Saturday, April 30, 2011

week 32_Welcoming Matsu

Well, at first it may have seemed like any ordinary Thursday - but if you haven't figured it out yet, there is almost always something of interest going on around here! My coworkers and I had just finished a pleasant lunch at a small street shop in an alley near the office. We were enjoying the recent spring weather and had chosen the location because of the outdoor tables. We had an errand to run after lunch - some research for a project - but even before we finished eating, we could hear the music and crowds of a nearby parade...

Parade ready to cross a major intersection,
Dragon zig-zagging it's way along on the right

As soon as we'd all had our fill, we headed towards the busy street to walk to our destination, and were face to face with a very long parade on the opposite side of the street. The paraders were headed the same direction as us, so we stopped and stared frequently at the colorful displays. Religious parades here are often held in the streets, smack dab in the middle of business as usual. They simply start walking in the road and expect traffic to clear from their path as they progress. From what I hear, the government is too superstitious to even consider stopping or interrupting these public religious displays - so they walk on... and most passersby just stop to watch!

Giants walking the street

I asked my coworker what the significance of this particular parade was, and he explained that it was a Taoist religious parade hosted by a local temple(s); to honor the goddess Matsu. Matsu - a goddess of the sea, originally regarded as a safe keeper of fishermen - has grown to a patron saint status in many parts of China and Taiwan. Taoist believers now pray to her for all matters from careers, to farming, to family. Once a year her birthday is celebrated based on the timing of the lunar calendar. She is also carried once per year on a tour to every temple in her honor, blessing her followers along the way and chasing off evil spirits. When we came to one particular intersection, there were two giants dancing in the street to chase away the evil spirits.

Chasing away evil spirits

As we continued to walk along the same path as the parade, the floats seemed never ending! This was quite a huge display with hundreds of participants and even more spectators. The traffic (as you can see in the photos) generally tried to stay out of the way, but was weaving in and out as well. It's a shame that the photos can't do it the same justice as stumbling upon this in person! The colors and details of the many costumes were impressive!

Passersby stopping to watch

In addition to the costumes, there is also plenty of music similar to the American parades I've seen. Unfortunately, I would have to say that this particular was not necessarily pleasing to the ear. Definitely not. Even the guys with me were not thrilled with the musical performances, but I have the feeling their true significance was deeper than the pleasure of their listeners. PLUS - there were many, many, firecrackers! These frequently drowned out every other sound. Firecrackers are ceremonial for many kinds of occasions in Taiwan, but sadly (at least to me) they are typically just firecrackers as opposed to fireworks; they are a lot of noise and not much to see!

Firecrackers on a string and papers in the street from those already set off!
Note the scooter driving through - that has to be some kind of a hazard...

The best and most amazing part of the parade was when Matsu's carriage arrived. Of course, the traffic was in the way and I couldn't get a clear picture for you all, but... her carriage was hand-carried and as it approached, the people would bow down - in the middle of the street -  with their heads to the ground, to create a pathway beneath her carriage. With their heads bowed, and their backs facing flat upwards, Matsu's carriage continued along above. It was powerful to see --- and would have been really great to have a photo of! But I guess I will just have to live with my own memories :)

I had to take this picture ~ I love the strong modern and traditional cultures of Taiwan, and seeing them coexist together! 

After the parade watching, and running our quick errand, we headed back to the office. Just another Thursday. =)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

week 31_First Impressions (Jason!)

First Impressions…. From the Husband’s Point of View

              I am very happy to report that my first visit to Taiwan was an absolute success

                After a grueling yet uneventful flight, I arrived in Taipei late in the evening to find Super Wife waiting for me just outside customs. It had been way too long since I’d seen her in person (Skype doesn’t count), so the hug lasted an appropriately long amount of time (of course I didn’t cry, who said I did? Ok, maybe a little). We got into a cab and spent an hour driving towards our (my) new home. Of course being night,  I couldn’t really get any idea of how big the city was, but it was obvious from the scooters, street vendors, and the 101 story building in the distance that this was definitely not Dallas

                The next few days were a blur, and I find that as I try to think back on them my head is filled with cloudy images of strange squiggly signs and skinny, black haired people darting in an out of subway cars and city buses. Food wasn’t a problem, since I had the lovely wife to take me by the arm and protect me from fish balls and “stinky dog food”, or whatever that stuff was. By the way, I’m all about going local with the food, but there are limits. Another comfort was the refuge of our super posh (but teeny tiny) apartment in the heart of Taipei. All the glass and polished wood, the fancy shower and the fantastic view of Taipei 101. The pictures that Lizzie had shown me over the Internet didn’t do the place any justice (though her picture taking skills have gotten great, right?)

                Our first real adventure was to Taroko Gorge, near the city of Hualien. Lizzie has already written about the trip itself, but let me add my two cents by saying is was as fantastic as she said it was, plus a little more. Imagine deep crevices in the ground where the phenomenal forces of nature have torn great cracks in the earth that go so deep you can sometimes barely see the bottom. Then you look up and even though the view is clear for hundreds of feet up, you still can’t see the tops of the great mountain peaks because of the thick mist surrounding their tops. Imagining a super deep Chinese gorge with mist covered peaks and treacherous cliffs? Good, that’s exactly what it was like. I should probably also mention that we were staying in a mod hotel in the middle of a convergence of two of the gorges, and since the lovely wife arranged it all, she gets two, no, three extra brownie points.

                Another happy surprise from the gorge trip was that while we were there I received an offer to come and interview for the China Post, the largest English language newspaper in the country. The day after we returned, I went to their main office and after an interesting test and interview for the vacant copy editor position, I was invited to come in for a five day probationary period so that the head of the copy department could decide if I will be a good fit. Fingers crossed, but I have a good feeling about this. The five days will start once I’ve returned after having come back to Dallas to wrap up our affairs in the States.

                The interview having been completed, I had almost an entire week to hang out with Lizzie and explore. We ate delicious food from fancy restaurants and little street corner vendors, we went to night markets and museums, and we gave each other long overdue hugs and kisses as often as possible since they were long, Long, LONG overdue!

                I absolutely love Taipei and I can’t wait to be there permanently. Taiwan is an amazing country with so much in store for a young couple just really setting out on their own. Who knows what kind of adventures are waiting for us. I can’t wait to find out.
                                                                                                Written somewhere over the Pacific…

week 31_A fresh perspective!

I was especially sad to see the husband go. Headed back to Texas once again... He is busy, busy wrapping up every loose end so that he can move to Taipei permanently (probably loading and unloading all of our possessions in and out of a trailer into storage as I write this!), but it won't be long AT ALL until he returns! That made it easier to part ways this time. I can't wait until he is back for good so I can keep "showing him the ropes." It was fun to relive my first impressions of Taipei through him and to see his initial questions and reactions, so similar to my own! :)

And! Drum roll please...
Here is the husband's first blog post, some first impressions about his recent visit to Taipei...
I'm excited to see more from him - it will be fun having two blog authors from now on! :)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

week 30_W Hotel Taipei

Just when I thought I had posted all of the fun happenings from my husband's recent visit, I found more photos on our camera! I am so forgetful already! (Imagine what I will be like at 65...)

During my husband's time here in Taiwan, we actually went "out on the town" a few times. First, with a girlfriend of mine. We had pizza & beer for dinner, followed by drinks at a nearby jazz lounge called "Brown Sugar." I didn't get very many good photos from the occasion (it was dark)... but the place was awesome! The band and the singer had a great energy, good music, and the club was packed with people enjoying the show! Cozy lighting, what looked like tasty appetizers, and decent drinks from a large open bar approachable on all sides. I'd like to go back again for sure... Maybe for a birthday, anniversary, or something :) It felt like a little slice of New York City tucked away in Taipei. The singer was a big lady with a great voice. She looked American, was announced as originally being from France, and caught us all off guard when she started speaking Chinese at one point in between songs! Very multi-cultural.

W Hotel Taipei, front entrance/drive
Chain column supporting the far end of the canopy...
It is quite stunning in person.
 Aside from the night out at Brown Sugar, the hubby and I enjoyed a really sweet date night at the brand new W Hotel. The hotel is about a block or so from my apartment, and I have been wanting to check it out ever since the recent opening! I knew the design would be fun, and it is so fresh and new that all is unspoiled yet... so we decided to stop in at the 'WooBar' one evening for a drink, just the two of us.

WooBar patio, overlooking the pool & the city beyond
The bar was on one of the middle floors [I can't remember - floor 9? maybe 10?] and as we stepped into the lounge area, we noticed the poolside patio just beyond. Luckily, we had arrived early, maybe 6 o'clock, and the place was more or less deserted - so we had our pick of where to sit. We chose two large basket swing chairs on the patio, nearby the pool. 

[You can see glimpses of the interior, beyond]
Our swing seats, poolside.....Isn't he cute? :)
It was such a perfect unplanned date, we are going to have to repeat it again sometime! The weather was lovely. The environment, serene and classy. And although I have sometimes heard patrons complain that W Hotels' contemporary design style can be quite 'cold', it actually felt very warm and inviting at this time of evening - with all of the decorative lighting to soften the edges.

a Singapore Sling & a Margarita - Yum!
I suppose there's not much else to say except that it was truly a pleasant evening - sharing a drink with one another as we leisurely swayed in our swing chairs looking out at the pool. Ah.

Poolside, looking back toward the WooBar 
Rooftop pool, WooBar beyond
W Hotel, towering above
It was a great way to wrap up our visit together, and a sweet spot for a romantic evening together. :)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

week 30_"vacationing" at home

a view from our rooftop
Even though the long holiday weekend came to an end, my husband's visit was not yet over - we spent the next week-ish tromping around Taipei. For the most part, we just stuck to a normal routine. I had to work each day as usual. So we enjoyed the ins-and-outs of everyday life here... every errand a new adventure for him if not me too!
Showing the husband where to shop for my birthday gifts ;)
 We window shopped at the fancy department stores, and checked out the largest night market in Taipei. We hunted down a 'secondhand' mobile phone for him. 'Secondhand' was the word that the vendors knew... no one understood what was a 'used' phone??? We searched for a special light bulb that had burnt out in my apartment. Sound simple? Well, I think it took us 2 or 3 stores and plenty of pointing and show and tell before we succeeded...
Above ground, MRT station
We attended one of my Chinese lessons together, and gave the husband a new Chinese name! Fun! We visited the National Palace Museum and barely even saw a sampling of their collection - just because it is so huge! I can't wait to go back again and look at more art :)
Typical Taiwanese alley
 And I had someone to take my photo more often... clearly.

week 29_Hualien, Taiwan

Hualien, Eastern Central coast of Taiwan
 Next, we continued our vacation in the nearby town of Hualien, Taiwan. As mentioned previously, I haven't spent much time outside of Taipei, so I was certainly looking forward to exploring a new town. We checked into a different hotel, the Beauty Stay Inn, and were pleasantly surprised by the room. The hotel was older (and much more affordable than our first hotel) but has been updated recently and was very clean, modern, and spacious - I'd recommend it to anyone visiting Hualien who doesn't mind staying in town (ie not on the beach). Our hotel backed up to a river that flows through town out towards the ocean. They had bicycles for rent for anyone who would like to bicycle around Hualien or along the riverside - which looked like fun! 

After we'd settled in, we decided to explore a bit, and took a taxi to a night market on the other side of town. This particular market specialized in food (only) and there was lots of variety - everything from stinky tofu (no thank you!) to bubble tea, to noodles, fried squid, and so on. The husband and I were both feeling adventurous so we had quite a sampling as we meandered along: popcorn chicken, french fries, bubble tea, fried squid stuffed with rice and drizzled with sauces, grilled skewers of bell pepper, bacon & onions, chicken,  and probably a few more things I can't even remember... plus some caramel popcorn for the road.   
Hualien Night Market
One vendor in particular had the longest lines and seemed to be more or less famous with the locals, so we made sure to order some of their grilled skewers. We stood in line for what seemed like ages and filled our basket with the uncooked skewers of our choice then took a number and waited for our order to be called... probably an hour or so later, we were finally up! I think our ticket was number 114 or something like that! And... by the time we finished those skewers after having walked around munching the entire time, we were stuffed and tired!
The MOST popular food stand...
Sadly, I started feeling sick shortly after; it seems my adventurous eating had caught up with me. Although I had hoped we could enjoy the next day exploring the town, I started feeling sick that same evening and was not yet better by the time we had to check out of our hotel the next day. Yikes! Walking all around town with an upset stomach = not my idea of fun... but my poor husband was patient with me and we tried to make the best of it. For the rest of the afternoon we wandered Hualien on foot. We walked along the riverside, and walked to a pier to look out on the ocean. That was about all I had in me, so we headed to the train station early (sorry hubby!).

I hope we get to go back sometime and I will be more cautious about what I eat... because when it really comes down to it... what I remember about Hualien = food poisoning!!!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

week 29_More Taroko Gorge...

After visiting the Eternal Spring Shrine and the Buluowan Recreation Center, we still had a few more sights to see on our tour!
our friendly Tour Guide and the Husband
Looking down on the river from the Swallow Grotto trail
Our next hike was along the Swallow Grotto trail: an open, well-paved and relatively smooth path along a mountainside road. This trail was much busier than the previous, with tour buses and large groups of people moving along snapping photos every few feet (that means us too...). And justifiably so! I'm glad we have the experience to remember though, and not just the photos. It was beautiful. The trail did offer wonderful views and is at the narrowest point in the gorge. When you look across the river you can see the rock wall and mountainside just across the way, close enough to admire the veining in the natural marble cliffs.

(Notice the people top left to give you an idea of the scale)
Looking out from the Swallow Grotto Trail
The Swallow Grotto trail is named for it's winding pathway through mountainside caves where swallow's have long laid their nests. Unfortunately, over time, the swallow population here has dwindled but we did still see a few. The swallows that we did see are probably flying around in these photos somewhere - just tiny specs against the engulfing background of the rocks... 

After the Swallow Grotto trail we headed back towards the hotel and hunted down some fried rice from a local street vendor across the way. Aside from the angry Chinese woman who seemed pretty lit that we couldn't speak Chinese (darn foreigners!) the rice was pretty good. :) Full and happy, we decided to venture out for a bit more hiking on our own. We started up the mouth of the Siangde Temple Trail, located just next to the Silks Place Hotel. 
Tianfeng Pagoda, Siangde Temple Trail
Looking down from the top of the pagoda, river below!
The last trail had the most sights along the way and ended at Siangde Temple. I think we both had fun climbing up the double-helix stairs of the pagoda and admiring the views from the different points along the trail. It was well worth the hike and a great way to end our day. A few pictures taken along the way...
Siangde Temple gardens
Siangde Temple, Taroko Gorge
The most reputable trail, the Tunnel of Nine Turns - the one I was really looking forward to! - was actually closed during our visit due to a recent rock slide. We're told that falling rocks are common within the gorge, and certain trails actually require permits and for hikers to wear helmets. For the inexperienced like us though... we would never make it! Ha. I say this in jest only because it doesn't take long before I stop for a breather ;) Even still, I love that Taiwan is so scenic with so many beautiful new places to enjoy!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

week 29_Hiking Taroko Gorge!

Just to give you an idea of how large the National Park is, you can check out a map of the trails here:
We managed to see about 3 of them... Guess we will have to go back for more! :)
Notice the red engraved Chinese characters in the mountainside
Hiking in Taroko Gorge was - as hoped for - spectacular! :)
Aside from having asthma and being completely out of shape, the hike was exhilarating and fun! We chose to use the hotel's tour service, and were lucky to adventure in a small group of 3 + the guide. I had initially hoped to hire a private taxi with an English speaking guide/driver to tour us around for the day (I hear that's a good way to see the gorge), but they were already booked for the holiday weekend and in the end we were very satisfied with our small group from the hotel.

Many of the mountainside stairways seemed like they might actually lead to eternity, but - steep as they may be - all of the trails were well paved and lined with handrails. Taiwan has obviously spent countless hours and money working to provide a quality national park for recreation and tourism... and it shows!
Eternal Spring Shrine
This is one of the places that we hiked to. We were intrigued to learn from our guide that the two piles of rubble at the center and right of the photo were previous shrines, fallen to earthquakes over time, and just the one on the left remains.
Eternal Spring Shrine
In addition to the magnificent landscape, the Taroko Gorge also has a culture of it's own, including an aboriginal tribe that still inhabits the area today. Our second destination on the tour was to visit the Buluowan (aborigine) Recreation Center. Our guide told us about the ways of the aborigines and some of their traditions. It was interesting to hear about some of their rituals - for example facial tattoos signifying the coming of age and responsibility. During the Japanese rule of Taiwan during the mid 20th century, the facial tattoos were not permitted and the tradition ceases to exist today. However, they do still paint their faces in the traditional method for celebrations and festivals. 
Taroko Gorge, outside of Recreation Center & Service Station
I love how no matter where we went the mountains seemed to just disappear into the clouds. We stopped in the center to admire some of the handicrafts made by the aborigines and decided to buy a handmade table runner as a souvenir. A great quality, hand-woven keepsake - it was a good choice. But the more memorable moment was when we asked if we could photo the little woman weaving, and the tini-tiny aborigine woman looked at me, patted the ground next to her, and smiled... offering for me to sit with her for a photo while she worked. 
Me with the aborigine lady as she weaves,
We bought an identical table runner to the one she is making in the photo
And what would a little adventuring in an Asian country be without some curious English signage translations?
English sign says: "What a spectacle except for the dam"
Although the dam does still operate today, the sign had a good point - it is the only thing currently standing in the center of the gorge and it looks out of place. Funny sign though. Can anyone confirm if it actually says the same thing in Chinese? :)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

week 28_Silks Place Hotel (Taroko Gorge)

Along with the arrival of my husband, came a long awaited holiday weekend! We planned his visit to Taiwan strategically - knowing that I would have a few extra days off work to spend time together. Even though I especially want the hubby to see and explore Taipei (our new home), I have already been here for seven months now and I was ready to see some more of the island. For the most part, I have not ventured out of Taipei City/County during my stint here... and now I finally have someone to travel with me!

I had heard particularly good things about a large National Park on the Eastern side of the island: Taroko Gorge. It is - as advertised - a pristine area with two large gorges running for miles. So, we were intrigued... Due to the holiday weekend celebrating both TombSweeping Day (2011/04/05) & Children's Day (2011/04/06) the trains were packed and we had to rearrange our trip plans a little to find two train tickets still available. Regardless, it was worth the hassle as we drove into the gorge - Beautiful!!!

Taroko Gorge, Taiwan
We decided to stay at a fairly posh hotel called Silks Place Hotel. There are only (I believe) two hotels actually located within the gorge and the rest are located in the nearby town of Hualien. I wanted to take advantage of the time to hike and sight see as much as possible, so it seemed like staying in the gorge and not dealing with the hour long commute to and from was the best plan. Admittedly, the best thing about the hotel once it was all said and done was definitely the convenience.

Silks Place, Taroko Gorge, Taiwan
Our hotel sent a shuttle to drive us from the train station to the hotel and vice-versa. The hotel also had a few restaurants on the grounds since the remote location meant limited dining options (mostly a few nearby street vendors selling local food). Additionally, after a disappointing search for a private English tour guide to drive my husband & I around the gorge (they were all booked well in advance for the holiday weekend) - we discovered that we could sign up for a private tour guide from the hotel, who spoke English.

In regards to the physical hotel features - the grounds were pristine, the staff eager and helpful, the food delicious, and the location ideal. We lingered to the rooftop patio to enjoy a large open fire next to the poolside. We wandered stone pathways around the hotel grounds. We splurged on a bottle of wine with our dinner. It was a great place for a vacation. :) If we were to return, I would splurge on the (although pricey) riverfront suite so that we could enjoy the river view from our balcony in the morning...

Silks Place Hotel, Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

week 28_Reunited!

Let's face it. Life in Asia without my husband is sort of like eating Oreo cookies without milk. Sure, the Oreos still taste pretty decent, but you just know that they could be SO much better! So... you can imagine the overwhelming joy I feel to have him here visiting me - FINALLY! :)

After many months apart, we stumbled upon a super-cheap plane ticket and decided it was time for a visit. The husband arrived last Thursday evening and has hardly left my side since then (except for when I am working of course)! It is really nice to have his company once again, and so exciting to show him around Taipei! Of all the people I know, my husband and his family have traveled the most - living in many countries, and visiting countless more - before I met them in good old Edmond, Oklahoma. However, much to my surprise, my own husband had never been to Taipei until now. Unlike every other vacation we've had together, where he is telling me what's good and where to go next, I am finally the leader! Hopefully during these couple of weeks together I will get to show him my favorite ins-and-outs of Taipei (at least what I have managed to discover so far in my limited time here).

His flight arrived in the late evening so we did nothing on that first evening, but the next day he walked me to work in the morning, and when I finally got off work (I had been impatiently watching the clock all day, knowing he was here) I decided to take him out to a nice Taiwanese dinner at one of the most famous restaurants in town: Din Tai Fung. Din Tai Fung is known for their fresh steamed dumplings and traditional shared Chinese dishes. We feasted on chicken dumplings, pork/shrimp dumplings, spicy sprouts, stir-fried cabbage, beef soup, pork chop & egg fried rice, Taiwan beer, and even some sweet red bean dumplings for dessert. I think it was a success! [Not to mention we brought home at least another evening's worth of leftovers]

These next two weeks should be some pretty good posts - I have lots of plans for adventuring while the hubby is here! So far, I think we are off to a good start :)
Husband, sneaking a dumpling from the Din Tai Fung mascot...
Here's to my sweet husband, and not having to adventure alone!