Sunday, November 11, 2012

Taipei, Taiwan

Traveling in Taipei
Rahoe Street Night Market
Curious about how I ended up traveling to Taiwan?  Well, the story is pretty simple.  For a graduation gift, my grandparents gave me the incredibly generous gift of joining them on one of their trips.  I'm very grateful that they gave me this opportunity to travel and excited to spend time with them.  About a year ago, we were negotiating cities deciding where to go.  We wanted to select a place to which none of us had previously traveled, a task that's not so easy when you're talking about the three of us.  So one night, I was driving to a friend's house to dog sit while they were away, and my grandma called me to tell me about a brochure from Viking Cruises that had just come in the mail, and asked me if I would be interested in a 15-day tour of Vietnam and Cambodia.  Yes, yes, yes!  So, that's how we decided on Vietnam and Cambodia.

About half a year after booking the tour of Vietnam and Cambodia, my mom called me in Madrid on Skype to let me know that my grandparents had mentioned potentially adding a post-trip extension to Taiwan to visit some friends.  Right away, I called them on Skype to inquire about possible changes so I would know what was going on.  After coming to the conclusion that it made more sense to see Taiwan on this trip rather than flying all the way back to the other side of the world at a future date, they decided to add five days in Taiwan.  From there, they would fly home and I would stop in San Francisco ("It's on the way home anyways.") to see my sister, Marissa, perform in the B.A.S.O.T.I.  opera scenes summer concert.  I literally had a solid month of (fabulous!!) traveling planned.  And yes, I packed a month's worth of clothing.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

On the morning of July 19th, about half of our tour group from the Vietnam & Cambodia trip departed for the post-trip extension to Halong Bay.  We hopped onto a different plane and headed off to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.

Teresa, me, Grandma Jean, Zaidy, James, Cindy, and Will
My grandparents have friends in Taipei who lived in the US for a while, and were very excited to visit them.  I met Cindy and James when I was a few years old, so I was basically re-meeting them for the first time.  We also met their awesome children, Teresa and Will.  Throughout the week, they were our very gracious hosts.  They showed us the country, taught us about their food, and brought us to many amazing places.

Vertical Signs & Advertisements in Taipei

The flight from Hanoi to Taipei was only about two and a half hours long (approx. ORD --> BOS), so we had plenty of time for a fun, first evening in Taipei.  On the way to the city from the airport, I noticed that Taiwan looked much more modern than what I had seen in both Vietnam and Cambodia.  The second thing I noticed was that many of the street signs were vertical since Chinese characters are traditionally written vertically.  In the car, Cindy and James explained to us that because of Western influence, Chinese characters are now sometimes written horizontally from left to right.  Different texts are written in different directions, and you just have to start reading and see which direction makes the most sense.

"Wrapped" Food

When we arrived in the city, we dropped our bags at a hotel and then headed off to dinner at a vegetarian buffet.  The food was all different from what each of us had expected.  Well, I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but this definitely wasn't it.  In any case, I noticed that many of the foods came wrapped up in some way, like they were packaged.  The wrapping is super cute, but I found it difficult to select wrapped foods because I didn't know what was inside them.  I just took one of nearly everything.  Over the course of my time in Taiwan, I learned that even if something looks like meat, it's probably not.  And it probably has chunks of stuff you can't identify in it.  So...biting into something where you can't see the filling is a little uncomfortable when you know you may never be able to identify what's inside.
Any idea what's in these?
Passion Fruit & Pineapple
The odd thing about the food here, especially vegetarian food, is that foods are designed to look like other foods.  You're never quite sure what you're eating and what things were synthesized to create that appearance.  As a result, the more food I saw, the less I wanted to eat.  That said, one food I really liked at the buffet was the passion fruit selection.  I have never eaten a passion fruit by itself before and loved the tangy flavor.

On our first night in Taipei, we visited the new skyscraper known as the Taipei 101.  The entrance to the building is a shopping mall, and there's an elevator to the ticket counter.  After buying tickets for the tower, you get in what is apparently the world's fastest elevator and go up to the observatory level.  The Taipei 101 sticks out of the cityscape like giraffe in a field of mice.  Nothing around there even comes close to its height.

Taipei 101
At the top, we had our pictures taken, and checked out the exhibits about coral gemstones.  Interestingly, while the collection of coral is illegal, the harvesting of coral gemstones is completely legal.  At least that's what the sign on the wall said.  In the middle of the room, there was an exhibit of several of the past recent Olympic torches on display, including the torches from Sydney and Beijing.  One fun part about the observatory was that there are adorable characters everywhere with really round heads and "101" rearranged to make facial features.  One of these characters presents a green exhibit, where they tell you about the environment, and another explains the wind damper.  The wind damper is an enormous spherical weight which helps the building sway in the wind without snapping.  Most of the "101" characters are posed so you can take pictures with them.

Taipei 101

Throughout my trip in Asia, I was asked several times, by several different people, how whatever city I was in compared with an American city.  The askers made it pretty clear that they wanted me to answer that their city was very similar to an American city, and in some cases explained that their city had been modeled after a "typical American city".  On this 20-day trek through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Taiwan, I would say that Taipei is by far the most similar to an American city out of what I saw in Asia.  The buildings' modern architecture present a very clear intention and resemblance.  Taipei's clean, efficient metro system; however, seems more European than American.

I don't compare every place I travel to home because I think that would blind me to the individual surprises each different place offers.  Usually, I just look around and try to get an idea of how things work wherever I am.  However, since so many people asked me about the comparison between Taipei and a US city, I'm going to take the bait.  The architecture very clearly reminds me of American-looking architecture, and I think many people would very comfortably agree with that.  Of course, all the advertisements and signs written in Chinese characters are different, but that's to be expected.  There are two main things that constantly reminded me that Taipei is not in fact an American city.  First, the tap water isn't completely safe to drink.  That means no tap water, no ice cubes, and no washed salads.  Also, you have to brush your teeth with bottled water.  Pleasantly, our water in the US is clean enough and safe enough to drink without worrying, and we don't regularly think about this as a special privilege.  Drinking water (without boiling it first) is just what we do.  Second, a place that gives its people trenches and holes in the ground instead of toilets is...well, it's definitely not America.  There's really no getting around that.  Finding an actual, full toilet is exciting in Taiwan.  Finding anything but a full toilet in the US would simply make you raise an eyebrow in annoyance.  In hotels with western guests, the builders wisely decided to install toilets.  To be clear, I'm not suggesting that bathroom décor makes the US superior.  I'm sure that people who grow up with those trenches like them well enough.  It's just a difference worth noting.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Grand Hotel
In the morning, we went with Cindy, Teresa, and Will to the National Palace Museum, a huge and incredible collection of artifacts from Chinese history.  On display, we found everything from calligraphy to jade pieces and furniture.  One particular jade sculpture that I found replicas of everywhere was a a piece of sculpted cabbage.  I forget exactly what it's supposed to symbolize, but the guide made a particular note of telling us that the jade was imperfect because of its impurities in composition, and that it became seen as a metaphor for life.  Even though the quality of the stone wasn't  as high as it could have been, the quality of the workmanship was spectacular.

We spent the afternoon relaxing from the heat at the Grand Hotel.  I heard that Bill Clinton stayed at this hotel during a visit many years ago.  It seemed like a really nice place, and the building showed off the traditional, old Chinese architecture.

Rahoe Street Night Market

In the evening, we met up with my friend Yi-Jang from BU, and went to the Rahoe Street Night Market.  Everyone told me that the night markets were one of the best parts of Taipei, so I was really looking forward to seeing this one.  Admittedly, I was sort of curious to see if they really had booths selling livers, intestines, bugs on a stick, fried frog legs, and other items I would rather not eat.  Indeed, these booths were everywhere, and I had a blast photographing their unusual snack choices.  Yi-Jang showed me one of her favorite vendors where they were making cartoon-shaped, pancake-like cakes.  We split a few of them, and they were delicious.
With Yi-Jang at the Rahoe Street Night Market
Intestines at the Rahoe Street Night Market
The other fun part of the night market, aside from the "special" food, was that the street was lined with shops selling cheap clothes, copies of any brand you wanted, sunglasses, shoes, and other items.  I never pass up an opportunity to browse a clothing store, so you can bet that I checked these out.  Just like in Europe, I found several shirts with writing in incorrect English on them.  That always makes me smile.  Interestingly, they were also selling things with the pattern of the American flag on them.  I'm becoming reasonably sure that the only place you cannot buy those items is in the United States.  Ironic, don't you think?
Rahoe Street Night Market
Massage Fish Tank at the Rahoe Street Night Market
Before going to Asia, I had heard about fish tank massages.  Basically, there's a tank of fish, and you put your feet in it.  The fish swim around, and it's supposed to be relaxing.  I hear they don't change the water between people though, so it's probably not that hygienic.  Our guide back in Cambodia recommended avoiding these.

While walking around the night market, I found myself wondering if they also sold these fish as pets.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

In the morning, we took a half-day trip to Wu Lai Village.

Jianguo Holiday Jade Market
Upon returning to Taipei, we visited the Jianguo Holiday Jade Market.  As a huge fan of markets, shopping, and jewelry, I was pretty excited to check this place out.  As we arrived, we quickly saw that the pieces for sale were much more expensive than we had anticipated.  The jade market sells higher quality jewelry; it's not a market for souvenirs that are cheap in price or quality.  While some pieces are really, really expensive, the experienced market shopper (me!) can still manage to find some reasonably priced items.  After looking around at all the jade pieces, I decided to purchase a coral gemstone necklace for myself.  I was drawn to the coral gemstone items for a few reasons: they're a specialty item from Taiwan, the color looks good on me, and I was intrigued by the distinction between coral and coral gemstones, and why coral gemstone sales are legal.

Jianguo Holiday Jade Market
An Orchid at the Jianguo Holiday Flower Market
After we tore ourselves away from the jade overload, we strolled across the street to the Jianguo Holiday Flower Market, where my grandma taught me about different kinds of orchids.  We enjoyed seeing the different types of plants that grow in Taiwan.  In the end; however, we didn't purchase any plants because you can't bring plants through US Customs.  For the same reason, I didn't purchase any flower seeds at the Bloemenmarkt in Amsterdam last December.

July 22 & 23, 2012

Mini trip to Hualien and Taroko National Park!

July 24, 2012

National History Museum
On our last day in Taipei, we went with Cindy to the National History Museum, where we saw an impressive collection of tapestries covered in calligraphy.  The other part of the museum, which to be honest, was my favorite part, was a special exhibit on pop-up books.  Never in my life had I seen such elaborate pop-up books as the ones I saw that day.  Most of the structures were so elaborate that I couldn't imagine how they would possibly fold up into a flattened page.  To explain how this worked, the museum had placed several of the books on a mechanical display that repeatedly opened and closed pages of these books very, very slowly in order to avoid tearing pages.
Lily Pad Garden
The even cooler part was that all of the books were themed - there were some about musicals, some fairy tales, some comics, and some holiday stories.

Later in the day, we strolled over to a beautiful lily pad garden filled with lotus flowers.  Back in Cambodia, our guide, Adam, had showed us how to eat the seeds from lotus flowers.  Though we didn't eat any of the flowers in this garden, we enjoyed reminiscing on the last day of our trip together.

Me, Zaidy, & Grandma Jean at a Restaurant in Taipei
One of my favorite photos.
Nonchalantly strolling around Taipei and the world.
This is my (fabulous!!!) life.
In the Taipei airport with my Cambodian
painting and Vietnamese rice picking hat.

After dinner at TGIFridays in Taipei (yes, they have that restaurant), we said our goodbyes to our hosts and drove to the airport.  From Taipei, my grandparents and I flew to San Francisco.  Then, they continued home, and I stayed in California for just under a week.  While en route to San Francisco on China Airlines, it occurred to me that I would live July 24, 2012 twice.  Well, almost twice.  Due to the direction and magnitude of the time difference, I left Taipei around 11 pm on the 24th and landed in San Francisco around 9 pm that same day.  That's what happens when you travel this much.  You become a time traveler.  Cool, right?  I'm going back in time!

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