Friday, April 29, 2011

Ni hao Taipei!

Brett and I landed safely in Taiwan last night. Our cab dropped us off on a corner near our hostel and the driver sort of gestured in the direction we needed to walk, but we got out of the car and just stood there shell shocked for a moment. There was no pinyin or English on the street signs and we were next to a noisy night market. A Taiwanese man stopped and asked if we needed help, and walked several blocks with us until he got us to the door of our hostel. So friendly!

The proprietress of our hostel is a very sweet Taiwanese woman named Vanessa and we were helped by a girl named Phoenix to their second building around the corner where their private rooms were. Thank the lord for hostels with double beds and ensuite bathrooms. We both wanted to hug Phoenix after she showed us our AC, mini fridge, free wireless, and in-suite washer/dryer unit.

Brett managed to shower without electrocuting himself on the first night which was a bonus. The thing about Taiwanese bathrooms is that the shower isn’t in its own separate stall or anything. Our shower head is attached to the sink faucet, so you are standing and showering yourself between the sink, toilet and washer/dryer (thus the fear of electrocution). Fortunately it’s so hot here and the building’s ventilation is so good that the floor dries within a couple of hours.

We wandered into the night market just a few meters away from our door for dinner and we were not disappointed. It was a little less terrifying than the snack streets in Beijing, and I soon found a stall selling spicy roasted corn. Boje bought a skewer at the adjoining stall of what he thought was flattened chicken breast, but they actually turned out to be little delicious pancakes! Then we went to another stall and got this delicious greasy wrap made from a fried onion cake, a fried egg (ji dan), and cabbage. I promise this won’t turn into a mundane blog about the food we eat every day, but it was just such a relief to walk down a road and have food options that weren’t scuttling on the ground hours earlier.

Today was a very sweaty, smoggy day in Taipei. We wandered over to Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world, which is very close to our hostel. It’s just under twice the height of the Bow in Calgary. It has a crazy big food court full of authentic food we don’t know how to order yet. We did successfully order fruit juice though and that was very exciting! The observation deck of the building was closed due to the smog, but we’re going to try again this week!

After that we went to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial building nearby. He was one of the revolutionaries responsible for making Taiwan what it is today. We stared at old men flying kites for quite a while outside and then got to see a very impressive changing of the guard in front of S Y-S’s statue.

We had an embarrassing setback at the memorial building today. We kept seeing signs for a cafe and were extremely thirsty so when we found it we were delighted. It seemed to be a buffet-style restaurant but we grabbed a drink and sat down to wait for someone to come by for an awkward Chinese-English exchange as we are growing accustomed to around here. No one came by and we soon realized that we were at a buffet-only venue. We explained to the waitress that we didn’t want food and thought we were just buying a drink and she ran away without saying much. Then a second server came out and we explained again. His English seemed better and he approached the first waitress to explain. We then watched them chat and laugh in Chinese at the stupid white people who don’t even know how to eat at a buffet. Sigh. She then had to go talk to a third person. THEN she had to go call someone else to involve a fourth person in the conversation about our dumb mistake and then eventually came back and only charged us $100 NTD for the whole sordid experience (which works out to about $3 CAD). Embarrassing. So embarrassing.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wednesday, April 27th. Beijing.

Today, our last full day in Beijing, we decided to head to the Summer Palace. It was an absolutely resplendent day, we couldn’t have asked for better weather. Pictures attached. 

I think Amanda and I would agree that the Summer Palace was the highlight of Beijing for us. The buildings were very well maintained and the gardens through which you could wander were serene. 

Overlooking a large lake, we hired an electric four seater boat for an hour and took to the waters for an escape from the crowds. While close to one shoreline we were able to see and overhear an older Chinese man strolling along the lake front path singing beautifully – albeit, to us, unintelligibly. 

In the evening we headed down to two different “snack street markets” just off of Wangfujing Street. Both markets contained a veritable plethora of things no westerner would ever think to put in their mouth. Scorpions, larvae, tarantulas, sea horses, lamb testicles, heart (of all different sizes), whole deep fried bird, starfish, lizard. All above were skewered and in many cases these were skewered alive and not killed until cooked right before your eyes. 

We happened to overhear an American tourist ask one of the vendors “what is seahorse good for?!?” to which the vendor replied “good for big penis!!!”.  

It was a great experience to see with our own eyes and we are grateful to our friend Janice for recommending both the Summer Palace and Snack Street, neither of which disappointed.

The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace
Boating at the Summer Palace
The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace
Wangfujing "Snack Street"
R1C1 Lizard. R1C2 Larvae. R1C3 Starfish. R2C1 Tarantulas. R2C2 Large Scorpions. R2C3 More Larvae. R3C1 Seahorses. R3C2&3 Small Scorpions.
Dong'anmen "Snack Street"

Two kinds of tripe, continued...

Now that you know about our driver Beijing Joe, I will tell you what he told me, which is that it was not two kinds of tripe, it was tripe and intestine. Mmm mmmmm. Yummy!!

Tuesday, April 26, More Beijing.

This morning we were picked up by Beijing Joe for our trip to the Great Wall! We had a brief photo op near the Olympic village and then were driven through some beautiful orchards to the Ming Tombs. 

The Ming Tombs, or the Underground Palace, were a bit disappointing. Brett describes it as more of a Ming “bunker”. The walls and floor had been refinished to feel like a warehouse and there wasn’t really much to see inside. Despite this, I was really impressed by the view from outside the structure. All you could see for miles was the tops of trees and misty mountains. Gorgeous. 

We spent the afternoon at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall and it was so beautiful! Badaling is the more tourist-friendly than Mutianyu and I can see why. You have to climb a hill and a bunch of stairs just to get to the cable car to take you up to the wall. We asked Joe if it would be a good idea to walk up to the wall but he said it was a 50 minute switchback hike and we were under a time crunch. The Great Wall was very cool, it’s just too bad we happened to go on a very windy and rainy day! 
After the Great Wall we were driven back through some small villages and quiet countryside to the city to catch an acrobatics show! We were both really impressed by all the crazy-talented acrobats (and by the vending machines full of cold beer!).

Bird's Nest & Aquatics Centre
Ming Tombs Gardens
Ming Tombs Gardens
Lunch before the Great Wall
Cable car up to Tower 18.
Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall
The Great Wall

Monday, April 25 (Mao money mo problems)

Flying into Beijing was my nightmare. If this blog were mine alone, it would be called the Nauseous Traveler. We had to go through about 45 minutes of severe turbulence before finally touching down. I hadn’t been so airsick since a flight to Disneyland in the fifth grade when I threw up so much the guy across the aisle started sympathy puking. At least on the Beijing flight there were a dozen other people throwing up as well. Vindicated!

Note - Sorry about the awkward postdated blog entries for China, but now there’s tons to read over morning coffee or for those of you who need a time filler so you can avoid your job! (You know who you are).

Today is Forbidden City day! The Forbidden City (or Gugong) is awesome and something you should see if you’re in Beijing.

Entering the Forbidden City was interesting. There were huge, overwhelming crowds. Something we found funny was the security checkpoint at the entrance where you could voluntarily have your bag scanned... or not.

The FC is huge. So. Much. Walking. Every time we walked up another set of stairs to go through one of the “Gates” of the city, we would be surprised to see another gigantic courtyard. As Brett declared once we passed through our fourth or fifth gate, “Bloody hell, it does go on forever!” It was so beautiful though. Walking through places like that always makes me wonder about the people who used to live and work and do all their daily stuff there. So interesting!

Near the end of the Forbidden City we went into one of the side buildings to an art show. It was so tempting to buy the beautiful paintings on silk and rice paper! B and I agreed that if we were just on a regular vacation we definitely would have bought some artwork to take home, especially after a woman working at the exhibit laughed and said we were “baby face for not students, very cute”. I love China.

After that we hung out for a bit in Tienanmen Square where there were lots of soldiers around. Half of them were marching together and the rest were chatting in groups and taking photos with Mao’s portrait. One near the back of the marching group was holding a civilian's baby and he was laughing and making the baby wave at us as we exchanged smiles with him. It was a really cool moment. So far so good.

PS - I didn't know Mao was going to be on all the money! And fun fact, China's national flower is the peony which also flourishes in Alberta!

Monday, April 25th. Beijing.

These posts are backdated as we were not able to log onto blogspot while in Beijing. The Great Firewall of China is apparently not a fan of blogging!


I’ll have two different kinds of tripe with that please

So our day yesterday got off to an adventurous start. Making our way down the main (somewhat touristy) Wangfujing Street we ventured off a busy but less touristy side street heading for the East entrance to the Forbidden City. We wandered for quite a while and given that we had a fairly light meal the evening before, we were definitely distracted / disoriented by our noses.

We passed by a few places that seemed clean, well kept, well established, with tourists sitting at tables on display in the window (a clever and deliberate placement I’m sure) but as we realized that we were getting closer and closer to the Forbidden City where we assumed the food would be very touristy and very overpriced, we decided to dart in the first place we could find that we felt capable of communicating with the proprietor.

In this case “communicating with the proprietor” amounted to pointing to pictures that were large and clearly laid out on the wall as the owners could not speak any English and we could not speak any practical mandarin for ordering food “off menu”. I decided to point to a large picture of what appeared to me to be rice vermicelli with pork and bok choy in a soup like broth. Amanda then pointed to the same.

In retrospect, I now understand the moment of hesitation on the owners face as he was probably thinking “do these Westerners really know what they’re ordering?”. Well we didn’t.

The large bowls we were presented did look to be the same as the picture, I am sure of that, but a more accurate description of the meal would be rice vermicelli noodles with bok choy and with slices of beef and two different kinds of tripe in spicy broth.

Honestly, I’m not even sure it was two types of tripe. There was definitely tripe and then there was something that was black/brown, and looked a bit like the tripe. I’ve no doubt that it was some kind of animal product.

 That aside, wanting not to offend, I ate down to the bottom of the bowl, leaving little behind. My verdict, tripe is not too bad, but never in my life will a day go by where I think to myself, mmmmm, I could really go for some tripe right about now.

Paying for the meal was a little awkward but it did provide me with an opportunity to practice some Lonely Planet handbook Mandarin - I’m sure the laughter was saved for after we left the restaurant! I ordered a coke for Amanda and me to share and our bill came to 41RMB, which is about $6CAD.

To The Forbidden City!

Getting from the restaurant was easy enough, apart from the terror of crossing through pedestrian intersections on roadways.

Pedestrian Safety Tip:
In Canada, Pedestrians will walk through an intersection without necessarily looking for traffic, even if they do see a car coming they will walk through the intersection expecting that traffic will stop for them.
In Beijing, Drivers will drive through intersections without necessarily looking for pedestrians, even if they do see pedestrians they will drive through the intersection expecting that pedestrians will get out of the way for them.

Canadian drivers with Beijing pedestrians would make for a pretty accident free combination. I can’t say the same would be the case with Beijing drivers and Canadian pedestrians!!!!

As far as the rest of our day goes I will defer to Amanda to provide the details…

Sunday, April 24th. Beijing.

These posts are backdated as we were not able to log onto blogspot while in Beijing. The Great Firewall of China is apparently not a fan of blogging!

So we landed safe and sound in Beijing. The flight was ok as far as can be expected. I was impressed by the airport in that it was very English friendly and easy to navigate.

Catching a cab was an interesting experience. It was immediately clear that the driver did not speak any English (fair enough!) but we had printed out our hotel address on a piece of paper in both Mandarin characters and English. Upon providing him with the piece of paper, there was an exchange of nods and we were off!

It took us about 90 minutes to reach our hotel in fairly heavy traffic. Most of the journey was on the motorway and there were a number of accidents to be seen on the side of the road on the way. Driving here is very aggressive and it is not at all uncommon for 2 cars to try to squeeze ahead of each other side by side in a single lane. Oh yes, and if you run out of lanes, just use the hard shoulder!

We were very pleased when we got to our hotel. It seems to be in a pretty (comparatively) pedestrianized area. Checking in was a little difficult, not because of any language issues, but because just as we got to the check-in counter a paid lobby performer started belting out some classical piano pieces not ten feet from where we were standing.  Consequently my exchange with the reception desk lady proceeded just as you would expect it to if there had been a language barrier - plenty of loud talking and numerous requests for each other to repeat themselves. Ha!!

Tomorrow we are off to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. We will take lots of pictures!  

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Last night in Vancouver, Goodbye Canada

Well our stay in Vancouver has certainly flown by or so it feels that way. We have had a wonderful time staying here if only for a few days.

Both Amanda and I have had a chance to catch up with some friends that we have not seen in a long time and will look forward to seeing again.

Tonight Amanda had an "Indian Greek Fusion" dinner with surprise entertainment, belly dancers! Lordy!! I on the other hand I had a much more subdued evening in, catching up on emails before our departure.

The weather has been great and every day we have been here we have walked half across the city. It was also nice to have some good weather to leave Canada from instead of the snow that bid us farewell in Calgary!

Tomorrow we fly to Beijing where I'm sure we will have plenty to blog about!

Good night, for now, and farewell Canada!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Vancouver Pictures.

See Amanda's post below for what we have been getting up to.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I love Vancouver

I am sunburnt. Already. Anyone who has ever seen me on a sunny day will not be surprised. Actually, today when B was going through some pictures of me he’d taken that morning, he oh-so-casually commented that it will be really nice when “we” get a bit of a tan in Taiwan. I guess my pasty complexion wasn’t so noticeable back in Calgary.

Vancouver has been great. We walked to Granville Island yesterday and ate our faces off at the Public Market, then today we caught a bus to English Bay and posed awkwardly for photos on the beach. After that we had dinner with B’s friend, Pierre. As a Canadian who lived in Japan for a while he was able to give us some solid advice to keep in mind for acclimatizing to life in Taiwan.

I wish we had more time to spend here. I love Vancouver so much! It helps that Rob is a great host and that the weather has been so beautiful. I don’t even feel nauseous on the buses here and you can’t travel a block in this city without smelling something delicious! I’m in love.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Two days left before Vancouver... no wait, we are in Vancouver!

So the danger of starting and not finishing and uploading a blog post is that in just a matter of days it will become out of date and irrelevant. I have scrapped my earlier unposted draft that started "Two days before Vancouver" and I will try to do better at not falling behind!

Without a doubt the hardest thing of the last month or so has been not just getting ourselves ready to leave but also saying goodbye to as many people as possible before leaving. So long as there was a single person out there (and there were many) that I wanted to say goodbye to in person but didn't get the chance to, I feel that our departure did not go as I would have liked.

I hope that those I missed will forgive me and understand that they will be the FIRST to be contacted upon our return!

We arrived in Van this evening to green grass, daffodils and sunshine. Just missed the cherry blossoms but spring is looking beautiful here, I do love Vancouver!

For dinner we went to a South Indian restaurant on Kingsway and had some excellent Dosas with our friend and host Rob. The food reminded me of the great meal that our friends Vidya and Raj cooked for us during our second or third last week in Calgary. It's funny that on our first night away from Calgary, comfort food would come in the form of South Indian cuisine!

We will be sure to take pictures while we are here in Vancouver and try to get some up on our blog before heading on to Beijing.

A couple things to get straight before signing off...

1. I have never blogged before, so forgive me of any monotonous or mundane posts. I trust my writing skills will improve with the aid of my editor extraordinaire (Amanda)... who is currently sleeping on the job!

2. Yes, I am rather excited and an astonishingly large number of my sentences will likely end with exclamation points! I will look to my editor to reign me in when things begin to get out of hand, but not tonight!!!!!

Good night, for now.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

More Immunizations!

Back in December, B and I went to the International Travel Clinic downtown and got flu shots, various hepatitis vaccines, and prescriptions for antibiotics to be used for emergencies while we’re in Taiwan.

We realized last week that since we’ve added a stop in China to our itinerary, we would now need a typhoid shot and some Dukoral - an oral vaccine to protect us from cholera and E. coli. When we went back to the clinic to take care of this, I also got a free pneumonia vaccine! If you are over 65 or have a history of cancer, you should get hooked up with this.

Today we were supposed to drive up to Red Deer to drop off my car and to see my sister for the last time before we leave but with the stupid snow storm (in April, no less) it might not happen after all. Awful road conditions that only seem to happen on days I need to travel are something I will definitely not miss about Canada.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Flights and Accommodations Booked!

After a lengthy visit with Shannon at Flight Centre and hours of combing through reviews of hostels, hotels, and tour companies, Boj and I have finished booking the first few weeks of our trek. After staying with Rob in Vancouver we’ll be spending four nights in Beijing at a hotel we booked through Expedia. We found a very helpful website called HostelWorld through which we’ve booked one hostel for the first week in Taipei, then two different hostels for the following two weeks in Kaohsiung. Our first two weeks in Kaohsiung will be spent searching for jobs - hopefully not on opposite ends of the city!

Exciting fact: Our first full day in Kaohsiung will be Cinco de Bojo (or B’s birthday, for those of you who don’t celebrate the 5th with enchiladas and margaritas).

I’m getting really excited about our short stay in Vancouver on the way to Asia. Van will be a good way to de-stress and ease myself into my homesickness, and I know B is really looking forward to catching up with his friends out there. I’m also excited to see my friend Laurel for the first time in over a year!

Beijing is exciting too, but way more intimidating and complicated to book. We’re thankful for consumer reviews at TripAdvisor and for our friend Janice who not only gave us tons of advice but who also lent us her copy of Lonely Planet: China. The hotel we’ve booked is apparently only five minutes away from the Forbidden City! Also, while reading about the things we should visit during our stay, we found the contact for an English-speaking driver in Beijing, BJ Joe! He will be our driver and tour guide for a full day at the Ming Tombs, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, the Olympic Village, and an acrobatics show.