Sunday, January 31, 2010

Taiwan: Day Thirteen

On Day Thirteen, New Year's Eve, we grabbed the early train to Taipei.  We were staying in a different hotel than Chad, May and the kids, so we parted ways at the Taipei Main Station to get situated in our respective hotels.  Once we found our hotel we were too early to check-in so we dropped our bags off and tried to find Chad & May's hotel.  This was a very frustrating experience.  Our city map was wrong and Taipei's streets are very confusing.  After about an hour of searching, with Chad on the phone, we jumped in a cab, handed the driver the phone so Chad could tell him where we needed to go, and were promptly driven around the corner where Chad was waiting outside for us.  Seriously.  Around the corner.  The cab fare was less than a dollar.  It was embarrassing.

After finding the group we headed out for some lunch and then parted ways until later in the evening when we would begin the march to Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world (at that time) and where our New Year's festivities would be taking place.

On our way back to our hotel, just a few blocks away from it, we stumbled upon this beautiful little street market, which we enjoyed immensely throughout our stay.
We rested for a bit in our hotel, once we were able to check-in, and then we headed out for the evening.  It was quite a distance from our hotel to Taipei 101 but we weren't about to get there via subway or cab due to the crowds that were expected.  No one wanted to be stuck underground in this crowd, or sitting in a cab surrounded by a sea of people.  So, we walked. 
The festivities were similar to New York City's Times Square New Year's Eve festivities.  Taiwan's biggest names were performing for a live audience estimated at 560,000 plus a television audience.  Neither of us had ever done anything like that before.  We usually try to avoid large crowds, if possible.  But, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and we had a great time.
What was amazing about this experience was the crowd.  There was no pushing or shoving.  All movement was controlled and polite.  And silent.  We noticed there were no noise makers, or general revelry, while we were walking away from Taipei 101, after the fireworks.  It was really very eerie to have that many people moving in a giant, silent wave.   

The walk back to the hotel was much faster than the walk to Taipei 101, but isn't that how it usually goes?  We said goodbye to Chad, May & the kids on the corner of their street.  This was it for us.  They'd be going their way and we'd be going ours. 

We want to take this opportunity to thank Chad, May and the kids for our wonderful vacation.  Words cannot express the gratitude we have for their generosity and for making our trip so unforgettable.  We learned and experienced more about Taiwan by living with them for two weeks than we would've ever learned on our own.   

For instance, they taught us that the Taiwanese don't get parking tickets, although they have people that look like they're handing them out.  In actuality, those people are live parking meters.  They come around every so often and put a ticket on your windshield for how much you owe for parking.  If you're still there when they come back around, they simply replace the original ticket with another one.  Then, you take that ticket to any 7-11 convenience store and pay it there.  They also taught us that police cars always have their lights on as an advertisement that they're there keeping the people safe.  You only get out of their way if their siren is on. 

These things and much more are all things we would've never known had we not had Chad & May. They helped us with the language and answered all our stupid questions.  They drove us everywhere and picked out nice hotels and restaurants and gave us guidance with our itinerary.  They were gracious and generous with their time and their home.  Both the kids were very patient with us, too.  They shared their home with us and their lives and their Christmas and New Year's Eve.  We cannot express our gratitude and only hope that one day we will be able to show all of them the same kind of generosity and hospitality they showed us.

Taiwan: Day Twelve

Day Twelve was our last full day in Kaohsiung.  We went to Chengching Lake and spent some time in the surrounding park area, which included a 7 story pagoda.  Afterwards we headed into downtown Kaohsiung to Tuntex Sky Tower, an 85 story building and the tallest in Kaohsiung.
Both the pagoda and the 85 story building had amazing views of the city.  The below pictures are from the pagoda.  The 85 story building is visible in the center of the third one.
The 85 story building is the 2nd tallest in Taiwan with the 3rd fastest elevator in the world.

Below are pictures of the view from the top.  The first one has a pretty nice view of Monkey Mountain, where we hiked on our first day in Kaohsiung.  The second picture shows the boys in front of a view of Cijin Island, where we experienced our first street market. 

After saying goodbye to Kaohsiung with dramatic views we decided to finish our last day with a dramatic meal.  Chad & May took us to the night market to feast on all the "weird" stuff we hadn't experienced yet.  May selected a few delicacies from this food stand while we sat at the table waiting to be surprised.   
"Weird" in Taiwan today is mostly just innards.  We had pig liver, heart, brain, and kidneys, plus rooster testicles.  Mike liked everything but enjoyed the heart the most.  Desi liked the rooster testicles the most but disliked all the filtering organs and the brain. 
We finished with some milk tea, or "bing nye cha," some candied taro and sweet potatoes and barbequed duck tongue, which looked just like a tongue and, when eating it, felt like you were French kissing a duck.  The sensation was not pleasant.

Taiwan: Day Eleven

Day Eleven began at 5AM.  We got dressed and headed down to the hotel lobby for our 5:40AM sunrise tour. 
From the first moments this tour was both frustrating and hilarious because no one spoke English and no one cared that we didn't speak Mandarin.  There were no attempts to include us in any of the conversations, which is something we've never experienced before.  The van driver was our tour guide and spoke the whole time, probably doling out fantastic historical facts and anecdotes about the area.  He kept stopping the van and everyone would get out and take pictures of random things.  We had no idea what was happening.  We signed up for a sunrise tour.  We didn't know it incorporated random stops along the way.  We were so confused.
At this stop we figured two things out: one, we figured out that we were stopped to get our picture in front of this sign and two, we figured out that the family that was seated behind us in the van spoke English.  They were from Macau, a Special Administrative Region of China (just like Hong Kong) and spoke English very well.  Unfortunately, either due to the traditionally humble nature of the Chinese regarding their language skills or perhaps simply not knowing that we spoke English because we had been absolutely silent the whole trip, except for the "bu ming by" Desi said to tell everyone we didn't understand them, they had kept this bit of information to themselves for over an hour and now that we knew that we had comrades in the van our tour guide had stopped talking.  Nice. 
We eventually arrived at the sunrise viewing spot, which was packed with other sunrise viewers.  We stood in the freezing cold for at least 15 minutes waiting for the sun to come up.  When it finally did rise we must admit it was nice.  At sunrise you experience everything about the sun in increments.  First the light and then the heat.  It was nice to take a few minutes to pay our respects to something we typically take for granted.  However, we've since determined that the experience was not worth the effort.  We'd rather pay our respects at sunset than sunrise.  If anyone asks, we're sunset people.  No one has to wake up early for a sunset. 
After returning to Alishan Village we checked out of our hotel and waited for our bus back to Chiayi (the green van pictured below). 
When we got back to Kaohsiung we rested for a bit (camping can really be exhausting) and then headed out for a group dinner at the food court in the Dream Mall.  Since we hadn't experienced a Taiwanese mall yet, after getting Coldstone Creamery for dessert, we let Chad, May and the kids head back home while we did some window shopping.  We concluded that the night markets of Taiwan are a far better deal and experience than the mall was.  After a few minutes we began our walk back to Chad & May's.   

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Taiwan: Day Ten

Day Ten started out with an awesome continental breakfast at our super dodgy hotel across from the bus station in Chiayi.  Upon check-in our hotel provided us with a lovely, heavy stock, technicolor coupon for breakfast the next morning.  When we went to redeem it the hotel clerk waved us over to a lovely banquet stocked with bread and spreads and two toaster ovens.  We enjoyed a lovely breakfast of toast and jam.

Afterwards, we jumped on a bus up Alishan mountain to Alishan Village.  The bus was small, maybe only 15 seats total, and we stuck out as tourists so we had a few people attempt conversations with us.  One gentleman in particular owned a hotel in Alishan and wanted us to stay with him.  Because we did not want to be rude, plus it's difficult to say no kindly in your native language let alone in a foreign language, upon arrival in Alishan Village we followed our bus friend to his hotel where he introduced us to his mother and showed us to our room.  It was a lovely room and super cheap, only about $60 USD for the night (plus we were checking in at about 10AM). 

After putting our bags down we headed out to explore the village (pictured below).  We stopped for some lunch and then went on a walk.
It was pretty cold outside and we hadn't dressed appropriately.  So, we headed back to the hotel to warm up, take a nap, and wait for the afternoon heat.  When we headed back out again it wasn't any warmer.  But, we were ready for a hike and hopefully that would warm us up.

The woods around Alishan Village are filled with old growth forests. 
After a day spent hiking, we headed back to our hotel.  And, although the hike did help to warm us up, we were still very cold.  Unfortunately, our hotel did not have heat.  Not because it was broken but because the hotels in Alishan Village just don't have heat.  According to our guidebook some hotels are beginning to install heat, but most are still without.  What's more, we're pretty sure our hotel didn't have hot water, either.  We started to regret our decision to stay in Alishan Village because, despite the beautiful forests, Desi hates camping and this trip was definitely beginning to look a lot like a luxurious camping trip.
At about 6PM we decided to just stay in for the night.  We huddled around the heat fan and watched TV until we fell asleep.  It was probably a good thing we called it such an early night since we had a 5AM wake up call the next morning to see the sunrise, which is de riguer in Alishan and something we didn't want to miss.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Taiwan: Day Nine

On Day Nine we traveled by ourselves to Chiayi, a couple hours north of Kaohsiung on the west coast of Taiwan.  Chiayi is one of Taiwan's larger cities but still smaller than Kaohsiung.  We were planning on using Chiayi as the gateway to Alishan Mountain, a mountain village/resort area reknowned for tea fields and sunrises.  We had originally planned to travel to Chiayi and then immediately make our way up the mountain to Rueili, a tea growing village on Alishan.  But, on the way to Chiayi we decided we didn't want to get to Rueili after dark, so we decided to stay in Chiayi for the night and head up the mountain early the next morning.

We picked a hotel right across from the bus station and one we thought our guidebook was recommending.  Unfortunately, we realized after checking in that we were staying in a hotel unknown to our guidebook.  But, for about $25 USD we had our own bathroom (with an American style toilet), a TV, and a super hard bed, so we were pretty proud of ourselves.  Compared to the other hotels we had stayed in thus far, and really any hotel we've ever stayed in, this place was a shit hole.  But, calling it all part of the adventure we didn't let it bother us.  We dropped our bags off at the room and headed out to explore the city.

According to our guidebook, one of the things Chiayi is famous for is turkey rice.  Everyone must try turkey rice when visiting Chiayi.  Furthermore, everyone must try turkey rice at this one particular restaurant that invented turkey rice.  This is all according to our guidebook.  So, we found the restaurant that invented turkey rice (pictured here), made a bunch of friends while trying to figure the system out (English speaking customers made sure we knew they were available if we had any questions, one English speaking couple even bought us something they thought we should try), which was really confusing because the waitresses didn't appear to take orders, just delivering food to tables without speaking, and there was no line to show us if we should be ordering before we sat down.  Confused and hungry, Desi just walked up to the guy cutting meat and asked for turkey rice.  He pointed at a table for us to sit at, said something to someone else who then brought us some red tea (best tea ever!) and then someone brought us a couple bowls of turkey rice.  In case you're wondering, turkey rice is a small amount of shredded turkey mixed into a bowl of steamed white rice.  We're pretty sure this restaurant didn't invent turkey rice.  And, we're pretty sure you can bypass this experience entirely if you ever find yourself in Chiayi. 

After the turkey rice experience we walked the streets in search of specific cookies the guidebook referenced from a specific shop on the other side of town.  We wanted to buy a few packages for souvenirs.  Plus, we thought walking across the town would be a fun way to sightsee.  We encountered a fun street market and a nice temple along the way.

Later, on our way back to the street market for dinner, we encountered the Japanese symphony orchestra playing in an amphitheatre in a park.  It was such a lovely experience, encountering a free concert at dusk in Chiayi.  They played both familiar classical songs as well as popular songs, like one we recognized from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."  The whole experience was magical.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Taiwan: Day Eight

Day Eight was a leisurely Kaohsiung day.  We were on our own for the bulk of the day so we decided to find the old British Consulate building, which our guide book highly recommended for the view.  We took a bus to downtown Kaohsiung and then walked the rest of the way, which was quite a distance.  We got really close to where we were supposed to be but we just couldn't find the consulate.  We looked for a long time and then, after basically giving up, we found it.  We were pretty frustrated.  Consequently, the view wasn't as great as we had expected and the overall experience wasn't really worth it.

After we got back to Chad & May's, Chad took us out to get foot massages.  Chinese foot massages are used in eastern medicine to both diagnose and treat an ailment.  Chad's foot masseur was able to diagnose his heart ailment, Desi's foot masseur diagnosed her with difficulty sleeping and lower right back pain, which he then treated by rubbing a particular spot on the foot until she weeped, and Mike's masseur found no ailments whatsoever. We think what we call reflexology in The States might be the same thing but neither of us know enough about reflexology to be certain.

After the foot massages we headed to the night market to experiene hot pot, one of May's favorite meals.  It was definitely an experience, similar to Benihana combined with Mongolian Grill.  As usual, the food was great.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Taiwan: Day Seven

Merry Christmas!

We began Day Seven with a morning walk for coffee and stroll through the grounds at the Kaohsiung Fine Arts Museum.  When we got back to the house we all piled into the car for a short drive to Meinong, a small village a bit north of Kaohsiung popular for their bamboo umbrellas.  The village was super cute!  We had lunch there and bought a few souvenirs and then headed a bit west to Chishan, May's childhood home and where her parents still live.

While in Chishan, May's mom took us all down the street to a neighbor's house.  Her neighbor runs a barbershop on the ground floor of her home (it is typical for the ground floor to be a storefront and the upper floors to be living quarters; May's parents run a fabric store on their ground floor) and Mike wanted to get a shave.

While Chad translated, the whole family (minus May's dad, who was minding the store) watched Mike get a shave.  This was Mike's first professional shave and, though he was intimidated by the straight razor at his throat, he did wind up finding it quite relaxing.

After Mike's shave we all walked around Chishan to experience the best stinky tofu (a Taiwan delicacy and in no way a misnomer) the island has to offer plus some very delicious banana ice cream type dessert, which is famous across the island but originated in Chishan.

On the way back to Kaohsiung we stopped at Fo Guang Shan Monastery.  This place was amazing!  We'd never seen anything like it.  The buddha was HUGE!  Plus, the monastery was beautiful!  There was something so peaceful about roaming these grounds, with monks going about their daily lives, surrounded by such beauty.  It was truly a wonderful experience.

Once we got back to Chad & May's we headed out on our own for some dinner and another attempt at locating a bar for a nightcap.  After an amazing dinner at a neighborhood restaurant we found a bar, Fun K-Town, just across the street.  We were the only people in there for a while which allowed us plenty of time to chat with our bartender (pictured below).  A student at the language school, she spoke Mandarin, English, and French (and probably other languages as well), she practiced her English with us (which was very good) and we practiced our Mandarin and French with her (which was poor to awful).

It was truly an amazing end to a fantastic day and one of the best Christmas experiences we've had since moving to Seattle.  We really enjoyed ourselves and we're grateful to Chad & May, and May's family, for sharing their Christmas with us.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Taiwan: Day Six

Day Six started out with Desi accompanying May to the hair salon and Chad accompanying Mike to the tattoo salon.  Desi wanted to get her hair cut in the same style she'd seen all over Taiwan and Mike wanted to get a couple of tattoos.  May gets her hair washed and styled a few times each week so Desi tagged along on one of May's normal hair salon trips so May was able to translate Desi's wishes to the staff.  After looking through a few magazines, the chick with the scissors finally accepted that Desi wanted her hair cut (there seemed to be some disbelief among the staff) and began cutting.  Desi got exactly what she wanted: bangs.

Mike had arrived in Taiwan with a few ideas for tattoos.  He wanted the Chinese symbols for "Chad" on one shoulder and "Taiwan" on the other.  Chad made a few calls and got a recommendation for a tattoo shop, East Tattoo, and off they went. 

Mike wound up loving the experience of getting tattoos as souvenirs.  He also loved his tattoo artist, Chia.  She was awesome!

After Mike's tattoo session we headed out for a drink.  It is VERY hard to find a drink in Taiwan.  Bars, pubs, even restaurants that serve alcohol, are elusive.  We wandered around for a bit and then finally encountered an establishment serving drinks.  Afterwards, we rendezvoused with Chad, May and the kids and headed to a night market for some food.

We were hungry, so we grabbed some squid (here the squid is being grilled), and the best hot dog ever (the bun was made with rice and spices and formed into a sausage and then slit down the middle to hold the sausage dog).

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