Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Taiping Impressions (3 of 3)

June 10th- June 15th, 2012

The following morning Peter took us into his work to set up a machine before taking the rest of the day off to show us around.   It turned out to be a fascinating experience; the family business is a machine shop fulfilling small scale orders making gears.  We wandered around the shop watching the lathes and milling machines as the gears were made.  We watched Peter setting his blank and cutting tool for an individual syncro gear made from high grade copper which although almost as valuable as gold, still costs less to replace than the worm gear it was destined to act upon; he laid paper around the base to catch the fragments of copper, far to valuable to be considered waste. 

It was what lay in the upper attics of the factory however that help my attention.  I remember seeing in one of the National Geographic my Dad collected, stories of "Birds Nest Soup".   My memory wandered to visions of small birds living in small, dark, hard to access caves building their nests from saliva.  People would go in stealing these nests from these hard to reach places and fetch high prices for this Chinese delicacy; these edible bird's nests among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans and used for over 400 years.

Here, however, things work sightly differently.  Providing ideal conditions for the birds speakers are set up at the windows mimicking their song.  These Swiftlets build their nests in upper roofs of the factory.  
We were offered to opportunity to see and hold these white nests which are supposedly rich in nutrients and believed to come with countless health benefits.  We watched on a monitor as the birds flew around, building these nest which will later be consumed. 

We drove out of the village and into the rural farmlands of Taiping and were faced with a fascinating experience; Mangrove Swamps and Charcoal Factory Tour.  I believe this experience deserves and entire entry in itself which has been posted following this one. 

After an incredibly education experience at the Mangrove Swamps Peter took us to a part of the city he himself had actually never been!  Its great when we can show the local people around their own town! 

I find graveyards to be peaceful places and enjoy the differences I have seen around the world.  My favourite at this point being the ancient Celtic crosses found across the United Kingdom.  These Chinese burial plots, however, may easily tie with the Celts for first place.  Families are buried together and no expensive is spared on the gorgeous headstones, all very unique, engraved with beautiful Chinese characters.  

A river ran down the slope here; upstream a man bathed naked in the sacred waters whilst further downstream a group of young people played with thick black inner tubes.  We following a winding road through a gate and further up to a Buddhist Meditation Retreat.  The people here were under a 'noble silence' though a couple broke this seal to converse with us and let us know what was going on up here.  We learned that the lower gate is usually shut;  service vehicles only permitted on the grounds of the retreat.  Discourage that we had gatecrashed this retreat we apologized for our mistake but they welcome us anyway, eager to share their experience of what goes on up here, inviting us to participate the meditation which was to commence four hours from then and further suggesting we consider spending the month in peaceful, guided meditation.  Their open mindedness soon turned sightly conflicted with they noticed Peter had gone for a wander into the females only section of the retreat.  He quickly noticed our panic and returned.  Embarrassed that we had barged our way up in a jeep, broken their humble silence and invaded on the restricted areas of the centre we quickly thanked them for the information and left them to their peace. 

I was not sure what to expect from dinner that evening.  Initially, I wore my usual day to day top then noticed that they had dressed 'smart casual' and reconsidered, throwing on a fresh, long sleeved white top.  We walked into the large banquet hall full of 10 seater tables compete with a rotating centre.  We were formally greeted by the staff and immediately served Chinese tea in small China cups and Tiger Beer in small glasses.  Each beverage was kept at its ideal temperature, waiters continually focused on filling our small vessels. 

Apparently Uncle had already placed the order by phone and we were soon presented with the first course; a platter of Dim Sum.  Crispy pork followed followed and then probably the most beautiful vegetable dish I have ever had the pleasure of consuming.  Lotus roots,  ginkgo biloba, delicate mushrooms and bok choy were the highlights.  A gorgeous soup came after an entire cod cooked a different way for each fillet then uniquely flavoured.   A mutton noodle dish ended the savoury delights before we were served desert;  a sinfully delightful coconut strudel type of pastry with a peanut dipping sauce.  As usual, the conversation flowed as freely as the food and tea.  This is among one of the most enjoyable meals I have ever sat down to and I am blown away by the generosity and hospitality of our Malaysian family.  

That night, I got hit with the illness I was told to expect from doctors and friends who have traveled this part of the world.  My stomach wrenched in pain as I vomited through the night.  I was sure it was not food poisoning as all the dishes were communal and nobody else felt ill.  All part and parcel of being a westerner traveling through developing countries.  I spent 24 hours unable to move as my body emptied and cleansed itself.  Auntie treated me like her daughter, caring for me like a mother would.  I am so thankful to have been within the comfort of this family home while enduring such illness rather than in the hot, not so nurturing conditions of our usual budget accommodation.  Our stay was extended yet another two nights as I healed.    

The following day, after forcing down some oatmeal, Peter, Julian and I spent a relaxing day around Taiping itself. We went to the local museum and came across some of the most gorgeous teak wood furniture. Because teak is both such a wood in demand and because it is regulated heavily in Malaysia, one company has taken upon itself to recover fallen timber from the swamps. This is not a particularly new idea, but one that has been adapted to Taiping. Just the root structures are used and with a creative eye behind the chainsaw, truly unique and stunningly beautiful furniture emerges. The pieces are then hand finished by a team of three employees who work out of passion, it is plain to see, as much as the need to place food on the table. Inspired and blown away by works of art, we are giving much thought (and hopefully still some action) to bring some of this back to be sold in the western world.  A project still lingering on our minds. 

I was slightly disappointed that I was well enough to resume our travels and return to Penang;  our Malaysian hosts having turned into a second family to us here.   I am so thankful for the invitation Peter sent, it was one of the best couch surfing experiences I have ever had and feel that Taiping should be added to every tourism guidebook. 


With Brianne sleeping after a long night I accepted Peters offer of dinner and we headed out into the town to meet up with some friends. We ended up both of the last two evenings in Taiping eating the "Best Western Food In Town" which (in all fairness) was pretty good. It had been a while since I'd even seen a potato and quite frankly it was a bit of a treat to my digestive system to gorge on recognizable starches. I love the food here, but it has definitely being playing silly buggers with my innards and chicken and chips sat very nicely in my stomach. Peter introduced me to a group of his friends and we cruised around the town just as I would in any other city I've been in. A great social crew out for a bite and a break from the pressures of the working week. We all got on pretty well and conversation was never left wanting between us. The constant flow of chatter brought home to me once more how very similar we all are as a species once you get past the superficial differences of language, cast and geography  and take a look at the wider picture. So completely normal and relaxed did these two evenings feel, I scarcely feel they were worth a mention in a travel blog such as this, but then again perhaps that is why Peter, Jon, Fiona, Sabrina and the others deserve such a mention. To be welcomed as I  was into their evenings was a break for me too. To be able to relax in the company of friends is a privilege rarely offered when we are travelling and having shared some time with them, especially Peter and Jon who I sat up with until the wee small hours, to make new and firm friends, deserves a mention in itself.

Apart from great company, the one other moment of these evenings deserving of comment was a parade Peter and I happened across, purely by chance. We were at a fuel station filling the car up when a loud and lively procession of floats began making their way around the intersection about 100m away. Peter was somewhat caught off guard and agreed we should park the car and find out what was going on. Once in a while pure chance intervenes in adventures such as this, and this appeared to be my night for this was the parade to honour the nine God kings, the annual celebration by Chinese immigrants across the world (and please correct me if I have not remembered the history taught by Peter that evening) The nine God kings gave up their humanity to bear the troubles of those migrating from their homeland, to ensure the migrants prospered in their new lives abroad and each year the descendants of the original ancestors remember and honour them with a parade of typical taoist extravagance and religious fervour. The absolute highlight for me however was to glimpse my very first lion dance. Two wonderful, traditional Chinese lions danced and jumped along the parade route. I first saw the lion dance at the start of a Jackie Chan film (I forget which one) and was immediately captivated by the athleticism the performers had, the life the two men under the costume gave to the lion, with eyelids fluttering and the mouth movement along with their phenomenal strength as the "tail" lifted the "head" to stand on his shoulders, making the lion 10' tall I was left giggling like a five year old child by the side of the road as this was replayed in front of me.

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