JAPAN! Our Chinese New Year Vacation (Part 1)

Image

With two weeks off from class, Chris and I had ample time to do more traveling. We decided to really make it worth our while and go to Japan. We booked cheap tickets on one of the cheapest airlines known to man, Scoot. We wanted to spend all two weeks there and be able to travel to all the tourist spots around the island but our budget wasn’t cut out for it so we settled on 6 days in Tokyo, which isn’t really settling of course.

We like to get the most out of our days, even if it means putting ourselves through a bit of torture: this time being a 3:30am wake up call and 6:30am flight in order to get an extra full day in Tokyo. All went smoothly in the early hours of the morning; no traffic, easy check-in, barely any lines at security, and once again we packed light with just a backpack each (plus a few layers of sweatshirts and jackets). We boarded the plane and spent the flight trying to catch a few zzz’s before landing in Tokyo. This was pretty much our only option because Scoot doesn’t have televisions in their planes but instead invite you to rent an iPad, or use your own device to stream a few tv shows or movies for a cost. The company also saves money by not providing food or drinks, except at an extra cost. It was no Cathay Pacific (my new saying).  To be honest it wasn’t a horrible flight, but you definitely get what you pay for (On the way back to Taiwan our plane was delayed and the flight attendants were lounging around the terminal and only got up once the ticket agent told them the plane was ready and to hurry up.) So fast forward a couple hours and we were looking out our window to see the beautiful snow-capped Mt. Fuji and the narrow beaches welcoming us.

Image

ARRIVAL

We arrived in Tokyo around 10:30am (3 hour flight plus an hour time difference) and began our adventure. First was figuring out how to get where we wanted to go. You can research these things all you want but when you are faced with something like this…

Image it can be a little overwhelming. We wanted to take the Narita Express to our first sightseeing stop at Shibuya Station. Against my better judgement Chris tried to figure out how to buy tickets on his own, mostly because I didn’t see the point while there is someone behind a counter whose job it is to help you do this. In the end I won and we bought tickets from the Ticket Office instead of the machine. For the record, Chris would’ve bought the correct tickets, but I just wanted to make sure!

The Narita Express connects the airport to many of the major urban train stations without transfers, that is why we decided to take this as opposed to the regular subway station.

Here’s Chris figuring it out.. and the ticket booth on the other side.

ImageHere we are boarding the space-age train.

ImageThe ride was extremely comfortable with a futuristic feel. Although the train wasn’t high-speed, the ride was noticeably smoother without the constant jiggling of normal trains. Halfway through the ride, a woman with a cart came down the aisle with food and drinks; it felt a bit like Hogwarts! Chris and I had some snacks and enjoyed the view. The landscape had a midwestern feel but the architecture of the buildings were distinctly Japanese. The ride showed us a glimpse of life on the outskirts of the bustling Tokyo metro.

Image

SHIBUYA

After about an hour we reached our destination! Shibuya is home to many famous attractions such as Shibuya Crossing, Center Gai, the Hachiko statue and more. After walking up from the train station, you are in the thick of it. People everywhere! To the left of the station exit/entrance is the famous statue of loyal Hachiko, the dog who waited for his master to come home every day from work and continued to do so even after his master’s death. (Hachi: A Dog’s Tale with Richard Gere is based on this true story.)

ImageRight ahead is Shibuya Crossing which you’ve probably seen in movies like Lost in Translation, Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and the infamous point zero of zombie infection in Resident Evil. Here vehicular traffic is stopped so people can cross the intersection in all directions at once.

ImageOnce you cross the street you are now in shopping central! Stores and boutiques line the pedestrian street of Center Gai. We were here about lunch time and it seemed like many people were just enjoying the afternoon, walking about.

ImageContinuing left from here is Love Hotel Hill, this area has a few “love hotels” which you can rent for a few hours of the day or night.

ImageThen off to Spain Slope, so called because it is reminiscent of a Spanish street scene, or so they say. (Pictured top middle) Also pictured are some interesting things we saw around the area.

ImageFrom here we took a right toward the eight story Tower Records, each floor dedicated to different genres of music. Inside was packed with anything and everything music, plus a cafe.

ImageAfter walking around for quite a while we had seen most of what Shibuya had to offer. We decided to head to our next stop across town, the Tokyo SkyTree.

TOKYO METRO

We walked back to Shibuya Station to consult the map and buy tickets for our next train ride. Here is the map. Needless to say it took us a bit to figure out where we were and where we wanted to go, then Chris bought the tickets from the machine.

ImageThe metro tickets are about as big as a fortune from a fortune cookie and you have to slip it into a turnstile to walk through on to the platform. You also need it to get off the train, so you can’t lose the tiny ticket! The train after lunch was quite empty, mostly men in suits with briefcases. It was as quiet as a library, too.

ImageAfter a lengthy trip across town we had reached our destination, the Tokyo SkyTree! More to come!

Image

Part 2: Tokyo SkyTree, Shopping, Tokyo Disneyland and Accommodations

To the Top: Taipei 101 (台北101)

Taipei 101, now the second tallest building in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is the beacon of Taipei. It can be seen from practically anywhere in the city, pointing you toward the city center. It is also one of the top tourist attractions in Taiwan.

Image

Chris decided to surprise me and make a Friday date night out of our visit. We took a 15 minute bus ride and got there in the early evening with enough time to see the sunset from the observation deck on the 89th floor! When we arrived it was extremely windy and that made me a little nervous about going to the top. (Not to worry though, the building is equipped with a 660-tonne steel pendulum that serves as a damper to offset the movement of the building in high winds! Picture soon.) One of the funniest things I noticed was how many people were trying to take a picture of the building from the base and to do this you basically have to lay on the ground. Notice the guy in the top right picture on the ground? He was just one of probably 10 people all around doing this, not to mention me a few minutes later. In front of the building is also Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE installation found around the globe.

Image

Taipei 101 is a functioning business building, except for the observation floors, but around the corner at the base is a large mall. We visited this same mall on New Year’s Eve before the fireworks. It was beautifully decorated in celebration of Chinese New Year and Taipei 101’s 10th birthday!

Image

On the fifth floor of the mall is ticket counter for the observation deck of Taipei 101. As you can see on the right, the mall is built right around one corner of Taipei 101, which is how you are able to enter. A ticket to the observation deck is 500NTD, about $15 US.  After we bought our two tickets to the top we had to wait for the number printed on our ticket to come up on the screen, informing us that we could now enter the line. That only took about 5 minutes, then we could enter the actual line for the elevators which took about another 30 minutes.

Image

As soon as you walk in to the line you are pretty much ambushed in front of a green screen, where they quickly take your photo which can be bought as a souvenir. Another great thing about these photos is that they are repeatedly shown on every tv screen, about every 20 feet of the line, so you can see yourself in all your goofy glory. One thing I didn’t get a picture of was the elevators to the top, which are amazing in themselves. (They hold the Guinness World Record for fastest elevator!) They travel at an astounding 55 feet per second, ushering visitors from the fifth floor to the 89th floor in just 37 seconds! Can you imagine all the ear popping?! It also holds about 25 people packed like sardines. Once we were at the top it was almost time for the sun to set! *Notice the sign on windows, bottom left* Yes, people clean the windows from the outside. Just thinking about it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

ImageAs you enter the observatory you have the option of picking up a phone-like listening device that gives you a tour of sorts. Stationed along the circular deck are numbers, these number correspond to a snippet of information that you may listen to, all you have to do is type in the number on the phone’s keypad. Most of the numbers describe what you are looking at out of the window at that location, giving you an idea of what you may find there and any interesting facts. I learned a lot about Taipei that I had not known before.

Image

You can walk to the center of the 89th floor to find the massive wind damper which I described above. The picture, bottom left, really does not do it’s size justice… It is 18 feet in diameter! About this point, but out from the center is a gift shop where they sell all sorts of 101 inspired objects, one of my favorite being bottles of water.

ImageWe headed back to the windows in order to catch the last glimpse of sunlight before it went down behind the distant mountains. It sure was a gorgeous sight! I love the picture on the left because you can really tell how close we were to the corner, the metal part being part of the facade. There were some New Year themed installations around to celebrate and also a small cafe where Chris got some ice cream.

Image

From the warm 89th floor observation deck you are able to walk up to the 91st floor outside deck to get another view. We steeled ourselves for the wind and headed out. (We only lasted about 2 minutes.)

ImageHere’s one of my favorite pictures from the visit!

Image

We felt like we had soaked in all we could from the top and headed down towards the elevators. To our surprise the walk back was more like being in a museum. Here they display some of Taiwan’s most precious coral to both admire and purchase. They have elaborately carved scenes in coral, which I found completely amazing, and natural pieces like the bottom right, the world’s largest complete piece! Also they had beautiful and HUGE amethyst geodes! (How would you like to fit that in the house, Mom?)

coral

After walking through the sea of coral art we found the elevator line. It took about 20 minutes before we were able to catch one back down to the fifth floor. To continue our lovely night we grabbed dinner in the fancy food court and then took a look at some shops.

stores

At last we happened upon a cute cafe called Perfume Dance that specializes in desserts. We just knew we had to try out their famous toast tower, available in many flavors! Of course we picked the chocolate version, or as the menu called it “Black Gold.” It was a very interesting dessert: toasted cubes of white bread held together with custard and then topped with melted chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup, and rum soaked cherries.

PerfumeDance

 Chris and I had a lovely night out on the town, experiencing one of Taiwan’s most famous attractions!

Hong Kong Disneyland Part 2

ImageContinuing from Hong Kong Disneyland Part 1!

Fantasyland

Fantasyland is home to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Mickey’s PhilharMagic, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Cinderella Carousel, Mad Hatter Tea Cups, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, “It’s a Small World,” Snow White Grotto, and The Golden Mickeys show.

ImageWe had lunch at ‘Festival of Foods’ which featured Chinese food, as seen below. As more people started showing up later in the day we realized the longest line for any ride we had seen was an hour at the Winnie the Pooh ride, apparently people really love Winnie the Pooh here! “It’s a Small World” was pretty much the same except they had an American portion which featured the Statue of Liberty, The Golden Gate bridge, Pocahontas, and Woody & Jessie from Toy Story. 

ImageThe Golden Mickeys, a show only performed at the Hong Kong location, was exciting as well. It is in the style of an awards ceremony with the famous Disney characters being nominated for awards based on their work in their films: heroism, bravery, romance, etc. My favorite thing about it was that they included the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, and Tarzan, characters which are cast to the wayside by most Disney shows. Each nominated character sings their most famous song from the movie in amazing costumes, plus extreme choreography and even acrobatics! (Tarzan) Of course Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Donald Duck show up and listening to them speak Cantonese in their cartoon voices was one of the highlights. I’m not a huge fan of these types of shows usually, but I was genuinely entertained with this one.

Image

Toy Story Land

Walking in to Toy Story Land I was completely in awe. The details here are astounding, as you will see in the pictures. But being in the center of it, it was hard to take it in all at once!  Here they have Toy Soldier Parachute Drop, Slinky Dog Spin and RC Racer rollercoaster, plus Jessie’s Snack Roundup (the only place in the entire park where they sell Churros).

ImageImage

ImageMystic Point

Hong Kong Disneyland is home to the one and only Mystic Point. Mystic Manor is the big ride located here which takes the place of Haunted Mansion usually found in the other parks. Mystic Manor is now my favorite architectural build of any Disney park I have seen thus far. The idea behing the ride is this… Lord Henry Mystic (who lives in Mystic Manor with his pet monkey, Albert) is an archeologist of sorts who finds a magical music box. You ride a car through the house following Albert who opens the music box which makes every item come to life. Amazing theming and the musical score in the background is by Danny Elfman.

ImageMystic Point Freight Depot is supposed to be where all of Lord Mystic’s items come through to his house. They have a show here as well but we weren’t around to see it. To the right is the waiting line for Mystic Manor, bottom left is a trash can, and right is the sidewalk emblazoned with the land’s emblem.

Image

Image

Walking inside the ride, there were many things to read and admire. Paintings lined the walls showing Lord Mystic’s acquisitions and other members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, a theme which started in Tokyo DisneySea. The story development was crazy for just one ride, located at this one location. Disney sure is dedicated!

Image

Here we are in the Mystic Manor Gift Shop, trying on more hats.

Image

This is the restaurant inside Mystic Point, continuing the immense detail.

Image

Grizzly Gulch

HK Disneyland’s answer to Frontierland, located here is Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars and Geyser Gulch (a water play area). To our surprise the Runaway Mine Cars was a pretty fast ride for a Disney “coaster.” We admired the beautifully constructed mountain and other Western style buildings in the area. We even got to listen to a folk band playing some “Home on the Range” and other classics.

ImageImage

Christmas Tree Lighting & Fireworks

As I stated previously, many people showed up late in the day so by the time the night time festivities started it was packed just like the US Disney parks. We enjoyed the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony then headed to get a turkey leg for dinner. They are quite small, or probably “normal” sized, compared to US Disney’s enormous legs and come with a plastic glove for mess free eating. Before we knew it, it was time for fireworks, my favorite!

ImageDisney’s Hollywood Hotel

We were completely exhausted after the first day, which I’m sure you could imagine, so we headed right back to the hotel. Once we arrived though we were just as excited as entering the park. There were so many things to see and enjoy! For example they had a game room, cafe, fancy restaurant, and gift store so it was a while until we actually went to sleep.

ImageImage

Image

We awoke to a beautiful day, our view from the hotel is top left, and enjoyed our second day at the park.

Image

Then it was time to say goodbye! Until we meet again, Disney!

Weekend Trip to Hong Kong Disneyland! Part 1

Image

Chris and I figured since we have made it to the other side of the world we better take full advantage of it in all aspects: language, culture, food, and fun! Fun translating to THEME PARKS! We both love Disney and therefore decided to make a (probably, but I hope not) once in a lifetime trip to Hong Kong Disneyland. It was amazing.

Since we are in school we didn’t have much time to take off for this trip. Luckily after some research we found that HK Disneyland is small enough to be able to do everything in two days. Immediately we searched flights for an available weekend and to our surprise a wonderful airline, Cathay Pacific, had cheap flights to our destination. After our seats were paid for we reserved a room at Disney’s Hollywood Hotel, with the only room available being an ocean view room (oh darn). Before we knew it, the weekend had arrived and it was time to prepare! It was difficult getting to sleep knowing that in just a few hours we would be somewhere new again. Thankfully we eventually fell asleep but the 4am wake up call on Saturday was a bit too early for our liking. We took a cab from our place to the airport… 45 minutes, whizzed through security with just our backpacks, and then hopped right on to the 6am flight to Hong Kong. I’d never heard of Cathay Pacific before this trip and it is based in Hong Kong. It was one of the nicest airlines I’ve been on and had the most leg room! Plus they serve you a meal and drink, even on a 2 hour flight. High marks in my book! We arrived at the airport, went through customs (sadly they don’t stamp your passport in HK anymore, you get a receipt instead), and followed the signs leading to taxis. A friendly attendant asked us where we wanted to go, told a driver, and we were on our way. I took some pictures of the view from the cab, nice sky, huh? Just a hint of blue above the pollution. The hilly area surrounding the airport is lush, green, and beautiful but the sky really contrasts it and made me a bit sad.

Image

 We could tell we were getting closer by the classic Disney manicured lawns and topiaries leading the way in to the resort area. We arrived at the Hollywood Hotel, nestled in between the sea and the hills, to check in and pick up our tickets. It was about 8am when we got there and the park didn’t open til 10am so we took a look around the hotel. Man, was it gorgeous!

Image

 HH

Arriving at the Park

Around 9:15 we found the shuttle to the park and made our way over. When we arrived many people were taking pictures with the signs and a large fountain of Mickey riding a surf board on the spout of a whale. We walked closer and closer to the entrance realizing they were letting people in early! We made it!

disney

Main Street, USA

Then off to Main Street for a little breakfast. From here we could see that only the shops and restaurants on Main Street were open before 10am. There were barricades at the end of the street right before the castle that were taken away right at 10. Along with these delicious waffles, the stand offered turkey legs (about 1/3 the size of US Disney’s), hot dogs, corn on the cob, and fish balls in original and curry flavor, mmm!

MainSt

Of course next was the castle! It is similar to Disneyland’s castle as it is quite small and unassuming, especially against the hills in the background. We were there two days so I’ve combined pictures from both days from here on out. As you can tell,  Saturday (right, bottom) was clearer than Sunday. The pictures don’t do the landscape justice though. The lighting in these pictures from the smog kind of takes away from the “oohs and ahhs” of it all. But look at how many people are there! Ha! On the weekend nonetheless. We did find that more people showed up the later it got and by the fireworks show it was just as crowded as a typical night at Anaheim Disneyland.

castle

Hong Kong Disneyland is separated in to 7 different lands: Main Street, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Toy Story Land, Mystic Point, Grizzly Gulch, and Adventureland. Since HK Disneyland has many similar attractions to the US Disney Parks I will just post my favorite pictures from the common lands. I’ll go into further detail about the HK exclusive attractions: Mystic Point and Toy Story Land.

HKmap

Tomorrowland

Main Street has been covered so next up is Tomorrowland featuring: Space Mountain, Astro Blasters, Stitch Encounter, Orbitron and Autopia. Here is Chris stealing a planet and then being chased by Buzz, my favorite red leafed trees, a shot from Space Mountain of everyone holding up peace signs, and a cool space inspired wall of Stitch Encounter.

tomorrowland

Adventureland

Next we headed off to Adventureland, home to Jungle River Cruise, Rafts to Tarzan’s Treehouse and Tarzan’s Treehouse. Jungle River Cruise was quite entertaining. They offer it in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. You must choose which one as you are separated in to 3 lines. Once there are enough people in that line you board a boat and are guided through the jungle. Our guide was a laid back, young guy who spoke English quite well but with a very heavy accent so it was that much funnier when he would say lackadaisically  “Oh no, watch out…” or “Wave hello to the Mama and baby elephant!” Most of the jungle animals throughout the ride were animatronic and extremely lifelike.

Adventureland

 Next is the Rafts to Tarzan’s Treehouse which I would barely call an attraction (but it’s listed on the map as one) because it’s a 1 minute float to the real attraction of Tarzan’s Treehouse. Now that is a manmade beauty! As you climb up the enormous treehouse you are welcomed to Jane and Tarzan’s house by a page from Jane’s  notebook . The notebook is stationed at points along the way up, each page telling a part of Tarzan’s story with modeled scenes behind it. So many details to take in!

Tarzan

Flights of Fantasy Parade

Then we walked back to Main Street in order to get a good spot to watch the parade. This parade has flying themed floats as you would probably guess. The band, dancers, acrobats (yes!), and floats were perfect. As in true Disney fashion, no money was spared in the designing and execution of this show. I loved every minute of it!

FoF

Goofy floats floats2

We had a wonderful time watching and experiencing the “magic” just like this guy above. Out of the whole crowd I spotted him and just had to capture that perfect moment. Later at a hat stand I made Chris reenact the scene…

hats

Stay tuned for Part 2:  Fantasyland, Toy Story Land, Mystic Point, Grizzly Gulch, Christmas tree lighting and fireworks!

Happy New Year from Taipei 101!

ImageWe braved the crowds downtown to see the New Year fireworks for ourselves, and boy was it amazing! We were able to squeeze in among the other thousands of people to get a perfect spot. I was lucky enough to get photos that actually look good, too!

Before we get to that I want to share a cute picture of most of Chris’ class from when we went to New Year’s Eve lunch at Pizza Hut! Mmm… so delicious and weird. The regular pizza flavors and salad bar was excellent but once you got to the strange flavors you had to be brave. For example, Seafood pizza (shrimp, fish, squid, plus cheese and sauce, ew) and Kimchi pizza, and Teriyaki pizza, definitely different and mostly not in a good way.

ImageAlright back to the New Year’s Eve celebrations downtown. We took the bus all the way to the major shopping area near Taipei 101. Most of it had been blocked off from traffic making it only for pedestrians. We looked around at the various shops and went in to the mall to visit the restroom. The women’s line was laughably long, about 100 women, no joke. And of course the men’s line was about 5. Once we got back to the street we soaked in all the stands and NYE themed set ups.

ImageImageImage

After walking quite a bit we found a perfect spot to see the fireworks but the crowd sitting was already quite large at only 10pm (right bottom photo) and we still wanted to keep looking. We moved on…

ImageWhile waiting in the 20 minute line at Starbuck’s (we needed caffeine since we were awake at 7am because of class) we found an even better viewing spot and set up there. We were waiting quite a while and had fun taking pictures. Our Korean friend, Jihun, was there with us as well!

ImageFinally it was midnight and everyone was excitedly counting down in Chinese! 十,九,八,七,六,五,四,三,二,一! (Shí, jiǔ, bā, qī, liù, wǔ, sì, sān, èr, yī!) And off the fireworks went in amazing fashion, from each of the one hundred and one floors!

Image

Image

Image

Then it was over and we once again had to brave the crowd getting out. The above photo gives you a good idea of how many people were pretty much everywhere we looked. Since all the streets were for pedestrians we followed the flow of the crowd which eventually led us to the MRT station. Police there were lining everyone up in order to let us on to the trains in a somewhat orderly fashion, which seemed to work pretty well. Then we caught a bus from the last station to the university where the streets were still busy and restaurants were going strong. We were home by 1:45am.

New Year’s Day

We did not have class on New Year’s Day but my teacher had invited the class out to dinner with her. At 6pm we met her at the main gate of the university and walked to the third floor of the campus cafeteria where a beautiful, somewhat traditional Chinese style restaurant was unassumingly awaiting us. None of us even knew the restaurant existed up there and we were in for a treat! Here is a picture of my class, my teacher in the middle.

ImageWe had 9 dishes to share which our teacher had pre-ordered for us and she even made them name tags so we could learn what they were! She is adorable. The food was exquisite. Very high quality ingredients and it was the most expensive dinner I’ve eaten since coming here (but still only about $12 USD)! The tables each have a Lazy Susan so food can easily be passed to each member. The first dishes to be served were Roast Duck and Sweet and Sour Rib. The duck had a side dish of fish suspended in jello which was as strange as it sounds, it tasted pretty good though.

ImageThen came fried tofu, sponge cucumber in chicken soup, stewed rib in tomato sauce and a prawn omelet.

ImageThen came a whole steamed fish, steamed sweet potato leaves. And also ice cream…

ImageAfter 2 and a half hours of eating and talking we left incredibly full and happy. Our teacher was going to pay for it all but we insisted that she shouldn’t. She has been incredibly nice, bringing us snacks and chocolates to class almost everyday, and we wanted to say thanks.

We had an exciting New Year filled with fireworks, more friends, and more fun! May 2014 be a wonderful year for you all!

PS: We had midterm exams today. I had a 5 page written test as well as reading and answering questions in Chinese and introducing myself (where I’m from, how old I am, what I’m doing in Taiwan, info about my family, etc.). We are halfway through our textbook and I feel so accomplished!

Merry Christmas from Taiwan! SOGO malls and Ximending

Merry Christmas or 聖誕快樂 (Shèngdàn kuàilè!) from Chris and I! We both hope you have had a wonderful holiday season filled with fun and food, just like us! Both of us miss our families very, very much but thankfully through the wonders of technology we were able to video chat with them and share in the festivities at home. I’ll run through our Christmas eve and Christmas celebrations.

ImageOn Christmas Eve my class decided to have a small party and bring snacks for all of us to share. I brought some wafer cookies and good ol’ Pizza flavored Pringles. My classmates brought all types of chocolates and candies and we had such a sugar rush. My classmate from France made his own crepes to share with us as well and they were delicious! It was fun talking to each other about how we all celebrate Christmas in our respective countries, then we learned Jingle Bells in Chinese! Christmas day is not a holiday in Taiwan so we still had class the next day and many other classes had their parties then. Chris’ class mixed with two others and had a pizza party where they each had a “performance” of a Christmas song in Chinese.

Chris and I decided to go and check out one of the largest shopping centers here in Taipei, the SOGO department stores. There are two separate building of the SOGO department store one is 9 stories the other 11 stories tall. Next to them is another shopping area called the Breeze Center with another 11 stories (the top two being a movie theater). They had very nice Christmas decorations set up and it did feel like being back in the US for a bit. (Bottom right picture is from the 11th floor)

ImageWe were in awe of the amount of items each floor held. The up and down escalators in the building run side by side through the center of each floor and each floor is an open plan with shops taking different portions. Many of the stores run together so it’s confusing to see where one ends and another begins.

ImageThe first and second floors however hold “Prestigious Boutiques” with their own shops, those being: Cartier, Burberry, Chanel, Hermes, Bvlgari, Piaget, Montblanc, Balenciaga, Coach, Armani, Marc Jacobs, Versace etc. We just looked around in amazement at those shops and felt very out of place in our sweaters and jeans.

ImageThere are also lovely elevator attendants who usher you on and off and say nice things and bow to you! The top floors had fancy restaurants and a giant zen garden! Plus a whole store for dog sweaters and accessories… That’s a good sign this place is for rich people.

Image

After we had visited each floor and realized we wouldn’t be buying anything there we headed to the Breeze Center which was a little more in our price range and style. Plus they had a movie theater and we hadn’t seen The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug yet. We decided to see it since we were there and chose the closest time, not noticing that one in “4D” (moving seats) would be showing an hour later 😦 I guess we will have to go back to try it out!

Image

After getting out of the theater about 3 hours later it was dark and all the pretty Christmas lights were on! My favorite was the Cartier Christmas tree set up in front of SOGO.

Image

Christmas Day!

Chris and I met up with friends at 5pm to go out for dinner and sightseeing in Ximending (literally translates to West Gate) or western side of Taipei. We took the most crowded bus I have been on yet, and the MRT to get there. Coming up from the MRT station it felt like walking right in to a smaller version of New York’s Times Square.

Image

ImageWe headed down the main entrance towards the restaurants and shops enjoying the Christmas lights and trees. Ximen was the first pedestrian zone in Taiwan and it was quite nice not having to walk through cars and scooters to get places.

ImageWe had dinner at Ay-Chung Flour Rice Noodle, one of the most famous noodle restaurants in Taipei. You know you are getting close when you can smell something delicious in the air and see a crowd of people eating from plastic bowls in the street. It was really strange seeing so many people eating soup standing up, but we soon were joining them. The noodles are served in a plastic bowl which you leave in a bucket to be washed when you are done. The meat used is tripe and it is tasty. You can add chili, garlic, or vinegar to your taste from a condiment stand set up on a pillar next to the counter. I didn’t add anything but Chris and our Korean friend added 3 and 4 scoops of chili respectively, to which a Taiwanese woman exclaimed “Wow! You are so brave!” They found it was quite a lot hotter than expected and both began sweating quite a bit.

ImageTo cool off we got some Matcha (Green Tea powder) ice cream.

ImageWe then walked a short distance to the Red House Theater building where contemporary artists have shops with their arts and crafts. The boutique shops had beautiful handcrafted jewelry, original art prints, t-shirts, and buttons etc. It was nice to see the variety of art in the Taiwan art scene. In one of my favorite shops, the artist specializes in making banana versions of celebrities, as seen below.. the Banana Bruce Lee t-shirt. (They also had “Banana Monroe””Banana Superman” and many other famous cartoon characters in banana form.)

ImageWe walked back to the main center, passing by the Times Square like center once again where a street performer had gathered a large crowd to watch him dance. (He did a very good robot and Gangam Style.) We walked back through the streets looking in the clothing stores and found a cheap store with a large selection. We went inside looking for some fun clothes and we were in luck!

ImageWe were all pretty tired and decided to head back home. Before we left we got a picture in front of the big Christmas tree in the square and once we were in the MRT station we found an even better picture spot. We asked a girl and her friend from mainland China to take our photo and then she wanted one with all of us! We were flattered and got some great pictures.

ImageWhat a wonderfully merry Christmas spent with great friends!

PS: We want to say thanks to the people who have given us a Christmas gift using PayPal! We appreciate your gift very much and will put it to good use to keep seeing more parts of this beautiful island!

Shilin Night Market: Shopping, Food, Fun! 士林夜市

Friday night we ventured to Shilin Night Market with some friends. Chris wanted to do some shopping and find some warmer clothes, I just wanted to soak it all in. We left our place at 6:30pm, took a bus to the MRT station at the Taipei Zoo, took the Brown Line to Da’an and then transfered onto the Red Line, north to Shilin. Since it was peak time on a Friday night the MRT was crowded, like sardines in a can, the exact opposite of our last trip. I’ve never been on public transportation so crowded before, everyone shoulder to shoulder holding on to the poles or the handles hanging from the ceiling for balance. Quite an interesting experience. Overall, it took about an hour to get the night market from our place. 

ImageLuckily we were being led by one of Chris’ classmates who knew what he was doing. He was able to guide us in the right direction on the MRT and also once we entered the market section. There were lots of people walking around when we got there and it only got busier as time went on. Everywhere we looked there was some sort of shop or stand, mainly clothes, shoes and accessories with some food vendors here and there. Walking more toward the center of the market is where the food vendors are stationed, along with the underground food court where stall after stall is selling something interesting and delicious.

First I’ll show you some of the retail shops we looked in… maybe 5 of the 200 available. The first place was about 3 people wide and 20 feet long with quite a lot of cool clothes. All the guys ended up buying something from here. I was just interested in looking at the cute whale cardigans and the American flag mustache shirts, and trying on Hello Kitty glasses.

ImageThe next place had pretty much any pattern of blazer you could want.. Everyone had fun trying things on here.

ImageMore shops…

ImageA few t-shirts at a stand and possibly the tiniest tattoo shop in existence.

ImageThere were also a few arcades and carnival games throughout.

ImageSome drink stands.

ImageGiant bowl of flavored Jello and a fruit juice stand.

Image

We headed underground to the Food Court to look around. Fried things, squids on sticks, glazed berries on sticks, boiled chickens… you name it, it was here.

ImageWe were hungry so we decided on fried buns filled with pepper steak. They were mouthwatering, with just the right amount of spice to make you need a drink. From the fruit juice stand we ordered a mango juice which was exactly like drinking a mango. Only whole fruits used there!

Image

Then on to spicy chicken feet (right) and stinky tofu! The whole food court area smelled of stinky tofu, which as you probably guessed isn’t the most pleasant aroma. Stinky tofu basically just smells like all the bad things you can imagine combined in to one entity. I wasn’t brave enough to try it this time, but I will before we leave, I promise. At the bottom there is a restaurant where they cook what you want on the hot surface in front of you and you eat it right from there.

Image

Back out in the fresh air, there are more food stands as well. Dumplings, Snails, cakes that taste like fortune cookies, and tāngyuán (a dessert soup with rice balls filled with sesame or red bean paste).

Image

At the end of the night Chris had bought two sweaters (one very Christmas-y) and a few t-shirts. I also bought a Christmas-y sweater and new pair of shoes that match my bag. We left at about 10:30pm and it was still going strong. The market stays open until 1 or 2am depending on the crowds. We were tired from all the walking and decided to head back to the MRT station just across the street. This is the view of the street as we were leaving, and the inside of the station (bottom left). The friends we went with are both in Chris’ class, from Korea and India.

ImageWe had an amazing night out, taking in the sights and (sometimes stinky) smells of the Shilin Night Market.

 

Exploring National Taiwan University and Daan District

Chris was introduced to a friend of a friend that attends National Taiwan University (NTU) so we decided to meet up with her to explore a little more of the city. NTU is about 15 minutes away by car, but the most used transportation here by far is the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) or rail system. We wanted to give it a try and walked to the nearest station located at the Taipei Zoo and Maokong Gondolas. On our way to the station we got a nice view of the intrances.

ImageThe first thing that came to mind after seeing the tracks raised high about 40 feet off the ground was the Disney monorail. We walked in to the deserted station and quickly figured out how to get a ride.

Image

ImageYour fare depends on how far you go. At the kiosk we figured we were traveling 7 stops which came out to 25元 each, $1 USD. After paying, the machine drops your “ticket” which looks like a poker chip. You then proceed to the gates where you wave your token (which has a microchip inside) over a strip and the doors open for you to walk on to the platform and wait for the train.

ImageAt 12 in the afternoon it was quite an enjoyable ride with only a few other people in our car. Also it was definitely one of the cleanest, nicest looking public transportations I have been on. Our 7 stop journey only took about 10 minutes and we had reached the NTU stop! When we got off we had to pass through another set of gates where you drop your chip, in order to be let out.

ImageOnce we were outside the station we waited to meet up with our friend, Yvonne, who showed up soon after. As it was lunch time she recommended a place she enjoyed and off we went. Kapok Cafe is a vegetarian cafe and bakery with lots of goodies in glass cases to choose from and a pretty wide menu offering of pastas, salads and soups. Something interesting here in Taiwan is that most places serve warm water, warmer than room temperature, since it’s supposedly better for you. We ended up ordering Seafood pasta, Pumpkin & Mushroom pasta, and a baked risotto. The restaurant was also nicely decorated with a Christmas theme.

ImageWe left very full and satisfied on to the next stop. Yvonne wanted to show us around her campus and we were happy to check it out. The NTU campus is quite a bit larger than Cheng Chi and definitely a lot larger than Waikato!

ImageShe then wanted to show us the major shopping and eating streets in town. We finally got to visit some clothing, shoe, and accessory stores full of fun/funny merchandise. Lots of cute watches and jewelry, clear rain boots (which Yvonne explained are very “in” right now because you can just change your socks and voila! a new pattern), and a sweatshirt with who knows what written on it.. “L le Reroy -Arfgikfui…” Also the mustache trend has caught on here, it is a VERY popular pattern. I did end up buying a scarf because it has been getting a little colder now that the sun hasn’t come out in a week or so.

ImageImage

We also passed by Gold Cheese a fancy looking eatery, and stopped at the most famous bubble milk tea place in the district. We ordered warm bubble milk, “bubbles” being tapioca pearls soaked in tea usually, except the ones served here are marinated in a brown sugar mixture making the drink extremely sweet.

ImageAfter this we said goodbye to Yvonne and made our way back to the MRT station to head back home.

ImageWhat an excellent day out exploring!

PS: School is going very well. Chris and I both received A’s on our first big tests. I now know about 150 words in Chinese! I can introduce myself and say basic sentences about things I like or that I want. Now when I over hear people talking in Chinese I can catch a few words and phrases I understand.

PPS: With Christmas around the corner someone has asked how to get a present to us, so we decided to put up a PayPal button in the right-hand sidebar. It’s under the title “Support Elizabeth & Chris” with a “Donate” button underneath. Here you can gift us some money that goes directly to our bank account. It is a very secure site used in many large online retail stores, you just have to make an account.

Thanks again for visiting the blog! Hope you are enjoying our travels!

Food in Taiwan! Part One of Many

Let me start off by saying that I have yet to encounter anything I haven’t liked in the week and a half since we’ve landed. On the major street between iHouse and the university there has to be at least 50 different places to get food and/or drinks. There is a delicious bakery with all sorts of goodies, (sweet and savory -but all of the bread here is slightly sweet), an all around place that serves many things (our favorite there is the egg breakfast sandwich), and a juice place that turns any fruit in to a drink. Many places to eat here are one large room with a kitchen on one side and many tables squeezed in with garage door type opening so a lot of people can be coming and going at once, like the top right photo.

Image

breakfast

For breakfast Chris and I usually get an egg breakfast sandwich or baozi, a steamed bun with delicious meat/spice mixture inside, and eat it while walking to class. Once we arrive on campus we get a coffee or other drink from the vending machine. To my surprise I actually enjoy canned coffee! Some are better than others and I have found Mr. Brown to be my favorite. Another vending machine in our building serves hot drinks so we have the option of hot teas and Milo, etc.

machine

I love walking around to see different vending machines because there are usually some strangely named drinks inside for example, my favorite: POCARI SWEAT. It is basically Gatorade in a can but the name is so weird I just laughed out loud. When we finally bought one and tasted it, I concluded it’s like Squirt (Grapefruit soda) without carbonation.  pocari

When we leave campus at 11:15ish we head out to get lunch. Recently we have found a few places that sell lunch boxes to go which are awesome. They have clear lids, basically the only way to get any idea of what you’ll be eating. They are very pretty and nicely packed as you eat with your eyes firstly. Another old woman that sells lunch boxes has boxes without clear lids so you just ask for them and she hands you whatever she has in the warmer. When Chris and I decided to get lunch from this lady one day we ended up with two very different, but tasty meals. He had sliced pork on rice and I had a deep fried slice of ham with cheese. Totally something I wasn’t expecting but it was delicious. Since we’ve eaten this quite a few times I have assumed they are packaged quite the same. The main section has rice with a protein and sauce, and the three side dishes are either vegetables, tofu, or noodles -or a combination of the three. I still haven’t mastered eating rice with chopsticks so by the end usually I just try and shovel it in to my mouth.

lunch

If you thought all this was good, dinner time is where it’s at… Everyone is out and about and the smells are unbelievable. Every store is open and cooking and crammed full of people. Most of them there after a long day of school or work. It seems like a lot people eat out for most meals, which isn’t too difficult to do since there are millions of places to eat and it’s quite inexpensive. These are some things we’ve eaten for dinner lately. Top left is dumplings, right is beef noodle soup, bottom right is spicy chicken on top of rice with an egg and vegetables, and the crepe was a dessert.

dinner

Here’s also a carb dinner from the bakery. Pizza style bread, bread with cheese, bread with bacon, and sweets. Plus snacks and bubble milk tea. (We don’t usually eat this badly.) This was all under $7 US.

bakery

One sit-down restaurant we have been to called “We Are The World” serves full meals plus a drink for 130元 which is $4.40. You pick up an order form when you walk in, sit down, fill out your form with what meal and drink you want, take it back to the front and pay then sit back down and wait to be served. It only takes at most 10 minutes and it is a large meal even to American standards. We have ordered Spicy Chicken, Spicy Pork Chop, Spicy Curry Chicken, all which have been top-notch. They pride themselves on serving food of the world but I would say it is an Asian twist on worldly food, as all the side dishes are the same as the lunch boxes (tofu, vegetables, or noodles) and the protein is served on rice with an egg.

world

Finally I’ll take you through the grocery store where we found many strange items and even new fruits! This is Wellcome, the 24 hour grocery store about 2 minutes from our place.

wellcome

The fruits here are strange, either gigantic or tiny. Avocados, apples, starfruit, and persimmons, all huge. Strawberries, tiny and served with a container of Fructose Syrup.

fruit

Here is a new fruit we found called Rose Apple or lian wu. Tastes sort of like an apple, less sweet, with the texture of a watermelon.. hard to describe.

roseapple

To the left is a “Vegetable Sponge” literally what the sign said. It felt like a sponge and was bumpy on the outside, the closest thing I could compare it to is a squash I guess. Then there are  drinks, some with funny names.

veg

drink

Here are some “American” corn snacks and Oreo snacks, not sure of their legality since there are no Nabisco marks anywhere, and Skittles. Then some interesting chip flavors and a funny named soda.

snacks

My favorite thing I found though is Asparagus Juice. Who in their right minds would think of making this a drink? “Hmm, let’s take the most disgusting smelling vegetable and put it in a can, OR better yet a family size bottle!” Ew. Maybe by the next time I’ll have mustered up enough guts to give it a try or made a good enough dare for someone else to.

asparagusjuice

Wellington Day 3: Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary, All Blacks vs. Wallabies Rugby Game

Day three we were excited to go out and explore once more! The previous two days we passed a place called Mr. Bun Cafe a couple times and decided to try it out. A perfect decision for a choice (NZ for awesome) breakfast: coffees, French Toast, and Eggs Benedict! Enough calories to fuel our three hour walk up, down, and around Zealandia. Lucky for us we picked up a pamphlet in the hostel lobby which pointed us to the free shuttle there!

ImageWe walked through the welcome center, (got our bags checked to make sure we weren’t sneaking anything bad in) and in to the preserve. It was truly breathtaking. Everything for as far as I could see was nature undisturbed and completely lush and green. I couldn’t hear cars or anything that reminded me we were only 15 minutes from downtown Wellington… just birds, birds everywhere.

Along the paved and unpaved trails throughout, there are plaques explaining the flora and fauna. There are also feeders which attract many types of birds close enough for humans to enjoy but far enough away that they are being bothered. Here are a few of the beautiful birds we saw, thanks to my camera zoom. Left top is a Kea, bottom center is a Eurasian Blackbird, right three are Tui birds. The Kea and Tui are endemic to New Zealand and not commonly seen in cities, the Eurasian Blackbirds are an introduced species that are pretty much everywhere.

ImageThere are a few birds we sadly did not get to see, but were mentioned along the trails: the Takahē, Kiwi, Kakapo, and Morepork (Southern Boobook). Sirocco, a Kakapo, is a featured guest who you can only see by paying an extra fee and staying til after dark. We were told the other birds didn’t usually come out until dusk and we were there from about 11 to 2. Still, Chris made sure no Takahēs were following us out.

ImageThere are also interactive stations which introduce you to New Zealand bugs. Here is a real tree with holes drilled in to it for bugs to hide in, you open up a hatch and can peer through the plastic to see what’s inside. If you’re lucky you get to see something creepy like these!

ImageAnother neat thing to visit there is the Morning Star Gold Mine which was a real working mine during the Karori Valley Gold Rush 1869-1873. It laid abandoned for 125 until the sanctuary fixed the main drive tunnel for visitors to walk through. The dark, damp place is a perfect home for bugs which the volunteer at the entrance tells you to look out for. It is a horizontal drive tunnel about 30 feet which dead ends at a vertical shaft you can peer up in to. You have to wear a hardhat to get inside and it’s about 5 and a half feet tall, perfect fit for me! About 10 feet in it’s completely pitch black, but they installed red floodlights so you can at least see where you are walking. It was quite scary actually because I thought the walls would be covered with bugs (like those seen above) but thankfully not today. We were on the lookout and spotted a cave Weta though!

ImageThe last special attraction is the Tuatara burrows, heavily fenced along the walkway for protection. The Turatara looks like a lizard but is in fact “part of a distinct lineage, order Rhynchocephalia. Two species of tuatara are the only surviving members of its order, which flourished around 200 million years ago.” (Wiki) They were extinct on the mainland until the sanctuary took them in in 2005. In 2008 a nest was found, the first reported case of Tuatara successfully breeding on the mainland outside of a captive facility. They mark each Tuatara with colored beads to keep track of them. Isn’t he cute?

ImageJust walking through was an amazing experience in itself. Here are some of the views… There is a dam in the middle which you can walk along and up to a lookout of the whole sanctuary.

ImageWhen we were finished exploring we headed back to the welcome center and got some lunch at the nice cafe, then browsed their gift shop. Included is something I think Grandma and Grandpa would enjoy, a Birds of New Zealand singing clock! (We passed a newspaper on the way out, top says: More Roadkill, Wallabies expected to get run over again -A nice preview of our night at Westpac Stadium enjoying the All Blacks vs. Wallabies!)

ImageWith a full camera and belly we headed back to the city to get ready for our night of sport.

ALL BLACKS VS. WALLABIES RUGBY GAME

Image

A twenty minute scenic, harbor view walk from the hostel is the Westpac Stadium. As we enjoyed our walk there, we came upon a full on drum corps leading the way to the game. So many people were following, waving giant All Blacks flags and holding up posters making a lot of noise, it was a good sight to see. We made our way and only saw a handfull of Wallabies fans who stood out in their bright yellow and green. My favorite was a guy in a green morphsuit with a Wallabies flag as a cape. We got to the stadium about forty five minutes before the game so we wouldn’t miss a thing, especially the HAKA! Got some great pictures of the stadium during that time! This is the view from our seats.

Image

To open the game, the whole stadium sang the New Zealand national anthem which I had never heard before. It gave me chills listening to everyone at the same time sing a verse in Maori, so beautiful! Then was the awesome and intimidating Haka, the traditional ancestral war dance to scare the enemy (video below). Then the game began! It was so exciting being in that environment with so many people that were passionate about the game and most likely drunk. A lot of laughing and yelling and people excusing themselves through the narrow aisle to go to the bathroom and get snacks. Good times.

Image

It started raining in the middle of the game, just enough for the grass to get slippery and all the fans to get out their ponchos. Luckily we were under the seats a level above us which was a nice shelter. The final score was All Blacks 27, Wallabies 16! Woohoo!

We headed back to the hostel for a good night’s sleep before our departure early the next morning. Here are some awesome pictures from our bus ride back to Hamilton. We went from the beach, to rolling hills, to desert, to mountains, and back to hills all in 8 hours! And I saw a rainbow end to end!

ImageWhat a magical trip!