#joaninHK2013: Reflection

It’s crazy to think that it’s already been a week since I last blogged, but the nature of my visit to HK didn’t warrant frequent blogging to document things as I did in Taipei. My week-long stay in HK was 50% spending time with  family and friends, 40% shopping, and 10% doing touristy things. Tonight is the last night we are spending here, and I am definitely looking forward to returning to Vancouver, in more ways than one! That is not saying that I did not have a good time though, because I did.

Hong Kong is truly a unique city, where old and new coexist symbiotically. All over the city, you see old, stained buildings with protruding air conditioners juxtaposed against new, shiny glass office buildings and malls. The bus systems are old but convenient and intimate (you have to call out to the driver to request a stop), and the MTR system is well-developed and quick to the pace of a HK lifestyle. There is an abundance of street markets where you can barter with the shop owners for a bull’s horn comb or a few dragonfruit, as well as modern supermarkets and convenience stores to run your everyday errands. Just a half hour drive away from the busy city core, you can get to many fishing towns which are still very active and undeveloped.

Grandma <3

Grandma ❤

The best part about this trip was seeing my family over here, especially my grandma. The last time I saw her was over 2 years ago, and she is much different and much unchanged at the same time. This time I spent time with my 85 year old grandma, she is more frail and weak, less in tune with her memory and hearing, but still has the same fiery personality that I remembered. I wish that I could spend time with her more often than every couple of years, but living halfway around the world, I can be content with knowing that she is well taken care of by my aunts, uncles, cousins, and her neighbours.

My mother’s old highschool and work friends have all been so gracious, and we have not been without activities during our stay in HK. Auntie R took us shopping and eating at 又一城, Auntie D invited us over to her place for hotpot to celebrate Christmas, Uncle K not only picked us up from the airport but drove us to see places away from the bustling city, and a hoard of my mother’s old highschool friends (who they insisted I called them by their first name only or 姐姐) took us out for lunch. We are so lucky to have so many people spend time with us, and I’m sure that my mother is especially happy to see all these familiar faces.

Mmhmm

Mmhmm

The shopping never fails to disappoint me in HK, especially the street markets on 鴨寮街 (Apliu Street) and 花園街 (Fayuen Street). There, we pretty much swiped every stall for their phone cases, cute things, and more random cute things. My allergic rhinitis started after we went to those busy and congested areas, but it was all worth it. The malls also had some pretty awesome amazing deals. G2000 and Giordano are among my favourites, as well as Uniqlo, which we visited at least 3 times at different malls. I stalked up on winter coats x2, sweaters x4, work pants x2, and leggings. 東薈城 (Citygate Outlets) also has a whole new floor for shoes, and I bought a pair of Dr. Kong flats and a pair of Geox flats, as well as a pair of adorable bunny flats…all work appropriate. All in all, I had a pretty satisfying retail treatment period.

I’ve definitely gotten fat from this trip, despite all the walking, and my favourite meals are definitely breakfasts at the local cafes, and any meal with a HK style milk tea. I was unfortunately hit with a bout of GI upset near the middle of the week, but I recovered in time to enjoy my last few days.

On Saturday, my mom’s old work friend, Uncle K, drove us away from the city to visit fishing towns and sight-seeing spots. This is the beauty and diversity of Hong Kong; it’s sometimes hard to believe that a short 30 minute drive can remove you completely from the crowded, hazy, busy city to the quiet, fresh-aired, leisurely suburban-rural areas. We visited 清水灣, 布袋澳 ( Po Toi O “Sack Bay”), 西貢 (Sai Kung), and 流浮山 (Lou Fou Shan). These fishing towns are very much still full of activity, with Sai Kung becoming more and more busy as a tourist attraction, and Lou Fou Shan continuing to be fruitful in oyster farming. Walking down the street of Lou Fou Shan and seeing all the seafood stalls, neighbouring seafood restaurants, and golden oysters on bamboo baskets left out to dry, it would be quite the hellish experience for those who find the fishy smell revolting. I, on the other hand, don’t mind it at all, and it was definitely an olfactory and visual party. A pitty I couldn’t have a tastebud party as well, but I couldn’t risk worsening my bowel issues and ruin the rest of my trip.

from Sky100

from Sky100

We also paid a visit to HK’a newest landmark, the ICC, world’s 5th tallest skyscraper. We went to the very top, Sky 100 Observatory Deck, and luckily it was quite clear that day so we could easily see quite far and admire the city. The elevator that goes to the very top has no stops in between, and took around only 30 seconds to complete the trip. I’m sure that the night view will also be lovely, but either way, it is definitely worth it to visit Sky100 at least once when in HK, as it offers a one-of-a-kind perspective of the city.

This has been a very nice trip and getaway from residency, but I am now more than ready to be back. I didn’t realize how much I missed my dad and brother until we spoke over the phone today as we were packing up our room. I miss white food (there! I said it!), I miss my friends, I miss work, and I miss Vancouver. It’s funny how I always feel at home whenever I come back to HK, but I’ve realized that my heart lies in Vancouver with all my family, friends, and life there. It’s been a great time in Asia and we have enjoyed such hospitality in both Taipei and HK, but I can’t wait to be back home. 🙂

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#joaninTW2013 Day 4 Final Reflection –> #joaninHK2013

It is now Day 4 of our trip, and after a slight fiasco of having to call our travel agency for the car to get to the airport (they forgot about us!), we are now sitting patiently at our gate at TPE awaiting our flight to HKG. I have just eaten my Japanese style rice ball with honey fried chicken that I picked up from Family Mart, and am sipping on some Lipton Milk Tea and munching on some chocolate-covered dessicated fruit (WAY better than Brookside!) while typing this post. It’s quite hilarious to think that I have decided to do this post at all – I guess residency is really getting the best of me. But in all seriousness, our short trip to Taipei has been such a blessing, and it wouldn’t feel right without a final reflection to document all of my deepest thoughts about this wonderful city in a wonderful country.

The people

The part of the trip that has touched me the most was definitely the people of Taiwan. Everyone we have met, whether they were airport ground staff, hotel staff, drivers, restaurant owners, waiters, tour guides, or shopkeepers, have been so warm, friendly, and helpful in every way possible. It seems that the whole city of Taipei is filled with kind-hearted souls who welcome all with open arms and hearts, so much so that I would not be afraid as a single foreign traveller to return as I would not be without aide, ever. Even people who we have not met, those who are just random citizens who I see and observe on the streets, exude a considerate, conscientious, and good-natured aura, which was quite a change of scene from Vancouver. There are no absent-minded youths crossing the streets with their eyes glued to their cellphones, nor are there grumpy, self-righteous business people clacking their ways to work. Driver, pedestrian, and cyclists alike are well aware of their surroundings, and always make way for others whenever necessary. I love the people of Taiwan.

The lifestyle

Maybe it was where we stayed, but living in Taipei is so convenient – all daily necessities are literally within arm’s reach. You just need to head down to the street, turn the corner, and there are an abundance of 7-Elevens, Family Marts, and various markets for groceries and shops for food. If you ever needed anything more, the convenient subway station could take you to wherever you needed to go. With so many restaurants and small family-owned food shops in every alley and street, it is not surprising that most people don’t cook at home. Why cook yourself after a long day at work when you can get a cheap, warm meal of whatever you desire just a minute’s walk from your home? One could easily make many friends with all the nearby food stall owners; these women not only cook a mean meal, but they are also the sweetest beings ever and genuinely care about you and want to get to know you. It’s like having many “mothers” to take care of you and your tummy! I love the lifestyle in Taiwan.

The food

I already alluded to this earlier, but the food in Taiwan is amazing. Not only is it cheap, but pretty much anything from any shop or restaurant is legit. Amazing bakeries are everywhere, simple yet hearty local cuisine at every street corner, and dainty specialty cafes all over the city. I wish we were here longer as I didn’t have a chance to have Din Tai Fung, nor did I have bubble tea, believe it or not! But still, everything that I have had was so satisfying and delicious. I love food in Taiwan.

In summary, I love Taiwan, and I would come back again in a heartbeat.

Onwards to HK, my home away from home! Blogging may be more sparse as we have less planned, but we shall see. 🙂

#joaninTW2013 Day 3 (Dec 21)

Day 3 in Taipei was an absolutely amazing day!

This morning's breakfast :)

This morning’s breakfast 🙂

We started the day with an early buffet breakfast at the hotel, and I first want to say that when I mentioned the breakfast yesterday, I didn’t give it nearly enough credit as it deserves. It has so much variety that caters to all types of guests; sunny-side up eggs, scrambled eggs, sausages, ham, oatmeal, and pancakes for the Westerners; congee, associated preserved goods, lotus root, bean curd dishes, rice, noodles, and buns for the Asians. There is also an unfailing supply of various types of drinks, including hot coffee, hot milk, ice coffee, iced tea, and juice. The chefs are extremely thoughtful and really work hard to provide good quality and variety – we are so impressed!

After breakfast, we had an early start to the day as our morning’s tour guide came to pick us up at around 0800. Our tour today once again took us to the North coast of Taiwan, but today we went to 基隆 (Keelung) and 野柳地質公園 (Yehliu Geopark). Keelung is Taiwan’s second largest seaport, and is a small city just north of Taipei. Apparently, it used to be called 雞籠 “chicken coop” because the mountain/hill it is near is liken to a chicken coop; however, it was later changed to 基隆, which is phonetically pronounced the same in mandarin, but does not have such a downgrading meaning. This city is apparently well-known for their tempura, which unfortunately we did not have a chance to try as we were only passing through. We were also lucky to see the big yellow duckling sitting in the harbour! It was the first day at Keelung, as previously it was sitting in Kaohsiung. Since I missed it while it was in HK, at least I got to see a glimpse of it here. 🙂

Braving the wind and rain @Yehliu Geopark

Braving the wind and rain @Yehliu Geopark

The highlight of the tour was definitely the time we spent at Yehliu Geopark. The main attractions to this cape park are the hoodoo stones that decorate the entire cape. The sea waves have eroded away the softer rock, leaving unique rock formations that we now are able to marvel in and gape at. The most famous is the one that is called “Queen’s Head”, which looks like a regal queen’s side profile from one direction only (any other direction, it does not look like anything). Other ones include the “Cute Princess,” “Ginger Stones,” and the “Candle Rocks.” It was almost unbelievable that nature would be able to create such things, especially the Candle Rocks as it appeared too perfect. Walking through all the rock formations, I feel like some things are man-made or augmented by man, such as the ground, but I think that the actual main attractions are real. It was a shame that it was so windy and rainy that we weren’t able to enjoy the park as much as we could – apparently the best time to come is in September/October when it’s not too hot, but not rainy. I sported my new yellow rain poncho the whole time, and I felt super fashionable. 😀

The best honey toast at Dazzling Cafe Mint

The best honey toast at Dazzling Cafe Mint

After we got back to Taipei, I called up my friend Jay, who I know from Vancouver, and we met up for an awesome afternoon chillage! He took me subwaying to have lunch and do some shopping, and the first stop was Dazzling Cafe, home to the world’s best honey toast. He ordered the Chocolate Hazelnut Honey Toast and a latte, while I ordered the Party In Your Mouth Honey Toast and a caramel macchiatto. Jay’s toast came with a healthy dollop of whipped cream and chocolate sauce, with crunchy box toast that had some hazelnut filling. My box toast had delicious buttercream, icecream, and strawberry sauce atop crunchy toast as well, with a tiny pitcher of extra honey in case it wasn’t sweet enough. These were seriously the best things I have had in ages, and I am glad that my virgin honey toast was taken here. When I get back to Vancouver, I will try the one at What8ver sometime and compare, but I doubt nothing will compare to what we had today at Dazzling. After a delightful “lunch” at Dazzling over good conversation completely in English (SO refreshing), we strolled over to SOGO and I binged on Muji stationery. Then, as the legit foodies that we are, we attempted to go to Caldo Cafe nearby for soufflés. However, there was too long of a wait, so after hanging around for 15 minutes and still notable, we decided just to head home. It really was a shame that we didn’t get to go today, as Caldo is Jay’s favourite place, and there are no soufflé shops in Vancouver! Again, this is another reason that I need to come back to Taipei. Anyhow, spending the whole afternoon with Jay was awesome, and I felt so lucky to have a friend in the city who could take me exploring the city in a way that I never would be able to on my own. Thank you! 🙂 (PS Where was my mother? She was contently enjoying another massage at the place near our hotel!)

Day 3 Dinner

Day 3 Dinner

For dinner, I reunited with  my mother and we went down to the streets near our hotel once more. We ended up in a place called 味都拉麵, where my mom had a 麻油雞 (sesame oil chicken) with rice, I had a 海鮮麻辣拉麵 (seafood spicy ramen), and we shared some delicious stirfried local cabbage. The food was simple but so delicious and satisfying, and we had very nice conversation with the store owner lady, who apparently came back from the US to open up this shop with her husband. She was as appalled as we were by the short duration of our stay in Taipei (only 3 days), and she suggested that an easy way for me to be able to come back to Taipei is to marry a nice Taiwanese boy. Good idea…anyone have recommendations? 😉

And that was pretty much the end of our day! After dinner, we went to 7-eleven to pick up some random snacks, and then just returned to our room to chill and clean up. I intended to use the hotel’s treadmill tonight, but unfortunately the top floor was closed for “typhoon warning” (the only way to the gym is through the  top floor’s open terrace). Boo. But whatever, that only meant more time to complete this blogging with my delicious lychee flavoured Taiwanese Beer!

#joaninTW2013 Day 2 (Dec 20)

Day 2 in Taipei was quite an eventful one, filled with some good and some bad, but overall, not bad.

@"Formosa Chang's"

@”Formosa Chang’s”

We started off the day pretty leisurely with a buffet style breakfast at our hotel. Then, since it looked miserable outside, we headed back to the room to chill for a couple of hours before looking for lunch. For lunch, we once again returned to 吉林路 (Jilin Road) and located this legit looking place called 鬍鬚張魯肉飯. There, we had 魯肉飯 (minced pork rice), 紅棗人參雞湯 (red date and ginseng chicken soup), 豬腳 (pig’s feet), and some veggies. The 魯肉飯 was so fatty, but so good. It’s not something that I would usually get, but seeing that we were at a place that is known for it, I had to try it, and I was not disappointed! The 豬腳 was also amazing, the soft layers pretty much melted off the bone with the lightest touch, so well done.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel lobby and were met by our tour guide for the afternoon’s tour to Taiwan’s Northeast Coast and 九份 (Jiufen). Our tour group was pleasantly small, and consisted of a couple from Italia, a couple from HK(?), and a dude from Nippon. We all boarded a small van and headed north on the highway along 基隆河 (Keelung River) to start our tour. Our first stop of the tour was 鼻頭角 (Bitou Cape, aka Nose-tip Cape), which is named so as it looks like the tip of the nose of a dog, and is apparently the northern-most tip of Taiwan. From there, we could see 基隆山 (which I will talk about more in my next post). Next, we visited 南雅風化石 (Nanya Rock Formations) a little bit south of Bitou Cape, where we mingled among interestingly shaped sandstone rocks that had been eroded over the years by the sea waves into shapes like a gigantic bamboo shoot. Our next short stop was just on the side of the road by the sea at what is called 陰陽海 (Yin Yang Sea), which is called so because this estuary contains distinctly “gold” tinted water juxtaposed against the clear blue of the sea.

My mother and I with Bitou Cape behind us

My mother and I with Bitou Cape behind us

It is thought that the gold colour from the river is from gold sand that is brought down from the town of 金瓜石, which used to be a prosperous gold and copper mining town.

Our final and longest stop was at the area of 九份 (Jiufen), at 500m above sea level (pretty much the same height as Taipei 101, 508m tall). The name Jiufen came from the fact that there used to be only 9 families who lived there (九份 is translated literally to “nine parts”). This area used to be very populated due to a gold rush, but since after WWII, it was almost forgotten until it became the setting of a movie called A City of Sadness. Since then, it has become a very popular tourist attraction. (I apologize that my history is probably very lacking and may have mistakes as I haven’t had a chance to do a detailed research yet, so I am just regurgitating what the tour guide told us! Please visit the wiki link above for more details). Downtown Jiufen is a very interesting place and is the home of many food stalls, souvenir shops, and random item stores. The setting of this long strip of stores reminded me of touristy street of Macau, and the whole setting of Jiufen (being on a hill and chock full of quirky, old buildings and cobblestone steps) reminded me of the town of Eze, France. I was very happy to have a hot bowl of 芋圓薑汁 (ginger tea with taro pearls) while admiring the nice view of the ocean from Jiufen. Those were the best taro pearls I have ever had. On our way back to meet with the tour group again, we also bought a few boxes of fresh pineapple cake to bring back as souvenirs. After that, it was time to head back to Taipei, and it was so wet and chilly that we looked forward to the warm ride back.

At dinner time, our second tour of the day began. This was quite a small tour group – it was basically my mother, myself, and a Shanghainese lady from New York. The tour guide first took us to dinner at this Mongolian grill, which was actually quite subpar and nothing noteworthy. Next, we went to one of Taipei’s many night markets, 華西街夜市 (Huaxi Street Night Market, aka Snake Alley). It is not the biggest one (Shilin is), but it is the only one with snakes! Other than that, I didn’t find anything too special with the night market – just a lot of food and random cheap things. The highlight of that visit was seeing a poster of Leehom on the window of a shop and then taking a photo with him. 🙂 Our next stop was 龍山寺 (Longshan Temple), which was extremely gorgeously decorated, and filled with devoted Buddhists and the warm aroma of incense. The final stop of the night was to Taipei 101, which was a bit of a disappointment, actually. I had been hoping we could go up to the top of 101 to view the whole city from 508m. Unfortunately, the weather continued to be a bitch, and the tour guide warned us that it probably wouldn’t be worth it because we wouldn’t be able to see anything. Despite this being a bit of a shame, it is definitely an excuse to come back to Taipei again another time to fulfill this wish!

On another note, my dSLR camera was dropped today. But thank goodness, I had put a lens filter on the lens, which served as a protection against water, dust, and trauma, the latter of which I learned today. The filter was to my camera as the Super Star is to Mario, and the way that I dropped the camera caused the acetate piece in the lens filter to shatter, but my actual lens and the camera body was unscathed, save a few scratches. I could not have been more relieved! It would have been most unfortunate if my dSLR became unusable this early in my trip – this was definitely a wake up call to be more careful with it.

#joaninTW2013 Day 1ish (Dec 18-19)

China Airlines' delicious food. Don't be hatin'!

China Airlines’ delicious food. Don’t be hatin’!

And so my vacation begins! My mother and I left Vancouver in the wee hours of December 18, and sat on a 13-hour plane ride to Taipei with China Airlines. The voyage was actually extremely pleasant, complete with 9 hours of sleep, Despicable Me 2, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and 2 delicious airplane meals. At this point, I know some of you are going “Ewwww, airplane food is the worst!” But China Airlines food is amazing. First “dinner” meal I had was a western style beef pasta/noodle, with a side of fruit, tuna tataki (!!!) salad, warm bun, mango mousse cake (!!!!!), and beverage of choice. The second “breakfast” meal was a pork noodle, with side of fruit, seaweed salad (!!), and warm bun. It was so good. So. Good. Anyhow, I was happy that I could sleep through much of the ride as it ended up not feeling that tedious at all; I had woken up after ~6 hours of sleep, intending to do some readings. But instead, I fell back asleep. S’all good!

Breakfast omnoms

Breakfast omnoms

We landed safely in Taipei early morning Dec 19, and when we arrived at our hotel (will update with name after I leave, so people can’t stalk me), it was still too early to check-in. So, after leaving our stuff with the bellboys, we strolled over to 吉林路 (Jilin Road) to have breakfast. We had 小籠湯包 (Xiao long bao), 蘿蔔糕 (fried turnip cake), 蛋餅 (egg pancake), and 2x 豆漿 (soy milk), all for only ~160NTD (equivalent to ~6CAD) and deliciously satisfying. After breakfast, we poked around the neighbourhood, and were pleasantly surprised by how close our hotel is to the local markets. We bought a few oranges from a lady at one of the stalls.

While we still had time to kill before we could check-in to our room, my mother decided that she really wanted to get a massage, so we asked one of the managers at the hotel where he would recommend, and he directed us to this place just a block away. I am overtly against the idea of random people touching me, and I especially hate people touching my feet, so I passed on this fine opportunity. So while my mom was being pampered for 100 minutes, I sat in the vestibule of the place, connected to wifi on my tablet and phone to reconnect myself with my friends and work on some residency stuff.

Hot pot at 妙媽媽's

Hot pot at 妙媽媽’s

By the time my mom’s massage was over, our room was ready, so we headed back to the hotel to check-in. After chilling for a bit, our empty tummies led us back down to the streets in search of food for a late lunch, and we were immediately enticed by a hearty aroma to have hotpot at this place called 妙媽媽香香鍋 (“Miao Mama’s Aromatic Hotpot”), which also appeared very popular among locals. I settled for a 沙茶牛肉鍋 (sha cha beef hotpot), and my mother ordered a 羊肉鍋 (lamb hotpot). They squirted some gooey clear stuff into the centre of a stainless steel pot holder, lit it on fire, and set our pot filled with hearty goodness on top. Armed with a bowl of rice, we proceeded to attack our hotpots, and were delighted to find a wide variety of things inside: vermicelli, clams, 豬血糕 (pig’s blood cake), fish balls, and lots and lots of veggies. Needless to say, we were stuffed, and afterwards we walked by a couple of shops to pick up honey cake and other daily necessities before heading back to our hotel room, comatous.

統一布丁<3

統一布丁<3

One of the things I got was a 統一布丁 (caramel pudding) from a 7-Eleven, which was highly recommended by my good friend, Sqeryl, who recently visited Taiwan. I opened it immediately upon return to the hotel room, and I was not disappointed! The pudding had a lovely caramel flavour that was well-balanced with just the right amount of sweetness and creaminess. I totally wish they had these in Vancouver!

After that, we pretty much called it a day! It was only around 5pm, but we were exhausted from the day’s travels. Initially, I had planned to use the hotel gym’s treadmill to burn some calories, but I actually passed out on the bed for a few hours. When I woke up, I decided against further exhausting myself, took a shower, and here I am now, blogging.

Funny how this pretty much turned into a food blog post – tomorrow we’ll be going on a couple of tours, so I promise my post tomorrow will focus on other interesting things as well. Good night!