by Judith Fein
Photo Slide Show by Paul Ross
We were a little skittish before the trip to China because 1) I got the flu and 2)we were going to the Beehive Bottle Rocket festival in Taiwan, where they shoot rockets at you. So let me begin by telling you why it never pays to be nervous.
The day after we arrived in Taiwan, we were whisked away to a spa attached to the Ghang Gung Memorial Hospital--the first combo of its kind in the country. And the intake was done by a Chinese doctor. He took my pulses, looked at my tongue, and told me I was damp. I was hacking like a computer geek and he prescribed meds for me---three packets a day for five days.
When I opened them up and peered inside, I saw they were filled with what looked like sand from Malibu beach. I was instructed to empty the package in my mouth after each meal and then douse my orifice with warm water. Try swallowing sand. Every time I finished a meal, to the endless amusement of the travelers with us, I poured the grains into my yap and started to cough so violently that I sprayed the table with the medicine. We were all cured of dampness.
As for the rockets, after we arrived in the small town of Yan Shui in Tainan County and were greeted by name through the public loud speaker system, we were led away by...the fire department. They proceeded to outfit us for the rocket fest. This is what we wore: full helmets, goggles, face masks, ear plugs, wet towels rolled up around our necks so the rockets wouldn't enter the helmets and blow our brains out, gloves, long firemen's coats that were made of heavy bullet-proof, synthetic fabric that was lined with what looked like asbestos, two pairs of cotton pants, socks, sneakers so we could run fast. Two of the journalists, from Japan, ran away screaming. One radio journalist stayed with the firemen at their remote trucks all night. Paul and I dashed into the fray. There were "beehives" of rockets stacked inside an arena. Each beehive had thousands of rockets. I would say there were hundreds of thousands of rockets pointed in our direction. When the signal was given...guess what? They went off. We were about 100 feet from the rockets, hyperventilating. One of the guys with us, a cameraman, decided not to go in. He stood behind a special net that was set up for media. A rocket pierced the net and entered his eye. Another journalist had a rocket penetrate his glove and burn his finger. One woman had a rocket zing through her jeans. We survived, exhaled a ton or two of cortisol, and started walking through the town. Guess what again. Everywhere we walked, they were firing rockets. We retreated in horror to the roof of a building. If I tell you that this festival evolved out of a religious vow, will you believe me? It was the villagers' way of thanking the gods for surcease from the plague.
We saw and did plenty, plenty in Taiwan, which I will write about in the future, but I think the most surprising thing was Taroko National Park. You know those Chinese paintings with misty skies pierced by shadowy mountains and gently-flowing streams that dance over white and black rocks? We were in those paintings. We actually stayed in a resort (Grand Formosa Taroko) in the middle of the park so we inhaled with awe from the moment we awoke in the morning.
In Taipei, there are western tourists, but around the rest of the island we didn't encounter any. Every Taiwanese person stopped to greet us everywhere, saying "hello" in Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese or English. It was oddly comforting to be acknowledged that way. It had the power of sat-nam, where one's spirit receives a bow from another person's spirit.
It was very difficult for Paul and me to understand one thing: how are people in Taiwan so skinny when they eat so much? The fattest person in Taiwan is a size extra-extra small, and if I had to buy a pair of trousers there I would probably have to staple two of them together. We ate 10-course banquets two to three times a day. Just when we cried uncle and said we couldn't consume another grain of rice, a new course would slide under our noses and we would somehow manage to raise those chopstix once again. Click click click went the chopstix. We reached under the table and loosened our waistbands.
After Taiwan, we went to Hong Kong. It is now one of our fave cities in the world. It's difficult to pinpoint why. Maybe it's the brilliant cityscapes and looking down over Hong Kong and Kowloon islands, or the gray sky that parts to reveal a giant Buddha who is referred to as the Big Buddha.
Perhaps it's the excitement in the streets, the ethnic density, the merging of people from everywhere in the world. Or it could be the trains, Star ferry that crosses from Hong Kong to Kowloon islands, restaurants, aroma of street food, 800-meter long escalator that transports you from the street towards the heavens, having silk shirts and nightshirts made to order at Sam's ( if the quality is good enough for the Clintons, Elton John and David Bowie, it's good enough for me; Sam's also picks you up at your hotel and takes you to the small shop), foot massages in countless curbside parlors or the 3-inch shoes worn by a woman whose feet were bound that I purchased at a tiny shop. It's certainly the convergence of the visible and the invisible. Scratch the cosmopolitan veneer and you have millions of people pouring into shrines to worship gods or lining up to consult with fortune tellers. The biggest surprise? Meeting all the girls from mainland China. We were picturing Mao and the red guard and what did we encounter? Tooth-pick thin and petite hotties who come to....SHOP. Every young woman looks like a high fashion model parading around in Gucci, Pucci, Juicy, D+G and every other brand you can think of. It's clear that capitalism has won over communism and the result is an edgy consumerism that would make folks in Beverly Hills blush.
We went to the New Territories to visit the walled indigenous village of Kam Tin that is populated exclusively by the Tang clan. The old women--all named Mrs. Tang-- wearing huge, black, spherical hats, were happy to pose for photos, and, having mastered the art of private enterprise in a world of supply and demand, demanded 10 Hong Kong dollars per click of the camera.
We took a boat to Macau and the one-time fishing village was the way we had pictured Hong Kong before we went: smoggy, congested, choked by traffic. Luckily for us, we arrived the day devoted to Quan Yum, the Goddess of Mercy. We went to her temple and, covering our mouths and noses so we didn't inhale the huge plumes of smoke and pieces of ash that flew from incense sticks and coils, we watched in awe as people opened their hearts to the divinity, offering fruits and flowers, begging for favors. Then we met a local woman who took us to her favorite Portuguese dive (Macau was colonized by the Portuguese) for divine vegetables and chicken soaked in a thick, pungent, milky sauce.
I must add that there were other surprises as well--like being hosted in a vast suite, avec telescope, in the legendary Hong Kong Peninsula Hotel. And they reserved an hour for us in the couples' heat room---where we slithered into an enormous private hot tub that looked out over Victoria Harbor.
The day we were leaving, Paul was approached by an Indian man in a turban who said he could see from Paul's forehead that he was a lucky man. Half an hour later, he finished telling our fortunes (he was an 8 or 9 on the psychic scale) and gave us little red beads for good luck.
It is our good luck to be doing this for a living. With magazines and newspapers being incinerated in the economic flames and freelancers being grilled alive, we just hope it continues for a long, long time.
Love from Judie and Paul
IF YOU GO:A Few Favorites...
Fabulous guide in Hong Kong: Rita Leung. email: email@example.com or 852-9757-3327.
Our favorite guidebooks are the Rough Guide to Taiwan and the Rough Guide to Hong Kong
(www.roughguides.com). They have terrific historical and background material and offer much more meat than many other go-there-do-this guides.
EVA Airways is our new airline of choice for anywhere in Asia. We heard about it from our Asian friends: www.evaair.com
In Hong Kong we could always count on Marriott Hotels for executive clubs with copious breakfasts and centrally-located hotels with great service and food: www.marriott.com
In the lively, bustling Mongkok area, the Langham Place is the IT hotel.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 80 publications. Together with her husband, photographer Paul Ross, she also gives travel talks, teaches travel writing and sometimes takes people on exotic adventures. Her website is www.globaladventure.us
photography by Paul Ross.