Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tantalizing Taiwan!

So last week Carin and I took a week-long trip down/over to Taiwan.  Let me just say...I LOVE TAIWAN.  Like really, really enjoyed it.  I'll be the first to admit that I didn't know a whole lot about that little sweet potato shaped island before heading there, but I was more than pleased with what I found. The weather was decent, the people were beyond nice, the sights were beautiful, the transportation was cheap and easy to navigate, the food was delicious...you really can't ask for more.  I think the highest compliment someone can give a country is saying they could see themselves living there, and I could definitely live in Taiwan.  It was an excellent quick trip, and we did the whole thing (including all flights, in-country transportation, food, activities and accommodations) for under $1000.

We departed Seoul on a snowy Saturday morning.  Our plane was scheduled to depart at 9:10am, so we ended up on the airport bus around 6:30am.  Ouch.  Thankfully we could snooze the whole way there.  We checked in and found that it was a codeshared flight between China Airlines and Korean Air, so that got me excited, because Korean Air is amazing.  Seriously.  I've never been even slightly disappointed by a Korean Air flight.  Everything, down to their flight attendant uniforms, is straight classy.  When you see a group of Korean Air girls walk through the airport you know immediately that they have their shit together.  Unfortunately, Korea doesn't know how to deal with snow, so we were delayed as they tried to clear the runway and de-ice the plane.  We spent almost 40 minutes just taxing around the airport...so random.  Finally we took off and the flight over to Taipei was only about 2.5 hours.  On this tiny flight we got free drinks and a full (tasty) meal.  Asian carriers are so much better than American carriers!  You could drive across the whole US and not get a free drink, let alone a meal!  We landed in Taipei about a half an hour after we were expected.  (It is worth noting that the two landings on our long flights were the absolute cleanest landings I've ever experienced.  You would think the giant hulking plane was weightless based on how lightly we touched down. We were surprised by how nice the ICN-TPE flight landed, so we were blow away by the effortless landing on the TPE-ICN flight.  Beautiful.)

As we deplaned and started walking through the airport we were relatively close to a group of boys all wearing hats.  Fervent whispers started, and suddenly people were pulling out their cameras and speeding up to walk next to them and snap photos.  Thank god I had K-Pop crazy Carin with me, for she was able to identify them as popular K-Pop group B2ST (the Korean word for two is pronounced "ee" so the band is Beast...or as Simon of EatYourKimchi calls them, Buh-two-st). Then, while about to go through Customs, we saw another group, called MBLAQ.  Like total idiots we did not take sneaky pictures or get autographs.  We kicked ourselves for this moments later, when we walked through the doors from Customs and were greeted by HUNDREDS of screaming fans.  It was a little (lot?) crazy.  We soon found out that Super Junior was also on our flight. Basically all of first class must have been K-Pop boys and their handlers!  And we had them stranded on the ground and then in the sky with us...sadly without our knowledge.  I am fairly certain Carin would have stormed the first class cabin had we known.
Swear that's B2ST!

Whoa Taiwanese K-Pop fans!

If you love Super Junior so much why don't you marry them?  Oh...

Customs beagles! I miss my dogs.

After spending some time watching the crazed fans and snapping some photos (and Carin making friends with some Taiwanese teenagers who approved of her choice when asked which member was her favorite) we headed out and caught the bus into downtown Taipei. We had booked our first three nights's stay at Star Hostel, and it was absolutely wonderful. It is located between Taipei Main Station and Zhongshan Station, so it provides easy access to trains, buses and the metro.  While somewhat difficult to find (tiniest sign ever) the hostel is beautiful and the staff is extremely friendly and helpful. Our room was lovely, with two comfy beds and a really nice private bathroom. The only downside was the lack of elevator, but that really didn't make that much of a difference in the long run.  Overall, it was an excellent choice.

Our very pretty room in Star Hostel.

After settling into the hostel we headed out for our first afternoon of exploring.  On the advice of one of the hostel desk staff, we purchased an EasyCard, Taipei's version of the T-Money card.  You buy the card for 500NT (roughly $17 US), and that includes a 100NT deposit for the card itself.  We used it all week (including to pay for our admission to the zoo...you could also use it at convenience stores, Mister Donut, etc) and on the last day I got about 160NT ($5.50 US) back for turning in the card with extra money on it.  Pretty sweet.  The subway is simpler and smaller than Seoul, but it is a fast and efficient. It is distance based, and most trips only cost about 50cents, while the longest ones are around $1 US.  Pretty sweet.

Taipei MRT all decorated for the Floral Expo.

Inside the train.

Awesome card.  And really...so easy.

Typical subway station.

There was lots of public art pieces through out Taipei and in the subways.  This was the creepiest...found in Taipei Main Station.

We hopped on the train and went just a few stops away to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. Again, I didn't know much about Taiwanese history before visiting, so I will assume that you also don't.  Chiang Kai-shek was the head of the Nationalist Army in China, which fought in a long civil war against the Chinese Communist Party.  When the Soviet Union threw their support behind the CCP, the Nationalists were forced to flee the mainland and take up residence on the island of Taiwan. Taiwan is called the ROC, or Republic of China, while the mainland is the PRC, or People's Republic of China, largely in part to Chiang Kai-shek's rule over the island.  Taiwan is democratic, while mainland China is (obviously) Communist.  (Honestly, I am still not 100% clear on the relationship between Taiwan and China...)  The feelings towards Chiang Kai-shek are mixed on the island; some view him as a hero, while others refer to him as a dictator.  Since his death in 1975 many of his statues have been dismantled, but the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in Taipei still stands.  It is a MASSIVE complex, with two huge performing arts complexes, gardens, a large open courtyard, and the memorial itself.  It really is beautiful.  The main gate is a gorgeous blue and white, and the performing arts halls have stunning architecture and color.  The statue of Chiang himself is very reminiscent of the Lincoln memorial.  I think what I like best is that it was obviously a living, breathing, well-used public space.  When we were there, high school students were practicing for a break dancing show, practicing in a marching band, and competing in some sort of event involving singing and dancing.  It was just a really cool vibe.  (Interesting side note, my brother's girlfriend Loran has a grandfather who escaped mainland China with Chaing Kai-shek and came to Taiwan before eventually moving to the US.  Pretty cool.)

National Concert Hall

Love me some corners.

Front of the concert hall.

Gates to the memorial (it was so windy)!

Tablet above the entrance to the National Concert Hall.

Love the blue and white of the gates.

Concert hall with flowers.

Memorial building with toooons of steps.

Slovenly dress? I love it.

Looks very Lincoln-esque.

Beautiful ceiling of the memorial.

National Theater.

Peeking through the wall.

After leaving the memorial, we headed over to Dihua Street, which was about 30 minutes away from our hostel and suggested by the workers there.  This street becomes a lively market every year around Lunar New Year as hundreds of people go there to buy the things they need to celebrate.  Since we were there only a week before Lunar New Year, we figured we'd check it out.  Um...we stayed for about 2 blocks (10 minutes) before escaping.  There were a billion crushing people, and some pretty horrific smells.  There is a "delicacy" in Taiwan fondly referred to as "stinky tofu."  It made me want to die.  It was like being punched repeatedly in the face by a smell.  It hit you right in the soft palate and was just uncomfortable.  We fled the scene and went back to our hostel for an early night of TLC and Discovery Channel shows.  Along the way we stopped and got some delicious food. Each person got their own tiny hot pot with meat, tofu, veggies, fish cake, and a plethora of other ingredients, that simmered in broth. Very good.

Dinhua Street.  Just be glad I couldn't capture the smell.

Mmmm, hot pot dinner.

The convenience stores have quite the selection of tea drinks.

The next morning we headed out bright at early to Taipei 101.  Now would be a good time to talk about the weather in Taiwan, I suppose.  It rained pretty much the entire time we were in Taipei.  And not real rain, just a steady, obnoxious mist that wasn't enough to require an umbrella but was enough to soak your clothes and make everything you own damp. As soon as we got out of Taipei it was beautiful, but in the city it was like we were in a rainforest.  Anyway, we got to Taipei 101 and it was very hazy/cloudy.  However it was really our only day to go to the top of the world's second tallest building, so we figured we'd do it anyway. We bought our tickets and took the insanely fast elevator to the top. They race at 55.2 m/sec, bringing you 89 floors in under 40 seconds. It is intense.  The view from the top was (predictably) hazy, but hey, now I can say I've done it!  I bet it is really spectacular on a clear day. It was also pretty fascinating to learn about the wind damper inside...a huge steel ball that keeps the tower from blowing over.  They have these cartoon characters called "damper babies" that are little mascots of Taipei 101 (they also share my birthday) so they were pretty cute.

Riding into the mist.  It is supposed to look like a bamboo shoot.  Each section has 8 floors, because 8 is an especially auspicious number.

Gigantic mall in the base of the tower.

Hazy view of downtown.

Come ON...that is too cute.

This damper baby looks like a bee.  (Note that their eyes and mouth are 101.)

The actual wind damper.  It looks like an alien spaceship.

Another damper baby wants to hold my hand!

Taiwan is a huge supplier of coral.  This was an insane carving being sold in Taipei 101.

So...wait...I SHOULDN'T pee on the floor?

Happy year of the rabbit!

HAHAHA, I love these signs in the Taipei metro.

That morning we hopped back on the metro and headed down to the Taipei Zoo.  That thing is HUGE.  I would say it is easily as large as the DC Zoo, and I was pleasantly surprised by the size and quality of the enclosures for the animals.  It was one of the more pleasing trips I've taken to a zoo or aquarium in recent memory (aside from the enjoyment I took from seeing that sad, captive whaleshark).  After spending over four hours walking around at the zoo we jumped on the Maokong Gondola.  I figured this would be a quick, bottom of the mountain, top of the mountain, and back down trip, but it is really an extensive thing that goes to multiple stops, up and down, covering a few mountains. It was pretty sweet (and only cost about $3 round trip!) and we wanted to go back during the day for better views, but that just never happened.  As it was we got a unique, pretty view of Taipei at night, and thankfully only had to put up with a gross Chinese couple and their mom for the ride up.

Self explanatory, dontcha think?

Entrance to the zoo.

 Carin with her dinosaur friend.
Macaque monkeys are indigenous to the island.


The last thing anyone wants is a lemur pooping on their head.

Adorable...and not the last time I took a photo of cute Chinese kids unbeknownst to their families.

Giant panda in its homeland...sort of.

Their faces are hilarious to me.

Our gondola was complete with a see-through floor...which sadly didn't help much in the dark.


Taipei by night.  See that really tall building on the right?  Taipei 101.

To finish off our long day of touristiness by going to Din Tai Fung, which was recommended by my SAS friend Sue Lee, who lived in Taiwan for two years (and has lots of family there).  It did not disappoint.  We got a few different kind of soup dumplings, some noodles, and steamed buns.  All were delicious and extremely affordable.  The first was a given, but the second was a surprise since Din Tai Fung was chosen as one of NY Times' best restaurants worldwide.  Delicious.  We went home stuffed and happy.

(Necessary) directions for how to eat soup dumplings.

So delicious.

Time to dig in!

Monday morning we got up and took the metro over to Mengjia Longshan Temple.  In Taiwan there are basically three types of temples: Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian.   The Taoist are extremely decorative, the Buddhist moderately so, and the Confucian are the most simple.  I guess I've never seen a Taoist temple, because I was blown away.  They were so intricately carved and painted...absolutely beautiful.  Most of you who know me know I have a thing for the corners of Asian buildings...I LOVE THEM...and these temples did not disappoint. The temple was very busy with worshipers preparing for Lunar New Year by praying, leaving offerings, and generally just getting the temple decorated and ready.  And, of course, the ever present smell of sandalwood incense, which I absolutely love.  There were also many people throwing bei (crescent shaped wood pieces that are used for telling fortunes) but we weren't really sure what was going on.  More on that later.

Longshan Temple.

Strike a pose.  Man I need to get some sun in Bali!

Interesting vase holding a potted plant.

Offerings all set up.

Dragon represents the male, and phoenix represents the female.

Offerings and incense and worshiping, OH MY.

View from behind the altar.

Hallway along the side of the temple.

Getting all decked out for Chinese New Year.

Lush dragon fountain on the grounds of the temple.

After we finished at the temple, we took the long route to the Ximending pedestrian shopping area, passing the high court and presidential office. Ximen is a youthful area that really reminded me of Myeongdong in Seoul. Lots of shops and stores and restaurants, so it helps that it was closed to pedestrians. We tried to visit the Red House market and performance area, but it was closed on Mondays (as were many things), so we missed out.  Carin and I walked around for a bit and then settled into a restaurant where we had a VERY tasty noodle lunch.  We took the subway back to Star Hostel and relaxed for a bit before heading up to Shilin Night Market. The night market is a bustling area that sells "anything you could ever want to buy, pet, or eat" according to a description I read.  We bought some fantastic street food and wandered around for a bit.  It was here that I was first introduced to cold milk tea and I fell in love with it.  But none of that tapioca business.  So good.  Most menus in Taipei had English on them, so it was pretty easy to order.

Pretty palm trees dot the city.

High court building...made me miss DC.

Presidential Office.

I think he just works here and lives somewhere else.

Ximending. Complete with craptons of scooters.

Mmm, noodley goodness.

Pedestrian shopping area in Ximending.

The cutest donut I've ever eaten.  Thanks, Mister Donut.

Streets near Shilin.

One alley at the night market.

Temple in the middle of everything.

You can pray and eat within the space of 2 steps.

 Amazingly tasty fried squid on a windy night.

Look, Mom, no refrigeration. AND we ate it.  AND we didn't get sick.

What could "Mungbean Tears Mouthfeel" POSSIBLY BE?!

After we had our fill of the night market, Carin and I headed back towards the subway.  Along the way we stumbled upon Modern Toilet, an absolutely ridiculous restaurant that is apparently part of a chain of 12 around Taiwan. The theme is...you guessed it...toilets.  You can get all sorts of food and drinks served in ceramic toilets, squat toilets, urinals, bath tubs, and sinks.  All the seats are toilets with festive lids.  The tables are made of covered sinks and bathtubs.  It is utterly absurd, and so entertaining.

Comfy seats?

What delicious dish would YOU like to eat out of a toilet?

The metal accents really add a touch of class.


Coke tastes more refreshing when sipped out of a urinal.

Patbingsu (shaved ice with toppings) from a squat toilet?  Carin is in!

What a strange place.

But you have to admit the decorations are fun.

Tuesday morning we bought bus tickets, at some fantastic western brunch at NYC Bagels, and headed down to Tainan.  I had talked to a girl teaching English in Tainan through the CouchSurfing website before we left, and she had given us the (invaluable) advice to take the bus instead of the train.  The bus takes about 4.5 hours (versus 2.5 on the train) and costs about $13 (versus $40 on the train).  However, these are unlike what you think of when you hear "bus."  The seats were huge and comfy, and had remotes that controlled the recline, foot rests, and head rests.  Each seat had its own TV, complete with games, movies, TV, and music on demand.  There were eight English movie options and I ended up watching a really excellent horror movie called Carriers. The trip flew by.

The seats were awesome!

When we arrived in Tainan we took a taxi to Iris' Tower Hostel, where we were staying that night. We stayed in a four-bed mixed dorm room with one other guy from Germany.  The hostel is brand new, just opened last August, and was very quiet because there were only a few of us there.  We dropped off our stuff and then headed out to explore and enjoy the warm Taiwanese sunshine.  Who knew it existed!?  Our first stop, the Tainan Confucian Temple. After missing some landmarks on our map we actually thought that the temple was another site, but thankfully read a sign before walking off into oblivion.  The temple was all decorated for the new year with pretty red lanterns.  There were lots of people walking around and enjoying the weather.

Tree on the grounds of the Confucian Temple.

Main building of the temple.

Fun and simple temple topper.


Roof support beams.

Fun lighting.

After the Confucian Temple we walked passed the Taiwan Literature Museum and continued on to Tiantan, which claims to be the oldest temple in Taiwan.  It is tucked back into a little alley and quite intricately carved and painted.  We looked around for a bit and then headed to Fort Provintia, with its famous Chihkan Tower. This fort was originally built by the Dutch when they colonized Taiwan in the 1600s, but was later surrendered to the Chinese forces. It was very pretty as the sun set on the beautiful architecture and colorful flowers.

Tiantan Temple.

The altar.

Fun decorated tower that was part of the temple.

Fort Provintia and/or Chihkan Tower.

Chihkan Tower

There are flowers and sunlight in Taiwan!

Amongst the foliage.

Colorful koi.

I loved the colors of the building as the sun started to set.

View from the top of the temple to the sea gods.

Overlooking Tainan.

That night we went back to the hostel and asked them to direct us to a local restaurant with good food.  Epic fail.  Haha.  They gave us vague directions and a paper with the name of the restaurant written in Chinese.  They claimed it was close, so we figured we should be able to match the name on our paper to the sign of the restaurant.  We were terrible at it.  Even with such memory aides as "Ok, it is three characters.  The first is a square with a seven balanced on it.  The last is two e's facing each other." We looked around for a while, asked for directions twice (no one spoke English) and got completely different directions, and eventually we just gave up.  We found a restaurant were we recognized a single word, "mutton," and we ate there.  It was quite tasty.  On the way back to the hostel I spotted our sign. Oh well.  For dessert we enjoyed some milk tea from "Jurassic Tea," which had a delightful dinosaur theme (which blatantly violated Jurassic Park copyrights).

Lunar New Year store was an explosion of red and gold.


They could make a really awesome commercial with a cup of tea shuddering like that cup of water in Jurassic Park.

& Enjoy I will.

That morning we struck off early in hopes of getting a lot done/seen before our bus back to Taipei left that afternoon.  We started by heading out to Anping, which is an adorable, charming little district in Tainan.  It was originally built to house the colonists there from the Dutch East India Trading Company.  We started our morning by visiting the former home of Tait & Company, a trading company that did business when European traders controlled Tainan.  One of the major attractions here is an old warehouse that has been taken over by a bunch of banyan trees.  It is SLIGHTLY reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Cambodia, but on a much smaller, younger scale, haha. There were lots of cute kids there who said hi to us in their fledgling English. Next we went over to Fort Zeelandia, which was also built by traders when Taiwan was still Formosa (it means beautiful in Portuguese). The grounds were quite pretty with lots of  big trees and flowers.

One of the buildings in the "Anping Treehouse."

 Canopy overhead.

Climbin' in yo windows, snatchin' yo people up. So hide ya kids, hide ya wife.

Not quite as impressive as Cambodia...

Old Tait & Company building.

Tower at Fort Zeelandia.

Tree towering over the fort's walls.

Crazy staircase up the tower...with Carin at the top.

Wouldn't be Korean if I didn't take a selca.

Fort walls.

Downtown Anping.

By that time it was time to head back to downtown Tainan and walk back to our hotel.  We grabbed our bags and hopped on the next bus to Taipei.  Once again it was very comfortable, and I split my time between watching movies and napping.  We got back to Taipei around 6:45pm after hitting some traffic, and hopped on the metro to go down to Xindian, a district that was recently incorporated into southern Taipei.  Carin and I had decided to take the leap and try our hand at CouchSurfing for the first time.  Basically, CouthSurfing is an internet community where people go to either host or find hosts as they travel.  It is a free place to stay, with the idea that you pay back your hosts with interesting conversation, skills you have, etc. We had found Samantha Wu and her husband David online and they had a ton of good reviews, so we decided to try it out. Samantha is Taiwanese, and David is a New Yorker who is fluent in Chinese and has spent half of his life in Taiwan.  He does independent contracting for translation services and has his hands in a few other pots as well.  They are avid runners and cyclers who compete in marathons and triathlons. They have a big apartment, two cats, and are a very interesting couple.

Samantha and David's apartment complex.

View from their balcony.

Xiao Hong getting comfy on Carin's lap.

Xindian streets.

Another Xindian street.

This is Xiao Hong, which means Little Orange.  He was super friendly and wanted to be in our room (where he wasn't supposed to be) constantly.

This is Xiao Hui, whose name means Little Gray.  He was significantly more anti-social than his brother.

Samantha met us at the station and we trekked up the steep hill and four sets of steps to their apartment to drop off our stuff.  Then she took us out to a local restaurant (David met us there) where we got fantastic beef noodles, one of the dishes Taiwan is known for.  Then we indulged in some conversation and watched Born Into Brothels with them before hitting the sheets.

Beef noodles and dumplings.  Cheap, delicious, local food.

The next morning we had planned to go back out to Maokong Gondola, but David and Samantha didn't think we had time to get out there and back before our afternoon tour.  Instead we all went out to breakfast at a local steamed bun restaurant that was TO DIE FOR.  So good.  Then David went off to work and Samantha took us across the river (on a very pretty suspension foot bridge) to a Taoist temple.

Mmm...fillings included pork, bamboo, cabbage, red beans, and other delicacies. 

Delicious breakfast.

River off the right side of the bridge (complete with swan boats).

River off the left side of the bridge (complete with outdoor concert area).

After a bit of a hike, we arrived at Taiping Temple.  Samantha then proceeded to let us know exactly how you are supposed to worship.  First of all, you always enter the temple on the right and work your way to the top before coming down the left side.  When you first enter the temple, there is a set of sandalwood incense sticks, a burner, and a sign letting you know how many altars there are at that particular temple. At this one, there were seven, so we each took seven sticks of incense and lit them.  Each altar is for a specific god in charge of a specific aspect of your life.  There are some you ask for love, some that oversee prosperity or work opportunities, and others that are in charge of travel and health.  You go up to each alter, mentally tell the god who you are and where you are from, and then ask for what you desire.  After you are done, you bow and place the incense into the burner in front of the altar.  This is repeated at each of the seven altars. By the time we made it to the top floor we had a beautiful view of the whole temple complex and the detailed carvings of the roof.  It was very cool.  Then we worked our way back down to the ground floor, dispensing of all seven incense sticks.  Back in front of the main altar we were given the chance to use the bei that we had seen in action at Longshan Temple.  Near the altar there is a vase filled with sticks with carvings on them. You have someone shake the container and you choose a stick at random.  Then you pick up two bei, which are little crescent shaped pieces of wood that are painted red on their rounded side.  Holding the carved stick in your hand, you ask the god a question, and then drop the bei. If both bei land face up, the question cannot be answered at that time.  If both bei land face down, the answer is not favorable and you need to choose a new stick.  If one bei is face up and one bei is face down, you have the correct stick.  I had to go through 3 sticks before I got one that gave me a favorable result, but Carin got it on her second.  You take your stick over to this little cabinet that has a bunch of drawers, and open the one corresponding to the carvings on your stick.  Inside are little slips of paper with a fortune on it (written in Chinese).  There is also a separate book that tells you how to interpret the fortunes.  It was pretty fascinating (though it turned out to not be super accurate...) and very cool to have participated in.  (Read more about a day at a temple here.) While I don't think I'm really a CouchSurfing person, I think there were some definite benefits to staying with locals.  We never would have eaten the delicious local food we did, nor been able to go through the temple if we hadn't had someone with us.  So that was great.

Awesome dragon.

Looking out over Xindian.

Our host, Samantha.

Very cool view of the temple complex.

Dragon side.

Phoenix side.

Carin and I with the phoenix.

Incense burning.

This is the sign that tells you how many incense sticks to take, and burners to light them.

Decorating for Lunar New Year.

Fortune sticks.

All the fortunes are in this cabinet.

Samantha interpreting my fortune.

Fortune explanation book.

On the way back from the Taoist temple we popped into this little Buddhist temple on the way home.  I have heard before about Buddhists monks who, when they are cremated, appear to have had stones or gems inside their body that survive the cremation.  These are purported to be evidence of their great piety, and are only found in the most devout and devoted monks.  On a little side street in Xindian, there is a small Buddhist temple called Haizang Temple, that houses a monk whose entire body was said to have turned to "stone" (evidence that he reached the highest level of piety).  Samantha told us that the story was the monk (Qingyan) told his followers that after he died they were not to cremate him, but rather put him in a large pot and seal it for six years. He was placed, in a sitting position, into a tub that was then filled with charcoal before being sealed with cement, lacquer and asphalt. The tub was buried on a nearby hillside.  When they opened the tub on the six year anniversary of his death, Qingyan's body was perfectly preserved.  They covered it with lacquer and then a coating of gold.  This "body relic" now sits in the temple, available for visitors to see.  Absolutely fascinating.  (Read an entire study/article I found here.)  Sadly, I don't have pictures (it just felt weird).

Buddha outside the temple.

By that time we needed start getting ready for our tour.  We grabbed some coffee and headed up to the Caesar Park Hotel to meet our tour guides for our trip to Wulai Waterfall and the Aboriginal Village. The tour was...interesting.  It was just the two of us and a couple from Philly who were in Taiwan for a wedding.  We were in a little minivan with a driver and a guide.  Turns out the minibus brought us allllll the way back down to Xindian, right by the metro station we had left about an hour before.  Annoying.  The drive was a MAD MAN.  We took tons of hair pin turns in the rain at excessive speeds and I was constantly clutching the straps on the chairs in hopes of holding myself into the seats.  It was insane.

Now for a little Taiwanese history.  Taiwan has a history sort of reminiscent of the US, in that they are really only about 400 years old.  The Portuguese first "discovered" Taiwan/Formosa, and then the Dutch colonized it.  By the time the Chinese came, the indigenous tribes's numbers had already been greatly diminished.  Aborigines were forced out of their territory and underwent some brutal assimilation tactics.  Sound familiar? At this point, there are only 14 recognized aboriginal tribes in Taiwan, and only relatively small numbers of aborigines are in each tribe.  Much of their culture (including head hunting and facial tattoos) has been lost, but some traditions (weaving and carving for example) remain.  We went to visit an Atayal village, and honestly, had you not told me it was aboriginal, I wouldn't have known.  It was simply a street with shops, and small Atayal musuem we visited.  We were supposed to go on a push car ride there as well, but that was cancelled due to maintenance.  After walking around the village, we went out to Wulai waterfall.  It was pretty, but not spectacular.  After snapping some photos in the soggy weather we were herded into an overpriced gift shop with pushy/hovering sales people to await a traditional dance performance.  The performance was decent, but included a lot of overblown special effects like fire jets, smoke, and strobe lights, which I found odd.  But the dancing was pretty great, especially since they were all between the ages of about 15 and 30 and all came from the tribe.

Lake on the way to Wulai.

Aboriginal village.

Thousand year eggs...the idea of which makes me die a thousand deaths on the inside.


And now featuring...a scooter!

Then came the true horror...the wedding dance.  (Let me preface by sharing a tradition the Atayal have.  When a man and woman get married, the man puts this little wooden chair with straps on his back and has to carry the bride back to their home.  This is a show of his strength and ability to care for his wife. Now back to the story.)  Of COURSE they have to pull people up from the audience to participate in the wedding dance, and of COURSE they come over and target Carin and I.  We say no, repeatedly, but they are insistent, and for ONCE in my life, I think "what the hell, how bad could it be?" and we go up.  I am an idiot.  We get up there and they start giving out these vests to wear.  I notice my vest is a different color but figure, eh, what the hell.  Then I get a headband no one else has.  And a lei.  And I'm being led up on stage when no-one else is...OH CRAP.  Yeah, I was the bride in this little wedding scenario.  I played along at the beginning.  Bowing? Sure.  Drinking out of the ceremonial cup? Why not. But then they brought out the chair...and it became eminently clear that they had scoped the audience for the biggest girl and were going to do a real feat of strength.  I hope the audience heard me over the singing as I gasped and said "No. No (expletive)ing way.  No way.  No, absolutely not.  There is no (expletive)ing way I am getting in that.  No. No. No." In the end I was hefted into the chair that was strapped to the back of a spindly Taiwanese boy, probably having a negative impact on his joints and health for years to come.  It was horrifying and scary and extremely embarrassing and they had the gall to not only take a photo, but try and charge me for it later.  Um, hello?  The only way I would buy that photo would be to burn it.  And now we shall never speak of this again.

Statue in town showing off the wretched tradition.

Our driver brought us back to downtown Taipei and we killed some time before meeting Samantha, David, two of their Taiwanese friends, an American expat and her half-Taiwanese four year old, and a man from Mexico for dinner.  The place they had wanted to go was closed, so we ended up hoofing around for a while before ending up at a tasty beef noodle place where I ate some delicious spicy beef noodles and tasty veggie sides. After dinner we headed over to a cafe/museum owned by a doctor who collects Taiwan memorabilia. It was an interesting place, but we traipsed in just before they were closing.  Luckily I spend most of the time bonding/playing with Emerick, the four year old.  After the cafe we stopped at the original Din Tai Fung on the way to a night market that eventually brought us back to the metro.  I had a fun ride home playing with Emerick, and then it was off to bed because we had an early start the next day.

Home of our second dinner of delicious beef noodles.

Museum cafe.

Absolutely precious dumpling mascot.

David pushing Emerick in the stroller, with his mom Lynne and a family friend.

It has been 100 years since Taiwan officially became the Republic of China.

Friday morning we had to wake up at the crack of dawn (4:13am, to be precise) in order to leave for our Taroko Gorge trip.  I heard a lot of hype about Taroko Gorge being stunning, and one of the seven wonders of Asia, so I was down to pay $150 for a day trip.  100% NOT DISAPPOINTED.  It was a beautiful day.  We left Samantha and David's house at 5:00am and headed up to our meeting point.  After re-energizing with some McDonalds breakfast (long time since I had that) we took the mini-bus over to the local airport and took the quick half hour flight over to Hualien.  Carin and I were both asleep before take-off and didn't wake up until the plane landed.  It was, perhaps, the most restorative nap I've ever taken.  We got to Hualien and were greeted by beautiful mountains, fluffy white clouds, and SUN.  It was wonderful.  Our tourguide, Josephine, took us to the beach first.  Details are a little sketchy, but I am pretty sure it was the Pacific Ocean.  So blue and stunning.  Carin and I walked around a bit before it was time to meet up with the last of our group and head into the gorge.  We were joined by a Filipino couple, and a family from Australia, made up of an Australian dad who is a biology professor, a Chinese-Australian mom, and their 17-year-old bilingual daughter.  And, of course, our driver and Josephine.  The gorge was really beautiful and my pictures don't even begin to do it justice.  We spent most of the day driving through the gorge visiting a tea house, various bridges, a small temple, and a suspension bridge.  The weather was perfect.  We also ate a very tasty aboriginal lunch. It was just a great day.

Just touched down in Hualien's airport.

Either the Pacific Ocean or the Philippine Sea.


Travelling buddies on the beach.

Look at all that Taiwanese marble and granite!

Entrance to the Gorge.

Pretty backdrop.

That path looks a little treacherous...

The roads were just cut into solid rock.  It was pretty sweet.

The water was very pretty greens, blues and grays because it had a lot of mineral run off.

I match the scenery!

Just a few signs.

Bridge of Motherly Devotion.  This one's for you, mom.

Taking in the gorge on a sunny day.

Lion standing guard.

Fun little baby pagoda.

Walking on the suspension bridge (that I suspect we were not allowed on without a permit).

View from the bridge.

Tea house perched on the hillside.  I drank a very sour, very tasty kumquat lemonade there.

Hard hat area made me look like a dufus.

The Australians taking in the damage done by a recent rock slide.

Watch out for those pesky rock slides!

Our fantastic aboriginal meal, including (clockwise): bean soup, bamboo rice, veggies, pork skin and cabbage, salsa, mushrooms, and fish.

"Aboriginal dancer" art piece outside of the restaurant.

Their cherry blossoms are already blooming! In January!

Lots of art.

Temple in the mountains.

Close up!

Pretty doorway.

View from the side (with its name carved in the rock).

After we were done in the gorge, we stopped at a rice cake/food outlet and a marble/jade outlet and showroom.  The jade, especially seven-color jade which I had never heard of, was breathtaking.  And way, way, way out of my price range (of course).  When we were done at the factory it was time to board the train for the 2.5 hour train ride back to Taipei, which I spent reading and napping. I had hoped to meet Carl (who happened to be in Taipei visiting his girlfriend's family) Friday night, but that never happened.  Instead we got dinner, went back and chatted with Samantha and David (said our goodbyes to Samantha who was leaving early the next morning), packed our stuff, and went to bed.

Happy Year of the (Marble) Rabbit!

Fantastically beautiful seven color jade.  It is hard to believe that this is naturally occurring.

Saturday morning we got some fantastic breakfast with David before heading to the airport.  One thing I loved about Taiwan is that they have actual traditional breakfast foods.  Saturday we had this thing where they take a thin crepe, top it with a layer of omelet, and then add meat before rolling it all up.  They slice the roll into pieces and provide dipping sauce.  So good! We also shared a tasty chicken sandwich (made me miss Chic-fil-a just a touch).  The flight home took less than two hours and I was back at my apartment (freezing my ass off) by 6:30pm.

General thoughts about Taiwan:
+ People are extremely nice. They do common courtesy things you never see in Korea, like holding open doors, not staring at people, and picking up others' trash.
+ It is extremely clean, which I very much appreciate.
+ Taiwan not only has breakfast food, but bakeries that are stocked in the morning.
+ Transportation is cheap and efficient.
+ Taipei is much greener than Seoul, which I really like.  Certainly the warmer temperatures help.
- Scooters are everywhere, including all over the sidewalks.
- Once you are out of Taipei, English usage definitely drops off.
- Chinese is damn hard.  Even matching the symbols was difficult for me, let alone knowing what they mean!

Sunday was spent at an ice fishing festival which will be detailed in my next post.  The good news is that I should have plenty of time to write it soon since this week is Seollal (Lunar New Year) and we have no school Wednesday-Friday, giving us a nice little 5-day holiday.  More details to come!


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