience fifteen short but sweet minutes of viewing. I have one day to see KL, and I spend two and a half hours waiting for a FIFTEEN minute session! Not cool, but what can I do? Accept it.
After this frustrating extravaganza I take the train back two stops to the Masjid Jamek Station, home base. From here I embark on a ridiculous walking tour of the city. I say ridiculous because to walk the distance and time that I did, by myself, in the hot and humid Malaysian air, is under no circumstances how the “standard” tourist would see the city. I see Masjid Jamek, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Dataran Merdeka (the national square where Malaysia gained its independence from Great Britain), the Dayabumi Complex, the National Mosque, the Islamic Arts Museum, the Old KL Railway Station, the Central Market, and finally Petaling Street Chinatown.
At that point, my famished body directs me to a food stall for a classic buffet style Malaysian meal, featuring authentic satay, nasi lemak, and whole grilled fish. Food is renowned and important here, and the most basic yet delicious and representative food comes from the streets.
The next task is to solve the mystery that is the KL bus system. Unmarked, slow, sporadic, and inefficient. When I finally find the correct bus stop, I wait for 45 minutes for the bus to arrive. The journey to Batu Caves takes more than twice as long as it would have taken me on a bicycle. Also, I nearly miss the stop, because it is completely unmarked and if I had not said anything the bus would have continued on without my knowledge. This is all quickly forgotten at the sight of the 141 foot tall Lord Murugan statue, boldly standing to the right of 272 steep steps that lead to a gigantic limestone cave which houses an important Hindu temple. It is like a scene from Lord of the Rings. I’m telling you, for a second I was Frodo climbing the steps of Mordor.
Thanks to none other than the extremely ineffecient bus system, I emerge from the depths of the cave just in time to see this:
That was the thing about this trip. No matter how much everything seemed to go wrong, no matter how many mistakes were made and how much time was wasted, no matter how much my plans really should have utterly collapsed, it ended up working out quite well. Honestly, its beyond me how it even happened.
From Batu, I take a train (wait a second, I didn’t have to take a bus?) back into the city to Bangsar, a district known for good restaurants and bars. Of course, the Bangsar Station is in the middle of nowhere, about a 15 minute walk from the actual district, which I am forced to find on foot. At this point, my leg and feet muscles are absolutely disgusted with the torturous day I have demanded of them. Once in the hotspot of Bangsar, I go directly to the most crowded restaurant in the district, Sri Nirvana Maju, a “banana leaf” Indian establishment. This is a meal to remember. The food is not only delicious, but completely unique and novel to me, as is the entire experience. I eat off of a banana leaf, directing the food from the fingers of my right hang into my mouth, just as the seasoned local Indians do. I order Kopi, not knowing that it is a coffee drink produced from beans that have been digested and excreted by the Civet, a cat-like jungle mammal. Who would of thought I would have randomly chosen the most bizarre drink on the menu? The entire meal costs $4 USD.
In the morning, I wake up early and take a train to the private bus station. Here I purchase a ticket for a 5 hour bus ride to Penang, an island on the northwestern coast of Malaysia, for 35 Ringgit. At this price, it costs less than the 25 minute rides from the airport. In Peru, they have a similar inexpensive luxury private bus system, which leads me to question why the United States is still using Greyhound when third world countries have such amazing private busing.
I arrive in Georgetown, on Pilau Penang in late afternoon, then resourcefully find my way to the Red Inn guesthouse. I quickly settle in, then its go go go once again. I explore the city on foot, although its less chaotic and smaller than KL, making it easier. I see the famous old architecture of Georgetown, which is scattered absolutely everywhere. I wander through Little India, full of Indians celebrating Deepavali and shopping the street markets. Most striking is the immense amount of religious buildings in every corner of the city: old churches, intricate mosques, Hindu temples with distinctive towering goparums, colorful, incense-filled Chinese temples, and large Buddhist worship complexes. There is no prevalent religion here; all religions are prevalent.
On Monday, I take on the rest of Penang. I walk to a few more nearby sites, including the blue mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze, and then deal with the bus system again. I am dropped off at a Buddhist temple which is different from the famous one which I wish to visit. I still walk through, and then find my way by foot to Wat Chayamangkalaram, which features a huge reclining Buddha, among other things. Directly across from this is Dhammikarama Burmese Temple, another extensive and incredible complex.
I find a street food center nearby, and try char koay teow, simply one of the best noodle dishes I have ever had. I also have some famous Penang White Coffee served ingeniously in a plastic bag. From here, its another long bus ride to Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest of them all here in Penang. The intricacy, the colors, the spiritual vibe, and the impressive pagoda all lead to a sense of true amazement. Also, it should be noted that the single most prevalent symbol in this temple is the swastika. After all, it has been a sacred Eastern religious symbol for thousands of years.
After a bowl of pungent laksa, herby seafood soup not made for the faint of heart, I take the longest bus ride yet, to the northwestern corner of the island. I hike through the jungle in Penang National Park as long as light and body let me, sweating to the point of complete saturation.
After a long hike, there is nothing like a clan of monkeys to put things in perspective. This one has a young one as cargo.
After a meal of nasi kandar, I crawl back to the guesthouse. I wake up at 6am, take a bus back to KL, and then fly back to Hong Kong. What a crazy, amazing trip. Let’s do it again sometime Malaysia.