Asian Adventure – Part 3

The last section of the Taiwan adventure was a few days in Taipei.

We caught an early(ish) morning train to Taipei. It’s only two hours or so on the train from Hualien to Taipei. We, once again, had the ‘no seat’ variety of tickets but, based on previous experience, just decided to go straight for the floor sitting option. All in all, the journey went quickly and the issue of not having a seat really wasn’t an issue at all.

On arrival in Taipei, we went straight to the hostel. It was conveniently located very close to a Taipei underground railway (known as the MRT) station. We stayed at Parachute hostel in Taipei. It was incredibly welcoming, had a fantastic common area and free toast! We dropped our bags and headed straight out to see some sights.

We only had that afternoon and the next day in Taipei so we were up against it to see as much as possible. From the hostel we walked to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial hall and gardens. It’s a very imposing structure surrounded by smaller but no less magnificent buildings and surrounding wall. Most of the buildings carry the same colour scheme of white walls and purple roofs. They make for a striking landmark. The main building was scaffolded for maintenance but here’s a picture of it anyway.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial

The building is a monument to Generalissiomo Chiang Kai-Shek who ruled Taiwan for twenty six years. I suggest you Google him if you’d like any extra info. The building is octagonal in shape as the number eight is lucky in Chinese culture.

The main building is flanked by two others that look identical to my untrained eye. They are the National Theatre Hall and the National Concert Hall. I’m not sure which one this is but I am sure that it’s nice to look at.

National Theater Hall/National Concert Hall

These two ‘identical’ buildings stand opposite one another across the courtyard in front of the main memorial building. There’s a large garden to the rear and sides of the main building. There are smaller gardens around the National concert and theatre halls. They are all incredibly lovely to look at and walk around. In fact, Taipei seemed to be a pretty green city. There were trees lining roads and parks/gardens seemed fairly plentiful.

Anyway, back to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial. The courtyard is just as impressive as the rest of the grounds. Firstly, it’s enormous. Secondly, the floor is beautifully paved. Thirdly, the view across the courtyard to the main entrance gate is amazing.

Entrance gate and court yard

From the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial hall, we continued walking to the Longshan Temple. It’s a good twenty to thirty minute walk from the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial.

The popularity of the temple is based on it’s location and the beautiful features of it’s grounds. I’ve certainly never been to a temple within a large city which boasts it’s own waterfall or koi pond but Longshan has both. For me, the waterfall was more relaxing to watch and listen to. Here’s a picture which does nothing to represent how unusual and unique it feels knowing that, on the other side of the wall this cascades down, city life is in full swing.

waterfall at longshan

The temple itself is also an excellent way to forget where you are and what is going on 100 metres away from you in the street.

Longshan temple

As we visited Longshan temple during Chinese New Year, there was an increased volume of offerings in the form of food, flowers and incense. Streams of people came into and out of the temple to pray, make their new years offering(s) and generally admire the temple in the short time we were there. Here’s a little snap of some flower offerings inside the temple.

offerings at longshan

I know very little (i.e. nothing) about religion in Asia so am entirely unequipped to comment on which faith is represented by which temple. It does feel like there are endless temples to see in Taipei and (if I’m going to be honest) for someone as ignorant as me, they all look similar but just in different sizes. Also, religion and religious buildings make me feel uncomfortable. I’m an atheist but I wouldn’t ever want my lack of faith to offend anyone. Walking around religious buildings makes me feel like an interloper sneaking into a world that’s not interested in me. My atheism, coupled with my total ignorance of the religion responsible for the temples, amplified my feelings of discomfort to unbearable proportions. I didn’t go in any other temples. I loitered outside them instead which is far less sinister and offensive I’m sure.

Anyway, that was pretty much afternoon one in Taipei done. By the time we had walked back to the hostel, we’d covered ten kilometres or so on foot which meant our legs were tired and our stomachs were empty. Once back at the hostel, we fed and watered ourselves before getting drunk (as is customary on holiday).

Day two had a solid plan which included two sights. I’ll recount them in chronological order.

We took the Taipei MRT to City Hall and walked the short distance to Taipei 101. This building is famous and iconic for many reasons. It held the world record for being the tallest building in the world until Burj Khalifa opened in 2011. It still holds many world records for engineering and has the fastest lifts (a.k.a. elevators) in the world. It is 101 floors of impressive achievement. Here’s a standard tourist photo.

Taipei 101

The 101 floors represent a couple of things. 101 is an auspicious number in Chinese culture and infers good things will happen. Additionally, 1 and 0 are the binary code used to transfer information digitally. The building is supposed to represent the advancement into a digital age whilst still paying tribute to tradition. I think it looks like a massive stalk of bamboo.

To see all the stuff worth seeing, you have to pay NT$450 to access the 88th, 89th and 91st floors. I think it’s worth the cash. Your money will buy you a free audio tour, great views and two rides in the fastest lifts on Earth. As a bonus, you also get the fun of making your ears pop post lift trip.

I will not argue that Taipei 101 is an astonishing feat of many brilliant brains working together and achieving something incredible. It really is awesome.

Taiwan is hit fairly regularly by earthquakes which vary greatly in intensity (there was a small one on the morning of our visit to Taipei 101 but that’s a different and uninteresting story for another day). Tall buildings do not fare well in earthquakes so, Taipei 101’s engineers had to install a giant ‘damper’ in order to compensate for this. It looks like a giant foam tennis ball but it’s definitely not. If it is, it’s the moat important foam tennis ball I’ve ever seen.

Taipei 101 damper

Visibility for our visit to Taipei 101 was, in my opinion, pretty good. Taiwan has a massive manufacturing industry so the air will never be that clear. I was sufficiently pleased with the view. The audio tour on floor 89 points out different parts of Taipei and recognisable landmarks according to which side of the you are looking out from. Its hard to believe that Taipei is literally next to some mountains. It really is spectacular to look at. If we’d had more time, I’m pretty sure we’d have been trekking up one or more of the mountains.

The 91st floor is where you can get outside (weather permitting). Only one of the two viewing platforms were open when we visited because of high winds. From our one side, I still thoroughly enjoyed taking in the view. Here’s a snap taken from in front of the safety railings.

view from Taipei 101

All in all, Taipei 101 is worth visiting just for the view. It’s probably only a single visit attraction though (much like the London Eye). You wouldn’t need to go more than once to appreciate everything unless the visibility was very bad. I enjoyed Taipei 101 and will give it my stamp of approval. If you go, I hope you enjoy it too. But now, ONWARDS.

The second and last stop on our Taipei list was the National Palace Museum. Here’s a snap of the outside.

National Palace museum

Ticket price was NT$120 when we visited. This is pretty reasonable for what you can see in the museum. You are not permitted to take photographs inside the museum. You must leave backpacks in the check room provided too but, if you have a brain and it’s attached to your nervous system correctly, you should manage to remember the more interesting facts.

The museum is stocked with artifacts form ancient China. When the Japanese invaded China in the early 1900s, the contents of the Forbidden City were boxed and shipped south in order to keep their national treasures safe. When it was apparent the Japanese were going to continue making progress, the collection was sent to Taiwan for safe keeping. It was hidden in a large bunker under the mountain you see behind the museum in the photo above. The full chronology can be found here on the National Palace Museum website if you’re interested in the specifics. Basically, Taiwan kept the collection and now displays the pieces on a rotation basis.

We made use of one of the two daily tours provided in English. This is a free service and, for me, well worthwhile. The tours run at 10am and 3pm but you are advised to sign up beforehand as it’s first come, first toured and there is a limit of thirty per tour. We were incredibly lucky on our tour as there were only the two of us. Our guide spoke brilliant English and was a very friendly young lady. She was very happy to chat her way around the museum so it felt more like a walk round with a knowledgeable friend than a guided tour.

I would recommend the tour as the English translations on signage seem to omit details which explains the significance of exhibits. Some signage was as uninformative as ‘map of coastline’. This is little better than just looking at the map which is obviously a coastline on the wall in front of you. I digress, back to what I learned from our guide.

One of the facts was about the Chinese dragon. A dragon in Chinese culture is very different to a dragon in Western culture. In England, St George is renowned for slaying a horrid dragon. Princesses’ nearly always have to be rescued from fire breathing dragons and generally, they are regarded as somewhat monstrous. The Chinese consider the dragon to be a fortuitous creature which symbolises strength, heroism, nobility, divinity and basically everything that would make you a super wicked awesome type person. The Chinese like dragons a lot more than us Western types. They do not dispatch knights to slay them, the dispatch priests to worship them.

The Chinese dragon is made up of at least four basic aspects of other animals but there can be up to as many as nine. The four ever present features are: body of a snake, face of a horse, antlers of a deer and claws of an eagle. The number of toes on the eagle claws is significant. If there are five claws, the dragon is the Emperors. No one other than the Emperor is entitled to own anything with a five clawed dragon upon it. Three or four clawed dragons were for widespread use. Being found with any item bearing a five clawed dragon was a serious issue. The example our guide gave us was this (paraphrased as I didn’t record her):
“If a member of the Emperors government was found with, say, a robe bearing a five clawed dragon in his wardrobe, it would be proof he planned to overthrow the Emperor. This crime was punishable by death, but not just his death. The death of his entire family including his wife, children, grand children, parents, grand parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins. The death toll could easily reach a hundred or more for a crime such as this.”
Pretty severe, no?

I will only share one more fact with you as I am now dangerously close waffling. I wanted to share what I learned about Jade and, more specifically, why it is so treasured in Chinese culture. Jade is a precious stone that, in olden times, took time, patience, perseverance and skill to extract and craft. The craftsmen would spend hundreds of hours carving, engraving and polishing the stone to a high gloss finish. The Chinese like this concept as it reminds them that anything worth doing takes time, effort, dedication and skill. Also, jade warms to the body temperature of the wearer unlike most other precious gems. This in turn reminds the wearer to be a warm towards others in whatever they undertake. Jade is traditionally a gift given to a loved one. It is not something you would purchase for yourself. It is supposed to offer protection to the receiving party. An example of the kind of protection afforded to the wearer was described to us by our guide (paraphrased as I didn’t record her):
“If a Mother gives a daughter a jade bracelet, the daughter would consider herself incredibly fortunate if the bracelet is broken as the result of any accident. For example, if the daughter falls down the stairs, injuring her leg and breaking her bracelet, she would think herself lucky. This is because the bracelet saved her from a much worse injury than just her leg. Maybe if she had not been wearing her jade bracelet, she would have injured both legs, or worse. In that way, jade is considered to protect the wearer.”

The wearing of jade symbolises such strong and positive thinking that I couldn’t help but feel, I would like to be given some jade.

In order to get back to the airport we first took the MRT from the Taipower Building station to Taipei Main Station. Then, we took a bus from the Taipei Main station west bus depot direct to the airport. It cost a whole NT$120 and required us to do precisely nothing. We got dropped right in front of the terminal we needed and simply trotted our way to the check in desk. Easy, and peasy.

Thank you Taiwan! You are great and, if I can, I will be back.

Taiwan Summary:
Favourite Place: Lotus Lake, Kaohsiung
Favourite Food: Taro pancake/pie
Best Experience: The Eternal Spring Shrine trail in Taroko National Park, Hualien
Other Notable Points: Super friendly locals, very reasonable prices, cycle friendly everywhere, beautiful scenery, really tasty food.

Asian Adventures – Part 2

The second section of Taiwan that we visited was Hualien. We traveled from Kaohsiung to Hualien via the Tze-Chiang Limited Express. Train travel during Chinese New Year in Taiwain is incredibly busy. We had tried to book seated tickets weeks beforehand but met with utter unavailability. We ended up purchasing ‘no seat’ tickets from the train station in Kaohsiung the day we arrived. This was not ideal as the journey would take five hours but, it was the only option we had. A bus would take far too long and renting a car was also not an option price wise. Therefore, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we would probably have to stand or sit on the floor. Both of us are from England however and you can rarely ever get a seat on our native train services anyway so this really wasn’t too much out of the ordinary for us. The Taiwanese railway officials seemed genuinely astonished that we were happy to purchase no seat tickets. Each to their own I guess.

Anyway, I have digressed. Once we boarded the train, we were surprised to see numerous empty seats. We had been under the impression that the train was sold out. We pondered quickly on the etiquette of just sitting in a seat until someone turfed you out. Eventually, we decided that’s how we were going to roll. We’d seat hop until there were no more seats left to hop to. The seating was an actual revelation compared to our English expectations. On an English train, in standard class, you get a seat barely wide enough for your bum and no leg room. On the train in Taiwan, we got ample bum room, stupendous leg space and even a foot rest. Here’s a blurry photo of the foot rests and also the fact that you could not touch the seat in front with your arm fully stretched (and the seats in front of us were also reclined). Amazing!

train

The train took us around the southern coast of Taiwan. From one side of the train, you saw mountains:

sea

From the other, you saw the sea/ocean (geography was never a strong point for me):

mountains

To get from Kaohsiung to Hualien along the Southern coast of Taiwan cost us NT$707. A bargain if you ask me.

On arriving in Hualien, we really didn’t have time to do anything that evening apart from grab a meal from 7-11 and crash out at the hostel. We were fully aware that a full day at Taroko National Park would require a decent nights rest so that is exactly what we got. We stayed at the ‘Colourful Taiwan’ hostel which was, overall, disappointing. The staff were not particularly friendly and there were extra charges for room keys which had not been mentioned in any emails or small print. I had also, weeks previous to arriving in Taiwan, used the hostels ‘tour booking service’ to book a whole day tour of Taroko gorge for two. When we arrived at the hostel, we were told that the tour I had booked wasn’t available anymore and presented with a couple of (unsuitable) options. Only on really pushing did I find out about bus services to the park. Once I had this basic information, I went to Google which was far more informative than the staff at the hostel. By the end of the night, we had a game plan for the next day.

Our day at Taroko began with a 9am bus from Hualien front train station to the Buluowan recreation area in Taroko National Park. The scenery from this area is absolutely beautiful.

A special arrangement for Chinese New Year meant that all ‘Hualien Company’ busses services within the park were free. If you visit the park when you do have to pay for the busses, there are several options. I would definitely go for the shuttle busses over a proper tour though as you can meander around at your own pace. I would have felt too pushed had we been on a tour as the ones we saw were practically herded around like cattle. Also, all of the visitor centres have very friendly staff who will furnish you with many pamphlets. The signage in the park also includes English so, you really shouldn’t struggle too much. The paid for services include the option of an all day ‘hop on/hop off’ type ticket for each service. These are definitely the ones I would go for if you want to see all of the major parts of the park. They also work out very cheap. One of the companies (I think it’s called the Taroko Shuttle) is only NT$250 for a day ticket which makes planning your own day really cost effective.

Again, I have digressed. Back to it. So, we began at Buluowan recreation area. The scenery that surrounds the recreation area is stunning. Here’s a picture of the view from the recreation area.

buluowan rec area

There are several short trails which you can walk around from the Buluowan recreation area. We took the upper and lower trails. From the upper trail, you walk around the grounds of a hotel and can see a small bamboo wood. On the lower trail, you follow a wooden walkway to a few viewing platforms. There are excellent views of both the river and the mountains from the platforms. Neither trail is particularly taxing on the body but there are considerable amounts of stairs to get to the upper trail. It took us around an hour to complete both trails.

We hopped back onto a shuttle bus after than and headed for the Swallows Grotto trail. This is, again, not a taxing walk along the side of the road. It follows the river path so that you can appreciate just what a wonder of nature the gorge is. Taroko gorge was initially formed by tectonic plate movement. Over the years, the river has also played its part and eroded the gorge even further. Swallows grotto is so called because of the swallows which flock along it during spring. You are required to wear hard hats on the trail as it’s very easy to hit your head on rocky outcrops as you peer through gaps in the walls to see the river below. Truly awe inspiring sights.

swallows grotto trail

There seemed to be two ending places for the Swallows grotto trail. You come to a park first of all which has a souvenir shop and toilet facilities. You also seem to have an option to continue further along a trail should you choose to. However, this ‘further along’ looked distinctly like taking your chances with streams of coaches and cars along the road to us so, we stopped where we felt safe (at the park) and boarded another bus towards our next destination. Had you continued the walk, you would have gone through the bridge you can see at the back of the following photo. The photo is the view you have from the park where we stopped.

end of swallows grotto

From the Swallows Grotto trail, we continued to the ultimate destination o four trip, Tianxiang. On arrival, we found it to be not what we had expected. It was more of a town then a recreation area (as our map had called it). There was a proper post office and a police station. Anyway, Tianxiang is the starting point for many of the more ‘hardcore’ trails which we did not have time for. There is a 4km trail which takes you to a waterfall and several other more hiking style destinations which can be reached from your start point of Tianxiang. By now though, the weather was closing in and it had been drizzling with rain for a good 90 minutes. This was making the going fairly treacherous for me in my Converse All Stars (anyone who wears All Starts will sympathise with me when I say, if the going is wet, you may as well be walking on ice if you’re wearing All Stars).

Yet again, I am dancing around the point. My point is that, there are several things to see within very close proximity of one another in Tianxiang. There’s a temple, a pagoda very high on a hill, a gold statue, a statue of the Goddess of Mercy and a small shrine. The slopes and steps are quite steep at some points but nothing that a fairly able bodied person can not manage. We saw some pretty elderly folk at the very top of the hill so definitely nothing insurmountable providing you do not require a mobility aid for normal movement. You can just see on my picture below the temple, pagoda and white statue of the Goddess of Mercy.

tianxiang

When we reached the top of the pagoda, it really was incredibly windy indeed. The weather was taking a sharp turn for the worst so we made haste with our time in Tianxiang as we desperately wanted to see one more place in Taroko before we departed for the evening. Before we left, we did make time to see the golden statue which faces in ten directions.l You can not see this statue from afar, you need to do the walk up to the temple. Here she is and I challenge you to find her blind spot.

facing ten directions

So, the last place we wanted to see was the Eternal Spring Shrine. You can not see this until you are ready to leave the park and head back to Hualien. Inbound busses to Taroko (from Hualien) do not stop here, busses only stop on the way out because of the way the road system works. This is worth remembering if you too wish to see the Eternal Spring Shrine. We also wanted to complete the Eternal Spring Shrine trail which was 2km and expected to take an hour. The busses out of Taroko do stop running fairly early (around 5PM) so don’t get caught short of time to walk the trail.

Anyhoo, here’s a snap of the shrine as you will see it from the road.

eternal spring shrine

It is beautiful to behold. The foaming water cascading down the rocks really does make it feel like a very special place.

The trail itself is a hard walk. I really didn’t think I was fit enough to complete it at one point as it is 90% steps. I really mean that. You go up a really, really, really long way. I can assure you it is worth the puffing, panting and sweating though. There are a couple of key place son the walk. There is Taroko Tower, the Bell Tower and a small temple. You finish the trail at Changuang Temple once you have crossed a suspension footbridge. It’s all very exciting!

We weren’t entirely use what the ‘deal’ was with this trail and so ended up missing Taroko Tower out so I can’t comment on that. I can tell you that the highest point you will get to is the bell tower. The view from the top is just amazing. You can see for actual miles. Here’s a picture I took of the view from the bell tower:

view from eternal spring shrine bell tower

From the bell tower, it’s all down hill via steep steps. You will eventually get to the suspension footbridge. I was, personally, quite scared about going across it but, I managed and so will you if you go. Here’s me in the middle of it. You can see me there being as touristy as can possibly be.

suspension bridge

 

Now, once you are across the footbridge, you are greeted by the wonderful Changuang Temple. There was no one else at the temple when we arrived there and it really felt like an active and fully functioning place of worship and religious dedication so we didn’t poke around too much. The other temples had felt like they were there to be photographed and posed in front of but, Channguang didn’t. It felt very sincere. Up close, it is enormous. I couldn’t get a good picture of it. The best snap I got was actually from the top of the bell tower on the trail so I’ll share that one with you.

Changuang Temple

The good news about the Eternal Spring Shrine trail is that you don’t have to go back up and down 2km of steps. From Changuang Temple you can follow a winding, steep(ish) road down which rejoins the main road. Hoorah!

We had been told that the last free shuttle bus for the day would depart the start of the Eternal Spring Shrine Trail at 4pm. It was 4:15 and we were 2km away from the start. Bother.

As the two, rather sweaty, English girls were rejoining the main road and deciding how on earth to get back to Hualien, an orange coach of free goodness approached. The driver was looking quizically at the two people smiling at his bus. He made a hand gesture as if to say ‘Do you want me to stop?’. This sent the two, slightly damp, English girls into a waving frenzy which in Charades translates universally to ‘OH YES PLEASE MISTER LOVELY DRIVER MAN’. The bright orange bus of joy started to pull over! Once stationary, the two, definitely soggy, English girls ran to the open doors and boarded the coach whilst attempting to say thank you in as many languages as they could manage. The rest of the passengers on the coach giggled quietly at the scene. And so ended the adventure of the two English girls at Taroko National Park.

Tune in next time for the story of ‘Terriffic Taipei’!

Asian Adventures – Part 1

Whilst in Hong Kong, I resolved to see the parts of Asia and the Orient that I am closest to. My most recent excursion has been to Taiwan and here, I will recount some of the things I did in Taiwan, starting with Kaohsiung. First, a few basicas about Taiwan:

  • The currency is the New Taiwan Dollar (NTD). The typical exchange rate is approximately NT$50 = GB £1.
  • The main language is Taiwanese  Mandarin is widely spoken. English is rarer but most people have a pigeon understanding (e.g. How much? Where is? etc).
  • The tap water is not drinkable unless you boil it first or don’t mind being violently ill.
  • The food is good (and pretty cheap).
  • Milk tea is king.

We flew into Taipei Taoyuan airport as the prices of flights into one airport and out of another in Taiwan were simply horrendous. It was far cheaper to fly into and out of Taipei Taoyuan and pay for the bullet train down to Kaohsiung than it was to fly into Kaohsiung airport and out of Taipei. So, that’s the first thing we did. From the airport, we took a bus to the Taoyuan High Speed Rail (HSR) station which cost us NT$30. We then bought our tickets to travel on the High Speed Rail. There’s three kind of tickets you can get; business class, reserved seating, unreserved seating. We opted for unreserved as it was the cheapest (NT$1290) and we didn’t mind standing for a couple of hours if we had to but we didn’t. There were plenty of seats free in the unreserved cars and we sat comfortably for the couple of hours it took to get from Taoyuan (near Taipei Airport) to Zuoying (which is in Kaohsiung). At one point, the train reached a staggering 175 mph but it never felt it.

Once in Kaohsiung, we walked from Zuoying HSR station to our hostel. It was just around the corner from Kaohsiung Arena. It took us around an hour. The weather was good so we didn’t really mind the few kilometers plod along the streets. Our hostel was called Bike Kaohsiung and we got an incredibly warm welcome. Here’s a little snap of me posing outside.

Bike Kaohsiung

The hostel is owned and operated by a man called Paul. Nothing you can ask of Paul is too big or too small. He is only to happy to help. There is also a very cute resident cat:

Bike Kaohsiung cat

On top of this, the hostel is decorated with various ‘cult’ icons (E.T. was painted on our floor asking people to be quiet) and internet memes. The place bathrooms and kitchen were clean as a whistle. The dorms were not only clean too but additionally, roomy and airy. I was very surprised indeed as a bed in our all female dorm was only NT$400 a night! That is cheap as free, right? Here’s a snap of the dorm we were in:

Bike Kaohsiung dorm

On our first evening in Kaohsiung, we went to the Ruifeng night market found near the arena. What a sight it was. Rows and rows of food vendors, games and stalls selling everything from clothes and belts to personal care products. We arrived at around 6pm and the place was already packed. We began what turned out to be an epic 2 hour walk/shove around the market. Here’s a little picture of the crowd so you get an idea of what we were up against:

DSC05715

The market is a lively, bustling experience not for the faint hearted. It’s loud, bright and will assault every sense, particularly your sense of smell.

We began at what seemed to be exclusively food stalls. The first few we saw dealt mainly in sit down trade. There was hot pot, sizzling dishes and plenty of noodles in soup. There really didn’t seem to be that many tourist around and we got the distinct feeling that the market really did cater to mainly locals. No problem, we thought! I was good at charades, the Taiwanese people are incredibly friendly and helpful and my companion spoke basic mandarin. We got by but we did choose mainly food which could be pointed at. I was rather jealous of the hotpot fest going on. We walked past several places specialising in only hotpot but were not brave enough to sit down and order one. Here’s a little picture of one of the stalls.

Hot pot

Neither were we brave enough to sit down where this man was cooking up a storm. Everything was sent out on sizzling plates and delivered to tables by waiters shouting for you to make room for them (I assumed they were yelling “THIS PLATE IS BLOOMING HOT. GET OUT MY WAY!!!)

Cooking hot hot hot

So, there were definitely things we were not brave enough to buy but, there was even more food that we were brave enough to buy. And boy, did we buy. The first thing we bought was dessert. We bought dessert first because we actually could not resist what we saw. Our eyes landed upon what looked like pancakes, but thick pancakes. Thick pancakes in the shape of a cute little pigs face. We watched them being made for a while and realised that, these cute little pigs faces were filled with tasty stuff! Some were filled with chocolate goo, some whith custard goo, others with creamy goo and many with red bean goo. We simply had to have some! We tried the chocolate and cream versions. They did not disappoint. Four large pig heads set us back NT$50. Bargain.

Pig cakes

Continuing in the theme of cute food, we also saw bread which looked like turtles. I desperately wanted to devour one of these little mites but, alas, no one was available to sell me one (and stealing is wrong). I just took a photo instead. All together now, “Awwwwwwww” (I’d still have eaten his head and legs before his shell if I’d had half a chance).

Turtle bread

I wouldn’t say my next find is ‘cute’ food, but I was certainly amused. It’s an entire squid, battered and deep fried but, this stall holder thought it would be a good idea to make the squid a little more memorable. It worked. This is the squid I remember and I could tell you where the stall is too:

A whole squid

There was a wealth of food to choose from. I saw plenty of food on sticks, tomatoes in hard sugar coatings (think toffee apple style but with cherry tomatoes on sticks, not apples), soups, noddles, rice, food I couldn’t identify, food I didn’t want to identify and food I really, really wanted to eat. I identified what looked to be marinated chicken being cooked kebab style and then served in a bun with salad and more mayo than a human should consume in their life. I had to try it. I think you’ll agree it looked amazing. Sadly the taste did not deliver. All my palette could discern was sugary mayo and sugary bread. I was disappointed:

Chicken kebab

I consoled myself with one of the food stuffs in the most plentiful supply. Taiwanese milk tea. The Taiwanese really & truly have tea with jelly/tapioca pearls in them down to a fine art. I knew this type of tea came from Taiwan because I’ve been drinking it in Hong Kong and my favourite type has ‘Taiwan Tea Company’ written on the cup. Anyway, what I didn’t prepare myself for was how much better it tastes in Taiwan. It’s actually shocking. I like the stuff in Hong Kong but, I had to actively stop myself drinking the Taiwanese milk tea all day every day. It is yummy. So very very yummy and cheap. And everywhere. A 750cc cup of it will set you back between NT$30-40 and it is worth every dollar. It has an amazing floral aftertaste that I cannot put my finger on and it tastes so good, I could weep. I really could. If you go to Taiwan, drink the milk tea.

I also tried the fruit/tomatoes covered in sugar (toffee apple style) but not in Kaohsiung. My companion tried tomatoes and prunes coated in a hard sugar glaze in Kaohsiung and she adored them. I therefore tried it in Hualien. I did not like it at all. It was savoury and sweet all at the same time and confused my mouth immensely. I like toffee apples so I had assumed I would like other fruit covered in hard sugar too but, no. I do not. You should only cover apples (crispy apples at that) with sugar syrup and let it harden. Don’t do it to other fruit and especially don’t do it to cherry tomatoes. It’s not right.

Plain fruit on the other hand should be eaten at every opportunity in Taiwan. It is very tasty indeed. I enjoyed guava, apple, strawberries, pineapple and a kind of apple that I do not know the name for. It’s red, small and sort of triangular in shape. Very yummy.

I did eventually invest in some noodle soup. It was served to me take away style. By ‘take away’ style I mean I was furnished with a paper bowl and a spoon. My soup was then poured into a plastic food bag which contained fresh coriander and chili sauce. By this point though I was ravenous. My chicken bun had been a failure and the milk tea had done nothing but whet my appetite. My eagerness to eat the soup resulted in no photos being taken. Well, not by me anyway. Sorry. There was a local guy who was so amused at seeing me eating my soup that he took a photo of me. If you’re that guy, send me a copy of that snap please? Thanks.

The market was not 100% food and tea. There were also games to be played. One of the most popular was an old fashioned ‘hoopla’ style game. You get the hoop over the bottle and you win the prize attached to the bottle. Not rocket science and great fun for everyone as you can see from my picture, all ages were taking part:

Hoopla game

After the flight, high speed train and walk to the hostel, our two hours of night market fun was enough to warrant an early night so we meandered back to the hostel. It’s only about a ten minute walk from Bike Kaohsiung to the night market so it was a pleasant way for us to prepare our brains for bed.

The next day brought glorious sunshine and the will to explore Kaohsiung by foot. We headed off towards Lotus Pond Lake (a.k.a. Lotus Lake) to see what we could see. It was around 3km from Hostel to lake but the walk was scenic as it used a lot of shared pathways with cyclists. There was greenery and childrens play areas along most of the route. I particularly liked this bicycle compass which pointed bicycles in every direction. This is entirely apt as Kaohsiung is very bicycle friendly. They have a cycle hire scheme but I did not get a chance to use it so am ill equipped to advise on it. I just know it exists. Anyway, here’s the compass:
Bicycle compass

We approached Lotus Lake from a rather imposing, white footbridge. It gave an excellent birds eye view of the lake but we were more interested in getting up close and personal with the temples and pagodas. As we visitied Taiwan in the midst of Chinese New Year festivities, there was a playground and market all along one side of Lotus Lake. That meant there was more food, more games and more tea to be sampled. I have to admit, I found two of my favourite Taiwan ‘eats’ in this market. The first was more of the pancake type pies but not in the shape of a pig. It looked more like a pie and it was filled with taro. I loved these taro pies.

Taro Pie

The other item I found was a soft, chewy mix of black sesame seeds and sugary syrupy yum. In mandarin, we found out it was called (spelled phonetically) ‘Hey Sue My”. It was just divine. I didn’t get any good pictures of it because I ate it too fast. It was sweet and bitter all at once. Simply yummy on every level.

Anyway, I digress. Pagodas and temples.

There are many famous pagodas and temple around Lotus Lake. The most famous are the tiger and dragon pagodas. They are decorated accordingly with tigers prowling all over the roofs of, that’s right tiger pagoda. Dragons stalk the roofs of the dragon pagoda. If you still had any doubts about which pagoda is which, you have to actually enter the pagoda through the mouth of the dragon and exit through the mouth of the tiger.

through the mouths of beasts

They were impressive structures but, due to Chinese New Year, they were very, very full so we did not get the chance to climb them for a view of the zig zag walkway. We continued around the hustle and bustle of the market instead and towards one of the (many) temples located around the lake. This one was by far the grandest but lacked any signage in English so I genuinely don’t know which God it is for especially. I think you’ll admit though, it is imposing and ornate.

Temple

There were decorations for Chinese New year on every temple, statue and carving for as far as the eye could see. Coupled with the market, it was truly an incredibly festive atmosphere which we thoroughly enjoyed. The crowds could be intense at some of the narrower sections of walkway but, on the whole, it was nothing more than a busy market so we ploughed onwards.

The next structures we came to were the Spring and Autumn pavillions. You can just see, to the right of the picture, a statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) riding a dragon. She guards the walkway to a temple which is dedicated to the God of War (Kuan Kung). Again, they are all beautiful to look at and impeccably maintained.

spring and autumn pavillions

There really are a multitude of temples and statues all around Lotus Lake. It boasts a Confucius Temple which was, very unfortunately, under renovation so we could not go and view it. There are also good pockets of natural beauty to behold around the lake. We saw multitudes of cranes flying around diving for fish as well as other birds, flora and fauna. Obviously the name ‘Lotus lake’ came from somewhere so, when I spotted a lotus or 60, I took a photo.

lotus pond

Lotus Lake, and Kaohsiung in general, is an incredibly worthwhile visit. I imagine it would be far more serene and generally a little more accessible when it is not packed with people for Chinese New Year but, in a way, I’m pleased we saw it at it’s most vibrant and festive.

Chinese New Year in Hong Kong (Kung Hei Fat Choi).

Hong Kong was transformed for Chinese New year as, I expect, was most of China. Bringing in the year of the snake really is a massive deal. There are 3 public holidays and many, many events to attend. The main ones are the night parade, the new year markets and the fireworks display. I participated in two of them.

Firstly, I visited the New Year market in Victoria Park. It was, large, noisy, crowded and fun to walk around. Here’s a picture of the crowd at about 17:15 on a weekday i.e. not even busy.

crowds

A large section was for flowers associated with Chinese New Year. There were lots of blossom branch cuttings and mandarin plants.

blossom trees

mandarin trees

I was sorely tempted to buy some flowers but I am lacking in any green fingered skills and therefore would only be throwing away very dead plants in a few days time so I refrained from paying the inflated festive prices for anything.

The remainder of the market was selling mostly food and other traditional sweets/decorations for Chinese New Year. There were also completely random stalls held by local schools selling everything from cushions of popular internet memes to soft toys. The market really was big and I enjoyed my walk around but did not visit a second time as I really had no need to.

The second thing I made sure to partake in was the Chinese New Year fireworks display over Victoria harbour. We had learned our lesson from National Day and knew we had to get to the harbour front early and save a spot. The show was due to start at 20:00. We were in our spot at 18:00 with sandwiches and drinks ready to wait out the crowds. Wait, we did. Rewarded, we were. Our view was spectacular and, for the most part, unobstructed as we had unwittingly placed ourselves next to an emergency exit pathway so we only had a crowd to our right hand side. Our left hand side was completely empty. I have added a selection of my pictures below and also the video I made of the last 30 seconds or so of the show.

One word sums up the display: breathtaking.

NY fireworks HK 2013 1

NY fireworks HK 2013 2

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NY fireworks HK 2013 6