Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Taiwan It That Way

Last week was the Korean holiday Chuseok. Its basically like the Korean Thanksgiving. Everyone goes to their hometowns to celebrate with family by eating a lot of food. Of course, being American, the holiday is totally irrelevant to us..and just means that we don't have to work. My friends and I took advantage of our week off by booking a last minute flight to Taiwan!

Sammy and Marla flew into Taiwan on Sunday morning, and Brian and I went on Tuesday morning (we had to work Monday :[ ). We arrived into a sunny and hot Taipei, and found the hostel Sammy and Marla had booked for us all to stay at. Almost immediately after our arrival we were paraded around the city by Sammy and Marla (and some guy named Spike). Our first stop was the Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall and square. Chiang Kai Shek was responsible for separating Taiwan from Chinese rule. Although China still considers Taiwan a part of their territory, it is essentially independent. They don't have the internet restrictions that the mainland has, and have a separate government, although China doesn't recognize it. This public square was one of the most beautiful that I've seen, and probably one of my favorite.

Chiang Kai Shek

After CKS, we went to 228 Peace Park. It reminded me of a smaller version of the Temple of Heaven park in Beijing that Courtney and I visited. The park is an oasis of quiet surrounded by busy streets and tall buildings. We were there late afternoon into sunset, which is my favorite time of day, and the park looked so beautiful.

228 Peace Park

After the park, the 5 of us crammed into a taxi and went to Din Tai Fung. This restaurant was named one of the Top 10 Restaurants in the WORLD. And after eating there, I can see why. We ordered lots of xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings), noodles, fried rice, and vegetables. The staff was multi-lingual and helped us order and recommended their favorites for us.

Din Tai Fung

After dinner we walked back to CKS square. It was filled with people and illuminated under an almost-full moon. There were dance teams practicing for some sort of competition (brought me back to my high school days).

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall at night

We went back to shower and get ready for the night. We took the subway (one of the simplest I've ever seen) to the Shila Night Market. The market is crowded and noisy filled with food, clothing, and games vendors. The food vendors sell everything from stinky tofu to chicken wraps, to baked potatoes.

The next day we took an 8:30am High Speed Rail train to Zuoying. We hired a taxi to drive us for 2 hours to the small beach town of Kenting. We stayed at a surf shack/hostel that was across the street from the beach. We spent the afternoon laying out and swimming. The water was really warm, but there was a slight undertow so we couldn't swim out too far. That night we went to the main strip of Kenting (which is about 3 blocks long and that's it). Kenting was sort of like, Chinese Thailand. There were neon lights, bars, and restaurants filled with tourists. There were souvenir and swimsuit shops as well.

On the beach with Sammy

For our second day in Kenting, we went to a different beach, a little further away from our hotel. We had hoped to surf, but the water was really flat, unlike the day before, so we opted for jet skiing instead. It had been awhile since I'd driven a jet ski, and almost threw Sammy off a few times :S but we survived! We ate dinner on the beach, and at night walked around the main strip again and hit up a few of the bars. We got pretty henna tattoos too :)

We had until about 2pm on Friday until we had to leave for our train in Zuoying, so we rented some mopeds. I was a complete disaster driving one on my own so I teamed up with Marla and she drove me around while Brian drove Sammy. We drove along the coastal road and ended up driving straight into a mini-typhoon. Again, though, we survived! Once we dropped off our mopeds back at the rental place, we picked up our bags and loaded them into the taxi we had pre-arranged to pick us up. I know it probably seems a little strange that we would take a taxi for 2 hours. But honestly, it was more convenient, and somehow only amounted to like $3 more per person than taking the bus. So...why wouldn't we do it?
Trying not to die

Once we arrived back in Taipei, we re-checked into the hostel from our first night, and then went back to Din Tai Fung for dinner. We knew exactly what we wanted this time around, and we ordered sooo much food.

To celebrate our last night in Taiwan, we went to a small bar for some drinks and KTV (karaoke). Then, we went to a huge club in Taipei called Luxy. It was "Wonderland" night, so the club was decked out like Wonderland and the lighting was so trippy. We had such a fun time though, and met so many people. I have to say...the Taiwanese are some of the friendliest people I have ever met in any country. Not just in the club, but literally everywhere we went. If we appeared even a little bit lost or confused, someone would approach us and ask how they could help. The Taiwanese were much more outgoing than Koreans are. Koreans are so polite and nice, but very quiet and shy. The Taiwanese are much more openly friendly, in my opinion. Also, people in Taiwan as a whole speak wayyyyy more English than in Korea or China. It seemed like no matter who we asked for help or directions, they were able to communicate without trouble to us. In Korea or China, it would be a long shot to find someone who speaks enough English to convey what they want to say to you.

We were out until nearly 5am, but had to check out by 11 that morning. After we checked out, we stored our bags so that we could go to the Taipei 101. Its the 2nd tallest building in the world (the tallest is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). We went to the top of the building where they have both an indoor and outdoor observation deck. The elevator is also the fastest elevator in the world...taking you up 91 floors in under 45 seconds. FYI...that's fast.

Taipei 101
Me and Marla at the top!

From the 101, we had to rush back to the hostel so we could pick up our luggage and make our way to the airport bus station.

So, my overall observations about Taiwan are that its cleaner and a little quieter than Beijing. The people are definitely more polite than the Chinese and I would say equally as polite as the Koreans, although in a different way. Taipei was hot and crowded but not overwhelming. Taipei is definitely influenced by all of the Asian cultures and it shows in their cars, food, and language. I wasn't sure what to expect from Taiwan, but after visiting, its probably one of my favorite countries that I've been too. I was really impressed by the city of Taipei, and the people in general. Its such a small country, so I wouldn't suggest people come all the way around the world just to see this country...however, if you're ever in Asia, I'd say its a must-see.

So that's all for now. I'll update soon again. Hopefully we'll be taking another trip to Busan in the next few weeks, and I'll write about my co-teacher's wedding!

Here's the latest song from 2NE1 - its called "Go Away". I attached the version with English subs since the video has an added story line. Click here to check it out!

"To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries." -- Aldous Huxley

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Thailand Video

So I had been planning on making a movie from my Thailand trip back in January. I started the movie when we got home, but then never finished it and sort of forgot about it for awhile. Its one of the first movies I've ever made on iMovie, and I'm not the best at editing, even this sloppy video took awhile. But I've FINALLY finished it...enjoy! :)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Ni Hao - Běijīng

So finally FINALLY after 2 1/2 months of not writing - I'm baaaack. This summer was super busy and full of visitors. Plus - pretty much everything (minus China) is so normal to me now, it hardly seems interesting to write about. But, maybe everyone else is still interested. Although, now that its been so long I can't really remember most of the events of this summer - partially because we were in a beer and soju haze for most of it - and partially because it is SO HOT here in the summer that we were all in a haze anyway. So...I'm just going to talk about my trip to China with Courtney. I'll try not to make it too long

My sister arrived in Korea and I had about a week to show her around Seoul and introduce her to my friends before it was time to go to China. I think she was a little shocked by...probably everything here. I totally forget what it was like when I first arrived here. Everything was so bizarre. Now..its just the norm.

So we arrived into Beijing around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. After getting through immigration and baggage claim and struggling to find the Airport Railroad, we were finally on the train. Our hotel was near a subway stop so we assumed it would be easy to find. Naturally, we assumed wrong. We spent maybe 20 minutes trying to follow the directions and backtracking and looking incredibly lost. Finally, we decided to suck it up and ask for help. There was a little information stand on the corner with a sign in English reading : "Need help? Ask me, the volunteer!" I could tell just by looking at the man that there was no way he spoke English. And he obviously didn't. I managed to communicate where our hotel was to him, but he couldn't figure out how to tell me where it was exactly. He grabbed this nerdy and terrified looking college student who spoke a few words of English to explain to us. But really, he didn't even need to explain because the kid ended up walking us all the way to our hotel. That is definitely one of the perks of Asia - everyone is so friendly, they will go completely out of their way to help you. I'm pretty sure if that happened in America, most people would give up if the other person couldn't speak English.

Of course, the one English-speaking employee at our hotel was off that day and we had to struggle through check-in. Honestly, I don't mind if we don't speak the same language. But the girl behind the counter was obnoxious and kept laughing. I was annoyed. I'm used to not being able to communicate, its really not a big deal to me.

Once we were settled in our room, we hopped back on the subway and went to Tiananmen Square. It was such a nice day out and the square was really crowded. The square is heavily have to go through security just to get into it, and there are uniformed as well as plain-clothes officers everywhere. If anyone were to break out in a "Free Tibet" shirt its safe to say they would be arrested immediately. The square is right across from the Forbidden City and out-of-town Chinese tourist crowd to take a picture with Mao. Tiananmen Square is the largest public square in the world. Height restrictions on the buildings means that on a clear day (like we were lucky enough to have) you can see the entire dome of the sky. It is so open, which is ironic given the symbol of the oppression of Communism it holds for so many people after the protest in 1989 when an estimated thousands were killed for openly protesting the government and supporting democracy.

Tiananmen Square/Forbidden City

It was here in Tiananmen Square than Courtney and I got our first little preview of what the next few days would be like. A Chinese girls came up to us and asked to take a picture with us. We thought it was a little strange, but some of my blonde friends who had visited China before told me stories of how the Chinese people wanted to touch their hair and take pictures with them. I assumed it only happened because of their hair color, but I guess its a general "white people" thing. Beijing is touristy, but its mostly Chinese tourists from small towns in China, where they have honestly never seen white people. From that point on, pretty much everywhere we went, we were asked to take pictures with people. By the end of the trip we were joking that we should have charged people, it probably would have paid for the trip!

After that we wandered down the road and discovered the area of Wangfujing. Its pretty much a tourist sanctuary because its definitely the cleanest and most modern part of the city that we saw. There are crowds and crowds of people, flashing lights, and the hope that someone will speak English. We found a crowded shabu-shabu place so we decided to go in there and try it. Luckily, they had an English menu, tho the staff didn't speak any English we were able to order exactly what we wanted.

Saturday, we went to the Forbidden City. Perhaps we would have gotten more out of it had we gotten the audio guide, or taken a guided tour, but those take hours and hours to go through because the Forbidden City is enormous. It is definitely a strong reminder of the great imperialist power China once had. There are large open halls and courtyards that once housed royal families, now filled with tourists.

Forbidden City entrance

Getting good luck!

After wandering around the never-ending imperial palace for several hours, we decided we had had enough. From there we hopped on the subway to the Hongqiao Pearl Market! The Pearl Market is definitely touristy, but you really can get a good deal on so many things. Its full of pushy and grabby salespeople though, so only go if you're in the mood to bargain and be harassed. "Hey lady, I like your face. You want chopstick? I give you chopstick. Good price. Special price just for you. You no want chopstick? I have panda bracelet. I give you panda bracelet, good price for pretty lady." Imagine all of that said as fast as an auctioneer but in broken English. Hilarious! Courtney and I walked out of there was a pretty good-size haul, and didn't really spend too much on it all either. Definitely worth the visit and I would definitely check out that place again.

From there we went back to Wangfujing to check out the famous "Snack Street". We were greeted by live scorpions and starfish on sticks. Um..freak out. We grabbed something that was veggie and looked safe to eat, before moving on to some dumplings. Definitely an interesting place. We found a table at a snack stand and grabbed some Tsingtao to go with our dumplings.

The next day we went to Yonghegong (Lama Temple) which is China's largest Buddhist temple. There were people worshipping and the smell of incense all around. We also saw a huge 18m buddha statue. wasn't the biggest buddha I've seen. I've seen a lot of temples though and this one was definitely memorable to me.

Lama Temple

From Lama Temple, we took the subway to the Temple of Heaven Park. Its a huge park in the heart of Beijing. Its surrounded by busy streets yet you can't hear the traffic. You can only hear the music of the dancers who frequent the park. Its sprawling park with trees and benches, dotted with ice cream stands and temples.

Temple of Heaven

By this point, we were exhausted, but we still had so much to see! We attempted to go to the CCTV building - one of the more modern architectural buildings in the city, but it was blocked off by construction so we couldn't get a clear view of it.

After that we went up to the Olympic Park to check out the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. Its mostly empty now in the Olympic Park except for on the weekends and the peak tourist season (which we were right in the middle of). We were too late to go inside any of the buildings, so we made plans to go back on our last day.

Broadcast Tower

Water Cube

Monday was our much-anticipated Great Wall tour. Generally, when I travel I prefer to do things on my own. I don't mind the being lost and the not being able to communicate. For me, that's part of the fun and experience of being in a new place. However, even my friends who live in China had advised that I book an actual tour for the Great Wall, so I followed their instructions. The Great Wall is about an hour outside of the city (we went to the closest part of the wall - Badaling) but can be even further if you chose a less touristy option. We first stopped at the Ming Tombs, which were ok I guess, but nothing special. We stopped at a jade factory before driving over to get lunch. After lunch, we were set free to climb the Great Wall. Courtney and I stuck with the people from our small 6 person tour group. The group included the 2 of us, a girl from Korea, a boy from Germany, and 2 boys from Denmark. The wall was incredibly steep, but offered some amazing views. There really is nothing like standing on top of the Great Wall, imagining all of the history before that very moment, and all of the time there is to come, to put your life into perspective. Standing up there, I definitely had a moment of "I can't believe I'm here and this is my life". That moment looking out over the mountains and the seemingly never-ending Great Wall was one of my favorite travel moments...that's why I can't stop traveling. I love those moments :)

Our last day (Tuesday) we went back to the Olympic Park to go inside the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. They're mainly tourist attractions now, but still interesting to see. I am SO inspired to go to the Olympics in a cool location now. The Water Cube is empty for the most part, but they have turned a section of it into an indoor waterpark. It was pretty cool to see, though, and imagine the excitement and roar of the crowd in those places. Remember when Michael Phelps won like 8 gold medals back in 2008? That was ridiculousss.

Inside the Bird's Nest

Inside the Water Cube
From the Olympic Park we went to the Beijing Zoo because I had been SO EXCITED to see a giant panda. It was pretty much all I could talk about the entire trip. So Courtney obliged in accompanying me to the zoo. We walked around the zoo for a bit, and made the pandas our last stop. They're so cute! I was going nuts. It was a hot day out, so before we had to get back on the hot, crowded subway, we stopped for some water and sat on a bench in the shade. All of a sudden this lady comes out of nowhere and sort of throws her baby at me and is babbling on in Chinese about how she wants to take a picture of me holding the child? I tried to be normal about it, but I was dyyyyyying laughing on the inside. Who does that? Then she wanted a pictures with me, the baby, AND her. Once they left, we were mobbed by about 7 more Chinese people wanting pictures. To get through all of them took about 20 minutes. They wanted group shots, individual shots, just me, just Courtney, and a million other combinations. Once they left, that was our cue to get out of there. We felt like a zoo attraction.

I really enjoyed my time in China, but its definitely different from Korea. Its more crowded, dirtier, and just not as developed in general. The subways are always packed and sometimes they aren't air conditioned. Going to China was so amazing, but it gave me a new appreciation for Korea, that's for sure!

So I feel really bad that I haven't written in forever. But now honestly, everything is just so normal to me. All the annoyances and frustrations and confusion that I had this time last year is gone. But this weekend I'm going to my co-teacher, Sang-Jin's, wedding. Its my first Korean wedding so I'm excited. I really do want to try to write more often, but I just get so stuck because I feel like I'm going to be writing about the same stuff over and over again.

There's a new Wisco group here perhaps we will have some new adventures?

New K-pop song. Taeyang's "I'll Be There". Here is the Korean version as well as the English version! Enjoy!

"We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. we travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are different dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again -- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more." -- Pico Iyer