Thursday, April 30, 2015

Taiwan


Taiwan was one of my unexpected favorites on this trip. Born in Beijing, I was brought up with the notion that all roads lead to Beijing--it's the capital of China after all and one of the biggest cities in the world. Not getting into the political situation (Beijing wants Taiwan as a part of China whereas the Taiwanese people want to stay independent), the population of the city of Beijing comes close to the population of the entire country of Taiwan. Taiwan is small, my parents always told me (it's true), and there's not much to do. Anything you can do in Taiwan you can do in mainland China on a bigger, better scale, they said. 

However, the older I get and the more objectively I can see things, Taiwan has many things that China cannot offer. The bigger scale of things my parents grew up with can be overwhelming at times, and the sheer number of people crowding every single restaurant, store, and road puts me off to China every time I visit. My grandparents and extended family all live in Beijing, so it will always be my "lao jia" (old home) to me, but I was pleasantly surprised that almost anything I could do in Beijing I could do in Taiwan in a cleaner, less crowded, and more civilized environment. Taipei definitely caters to a younger and more western population--bubble tea shops dot every corner (heaven), coffee and cat cafes are common (coffee is scarce in mainland China), there are a sizable number of bars and western restaurants, public transit is newer and cleaner, and there are THREE Mujis there. If that's not the mark of a cool city, I don't know what is (New York has three and SF only has one, the only US locations). 

The food was more familiar and palatable than the soups and herbal teas of Hong Kong too. Some of my favorite foods were abundant and cheap here--beef noodle soup, xiao long bao, bao zi, dan dan mian, shaved ice (a new discovery) just scratch the surface. And of course, the bubble tea! So many choices that almost no one gets tapioca pearls, choosing between coconut jelly, custard, or dragonfruit instead. I must have had 3 bubble teas a day, a necessity in the tropical weather. 

We took the flight from Hong Kong midday and got to our Airbnb without much difficulty. By the time we put our bags down, it was almost 5 pm, so we hurried over to Elephant Mountain to try to catch the city light up at dusk. We arrived a little too late, however still got this view of Taipei 101 and the Taipei skyline. 
The best view of Taipei from Elephant Mountain
The hike was surprisingly steep and dimly lit, making it a breeding ground for mosquitoes and bugs. After coming down from the mountain, we had all been bitten and sucked dry. 
Sweaty and stung a million times

We then took a taxi to RaoHe street market, the "local" street market that is apparently more manageable than the famous Shilin night market. This one was already bustling and huge so I'm glad we didn't try out the bigger one. 
RaoHe Night Market
Octopus balls
Pork buns. People started lining up for them, so we got in line before we even saw what they were. 
Cooked in a clay oven
Tastes like home to a Beijing-er. I failed to see how they were so special, but they were good nonetheless. 
Squid
E bought this just so I could take a pic!

A new favorite--shaved ice! Frozen condensed milk shaved to powdery consistency topped with fresh fruit. Mango was the best. 
We liked it so much we got a second one--matcha with red bean was not as good

The next day, my birthday, we went to the original Din Tai Fung location to see what the fuss was about. Expecting an hour+ wait, we were again pleasantly surprised to be seated right away because got there relatively early. I'm glad to report the hype is worth it! Never had I had more tender, melt in your mouth xiao long bao (XLB lol). 
The original and famous Din Tai Fung (now with locations all over the world and coming to SF soon). Look at those hand crafted folds and mini-crab on the crab ones! 

The girls were nice enough to treat me for my bday lunch! 
Dan dan noodles and XLB, hands down best meal in Taipei
For our second lunch, we stopped by the well known Yong Kang Niu Rou Mian for Taipei's famous beef noodle soup. See those bubble teas? We bought them from a bubble tea shop that now occupies the space where E's father used to live! 

After lunch, we hired a taxi driver to take us to Jiu Fen, the "Santorini of Taiwan." In Chinese, Jiu Fen means 9 pieces. The name originated from when there used to be nine families who lived on the mountain facing the ocean. Whenever they needed to go into the city, they'd always take back "jiu fen" for the rest of the families on the mountain. Importantly, Jiufen also has a strong Japanese influence from when Japan used to occupy Taiwan. For more history, a quick google search took me here. I'd never heard of the place before, but it was the inspiration for Miyazaki's seaside town in "Spirited Away." Again, I was pleasantly surprised by its quaintness! 

Cover photo for our SE Asia honeymoon
The famous A Mei teahouse, the inspiration for the Grand Teahouse in Spirited Away
Trio in Jiu Fen
Apparently the steps of Old St were featured in a famous Japanese movie, which explains why it was crowded by Japanese tourists
The thing to do in Jiufen is to sip tea at one of the teahouses looking over the ocean
We did just that as we were treated to a beautiful dusk settling in over Jiu Fen. Our journey back proved an entertaining one as we met two Mormon guys that we were so busy talking to that we missed our bus stop to go back to Taipei! It had been over 30 min after where we were supposed to get off before we realized we were way past our stop. We looked up to see that we were a city and assumed it was Taipei. When R pulled out her phone to check, we were actually in Keelung, another city on the other coast of Taiwan! Thankfully, Taiwan is small and we ended up at a major train station that could take us all the way back to Taipei for the night. It was only an hour or two lost but a funny story to gain. 

The next day, R left us to meet up with her friend in another city and me and E decided to take it easy on our last day in Taipei. We walked the streets and set out to one of Taipei's famous cat cafes. 
My name takes on a whole new meaning here

One thing you should know about me: I'm deathly allergic to cats!

It depends on the cat, but I've been known to enter my friend's house and instantly start tearing and sneezing. If I touch a cat and then touch my face, I'm basically dead. If we're outside or if the cat has short hair, I'm usually fine, but it's the long haired breeds that send me into an allergen induced tear fest. It doesn't affect my daily life but it basically means I can't date somebody with a cat (been there done that) and that I have to take a Claritin if I know I'm going to be around them (which may be placebo). I'm much more of a dog person anyway (case in point).

However, E is the opposite of me. She's a major animal and cat lover (she adopted a stray off the streets of Baltimore last year) and she had to pick up nearly every cat we saw this trip--and I was glad to take a picture.

I was more than willing to come along with her to a cat cafe because I don't think there are any in the US so far (though would not be surprised if SF had one). I just made sure to take my Claritin beforehand.
The first time I've picked up a cat in years. This one's name was Di Di, or little brother. 
He can sense I don't like cats
E is more than willing to oblige
Obsessed with mangos in Asia
Our first salad in Asia
"Pang Pang," or the famous "Fatty" of the cafe awoke from his nap
Little brother and Fatty
Fatty falls asleep again

We spent probably two hours in the cat cafe and only left when I started to feel sneezy/itchy (it was Fatty). After a week of nonstop on the go, we definitely needed a cool, calm place to recharge with reliable Wifi. 

That night, we planned to go out to another rooftop bar at the W hotel in Taipei and meet up with one of E's high school friends. When we got there, we were disappointed that there was no view of Taipei 101 and that the drinks were ridiculously expensive, depleting my entire stock of Taiwan cash (I found myself running out of cash unnervingly often on this trip).
After our fail at the Woobar at the W Hotel, Taipei

Rather than spend another 500 NST on a drink (almost $20 USD), we decided just to walk along the street and chance it on another bar. After a mile or so, we stumbled on something better: Ice Monster!
Somebody told me there's an Ice Monster in SF...I hope they weren't lying. After a disappointing night out, I was more than happy to dunk my face in a mountain of mango shaved ice.....mhmm. As a side note, all three of us shared this one shaved ice. We saw couples and friends around us who were eating a bowl EACH. How do Asians eat so much and stay so skinny?!?
That's mango ice cream, yogurt, mango shaved ice, and real mango chunks in there

The next morning, with 60 NST (the equivalent of $2 USD) in my pocket, I made it back to the airport to fly out and meet my entire family in my hometown, Beijing. Older and wiser to the treasures of nearby Taiwan, I wouldn't hesitate to come back to get the best of China (cheap food and service) in a more familiar, western environment. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

SE Asia Tour: Hong Kong

I'm baaack!


Back from my epic SE Asia trip that I can't wait to fill you in on. I'm finally recovered and rested from the exhilarating but exhausting journey. 3 weeks, 5 counties, and 9 cities if you count my last stop in San Francisco. We saw a ton but this itinerary meant we were always on the go. Every second or third day, we would have to pack up (thankfully we decided on one carry-on and one backpack each), arrange transport to the airport, fly on one of Air Asia's rickety flights to a foreign city, arrange transport to the new hotel, and then repeat x9. Near the end of the trip, I got sick from food poisoning for three days and so had to sit out on Bangkok. Thankfully, I made a full recovery just in time to enjoy paradise on Koh Phi Phi and then make it to good friend's wedding in Monterey, CA. More on that later.

The first stop on our grand tour was Hong Kong, where we were bright eyed and energetic even after 16 hour days. I had never been before, so it was great to see the famous skyline and eat one of my favorite brunches, dim sum, all day every day. The day we went to Big Buddha and Victoria's Peak, my FitBit (a birthday gift from the sis) logged 42,000 steps, or 17 miles! To give you a frame of reference, I typically log 5,000 steps (3 miles) if I'm just walking to work and getting up a normal amount during the day. 10,000 if I go for a run or walk to dinner. On our vacation, we probably averaged 15,000-20,000 steps a day! It sure helped stave off all those delicious buns and bubble teas....
EmiYo excited for the trans Pacific flight ahead! Not pictured: the obnoxious drunk guy who harassed us for half the flight before he PTFO'ed
Early morning walks in Central
I'm famous here
 Lin Heung Teahouse, a traditional HK style cantonese restaurant where you have to fight for your food! The food comes out of the kitchen in small batches and then you have to run over to the cart and grab it before it sells out. 
 Their famous BBQ char siu buns
 HK egg tarts
Causeway Bay
 Shopping in Causeway Bay at our new favorite store, MUJI

Trying durian pancake (nasty) and Hong Kong sweet coconut sago soup
We had to go here for the name: DimDimSum DimSum! 
 Yummy piggies

In HK, I became obsessed with rooftop bars. For the price of a drink, you get some of the best views in the world!

Here's Aqua, a club/restaurant in the One Peking building across the street from where we stayed (the infamous Chunking Mansions....shudder)

We hijacked the view at Hutong, the restaurant below Aqua which actually had better views. 
 The next morning, we woke up in search of some dimsum! Tim Ho Wan is the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world and located in a subway mall train station. 
 HK loves their herbal jelly
 Dim sum for days
 The trio at Tim Ho Wan. Lunch cost all of ~$7 USD/person!
 We left our classmate R who was staying with relatives in HK and took the MTR out to the Ngong Ping 360 cable car, which would in turn take us to the Big Buddha. We were lucky to have beautiful weather during our entire time in HK! 
 Choose the glass bottomed car! Shorter lines and better view--worth the extra $5





That same afternoon after Big Buddha, we hurriedly took the subway back to Central to take the city bus up to Victoria's Peak to try to catch the sunset. 
Rewarding ourselves with Matcha froyo after a perilous journey on the 15 bus to Victoria's Peak
The view I was waiting for


Beautiful sunset views. Little did we know, photographers had camped out here from 2-3 in the afternoon to line up their tripods and equipment. Whereas we rolled in at 6:10 pm and crouched near a bush. I still got my pictures though! 
After coming down from the mountain, we still managed to book it over to Temple Street night market across the river in Kowloon for dinner. Dinner led to some interesting conversation with the Australian guys next to us about a zookeeper, a scrub nurse, and an orthopedic surgeon. D'oh! 
Our last day in HK, we took the Super Ferry to Macau to ogle at the casinos and check out some street food.
Slogged our way through tourist central (munching on yummy pork jerky) to the famous Macau gate
Spanish coffee -- strong espresso with a dollop of chocolate ice cream
 Trio in Macau
 We're only in Hong Kong once, so we had to do some of the kitchy stuff right? Here's us at Moomin Cafe, a Japanese concept "anti-loneliness" cafe right on the pier in Tsim Sha Tsui


We were supposed to have this view with dinner, but to our dismay we found a cruise ship blocking it. No biggie, we just walked out the door onto the pier and behold! 
The Symphony of Lights

View of Hong Kong island from Kowloon


At the end of our trip, we recapped our favorites, and Hong Kong definitely topped my list of skylines. It may even surpass my previous favorite, Shanghai.

To cap off our Hong Kong trip, we went out one last time to the rooftop deck of Wooloomooloo Steakhouse in Wanchai to experience the best reviewed rooftop bar in Hong Kong, even higher rated than Ozone, the highest bar in the world at the Ritz Carlton.
The views did not disappoint
Looking out from Wooloomooloo, I could see myself looking out onto Hong Kong like Christian Bale does in the Dark Knight. Yes, all of my frame of references pretty much come from movies I've seen. 
Peace out Hong Kong! As much as I enjoyed your city living, skyline, and dimsum, I was ready to take it easier and not go all out with the touristy stops. Our next destination was perfect for a slower pace of life. Coming up, Taiwan!