Monday, October 31, 2011

Paragliding in Puli

This weekend, to celebrate our friend’s 30th birthday, we went on a camping and paragliding trip to Puli, a town (pop. 86,000) about an hour’s bus ride into the mountains from Taichung City. Boje and I met at my branch on Saturday afternoon after I’d finished teaching for the day, then took a cab to the Nantou Bus Company counter at Taichung City Station (台中干城站). It was the same bus company that took us to Sun Moon Lake, and it was only NT$125 per person (one way) out to Puli. We were dropped off at Nantou Bus’ Puli terminal and took a taxi up a winding mountain road to the campground where we’d be flying from the next day.

The campground was so lovely and located in a large clearing on the mountainside. There was a huge patio with a sort of outdoor kitchen/snack shack where our group of 10 was served an all-you-can-eat BBQ feast under the stars. We had chicken steak (ji pai), chicken wings, chicken butts (or the “Parson’s nose”, as Boje calls it), chicken skin, steamed vegetables with ginger, and a tofu/fish ball soup. Boje and I also had some skewered BBQ chicken hearts. The verdict: chewy, and tasting slightly of blood.

Some of the people we were with were camping in tents there for the night, but we paid an extra NT$200 per person to share a cute cabin with three other people about 20 minutes away. We all celebrated our friend’s birthday well into the night, and a little while after midnight the five of us staying in the cabin decided to call a cab. Turns out no local drivers drivers wanted to come up dark switchbacks in the middle of the night, so the lady running the kitchen drove three of us down the mountain while my friend and another girl followed behind us on a scooter. I reached the bottom with Boje and the birthday boy, but the girls had experienced some scooter engine trouble and were delayed getting down. Once the five of us had all met up at a beautiful park at the bottom of the road, we made our way to a 7/11 (Taiwan’s 24-hour cab stand) and called a taxi. The driver seemed to know where to go (based on gesturing, our yammering in English and his banter in Chinese, and lots of pointing at a map of the area) so we headed out. The taxi driver missed a turn and so we were flagged down by the girls. A Taiwanese man at a nearby gas station was consulted for a second opinion, and after much shouting (not in anger, but in the tired, confused way of people trying to overcome a severe language barrier) we were back on the road. There were several more false starts, but we finally made it to our destination at around 2 in the morning. In typical Taiwanese fashion, rather than be a jerk and charge us extra for the hassle, the cab driver halved our previously agreed fare AND gave us his card so we could call him in the morning, because I’m reasonably sure he thought no other taxi driver in Puli would know how to find us again. We collapsed into our tiny cabin and all passed out promptly to the sound of chirping crickets, croaking frogs, and snoring boyfriends.

In the morning we (slowly) got up and headed back up to the campsite to meet up with the rest of our party who’d stayed in tents. Around 11, an awesome South African paragliding pilot named Yuri as well as some Taiwanese pilots he knew showed up and we started flying!

Boje was the second in our group to go and I was so terrified/impressed the whole time he was up there. He entrusted me with the “big lens” so I was able to get some photos. Every time the pilot brought him down near us, the whole group on the ground could see Boje’s huge grin. I had a momentary panic attack at one point, though, when the pilot was trying to land the chute and we heard him yell “Shit!” as the parachute continued down the mountain. He'd just missed the landing, which seemed like a pretty normal situation all day as the winds picked up. All was well, and they landed gently on the following circle. My own trip was less successful. It wasn’t scary at all - you feel completely safe up there. The guy who organized the trip for us aptly described the experience as “like sitting in a big glove in the sky”. My only problem was the crippling motion sickness. I made one circle and was feeling okay, but about halfway around the next lap I exclaimed “Bu hao! Bu hao!” (No good!) and insisted with the few Chinese words I could muster that we needed to land. Once I was safely on the ground I still felt queasy for about an hour.

After everyone had flown, about half of us headed back to Taichung on the Nantou bus, and the other half took scooters. Those of us on the bus took a cab to an amazing restaurant in town called Uzo Bar and Grill. Wow. I hadn’t had a chicken gyro wrap like that in a long time. None of us had eaten since breakfast, and we all devoured our wraps, burgers, pizza, desserts, and cold drinks. It was the perfect ending to an awesome weekend. Boje absolutely loved paragliding, and is already thinking about when we’ll be able to go again. Sounds nice, dear - enjoy your flight. I’ll be the speck on the ground kneeling over a bucket.

For prospective paragliders:

If you'd like to try paragliding in Puli, contact Steve or Yuri from Step Out in Taiwan. They're on Facebook and offer a bunch of different scooter tours and packages on their website. They did all the bookings and arranged everything with the cooks at the campground as well as told us exactly where to go, so we had an awesome overnight stay and very safe paragliding experience for under NT$4000 per person (including meals and bus fares).

The cabin where we stayed the night
Waiting for take-off
Just after take-off
Puli in the background
Yuri having some fun
From below
Brett & Yuri
Failed landing attempt
Amanda waiting her turn
"What have I got myself into!?!?"
"I can do this... just don't barf!"
Amanda about to be hurled off the side of a mountain
Amanda after take-off
Amanda paragliding
Amanda paragliding
Back on the ground and thankful to be alive!
The launch area
Paragliding in Puli
Brett & Amanda

Friday, October 28, 2011

Scooter Acquired!

The last couple weeks I’ve been gently “encouraged” on a number of occasions to post about our acquisition of a scooter. I thought that I would post something to the blog very quickly before Amanda and I head off to Puli (埔里鎮) this afternoon where we will be staying the night (more to come later). 

One of Amanda’s co-teachers kindly recommended a shop that they have a relationship with and trust. Our first visit was just to confirm what we were looking for (a 125cc scooter). Our second visit was for me to take it for a test drive (once around the block). The third and final visit was for me to pick up the scooter! 

When I went to pick up the scooter I was helped by a young mechanic whose name I first thought was Fun Li, but after he repeated his name a few times I realized he was given me his English name which was Funky. The shop took care of all the paperwork, including the scooter insurance, transferring the scooter license, and having my chop made which was required for stamping certain paperwork. A chop is a stamp that bares your Chinese name, used for stamping important documents. It is essentially the equivalent of the western signature concept. 

When it came to driving the scooter away I had a little more trouble... turning it on. At this point the shop owner and funky realized that I perhaps needed a very thorough scooter orientation (and it was probably for the best). After being shown how to start up the scooter, how to turn on/off the lights, indicators, high beams, and where to put the gas, it was time to leave. 

The scooter is a 1993 125cc Kymco. It has new brakes and runs very smoothly. All for the modest price of $13,000 NTD (~$430 CAD). 

I’ve really enjoyed being able to ride to and from work every day and I’ve already discovered so many things close to home that I never knew existed. Walking on covered sidewalks under tall buildings it is amazing how much you can miss without realizing. The new perspective of being in the road opens up a lot to be discovered. 

I haven’t taken a picture of the scooter yet. I will try to take a picture at some point next week and will then update the post. 

This weekend Amanda and I are heading to Puli and will spend the night there to celebrate a friends thirtieth birthday. We are planning to para-sail in Puli, so hopefully there is plenty of good things to blog about when we return. 

November is going to be a very busy month for both Amanda and I. We both have a new speech and writing class that runs during the month which will be a lot of work. I also have a new class starting on Monday and so I’m looking at a 20-30% increase in my workload for this month. It will carry us very quickly through to December at which point I’m sure Amanda and I will be about ready to start considering professional Mandarin lessons. 

I’ll finish the post here. There’s plenty for me to do before we head out to Puli this afternoon.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

10/10 at Sun Moon Lake (日月潭) with the Bojes!


Monday we woke up to Taiwan’s 100th birthday! (See Boje’s previous post for a more detailed explanation). We were up way earlier than usual to head out to Sun Moon Lake (日月潭). 

Getting there went pretty smoothly thanks to Boje’s habit of printing off large, bold directions in English, Mandarin, and Pinyin. We piled into a cab with his parents and were taken to the main bus station in town (ie: a street full of small, storefront bus terminals). We couldn’t find our bus counter at first (for the Nantou bus company’s “Sun Moon Lake Shuttle”) but a quick stop at a hotel desk to declare “Wǒ men yào dào Rìyuètán” (“We want to go to Sun Moon Lake!”) soon had us pointed in the right direction. We bought round trip tickets for the shuttle which cost approximately NT$350 per person. The trip was two hours with several stops along the way, including Taichung HSR and Taichung Main Station for people wanting to embark from different parts of town.

We were dropped off in front of the Sun Moon Lake visitors’ centre, and after gathering some maps and information we headed down to Shuishe Pier to buy tickets for the ferry shuttle. This cost NT$300 per person for a hop-on-hop-off adult fare. The pier and the boats were rocking a lot from all the high-speed ferry traffic on the lake, so if you’re weak of stomach like me I’d suggest taking something. I was fine, but I was also still doped up on the nausea-suppressant I’d taken for the bus ride. We were given a lengthy explanation - in Mandarin - of the history of the area during the boat ride, and we rode two stops over to the base of the Sun Moon Lake gondola.

The Cien Pagoda, as seen from Sun Moon Lake: "The Ci En Pagoda was built by the late President Chiang Kai-shek in memory of his mother. It was completed in April 1971 and sits on the 954 meter-high Shabalan Mountain."

You can find more info on Sun Moon Lake from the official government website, click here.

There was a snack street and a cluster of small souvenir shops, restaurants and inns adjacent to the pier at this stop, so we decided to have lunch at a restaurant advertising “President’s fish”, and with large tables designed for family-style shared dishes. They had a small English menu and it didn’t take us long to settle on a sweet-and-sour fish, Taiwanese-style BBQ chicken, a shrimp and vegetable omelet, and pork fried rice with beer and apple cider. What we weren’t told when we ordered pork fried rice “for four people” was that they’d be bringing us four family-size portions of fried rice. We all had a good laugh about the waiter being so worried about us accidentally ordering too much beer (as the bottles turned out to be quite large), but not thinking to warn us to at least halve our rice order. The food was all very tasty and satisfying, and everything was piled with vegetables. I loved it!

With full stomachs we waddled (a common theme that weekend) down a walking path towards the gondola station. It was a really beautiful wooden walkway bordered with trees and flowers with the lake on one side and a mountain face on the other! There were also a few signs along the way that explained some of the traditional fishing methods still used on Sun Moon Lake, like the artificial “floating islands” of plants whose roots are used to attract fish, and “four handed” nets that are left in the water for prolonged periods, then slowly hoisted up by their four corners.

The gondola station was pretty quiet for a holiday. Brett and his dad went up to the second floor to buy the tickets (NT$250 per person - more if you wanted entry to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village theme park) and then came back downstairs so we could walk up a winding queue. There was only a brief wait at the top, and because of the low traffic the four of us had an eight-seat cable car all to ourselves. The ride was very smooth and enjoyable, and the expanse of the lake was an impressive sight as we glided over huge and ancient trees.

After the cable ride (and return trip) we got back on the ferry to Shuishe Pier and caught the bus home. Sun Moon Lake is very beautiful and I think we could go back several times before we’d have seen everything we wanted to. It was also great to enjoy some cool weather for once. It was drizzling rain a little bit when we arrived in the morning, but this tapered off almost immediately and we were left with a cool, fresh day. The climate felt a lot like a moderately warm summer day in Alberta.

After the two-hour bus ride home, we walked a block or so to Taichung Park where they were wrapping up some National Day celebrations. We wandered around the paths for a while, savouring the cool air of the park. We caught a cab home to rest for a bit, before heading back out the door to the Ble d’Or, a western restaurant specializing in beer and European cuisine (with plenty of Taiwanese options on the menu as well!) It was nice to share some very cheesy pizza and cold drinks in celebration of both Taiwan’s centennial and Canadian Thanksgiving! We were all very tired after dinner and headed straight to bed.

In the morning, Brett’s parents packed up to go and we saw them into a cab to the HSR so they could head to the airport in Taoyuan. We missed them as soon as the taxi pulled away, and the visit was far too short, but it was very nice to have some visitors from home to remind us that the people we miss are still there and not just pixelated images on our Skype interface! We’re really happy to have had Brett’s parents here and would like to remind everyone that our door is always open to family and friends who want a private tour of Taiwan!

Stay tuned for Brett’s post about buying our scooter!

Under the watchful eye of the paparazzi
Waiting for the bus to Sun Moon Lake
Brett, G & D overlooking Sun Moon Lake
A little more than we had been expecting
I'm no expert on ornithology, but I'm pretty sure this is a bird.
Mom & Dad in the Gondola at Sun Moon Lake
Sun Moon Lake (日月潭)
Taichung Park

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Visit from the Bojes (Pt. 2)


Continuing from the previous post... 

The following morning we had a relaxed start to the day, caught up on news of Mom & Dad’s travels through mainland China and Tibet, and looked at the many (>1,000!!!!) pictures that they had taken.  :) 

It just so happened that my parents were visiting us on the weekend that encompassed Monday October 10th or what is locally referred to as the 10/10 (or “Double Ten”) national holiday. The Double Ten holiday “celebrates the start of the Wuchang Uprising of October 10, 1911, which led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in China and establishment of the Republic of China on January 1, 1912”. This year, the Double Ten celebration was a particularly big deal because, as you will note from the date above, it was the centennial anniversary. 

As such, Amanda and I were advised by our Taiwanese colleagues that it would be very difficult to just walk into a restaurant over that weekend and it would be best to make reservations in advance, which Amanda’s colleagues kindly helped us do for Saturday lunch and dinner. 

For lunch we went to Cha for Tea. Another of Taiwan’s “Tea Shop Restaurant” chains. I use the word chain without intending any malicious undertones. Amanda and I were first taken to Cha for Tea by Milton and Jenny in Kaohsiung and this was actually only our second time to visit the chain. The food, just as on our first visit, was fantastic. We enjoyed hot Taiwanese oolong tea, kumquat drinking vinegar, mushroom soup and wonton soup, tempura tea leaves, osmanthus steamed fish and tofu, ginseng chicken, shrimp sui mai, steamed leek and pork dumplings, pickled cabbage, fried pork roll, “purple” five-grain rice, and postprandial sweet cold tea drinks. 

After lunch, we waddled our way to the jade market and took a look around. Mom had learned a trick in China that you can test to see if jade is genuine by rubbing two pieces together. If they are fake then they will emit an odor and become discolored. Without putting this theory to the test, everything at the jade market in Taichung seemed quite legitimate, albeit quite expensive. Perhaps the prices we were quoted were slightly inflated (a starting point for negotiation), but in any case, we didn’t choose to buy anything and instead, after a brief wander, we headed home to rest and seek some shelter from what was a very hot and smoggy day. 

We didn’t take too much time at home before we headed back out again, this time in the direction of my branch. On the way there we stopped at Koi Tea Shop and picked up some iced peach green tea for Mom & Amanda. 

After the anti-climax of reaching my branch - the metal shutters were drawn over the door that leads up a flight of stairs to the second floor where the classrooms are located - we headed across the street for a gander through a large park where preparations were being made for Taiwan’s centennial celebration. On the other side of the park, we explored the Huiwen Flower Market where Mom and Dad bought us an orchid as a house gift. At this point we had spent a considerable amount of time outside and we decided to head back home to seek shelter from the heat and to relax and refresh before heading out for dinner. 

For dinner we went to Hong Kong Manual Style Dessert. The restaurant name does leave you guessing, but it is essentially nothing more than a Dim Sum restaurant. Read nothing into my use of “nothing more” as a descriptive, because it is concurrently nothing less than the best dim sum that I have ever had and no doubt a single tear will roll down my cheek the day I have to say goodbye! 

Our plans for Monday were for us to head to Sun Moon Lake - by bus - which required an early start, and so, after dinner we headed home where we relaxed over a beer or two but ultimately had an early night. 

Amanda will write about the last two days of Mom & Dad’s visit in her next blog post.

Mom & Dad at Cha for Tea
Our Cha for Tea Lunch
An assortment of teapots at the jade market
Jade bracelets at the jade market

Friday, October 14, 2011

Visit from the Bojes (Pt. 1)

What an eventful Thanksgiving (and Taiwan's National Day) weekend we had! Last Saturday, (the 8th) I came home from work to a roomful of Bojes! Brett’s parents came down to visit us in Taiwan on their way home from China and Tibet, and it was our first contact with home since April! 

Once everyone was ready to head out, we went straight to Chen Shui Tang - the tea shop chain credited with first creating Taiwan’s famous pearl milk tea! We had tea at one of their locations in Taipei with some Taiwanese friends back in August, and we were very excited to learn there was one so close to our apartment in Taichung! Brett’s parents got to enjoy their first Taiwanese tea house lunch which included pearl milk tea, tea with fig jelly, beef noodles (obviously), steamed Cantonese dumplings (a family favourite), sweet Taiwanese sausage, and green tea cookies for dessert. Everyone agreed it was an excellent meal, and we headed back out for a walk.

It was a very hot and smoggy weekend in Taichung, but we decided to walk down to my branch so the Bojes could see my neighbourhood! It was a bit of an anticlimax once we’d arrived, I’m sure, but it was nice to stretch our legs and tell them about Taiwan and hear about their Asian travels. They had been traveling for a few weeks already and stayed in several different parts of China, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Xi’an! They even did a Yangtze River cruise!

After the walk, we were all pretty sweaty (story of my life) and rested at home. I took the opportunity to introduce Brett’s parents to HiChews, my favourite Taiwanese candy! We had a big bag of cantaloupe, grape, and lychee HiChews sitting around just waiting to be snacked on, and they were a big hit! For dinner, we went to Féngjiǎ Night Market (逢甲夜市). The Bojes had recently experienced Wanfujing Snack Street in Beijing (see photos from our experience there here) and were understandably appalled by the live eats. If they were nervous about Féngjiǎ  they certainly didn’t show it! Saturdays at any night market can be crazy, but at Féngjiǎ it was a zoo. We were pushed along with the crowd, occasionally popping out of traffic to grab something to eat before merging back into the herd. Brett’s parents got to try fresh watermelon juice; steamed wraps filled with roast duck, cucumber, and pickles; more sweet Taiwanese sausage skewered with roast garlic cloves; and fried onion cakes with sweet and spicy sauce.

Brett had really been hoping to introduce them to one of our Kaohsiung favourites, chua bin, (shaved ice) but there was none to be found. After we’d given up our search and started wandering around the outskirts of the market, we stumbled across an adorable Pepto-Bismol pink chua bin shop! We grabbed a table outside and ordered the most beautiful chua bin I’ve ever seen - layers of shaved raspberry and mango ice studded with sliced apple, mango, and small silver dragées. It took four of us to polish it off, and it was a perfect end to the first day of our visit!

Outside of Amanda's Branch
Féngjiǎ Night Market
Mom & Amanda with the Chua Bin
Mom & Dad
Amanda, Dad & Mom
Mom, Dad & Brett

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Taiwanese BBQ!

This weekend, Boje and I went to our first ever Taiwanese barbeque! It was a staff party at my branch and I loved it. My branch has a “back yard” of sorts that leads to a small outbuilding occasionally used as a classroom. We arrived late due to some taxi problems (if you’re any good at hailing a cab in the dark on a busy road in Taichung, please tell me your secret) but were greeted immediately by happy people and the smoky smell of our dinner. We munched on pizza while we waited for my colleagues to expertly grill meat, wraps, and veggies on small portable units set up on the deck. We had a vegetarian grill as well as a pork-and-chicken grill going at the same time, and I must say both were very appealing! (Though after some night market scares I’ve learned my lesson about saying haphazard things like “I’ll eat anything if it’s slathered in BBQ sauce!”)

After we’d eaten our fill, they set up a table for Mahjong. Boje and I watched a few rounds and I’m really interested in learning to play! Before I do that, however, I’ve got to learn to read numbers in Mandarin. And learn how to keep a poker face. As it turns out, Mahjong is a lot like poker but with domino-like tiles instead. So interesting! I was tired from the cold that had been bugging me all week so we went home early, but I really enjoyed the whole experience!

The next day we went to Carrefour to find some sheets for our king size bed (which is smaller than a Western king size, but larger than a Western queen). If you’ve been following our blog, you’ll know all about the headache we’ve had trying to find sheets. Our first trip to Carrefour was a bust as we’d forgotten our notes about the mattress dimensions at home. The second trip was made solo by Brett so I could nurse my cold and migraine. He came home with a set of bedding but upon taking it out of the package we discovered the sheets inside were a size smaller than advertised! This time I went back with him and we triple-checked the bedding we exchanged before bringing it home! Success! And just in time for our first house guests! I think we’ll be pretty busy this week putting together an itinerary for our visit from Brett’s parents next weekend, but we’re both getting really excited to see loved ones from back home!

Today I was pretty sick and grouchy when I got to work but things really improved as the day went on! I made a pretty major breakthrough with the class who used to make fun of the way I talk. “Zach” and his posse have now learned that I will never understand what I’m doing wrong with his name and they just smirk instead of actually screaming and laughing. I even got a very sincere and sweet verbal apology from one particularly unruly student! On the flip side, another student smacked me right in the self-esteem with this little gem:

S: Teacher Amanda, today you look so terrible and so tired.
A: …
S: And why you breathe like that? Do you have asthma? Or are you tired from the stairs?
A: … I’m sick!

The kicker is that she's one of the kids who spent last week's class coughing and sneezing right in my face!