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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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?)

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!