Taiwan: Houtong Cat Village

In my recent attempts to be slightly better at blogging about my travels, I’ve found that the impetus to do a post either arises from wanting to provide value to other travellers doing their research online, or wanting to share photographs I took while travelling which may not necessarily be useful snapshots of “what you will see at ___ sight” but that I’m reasonably happy with nonetheless.

This post is because cats.

A village of cats.

Houtong is a small village in Taiwan, an easy train ride away from Taipei. It’s part of a group of former coal-mining villages which have now reinvented themselves for tourism. As uninspiring as this may sound, the villages are surrounded by rolling hills and waterfalls, have done up their abandoned mining facilities quite educationally, and are handily connected by the little Pingxi railway line, which you can travel all day for the pittance of 54NTD (day pass).

Houtong’s done a pretty good job with its coal-mining sights, but evidently decided at some point that it would obliterate all possible notions of being nothing more than a bleak industrial wasteland by cultivating and cosseting its fuzziest residents.

Mural of cats in mining carsPlease slow down, cats crossingNo dogs allowed

When you get off the train, one side of the tracks leads you to the visitors’ centre, a nicely done little coal-mining museum and some rather evocative mining ruins, and the other side leads you to the residential streets. There are plenty of cats to be seen on either side, but just in case you’d like some guidance, here’s a totally useful map.

Here be cats

Wandering around, at almost every turn you come across feeding dishes, little cat shelters  and of course the cats themselves, who were mostly very lazy on a rainy afternoon and content to sit around looking cute and snoozy for photos.

Snoozing cats, background cat houses

Just in case it has managed to elude you so far that cats are an important part of this village, there’s also a giant cat statue.

Giant cat statue on roof

In hindsight, I realize I should have used a smaller aperture for this photo because the depth-of-field is too shallow to effectively make the point that this cat is a real-life version of the giant statue seen faintly in the background. I was probably too overwhelmed by ZOMGADORRRRBBBBSS!!! in the moment.

Houtong village cat

Here is the village logo, which combines references to Houtong’s name (侯硐 means “monkey cave” in English), its mining past and its delightful present. Alec, who does not share my enthusiasm for disturbingly oversized cats, did not share my enthusiasm for this logo either. Humph.

Houtong village logo

I set my umbrella down in order to better photograph this cat. Naturally, it then decided that it can haz umbrella.

Ur umbrella iz nao mai umbrella

Most cats I saw in the village were shorthairs, similar to the strays we have in Singapore, but I did come across this regal chap guarding a doorway.

Orange you going to pet me?

MOAR CATS.

She sits, and sits, and sits, and sitsOh haiMuseum guard

To get to Houtong:
Take an east-bound local train out of Taipei Main station or Songshan station to Ruifang (瑞芳). If you can read Chinese, look on the digital displays for trains heading to Yilan (宜蘭), Hualien (花蓮) or Taidong (台東), but if not it may be easier to ask for help. I believe you can buy tickets in advance for a variety of trains (express vs local etc.) with different journey times, but we just took the next available train and paid with our EasyCards by tapping-in as usual at the ticket gates.

At Ruifang, there is a ticket office on the platform where you can buy the Pingxi line day pass. (If you used the EasyCard to pay for your Taipei – Ruifang ride, you can tap-out with your card on the platform near the ticket office without having to exit the station.)

From here, the Pingxi line sequence is:
Ruifang – Houtong – Sandiaoling – Dahua – Shihfen – Wanggu – Lingjiao – Pingxi – Jingtong

I might write more about the rest of our Pingxi line explorations in a separate post, but just in case I don’t get round to doing that, make sure to check train times as you plan your own explorations, because the trains aren’t always regularly spaced out and you could end up waiting around longer than you’d wanted to at one stop because you’ve just missed one train and the next will be in more than an hour’s time.

Till next time, here is a hoodie I spotted on the train out of Houtong.

As we left Houtong

Hong Kong Photoset: Street Shots

I’ve been interested in street photography for quite a while now, and especially influenced by the ideas discussed – often with brutal honesty – in image critique threads at the Hardcore Street Photography forum. Although my other posts about the Hong Kong trip have been intended more as useful guidance for other people planning their own trips than as “photography” posts per se, this one is just a collection of street shots I took on that trip. I’m happiest with the 3rd and the 9th shots because I think they best capture the kind of style I’m trying to develop in my photography (as opposed to more obvious shots like the 5th or 7th), but I would love to know your views on the photos, especially if your preferences are quite different from my own.

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Hong Kong Day 2: Sheung Wan Snapshots

The gaping maw of a sun-dried lizard. A hipster boutique window bust of Sun Yat Sen in a polka-dotted bow tie. A samfu-clad elderly gent sitting just inside the weathered shutters of his shop, reading the newspapers in soft evening light. It might just have been one of those times when the novelty of being on holiday somehow opens your eyes to the sort of things you’re blind to when you’re at home, but I really enjoyed the day we spent wandering around Sheung Wan.

Evening News(Yes, these are from the trip to Hong Kong we took, oh, nearly six months ago. No, I will never be as good at this travel blogging thing as The Everywhereist.)

Hong Kong Photoset: Funerary Offerings (Sheung Wan)

On our second day in Hong Kong, we spent several hours wandering through Sheung Wan, where I found the shops selling funerary offerings quite amusing. (For anyone who isn’t familiar with this practice, some Chinese burn paper representations of real world things for dead relatives in the belief that the burnt offerings will be sent to those relatives in the afterlife.) Although these shops exist in Singapore too, I haven’t had any personal experience with such practices – we burnt “hell money” for my paternal grandparents at the time of their deaths, but never any paper goods – and I suppose there’s just that odd thing at work where something you don’t pay much attention to in your own country suddenly becomes exotic and interesting when you’re a camera-brandishing tourist somewhere else.

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Hong Kong Day 1: Lamb Bam, Thank You Ma’am

Hong Kong has always been near the bottom of our Asian to-go-list, because it seems more like Singapore than anywhere else within four hours’ flying distance. And if you can fly the same amount of time (or less) to see pygmy elephants in the wild or explore the 12th-century ruins of what was the largest pre-industrial city in the world, then why would you choose to go somewhere more or less like Singapore? But we felt like a short trip, most of Asia seemed swelteringly hot at this time of year, or prone to typhoons, or both, so we figured it might be a good time to visit the place most likely to have widespread air-conditioning and well-constructed buildings.

We landed on a Friday evening, so all this post will feature is photos of our rather decent-value hotel (because I’ve realized I sort of enjoy seeing those sorts of mundane snapshots in other people’s travel journals) and the first instalment of a magnificent 2-day roast meatfest.

Dorsett Regency Hotel (Corridor)

The Dorsett Regency Hotel is in the Western District of Hong Kong Island, which is not where you should stay if you are the type of Hong Kong visitor who’s just there to shop, shop, shop, unload your bags back at the hotel and then shop some more. But if, like us, you like the idea of staying somewhere with more of a neighbourhood feel and view taking public transport as a fun way of exploring a city (unless that city is LA, because I’ll need my own car to stalk Simon Cowell), this place is worth a look. It helps that the hotel’s rooms seem larger than the rabbit-hutch impressions I was getting on Tripadvisor of other hotels with similar prices but more touristy locations, and the hotel operates an hourly shuttle bus which will get you to the heart of Hong Kong island in about 10 minutes.

Dorsett Regency Hotel Room

Dorsett Regency Hotel Room

Once we’d checked in and established that the wi-fi worked – because that is obviously the correct way to order priorities: roof over head, check, ability to sit on ass under said roof squealing at cat videos, check – we headed out to Ba Yi restaurant for dinner. It specializes in Xinjiang cuisine, especially lamb dishes, although it also has camel!

Here is the filling of the lamb pancakes, which are served Peking duck style i.e. the filling, condiments and wrappers are served separately and you assemble your own. I realize it might have been better to show you a photo of a finished pancake, but that would have delayed me from cramming it into my mouth. These were as hearty and satisfying as you can imagine a pancake of mirepoix and meat to be.

Lamb Pancake Filling

One might not expect much from a vegetable dish in a meat-dominated restaurant, but each bite of these string beans with Szechuan pepper and minced meat was an umami-packed mouthsplosion.

Spicy String Beans

Although we had hoped to try the lamb skewers which Ba Yi is famous for, they’d run out, so we went with the roast lamb rack instead. Second choice never tasted so good. This was wonderfully tender, just fatty enough for me to revel in that juicy fat flavour without getting grossed out by too much of it (I have a fairly low threshhold for fatty meat) and Alec said it was some of the best lamb he’d ever had. A man from the West of Ireland has had a lot of lamb.

Roast Lamb Rack

Hong Kong Blip: Abercrombie & Fit

We went to Hong Kong, and as is par for the course for all my holidays, I’m still in the midst of that futile flail I always do while elbow deep in photos which will ultimately be half-processed and never published.

But a friend seemed particularly tantalized by this tweet:

So I thought I might as well throw her a bone in the meantime.

To explain, Abercrombie & Fitch just opened a Hong Kong flagship store in the historic Pedder Building for the jawdropping amount of HK$7 million (US$902,000) monthly rent. While it doesn’t make much sense to me to promote a clothing brand through the extensive use of men who are barely wearing any, you could say it enhanced my sightseeing.

Tram Man

If Only

Bali: Lovely Lake Tamblingan

As I mentioned, I’m going to write about our trip to Bali more in terms of highlights than according to the sequence of our itinerary. On that basis there is only one place I could start: the beautiful, tranquil banks of Lake Tamblingan. It was not a place we had known to list on our desired itinerary, but a suggestion from our driver/guide Putu Arnawa as a place he personally liked. We had sought Putu out in the first place because he is a photographer, and by now I had enough of a sense of his aesthetic to trust his suggestions. I am so glad we did.

Temple After Rain

Bali In Brief

Most Singapore-dwelling yuppies have probably taken several trips to Bali by their early 30s, but we only visited it for the first time in late February. It’s not that we’d never wanted to go, but since the overriding impression we had (based on what other Singapore-dwelling yuppies seemed to talk about doing there, and post photos of on Facebook) was that it was primarily a beach place with some pretty ricefields here and there, we’d felt less urgency to visit it before other places on our Southeast Asian travel priority list. But once we’d seen Siem Reap, Hanoi, the Mekong Delta, Luang Prabang, Sabah and Sarawak (and I realize I failed to write about ANY of them here!), we finally decided to give Bali a try.

Our trip was a revelation of sorts. Perhaps because we were travelling at low season and completely avoided the southern part of the island apart from visiting Tanah Lot and Uluwatu, it felt about a tenth as touristy as I had expected it to be. Our driver/guide would warn us about persistent and annoying vendors at certain spots, and then they would be nothing like what we had encountered in Thailand or Cambodia. At more than a few temples we were the only visitors, and when we snorkelled straight off the beach in Amed into coral reefs several times more gorgeous than the crowded ones we had explored in Sabah, we had those to ourselves for at least half an hour as well.

The most memorable aspect of the trip, however, was the glimpse we got into the vibrancy of Balinese culture and how strongly committed the Balinese are to their community life. The ridiculous ease of our unplanned encounters with temple festivals, local dance performances and even a cremation procession (!) felt like nothing we had experienced before in our previous travels. While we have chanced upon local cultural events several times before, it always felt like a lucky coincidence that our tendency for indiscriminate wandering had just happened to present us with. In Bali, such encounters became so routine for us that talk of coincidences was no longer relevant – it felt like there simply was so much going on that you would need to be a particularly uninterested visitor in order to avoid witnessing something fascinating.

History suggests that expecting myself to do a full travelogue here is foolish, so I’ll try a different strategy of (a) writing about the places that moved me most first, regardless of where they were in the itinerary and (b) summarizing said itinerary for anyone who might possibly find it a useful framework for planning their own trip. I would honestly recommend every single thing mentioned below because we enjoyed our trip so thoroughly, but feel free to ask if you have any specific questions.  

Day 1: Arrived late in Ubud, immediately stumbled upon temple festival a stone’s throw from our awesome hotel (Junjungan Ubud Hotel and Spa). Found ourselves standing on road next to paddy fields at midnight, watching costumed beasts process past us.

Day 2: Easy day laughing at stupid tourists in the Monkey Forest and looking around Ubud town streets, then borrowed bikes from hotel and cycled to Petulu village to see the white herons come in to roost. Cheap and fantastic dinner in Warung Pulau Kelapa.

Day 3: Day tour to Tegallalang, Tirta Empul, Mount Batur, Pura Ulan Danau Batur, Besakih and the Sideman Valley with our driver/guide Putu Arnawa, who we would highly recommend. Chalongnayan dance performances by night in Ubud town.

Day 4: Day tour to Gunung Kawi, Taman Ayun, Tanah Lot and Uluwatu with Putu’s associate Wayan, who we would also highly recommend.

Day 5: Transferred to Munduk, again with Putu Arnawa. On the way, we watched a cremation and visited Jatiluwih, Lake Beratan and its temple, the twin-lake viewpoint for Lake Buyan and Lake Tamblingan, a village on the banks of Lake Tamblingan (a trip highlight), and finally arrived at Munduk to spend the night in a converted rice granary (Puri Lumbung).

Day 6: Easy day in Munduk, doing a simple hike to a waterfall, exploring Munduk village, and enjoying the incredible views from the balcony of our cottage. Cheap and fantastic lunch at Aditya Homestay.

Day 7: Transferred to Amed, again with Putu Arnawa. On the way, we visited one of the Gitgit waterfalls, Pura Beji, Lempuyang temple, and Tirta Gangga. In Amed, we stayed at Bayu Cottages.

Day 8: Easy day in Amed. Snorkelled first at Lipah Beach, then at the Japanese shipwreck at Banyuning, explored the village, enjoyable dinner at Sails.

Day 9: Drove through stunning views of the Karangasem Regency on the way to the airport, a perfect last glimpse of beauty before returning to Singapore.

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New Loves In Old Haunts

Gower Street Scene (Framed)I didn’t quite go into detail here previously on the massive holiday I was planning, apart from the Thurston Moore squee, so I should state briefly for the record that I spent about 6 weeks from mid-October to early December trying to be young again across London, Montreal, New England, New York City and Berlin. A wise man would stake no money on the chances of me blogging about that in any comprehensive way, but I do usually manage the first few days! So here’s the first day I spent in London, and let’s hope I’ll get to a few more later on.

Grant Museum of Zoology, London: The Lovely Bones

I’ve long run out of humorous excuses for neglecting this blog, the pathetic truth being that I neglect it because I don’t think many people read it, which of course engenders a chicken-and-egg problem which is so totally first-world I’m ashamed to even be talking about it. So let me launch right into the good stuff, and by good, I mean good if you’re into skeletal remains and cute furry things entombed in glass formaldehyde coffins.

Anyone who understands London at all will know that you can live there for years and still only scratch its surface, unless you happen to be Peter Ackroyd, in which case I want to transplant your brain into mine. The Grant Museum of Zoology is a classic example of how I managed to live five minutes’ walk from an intimidatingly long walrus penis bone for four years and not know it. It’s one of UCL’s museums, small but very charming, and of course like almost every other museum in London, you can enjoy it for free – something I always appreciated about London, but even more so after I’d visited New York. I realize that as someone who used to enjoy taking spontaneous detours past the Rosetta Stone or Elgin Marbles on the way home from lectures or shopping, I have been extraordinarily spoilt, but that’s just what London does – it spoils you for anywhere else.

But I digress – onwards to the walrus schlong. (Actually, don’t get your expectations up too high, it’s not that big of a deal. Well, it’s big, but I shamelessly exploited it to sucker you into reading a post about a dusty little zoological museum.)

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