Sunday, July 31, 2011

Shilin Night Market (士林夜市) and the kickoff to Ghost Month!

Last night Boje and I joined some colleagues at Shilin Night Market (just across the road from Jiantan MRT station) and then for drinks at a pub called the Brass Monkey. Shilin was absolutely packed with people, though this was unsurprising as weekends are always a little crazier at night markets. It’s apparently the biggest night market in Taipei, and we barely scratched the surface. It was tough to find a food stall in the section we’d entered, but we took the edge off our hunger with some nai cha (milk tea). We were lucky that one of the guys with us grew up speaking Mandarin and paying visits to his relatives in Taiwan. Because of this, he was really familiar with night market fare and helped us out by ordering some delicious beef noodle soup which I slopped all over myself immediately. (Sorry, casual pants. You will be stained forever... or at least until I throw you out when I return to Canada and can afford to buy a new pair.) The Brass Monkey afterwards was pretty fun too! It was nice to have a last hurrah before the beginning of training... I suspect I will be early to bed for the rest of the week!

Today we met up with Jenny’s lifelong friend and her husband for a chat at a lovely tea house called Chun Shui Tang. They are a popular chain and the originator of Taiwan’s famous pearl milk tea (or bubble tea as we call it in North America!) I had a cold tie kuan yin tea (a delicious Chinese leaf) and Brett had a matcha milk tea with honey red bean paste and cookies balanced in the foam. Dessert and tea all in one! We also drank pots and pots of jin shuan, a delicious Chinese tea that smells like milky butter. Mmmm.

Over tea, our friends told us all about ghost month which started today. It was an interesting follow-up to a conversation we’d had with Milton and Jenny shortly before we left Kaohsiung. Apparently the entire seventh lunar month is when ghosts are very active. The first day of the lunar month (today) is when the gates of hell open and ghosts are released into the world of the living. All month, families and businesses burn ghost money and leave offerings to appease/support their ancestors and other spirits. Jenny also “warned” us that during ghost month you shouldn’t stay out late and should avoid water. Ghosts of people who drowned are known to pull swimmers down into the water to die so the ghost can take the living person’s place! Eep!

After our lovely visit with our new friends, we washed our clothes at a nearby coin laundromat which was a relief, and afterwards we had a very enjoyable dim sum dinner. I tried suckling pig for the first time - delicious. This weekend has been very satisfying, and I’m looking forward to the start of training tomorrow!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Taipei 101 (臺北101), Elephant Mountain (象山) and Orientation Day 1

Okay, okay, okay. A more serious blog entry for you... 

Taipei Zoo was very impressive and one of the best zoos we have been to. 

We ended Wednesday on the observation deck of Taipei 101. It costs $400 NT/person to go up but the views were well worth it. I had my camera with me but no tripod which was a real disappointment when presented with such beautiful panoramas but luckily I still managed to snap a couple shots by resting my camera on a ledge. Two such pictures can be seen at the end of my previous post. 

The following day Amanda and I ran some errands, in particular to Carrefour so that I could buy some smarter pants for teaching (no shorts allowed). While there I also decided to buy a camera tripod, albeit a very cheap one that will be a throw-away / give-away when it comes to leaving Taiwan. 

In the afternoon I decided to take advantage of the clear skies and my new tripod and go for a trail hike on Elephant Mountain in the hopes of getting some good pictures of Taipei 101 and the Taipei skyline. The hike was a pretty steep set of stone steps that I climbed for about 30 minutes going at a quick pace (racing not to miss the setting sun!). When I reached a good lookout I found myself in the company of about 10-20 other photographers, some of whom had climbed atop great boulders and set-up their tripods and camera gear waiting for the the ideal late-afternoon / early-evening light. I had to go a little off-trail to find a decent perch but, once found, I set-up my gear and waited from about 6pm to 7:30pm. The wait was worth it and I think I got a few decent pictures right near the end of my stay. 

Today we had our first day of orientation consisting of our medical exams, a short city bus tour and a delicious lunch. We’ve begun to meet some of the other foreigners that will be training alongside us and it is clearly a very diverse and friendly group of people that we look forward to getting to know better.

This evening Amanda and I went for Cantonese style dim sum at a restaurant in Brother Hotel just a little way down Nanjing East Rd. Amanda had read about the restaurant via a Taiwan food blogger called a hungry girl's guide to taipei. The food was excellent and it was the first time that we have had Cantonese style dim sum since leaving Canada. I definitely hope we will be able to visit again before leaving Taipei.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Taipei Zoo & Taipei 101

Giant Panda facing the WRONG direction!!!
Oh hi there!
Click on the image to enlarge. Did you notice the little spider on the big spider's back? Psych!!!
You looking at me?
In no hurry
Rhino having a rest
This gorilla is not in the mist
Which is creepier?
Not a children's doll
View from Taipei 101 observation deck
View from Taipei 101 observation deck

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

National Palace Museum

This afternoon Boje and I took a highly anticipated trip to Taipei’s National Palace Museum. We were excited to spend the day out of the rain, and after paying NT$160 each to get in we headed towards the exhibit entrance.

A museum employee stopped Boje on our way in, telling him to please leave his camera at the check-in counter because there is no photography allowed at the museum. He was just carrying the camera over his shoulder today and we had no backpack or purse to put it in for safekeeping, so naturally this idea made us both a little uncomfortable. She insisted we could not bring the camera in and walked away. Just as we were considering turning around to leave, she suddenly came back and produced a paper bag for us to stow the camera in as we walked around the museum! I was very grateful for her accommodating attitude. There was no way B would tolerate being separated from his camera, and I really didn’t want to shell out for cab rides and museum admission twice!

The NPM has a huge permanent collection of Asian works which used to be housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing. When war broke out between Nationalist and Communist groups in China, most of the collection was sent to Taiwan where it has remained since. We saw lots of beautiful pottery, jade carvings, calligraphy, and paintings as well as plenty of other beautiful artifacts commissioned to honour various emperors and deities of Asia’s past.

While many of the exhibits were interesting and beautifully curated, the museum itself has an awkward layout. There isn’t a natural flow to the order one might visit each room and so we frequently found ourselves backtracking through huge, swarming crowds while trying to find an exhibit we hadn’t yet seen.

B was a bit disappointed when trying to photograph the outside of the museum. The light wasn’t great today and we had low-lying clouds. We had a good time, but I think we had built up some unrealistic expectations about the NPM so we were a bit let down. That said, I do still think the museum is worth a look for people visiting Taipei!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ni hao Taipei! (Take 2!)

We’ve only been in Taipei six hours and already I miss Kaohsiung, but we got off on the right foot today with a smooth transition from the High Speed Rail station to the hotel. We’re staying at a place chosen by the school we’ll be training with next week, and so far I’m very impressed with the number of shelves, tables, and drawers to spread our stuff around. A highly underrated commodity!

Tonight we took it easy and ran a couple of errands, and went for the first sushi we’ve had since we were in Canada! Boje is chomping at the bit to check out the National Palace Museum as well as the observation deck on Taipei 101 and I really want to go to the Taipei Zoo, so we have lots to plan tonight!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dumplings, dessert, and Yuan Heng Temple (元亨寺)

Yesterday Stanley took us for some delicious rice dumplings (filled with pork, egg, mushrooms, and covered in a warm peanutty sauce), rice cake, and intestine soup. This was our second day in a row eating intestines as Stanley had served us some the night before as an appetizer at his restaurant. Once you get past the idea that you’re eating entrails, they’re not so bad! Fittingly, they kind of taste like hot dogs. Think about that next time you have one of those! 

We each had a bowl of intestine soup, rice cake with pork, and rice dumpling with pork.
After our delicious lunch, Stanley drove us to Yuan Heng Temple, one of the largest temples in southern Taiwan. It is on the side of Shoushan and is home to many beautiful structures as well as a large number of male and female monks. Brett and Stanley both took quite a few pictures, though I don’t know if ours will be up on the blog anytime soon. Brett’s been pretty preoccupied with sorting through his photos from Singapore!

A monk walks down a corridor at Yuan Heng Temple
Brett & Amanda
Stanley & Brett
Buddha statues at Yuan Heng Temple
One of many towers at Yuan Heng Temple
Yuan Heng Temple

After Yuan Heng, we went for chua bin or shaved ice. I had mango ice, Brett had mixed fruit with “milk ice” (made by shaving frozen milk), and Stanley had pudding and milk ice covered in condensed milk. Too delicious!

Mixed fruit chua bin

We spent the evening relaxing, but eventually went out to grab a snack to eat while watching the Godfather. For a long time we’ve suspected the people on one of the top floors of using the elevator to go between upper floors, thus making the wait at the bottom a long one. Last night we finally shared an elevator with the culprits - a brother and sister no older than seven years. When the elevator doors opened and the children realized a pair of waiguoren were coming aboard, the little girl almost lost her mind with excitement. She took in a huge breath of air and held it in her cheeks like a blowfish, while also grinning ear to ear. They both stared up at us, eyes twinkling with awe. As we got off the elevator and Brett called “Bye-bye!”, the girl looked ready to explode as she and her brother called “BYE-BYE!” after us.

I know no one will pity me for this sentiment, but I’m getting sad that our summer of funemployment is coming to a close! We’re handing back our internet device this afternoon but we’ll be reconnected on the evening of the 25th when we arrive at our training hotel.

Singapore: Episode II

The following day we made our way down to Clarke Quay and had a little gander. The first day we spent in Singapore I thought to myself “This isn’t as hot as I expected. I think Kaohsiung is hotter than this!”. Well by this point in our trip I was regretting those thoughts! Much of our day actually consisted of getting from A to B and then being so hot and tired that we would pause for an hour in the shade before moving on from B to C. 

Instead of walking around Clarke Quay and Boat Quay in the blistering sun we decided to take a riverboat cruise... more efficient, less walking and OUT OF THE SUN! The buildings, old and new, were all impressive and the cruise also took us past the Singapore Merlion (Singa-Laut in Malay). The Merlion is a mythical creature with the body of a fish and the head of a lion. It is a symbol of Singapore and often used as a mascot of the city. 

On the riverboat cruise
You might not be able to tell but there is a Merlion hiding behind my head.
The Singapore Merlion

Afterwards we walked over to the Marina Bay Sands resort which consists of three towers and a SkyPark shaped like a boat sitting atop the three. The resort is a casino, hotel and very fancy mall. The SkyPark boasts some amazing 360 views of Singapore as well as a large infinity pool (for hotel guests only) and bars and restaurants, some of which the public can access (after paying for admittance to the SkyPark). Amanda & I enjoyed alcoholic beverages at the SkyPark bar, once again seeking some shelter from the sun. 

Amanda with the Singapore Flyer in the background
Amanda in front of the Marina Bay Sands Resort
Inside the Marina Bay Sands shopping mall
View from the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark
View from the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark

Once we had our fill (one each) of extraordinarily expensive beverages, we made our way to UE Square to meet my friend Wai Shun again. He suggested that we go out for some Singapore seafood at a restaurant called Long Beach, located at Dempsey, a popular location with Singaporeans that has a large variety of restaurants, pubs and bars. The meal was great and we shared the company of Wai Shun, his wife, daughter, sister-in-law and niece. Two foods we tried worth noting were chili crab, a Singaporean specialty, and fried whole baby squid in a kind of barbecue sauce. This also proved to be the first time Amanda has eaten crab directly out of the shell. I do believe she enjoyed it. After dinner Wai Shun, Amanda and I walked through Dempsey’s and found a pub where we shared a few beers and had some good conversation to cap off the night. 

Chili Crab. Photo by Flickr user: yoodz

For our last day in Singapore, in the morning we enjoyed a final meal at Whampoa Makan Place, the outdoor food court that Amanda and I had come to love. We agreed it was a good thing that we didn’t live in Singapore because with such a wide variety of readily available and cheap food we certainly wouldn’t lose any weight, if anything we would put on a few pounds! Worth mentioning that despite many things being very expensive in Singapore, the outdoor food courts were still very reasonably priced and affordable. An excellent place to eat and not break the bank at the same time. 

After lunch we decided to return to Sentosa Island. There is so much to do on the island that we felt like we had missed a great deal on our first day there. This time round we spent our time at the Underwater World and at the beach. Underwater World was very well stocked with a wide variety of fish but I think it was even more well stocked with an even wider variety of tourists!!! By the end of our time there I definitely got a feeling for what it is like to be in a massive school of fish with no choice but to follow the herd - or school in this case. The best part of our time at Underwater World was the outdoor performance with two pink dolphins and two sealions. 

Pink dolphins at Sentosa Underwater World
Amanda on a beach on Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island has a number of man-made beaches. Believe it or not, the sand was all imported!!

In the evening we met up with Wai Shun and headed to East Coast Park for dinner. As one might deduce, East Coast Park is a park that runs along Singapore’s east coast, it also is the location of a number of outdoor food courts and restaurants, popular in the evening time, but apparently priced a little higher just based on their location. 

Wai Shun and I walked around briefly investigating some stalls and foods while Amanda guarded an empty table we found near the beach front. For dinner we ordered a veritable feast which included stingray with chili sauce, clams with chili sauce, bamboo clams, grilled calamari with chili sauce, seafood with noodles, steamed bok choy, rojak with dried cuttlefish (rojak is a mix of vegetables and pinapple in a sweet sauce), you tiao (fried dough) and bean curd with lettuce with sweet sauce and a chili sauce for dipping. As you may have noticed, there were quite a few dishes that incorporated chili!!! The food was really great, especially the bamboo clams and the stingray. It was also nice getting to spend our last evening with Wai Shun, a friend I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the year when he left Canada to return to Singapore. 

Wai Shun is a braver man than I, wearing a white shirt in front of a table with so much chili sauce!!!

We really enjoyed our time in Singapore and four days was a good duration to explore some of the main attractions. 

I’m happy to say that our entry back into Taiwan went as planned. We were issued with a new 90-day visa exempt entry and we are now preparing to head up to Taipei on the 25th so we can squeeze in a few days of sightseeing before we start our training & orientation on August 1st. Amanda and I are excited and a little nervous to start teaching on the 15th of August, but most of all we are eager to find out what city we will be assigned to. Our first choice was Kaohsiung, followed by Taichung and then Hsinchu. We won’t find out which city we are assigned to until the first week of August and although we are sure we will have fun no matter where we end up, we will certainly miss the friends and the city we have come to know during our time in KH.

You have been drinking! Your face is red!

This is not my half of the Singapore post. I just want to quickly relate how Amanda and I caught so much sun in Singapore that we were rather tanned (or crisp) when we returned to Kaohsiung. 

The first morning back we were both pretty exhausted so I just popped to Muddy Waters, the sandwich store on the corner of our street. When there the two ladies behind the counter, after seeing me, exchanged a few discreet words and some giggles ensued.

Moments later, while I was waiting for our take-out sandwiches, one of the two ladies plucked up the courage to talk to me and said “You have been drinking” and then pointing at my face and then at her face in a circling motion and she added “your face is red!”.

I chuckled and explained I had just got back from Singapore and caught too much sun. Not sure if they believed me but I think I conducted myself in an otherwise pretty sober manner!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Weekend in Singapore!

Breakfast Friday morning was a ripe dragon fruit given to us by Jenny and Milton. I’ve never eaten this before coming to Taiwan, but it is my new favourite thing. It’s a food that seems like it shouldn’t exist outside the pages of a Sci-fi novel. It’s something they’d serve on Star Trek. I love it. See photo below.

Dragon fruit

Friday was spent almost entirely in transit between Kaohsiung and Singapore. First, we took Taiwan High Speed Rail to Taoyuan, just south of Taipei. The tickets are a bit expensive at about NT $1300, but the experience is so efficient and comfortable. From the Taoyuan THSR station it’s just a quick shuttle bus to the Taoyuan Airport. Our flight was delayed by two hours and the line for a cab at Changi Airport was nearly an hour long, so by the time we arrived at our hotel in Singapore it was about 3 in the morning. Oie.

We crawled out of bed Saturday morning in time to have lunch with Brett’s Singaporean former colleague, Wai Shun, along with his wife, Mei, and their tiny adorable daughter. They drove us to a Singapore-style food court. These are roofed, permanent structures covering rows of stalls and tables. The stalls all have big signs advertising their specialties: drinks, rice, noodles, seafood, vegetarian dishes, fried snacks, or sweets. The blend of European, Malay, Indian, and Chinese influences in Singapore’s local cuisine means there’s a lot of variety and a lot of spice! We tried Hainanese chicken rice (a local specialty), along with stir-fried dishes involving “carrot cake” (a glutinous food made from radishes), noodles, rice, veggies, and delicious sauce. We also tried yu tiao (sticks of fried dough) as well as some tasty pancakes filled with red bean paste and peanut butter. SO GOOD. Brett didn’t photograph this meal as I was in way too much of a hurry to shovel it all into my face.

After lunch Wai Shun and Mei took us to Chinatown to wander around. It’s a very busy area crammed full of stalls trying to take a slice of the tourist pie. Before we parted ways for the afternoon, Wai Shun and Mei pointed out a booth selling durian, the tropical fruit famous for its unappetizing odour. Durian is banned from Singapore’s MRT stations because the smell is so pungent and clings to the air for hours... So obviously we had to try it.

Brett & Amanda in Chinatown
Brett & Wai Shun

I thought the durian’s flesh itself actually looked a lot like raw chicken or something. The fruit contains multiple large seeds, about the size of a large peach pit. Once you’ve put on your disposable plastic glove - I’m not kidding - you grab a segment of the durian surrounding one seed and just pop it into your mouth. My first thought was “How will I swallow this?” and I have to admit I panicked a little while my mouth was completely full of durian with Wai Shun and Mei looking eagerly on to see what I thought. Over the summer, Brett and I have tried some very unusual foods, but I’m having a hard time describing what that durian was like. The flesh felt like extremely ripe, stringy mango that had what almost felt like a fine skin holding it all together. Once you scrape the flesh off the pip and spit it out, the taste of the durian remains in your mouth for hours! Wai Shun and Mei provided us with coconut juice which we gratefully chugged to (unsuccessfully) wash away the taste. I would try durian again, but perhaps next time with my nose plugged. I think the smell overwhelmed my senses so I couldn’t enjoy the taste of the fruit on its own. Brett thinks durian blended with milk would be a nice drink, but that remains to be seen.

Forbidden on the Singapore MRT!!!
The place you get the plastic gloves from is the same place you get the durian!!!

Wai Shun and Mei left to go run some errands, and we walked around Chinatown for a while longer. We saw a beautiful Hindu temple unlike anything I've seen before. We also found a store devoted entirely to Tin Tin merchandise! B was so excited! It was also hilarious and exciting to be harassed by Chinatown tailors as we walked back through on our way to catch a train: "Hey where you from? You come here I make you a fine suit!"

Hindu temple in Singapore

After that, Brett and I caught the MRT to Orchard Road, a bustling street famous for its enormous malls. After an afternoon of walking through huge crowds of shoppers and tourists we headed to the Singapore Zoo for their famous Night Safari! This was truly a highlight of the trip. For $64, the two of us got tickets for entry and the tram. Before heading into the park we got to take in a fire-breathing show and wander through some beautiful shops and restaurants. The line for the tram was quite long, but once you’re on it’s a pleasant 40-minute ride around spotlit animal exhibits. There aren’t any fences or barriers between the tram and the animals. The closest thing to a boundary are moats protecting onlookers from big cats or a hedge keeping us out of the way of a rhino. The tram often passed within inches of grazing herds of animals. So cool! I also found it impressive that there were animals visible in every exhibit. There was none of that annoying craning and hoping to see something that was too shy to come out. All the animals were relaxing and hanging out in full view of the path. There were also walking paths where you could go to get a closer look. My favourite of the night was a beautiful pregnant leopard! I highly recommend this experience.

Lion on the night safari at the Singapore Zoo

After the Night Safari we got some extremely overpriced Singapore Slings and chicken skewers and called it a day! Gin is usually counted as one of the many things that make me throw up almost immediately, but it went down rather smoothly. The fact that it was mixed with Cherry Heering, Benedictine, and fresh pineapple juice probably didn’t hurt! We would soon learn that drinks are pricey almost everywhere in Singapore due to high taxes on alcohol.

Amanda with a Singapore Sling
Brett with a Singapore Sling & Satay Chicken

On Sunday morning we walked to a food court near our hotel for more delicious and affordable local fare. While the place was as busy and hectic as a Taiwanese night market, we had the advantage of being able to read what everything was on the English signage!

There was a huge variety of foods available at the outside food courts.

After brunch, we took the MRT to the Harbour Front where we caught the Singapore Cable Car to Sentosa Island. Sentosa is a recently developed resort area with beautiful man-made beaches, hotels, games, and attractions. We sat and sipped cool drinks (our favourite Singapore pastime), went up a rotating sky tower for beautiful panoramic views, ate ice cream (my second favourite Singapore pastime), and generally wandered around. I also posed for a photo while holding a beautiful but terrifying python at the behest of my loving partner who insisted “it will be way more impressive if you do it than if I do”... Thanks, honey!

Sentosa Island is undergoing a great deal of development. It hosts a casino, man made beaches, Universal Studios, roller coasters and more.
Brett & Amanda on the Sentosa Tiger Tower
The Sentosa Merlion replica
Happy or having a heart attack?

After Sentosa, we took a look around a huge mall called VivoCity and we met up with our landlord who is living with his Taiwanese wife and two sons in Singapore. He took us to their house where we were served an amazing home cooked meal along with fresh-squeeze lemon juice. It was great to sit around the table and talk about life in Taiwan, Scotland, Singapore, and Canada with such interesting and friendly people. We received lots of advice about life in Taiwan! Dinner with our landlords was a very special experience that helped make Singapore a trip to remember!

It’s hard to sum up my half of the Singapore trip and I’m sorry this post was so long. I fear that Brett’s may be even longer... you know how verbose he can be. He should have his post about Monday/Tuesday in Singapore up in the next couple of days. Until then, he and I will be doing tons of laundry and nursing our peeling sunburns.