Hong Kong

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears,

Happy New Year!  It is the year of the snake, which is very auspicious for those of us born in 1989, or every 12 years before or after that.   Now off to the real blog post…

Sitting on a bench listening to a mix of Bob Dylan and Mumford and Sons looking out over Victoria Harbour to Kowloon, it is easy to capture the magnitude and chaotic order that is Hong Kong.  Historic Star Ferries come and go carrying people to and from Kowloon and the surrounding islands amidst cruise ships and freighters.  

Hong Kong has a very interesting mix of its colonial history and its booming present as the center of East Asian finance.  One can slip from streets filled with New Years celebrants to the quiet solitude of Hong Kong park in a matter of seconds to look at a surprising large collection of birds in their aviary.  Sitting on the steps of one of the many Gucci or Rolex stores on the weekends are dozens of Filipino women who are enjoying their day off from house cleaning because they live in their employers homes.  Sitting behind a Chinese-theme village and on top of a souvenir shop is the Big Buddha on Lantao Island.  It is a city that seems to be at odds, but works.  The one thing that I noticed was that there was very little Asian or Chinese about it, other than the mass of people.

I am not terribly religious person at this juncture in my life, but visiting the Big Buddha and having the sensory overload of massive amounts of incense burning both eyes and nose, the monks chanting their sutras was a very spiritual experience.  Having all of your sense bombarded really allows you to empty your head and be present in the moment and contemplate your place in the world.

Overall, it was a very good but tiring due the jet lag.  One of the interesting was a very early morning walk and subsequent losing of myself at 4:30 in the morning of my first night there.  I could not sleep and so I decided to get out and see how the city starts up in the morning and see the sunrise on Mt. Victoria.  I got lost and could not find the mountain, but I did get to see a very unique Hong Kong that was mostly absent of people.

Travelling, and consequently walking everywhere, has made me realize two major things.  First, I am sorely out of shape.  This will be remedied by having a training partner for a half marathon the Great Wall in May.  Second, wearing new shoes for the first time while walking around 10-15 miles a day leads to many blisters.  Don’t do it.  

To quote the ever-quotable Darjeeling Limited, “I want us to be completely open and say yes to everything, even if its shocking and painful.  Can we agree to that?”

Peace, Love, and the American Way,

The Little Bear

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Beginning of a New Journey

To the Senate and People of Rome,

This post marks the beginning of a new and exciting adventure for me into the Middle Kingdom.  One could say this is Middle Kingdom Adventure Mark 2.5 (does Taiwan count???)  

Sitting here in the airport waiting to board the Boeing 747 (I have never been on one before!) is a whole bag of things but mostly just hot.  They seem to not have noticed the heat wave outside Chicago at 32 degrees.  Wooh, I am melting.  

For those curious, I will be flying to Hong Kong where I will stay until Monday morning.  During my stay, I hope to experience some of the festivities of the Spring Festival which officially kicks off on Saturday night (Friday for you folks back in the U S of A).  Following Hong Kong I will make my way over to Shanghai and meet up with my Hoosier buddies Liz and Brian.  I am sure they will make an appearance or two on this very blog as the months unravel.  After Shanghai, I will be going to Nanjing which will be my home for the next 5 or so months.  

I will try and update this at least once a week, but check back often so you don’t miss anything ;).  I’ll post my plans as I make them.

Until next time, Peace, Love, and the American Way.

P.S

I like posting pictures of food on here, not because they are particularly splendid photos, but because they provide a glimpse of how the common man (or woman) eats.  Also, because I really like food.  So here we are, meal numero uno.  

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Sun Moon Lake and Probably the Last Real English Entry I will Make for Taiwan…For Now

Hey friends, it has been a good summer of this one-way communication, but alas, it must be coming to an end.  This entry will track my experience last weekend at Sun Moon Lake (thank you Aunt Ellen for suggesting it!). 

Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan’s biggest body of water, happens to be located in the only land-locked county in Taiwan (irony???).  It also happens to be located in a rather difficult location to get to without a car, so I was very fortunate to find out that one of my co-workers was going down to a town that was a short bus ride away.  When we got to their stop in Puli, my co-workers fiancee showed me around his family’s mushroom farm and store.  I ate some delicious fried mushrooms and drank some interesting mushroom based beverages.  It was a neat experience.  Following that, I took short ride to the lake.

Once at the lake, I walked a few steps to the Shuishe Visitor Center to rent one of their bikes.  They all happened to be Giant Bikes which are pretty cool.  The prices for renting varied greatly, but one could spend almost $100 to rent one of the top of the line bikes for the day!  I opted for the cheapest version which still set me back about $30.  It was well worth it.  So with a little map, some tips from the very cool bike rental people, some water and a bike, I set off to cycle around the lake. 

The ride started off weaving in and out of the slower moving cars and trying to break through to get to clearer streets.  Once out of the town a little bit, the road immediately started climbing which I was not really prepared for mentally.  It was about 12 AM and very hot, but I persisted and made it to the first stop, the Wenwu Temple.  It was a neat little stop dedicated to some people from the famous Chinese epic, popularly known in America as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  They had a stair case with 366 steps to represent the days in a leap year leading up to the temple from the lake.  It was time to move on!

After that there was some very much needed, although all-too-short downhill relaxation on the bike with some spectacular views of the lake.  There is nothing like riding down some pretty steep hills on winding roads going about 40km/hour.  Safety aside, it was really cool!  But, like I said, it was short lived, as the climbing began again and a few switchbacks were added in for fun.

Quick break:

Going up switchbacks=Really hard work

Going down switchbacks=A lot of fun

Going up switchbacks in the rain=Misery

Going down switchbacks in the rain=Danger

OK back to the action.  After the climbing, I was thoroughly exhausted and out of water, so I stopped at the very conveniently placed drink stand where the owner was all to eager to hand me a delicious beverage, for a small fee.  Taking my drink and camera, I went up to the next temple which was all white (even the courtyard had white rocks).  Even better, they had an awesome bell, which I definitely rang!  After checking out the awesome view of the lake and getting my picture taken, it was time to move on as the clouds were moving in (the rest of Taiwan, however, was beautiful with clear skies I am told).

After going down the best hills of the ride, I stopped into a little town and rode around and looked at the crafts and goods, but quickly rode on since my bike had no kickstand (I found that very strange).  Logically, after going down some awesome hills, there were some terrible hills to climb up afterward.  By now it was getting pretty dark and there was thunder in the background.  I went off the road, and started up the bike path of death (pictures will be posted).  After getting through the bike path, I realized that it took be back to a place I had already been too, and seeing as it was starting to pour, I did not feel like doubling back that whole way.  Back up the diabolically slick bike path of doom.  Back on the road, feeling rather wet and miserable, my bike chain came off, which was probably the low point of the ride.  I was soaked, greasy, and frustrated. 

After cycling through the rain with the wheel spraying water into my unprotected eyes and thinking I was not going the right way, I finally found some people that I had run into at various points throughout the ride.  They reaffirmed me that I was indeed going in the right direction.  We rode together for a bit and took our picture together until we got back to the main town, concluding the 33km circuit around the lake.  It was an amazing experience and I would definitely do it again!

As an added bonus, the people at the bike shop gave me a Coke and certificate saying I did it for free!  I thought that was a nice touch.  After relaxing in my soaking clothes and looking at the lake as the weather finally cleared up, it was time to go home. 

This was the last real travel experience of the trip, so this will be the last blog its kind until the next adventure.  I will have a summary one and one in Chinese for my Chinese only speaking friends from the office as a sort of farewell message.  After that I will post on things I find interesting back at home.  Keep reading though, it has been a pleasure!

To steal from the lovely Kristen Broyles, this trip is over, closing the door on another adventure, but opening the door to so many more possibilities! 

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Part Tres

As promised, here we gooooooooooooooooo!!! In this episode we will see the little bear in his familiar environs of Taibei and Hsinchu County.

This Saturday, after an evening of gorging myself (not really gorging, just indulging) on many a delicious lamb dish and a trip to Costco onn Friday, I found myself with little to do so I decided to go up to Taibei to see some of the things I missed before.  I decided to make two stops, one at Danshui, which the river that flows through Taibei and into the Pacific and then out to the suburb/former tea village at Maokong.  The Danshui stop on the MRT is the final one on the red line and the Maokong stop is the last one on the Brown line.  They are pretty much opposite sides of the city and the trip between the two took almost an hour and a half. 

Danshui was really pretty, but it was extremely hot and fairly crowded.  They had some neat little cafes and a pretty old church built by Puritans or some similar sect a long time ago.  It is mostly a scenic spot to go see, so after looking around and eating some pretty delicious mint chocolate chip ice cream, I left to go see my next destination.  I was kind of disappointed though, because I saw some really cool Buddhist wall hanging things that I wanted for my room next year, but they were fairly expensive (I didn’t bring my card and I needed to make sure I had enough cash to get back home) so I did not purchase one.  I thought I could get one in Hsinchu, but all of my co-workers have no idea where to find them. 

In order to get up to Maokong, one can either take a car up the winding mountain roads, or one can opt for the very cool, but very hot, gondola ride up to the village.  It was about a 20 minute ride that offered views of the whole of Taibei city as well as the gorgeous mountains.  At the time I went up, it was in between the first group of day trippers heading down but before the night crowd headed up, so it wasn’t too crowded at first.  My first stop was to get some winter melon tea (truly one of the things that I will miss upon my return home) in order to cool off.  Taipei in a strange turn of events was hotter than Hsinchu and well over 100 degrees with very little cloud cover.  I walked around for a while and looked at some of the tea farms and tea houses and decided since I was in a fairly famous tea growing area, I should go ahead and purchase some tea. 

I stepped into an unassuming store room that happened to have huge bags of tea on the ground.  It looked good to me so I stayed around while the young man helped the customers in front of me.  One was a foreigner, while his companion was a speaker of Chinese.  They were deciding how much they should give (prices were flexible) and what exchange rate to use (the man was paying in USD for some reason).  It was an amusing conversation between the worker and the companion and they were surprised to hear I could understand them.  So I sat down on the bench and waited for them to finish up.  The worker (who was probably no more than 15) poured me some various types of tea (I could pick whichever ones I wanted to try), and we chatted in about 50% Chinese/50% English (he wanted to speak English) about tea and language.  I found out that his father was in China and happened to be a master tea roaster and that this was their wholesale business.  Soon after that, his father came in and served me some more tea.  After a while it was time to purchase some tea, and since they said it was really cool that I could speak Chinese, they gave me a discount. 

The sun had set and so I found a cliff side cafe and ordered a delicious, but expensive, glass of cranberry-apple juice (by now I was very much full of tea) and relaxed with a beautiful view of Taipei’s skyline.  After my beverage it was time to return to Taipei.  On the Gondola down, I sat with a mother and her 2 young daughters, her baby, and a couple sat across from me.  The two girls were cute, but every time we passed a support column and the car rumbled, they said earthquake, earthquake, earthquake.  The couple and I laughed, but I felt kind of bad for them because I am sure they were hoping for a romantic ride down with the beautiful view in front of them.  As if that wasn’t enough, the mother decided to start breast-feeding her baby in our very cramped gondola card.  I am all for public breast-feeding as it is about the most natural thing in the world, but in a very cramped space, it was a little odd.  Upon arrival I waited at McDonald’s and read some of Gandhi’s An Autobiography or My Experiments with Truth as I waited for my friends who were returning from the east to pick me up and give a me a ride home.  The book is fantastic and unbeknown to me, it provides some background history for the struggles that I read about in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.  Go Freedom Struggles!

On Sunday, I went to a small mountainous village/tourist area outside of Zhubei to take in the scenery with some of my coworkers and to go to a hot spring after.  The village was home to one of Taiwan’s minority groups, although I forget which one.  They were really big into lavender and had many a lavender smelling product to sell.  We walked around and took in some of the fantastic mountain vistas along with the gorgeous valleys as well.  I truly can’t underestimate how awesome it was.  As it was also really hot, we got some ice cream and chilled out for a bit.  I choose blueberry milk ice cream and lemongrass ice cream, but instead got the blueberry and mint chocolate instead.  The blueberry was delicious and the mint was pretty average.  It was all handmade though, which was cool.  I picked up some more tea (this time peppermint-jasmine I believe). 

After the village, we took a short drive to the hot spring.  I was the only one to participate, since the others were to hot to want to.  It was an expensive, but totally worth it experience.  I choose indoor, since the outdoor one was basically just a pool.  My room was very simple, but nice, with tile floors, wood walls and ceiling and a tub.  The windows were wood slides that needed to be slid into position to allow for a fairly cool view of the mountains and some much needed airflow.  The hot spring was delightful and very relaxing.  The water was super hot, so one could only stay in for about 10-15 minutes before needing to sit out for a couple to cool off.  I was a little disappointed when they switched my girl T-Swift out for some soft Eastern Classical music.  I actually really enjoyed the musical selections and I pondered the meaning of life for my hour in the room.  Very much enjoyable and I will try to go to one once more before I leave for home.  Oh, the water at this particular type of hot spring is supposed to make your skin more beautiful. 

That pretty much covers me up until today.  Thanks for the patience and keep checking back!  This weekend I am planning doing at least one of three things: biking the 18km scenic shoreline in Hsinchu, going to Yilan, and finally going to Nantou county and biking around the famous Sun Moon Lake.  It would be about 20 miles with lots of things to see.  I am thinking that is what I will do on Saturday.  My bucket list is quickly being checked off, although I am not sure I will be able to do everything due to time constraints.  Peace and love from across the world!

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The North, the South…Part 2

Hey guys, it’s been a few days, but I have been busy and putting this off since it is going to be a long one, but here we go for part 2!  This post will update you to this weekend’s activities, and will take me to the South and back up to Hsinchu County and Taipei.

Last weekend, with the prospects of yet another typhoon, I took a took a trip with my boss/friend down to the south to see where she grew up and some of the sights down there.  Our first stop on that Saturday was to Tainan, via the Taiwan High-speed Rail.  A quick aside about the THR; it is a hugely convenient form of transportation that allows one to get from Taipei to Kaoshiung (the northernmost major city, to the southernmost major city) in about 3 hours (stops included) for about $10.  For all those against high-speed rails, you have not used them.  They are great.  Back to the story.  Tainan has a long history of Dutch influence, and so we set off to visit the former Dutch fort that was still intact.  But alas, we are getting ahead of ourselves.  On the way to said fort, we came to one of the many temples in Tainan that had on that day welcomed some visiting performers from Taipei to come and worship or something of that nature.  It was very loud with firecrackers and music.  It was a very colorful ceremony (as in bright colors). 

Fort Zeelander (as the fort was known) was pretty interesting as it had remained intact for the most part for over 400 years…they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.  The gardens and trees that have grown there are really beautiful.  In Taiwan, and I assume China to some extant, will reroute a road to circumvent a certain tree that grows to be very large as it is considered to be unlucky.  I will post a picture to show you what I am talking about.  After the fort we went to a tree house.  I was expecting a house up in the trees, but I quickly realized that the house was being taken over by the tree, or rather, many trees.  It was an old tea warehouse that the British had used, but been overrun with trees.  Again, pictures will be up soon.   After that we ended up going to a Confucian temple, where we saw some odd slow jazz 80’s type band playing.  It was a little out of place I thought.  We then got poured on as we waited for a taxi.

That night, we took the train to Kaoshiung where my friend Jessy’s parents lived and where we would stay the next two nights.  Her parents were absolutely delightful and they provided me excessive amounts of mangos and watermelon during my stay.  The next morning we (Jessy, her father, and I) took a trip to Kenting, as it was going to be the only day that would allow for snorkeling due to the weather.  It was about a 2 hour drive to Kenting, which is as south as you can go on the island.  It was raining fairly hard, but it was still packed when we got there.  We ate a lot of seafood then went to the ocean to get suited up for snorkeling.  It was a miserable day outside, but it was really cool to go snorkeling none the less.  I thought it would be peaceful and quite beneath the surface, but it was actually really loud.  It was a truly awesome experience to see all of the colorful fishies in their natural environment. 

After snorkeling we drove around the coast for a bit and stopped at a national park to look at the cliffs and coast.  Our timing was very fortunate as the skies cleared up enough to stop raining and even turn a little blue while we were out.  Not only was it not raining, but we were alone for about 10-15 minutes before groups of people came and joined us.  We left soon afterward and it began to rain yet again.

The next day we went to see a very large Buddhist temple for a very large sect.  The leader of which, I am told could easily win the presidency of Taiwan had she any political inclinations.  We visited a few more locations and then had to head home to Hsinchu.

I know I said I would fully catch you up on my travels, but I am tired and its been a long day so I promise that I will finish up tomorrow!

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The North, the South, and Everything in Between (on the West Coast That Is)

Hey friends, it’s been many a (busy) day since I have last updated so this will probably be rather lengthy, but bear with me, k?  We will get started with 2 weekends past.  I regret to announce the passing of my headphones…it was a good, but altogether too short a run my friends.

Two weekends ago I made a trip up north (I believe one of the most northern points in Taiwan…certainly close to the tip of it) to an old coal mining town called Pingxi with WNC’s photography club.  It was a gorgeous 2-ish hour ride into the mountains of Taiwan.  Truly one of the most awesomely pretty drives I have ever been on with very green mountains surrounding us on all sides.  Once we got there we proceeded to take a walk through the town while taking many, many, many a picture.  Only one person lorded over me and my non-DSLR camera once.  The town has kept some of its old-time flavor, although it is completely a tourist destination now. 

After that, we went to a big train station/really, really small town.  It is affectionately known as the cat village due to its numerous cats that are not really afraid of humans.  They are really not all that clean, but that did not seem to stop people from touching, looking, and generally mingling with them.  It certainly didn’t stop my group from spending an 1.5 hours taking pictures of them in a place that I walked around completely in 10 minutes.

Following the cat village, we stopped at Keelung (home of Taiwan’s biggest port) to get some delicious food at their night market.  All I had were some dumplings with some hot sauce.  We didn’t stay that long because it started to rain.

The next day (Sunday), a co-worker and her husband took me to Keelung where they were attending a wedding and I was to get a bus to go to JiuFen, a former-gold-mining village-turned-tourist destination/relaxation dreamland. JiuFen is named so because originally the town only had 9 (Jiu) households for tax-collection purposes.  It literally means 9 parts.  It was a gorgeous day, and the crowd was really not too bad because it just rained before arrival. 

After wondering around the picturesque (in the old Chinese style alley sense of the word) alleys and purchasing a few things here and there, I stopped into the village’s oldest tea shop (1860’s I believe) to stop in for a little relaxation outside with a great view of the ocean.  Oh, I forgot to mention that this town blew the previous one out of the water…it was one of the prettiest destinations I have been to. Really.  The tea was really expensive, and I think it was meant to be shared.  It was well worth it because it allowed me to check something off the bucket list and I learned how to properly steep and prepare tea.  It was also really nice relaxation.

Before taking off back to Keelung, I had some kumquat juice.  It was pretty good, but really acidic after a while.  Back in Keelung, we went to the same night market, but ate tempura (not the shrimp kind) instead and had some pretty awesome fresh kiwi ice cream.

It’s been a long one, so we’ll continue tomorrow.  Keep reading!

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