Danshui? Tamsui?

I am in America! It’s kind of weird being back, especially with how much happened since my exams ended, but I’m adjusting. Since my last post, I went to Taiwan, Thailand, back to mainland China, and finally came home. I’ll put it all into separate posts so I don’t completely overwhelm you (or me).

So. Taiwan. I went alone, very much against my mother’s wishes. Just stayed within Taipei. Six days of nonstop temples, shopping, and eating. For the most part, it was absolutely awesome. Traveling alone is amazing – you get to do whatever you want! No waiting for anyone else or worrying about what they want to do. You just go. If you want to get up early, you do it. If your alarm goes off and you don’t want to get up, you don’t. If you want to spend an extra half hour somewhere, go for it. You never feel bad about taking a long time messing with your camera because you want to get the perfect shot.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like about Taipei though. For one, I was super stoked to speak Chinese. I thought it would be six days without English for me. Not the case. See, in Beijing, when people would speak to me, if I didn’t understand they would slow down and repeat themselves. In Taipei, they just switched to English. Another thing was spelling inconsistencies. Going from Chinese characters to English letters can be complicated sometimes because there are two systems for doing it, but as long as you pick one and stick with it, you’re fine. Taipei needs to make up its mind. Is it Taipei or Taibei? Danshui or Tamsui? Beitou or Peitou? The names of the subway stations aren’t even consistent on the maps! Maps suck too. At subway stations and tourist areas there are maps of the neighborhood, which can be helpful, except up is never north. Up isn’t even usually the direction you’re facing. Up is wherever the mapmaker felt like putting it.

I stayed in Ximending 西門町, a cute commercial area on the western side of town. I pretty much tore this place apart shopping. It’s never ending, block after block of cheap clothes, shoes, and accessories.

I visited so many temples. Longshan, Baoan, Xingtian, Guandu, and plenty of others I can’t remember the names of. A few I didn’t even plan to go to, I just happened to walk by. Considering I am so completely not religious at all, I really love temples. It’s the smell of incense, the beautiful architecture, and just the sense of quiet you get when you walk in.

Gardens, too. It was a little rainy when I was there, but I still went to my fair share of parks. That photo is from the gardens at the Shilin Official Residence, where Chiang Kai-shek used to live. It’s got this huge rose garden, too. I also went to the botanical gardens, 2-28 Peace Park, and attempted hiking in Yangmingshan National Park until the rain made me quit. So many historical buildings in the city, too, like the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the Grand Hotel, and, of course, Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world.

I also went to the Danshui/Tamsui district, which is a fishing village north of Taipei. I got to walk along the water and visit their morning market, which was very cool. For the most part, markets in Taipei aren’t super touristy – sure, their are tourists, but not a lot of souvenir crap for sale. This market, though, was by far the most real I’ve ever been to. Stalls selling fresh produce, bread, meat, tea, plants, you name it. Almost everyone selling food gives out samples, so all you have to do is walk through it a couple of times and you’ve had your fill of dried fruit and cookies. One stall was even giving out tangyuan 湯圓, one of my favorite Chinese desserts.

One of the coolest things I did was bathe in the hot springs up in Beitou, north of the city. There are a bunch of resort spas where you pay a ton of money for your own private tub, but I chose instead to go to the public outdoor baths. It’s less than US$1 to get in, and it’s where all the locals go. You’re not supposed to take pictures, but I was able to sneak one. Each pool is a different temperature, most of them being hot but one is ice cold. You’re supposed to go to the coolest hot one, then into the cold, then to the next hottest, back into the cold, and so on, to “balance” your body. I couldn’t handle the hottest one though – it was about 120 degrees!!

You have to wear a swimsuit, thank goodness, because I was one of only a few people there younger than 60. All the old men wear Speedos, and all the old women wear the kind of one piece swimsuits with an attached skirt that goes down to their knees. I was feeling a little uncomfortable in my bikini, especially with all of my tattoos and whatnot, but then an obvious tourist walked in and took off his shirt. His chest, arms, and shoulders had Chinese characters scattered on them, so all attention was immediately diverted to him. His tattoos did not make sense. I didn’t know all of the characters, but a lot of it was just random words.

Besides that, basically all I did was eat. Begin the food porn. In six days, I ate in restaurants only twice – street food all day, everyday. The restaurants I did go to, though, were vegetarian buffets. It’s not really a buffet because you pay by the weight of your tray, but whatever. They’re a big deal in Taipei, which made me extremely happy. So many veggies! So much tofu! Happy Alyssa!

Other than that, night markets. In five nights, I went to seven night markets. For the most part, especially in the big ones like Shilin and Shida, the shopping is just regular stores. What makes the change between regular shopping area to night market is all the food carts that come out, selling the most amazing food you’ve ever laid eyes on. Actually, right near the Shilin market is the Shilin food court. Stall after stall of noodles, seafood, these yummy egg pancake things, fresh fruit juice, milk tea, and fried chicken. Taipei loves fried chicken. Actually, out of all the stalls, only one had a line – over 50 people waiting in line for fried chicken. I decided to see what it was all about, which was a very good decision. It was just regular fried chicken until they sprinkled some sort of spice on it. Just the right amount of heat and extra flavor. Amazing.

At Shida, I saw another big crowd around a food stall. Pro tip: if you see a huge line of locals waiting in line for food, get in that line. When you get to the front of the line, they hand you a basket which you fill with noodles, fresh veggies, tofu, meatballs, whatever. You pay for whatever is in the basket, then they cook it all and you choose your sauce. I’m not sure what I chose since I didn’t understand the Chinese and ended up just pointing at one, but it was delicious. Super cheap, too.

Besides that is the night market snacks. So many carts selling fresh cut fruit; when you walk by the hand you little pieces of strawberry or mango on toothpicks hoping you’ll buy some. I ended up getting a guava one of the nights. At the Raohe market, I saw a cart selling fried crab for NT$180, or about US$6. I thought that was a little expensive for a little crab since most of my meals were around $150 max, but it looked good, so I decided to go for it. Next thing I know, the lady hands me a paper bag filled with no less than four crabs inside. I stood on the sidewalk for at least a half hour, crab all over my face and hands. That’s how you know you’re living your life right.

The desserts are great too. I had waffles with strawberry ice cream and raspberry compote one night (top left), and almost every market had these little pancake things (bottom right). Only NT$10 a piece, and they’re filled with red bean or custard. At the Jingmei market I had some fantastic shave ice. They had a huge spread of all sorts of different things: red beans, tangyuan, mochi, sweet potato, jellies, and some things I’ve never even seen before. You fill a bowl with whatever you want, and then the shave ice goes on top with some kind of syrup. I definitely recognized the flavor of the syrup, but I couldn’t think of the name at the time. I want to say it might have been tamarind, but it was awhile ago that I ate it so I’m really not sure.

That was pretty much my time in Taipei. Eating, shopping, and taking pictures. It was a great time. I would definitely recommend traveling alone, and I would love to do it again sometime.

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Hung Sweet Hom

I had a really traumatic incident yesterday. I was at the grocery store, casually looking at some apples, when a fish committed suicide. It somehow knocked the top off of the tank and jumped out onto the floor. It was a pretty huge fish, too. I really wonder how often it happens, because the workers really had no idea what to do, but they weren’t exactly scared, either. I, on the other hand, was screaming bloody murder. It flopped around pretty violently on the floor for at least three minutes before the people could catch it, and by that time it was dead. So depressing.

Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system… I took it pretty easy this past weekend. I had a couple of midterms this week, in networks and Chinese, so not tons of free time. On Saturday I walked around the goldfish market in Mong Kok, which was pretty cool. It’s a full block of shops selling fish and turtles and any of your other aquarium needs. A lot of the fish are in tanks, but there were also racks and racks of bags of fish! I felt pretty bad for them, but hopefully the ones in bags are the ones that sell quickly. Those fish shouldn’t be cooped up like that for so long.

On Sunday I went to the Kowloon Walled City Park, which was very beautiful. Kowloon used to be a fort, and the park sits where that used to be. The original south gate of the fort is there, which is pretty cool. Going there just made me wish we had parks like that at home…

Tonight, I went out for dinner with a friend, and then we stopped at a bubble pancake place. I’ve had those a few times, but this time I decided to get a “Hong Kong Style Waffle.” It was heavenly. The waffle was really eggy and soft, freshly made. They fold it in half and in the inside they put peanut butter, condensed milk, margarine, and sugar. Talk about sweet! It was seriously to die for, and so cheap. I’m gonna have to try really hard not to go back there all the time.

That’s pretty much it for this week. Since I didn’t do much, I thought I’d explain a little more about the area where I live, Hung Hom, and just Hong Kong in general. Here are some differences between Hong Kong and home.

Cars
There are two kinds of buses here: the regular public buses, which are all double-deckers, and the “light” buses, which are teeny and only seat 16 people. The light buses usually cost more, but since there are fewer people they stop less often and usually get you where you want to go much faster.

Hong Kong is too crowded for cars. Besides buses, you really only see taxis, delivery trucks, and expensive cars. Seriously, almost everyone who drives has a Mercedes or a BMW. Bentleys and Maseratis aren’t uncommon either. You do see some more affordable makes, too, like Toyota, but they’re all within a couple of years old. No ’98 Camrys here. And definitely no Karmann Ghias.

Exchange rate
The exchange rate confuses me. It’s approximately 1 US dollar to 8 Hong Kong dollars, but you can’t buy anything for a dollar here. In a cheap market, you can get clothes for like $50, but in a real mall they cost anywhere from $200 to $1000, and stores like H&M are a little more expensive here than they are at home. At the same time, a pair of Nikes will only run you about $500-600. A cheap dinner will cost $30-$40, and dinner at a nicer place will be at least over $100. A drink at Starbucks is maybe $35, but you can get a giant flavored milk tea with boba for $15. It’s really strange how some things are much, much cheaper, but other things cost more.

Eating
Another thing about restaurants: a lot of the time, I eat in a mall food court on the walk back from school or one of the infinitely many hole-in-the-wall places nearby. None of those places give paper napkins; you have to bring your own. If you want free napkins, you have to go either to an American fast food chain or a real restaurant with a hostess and everything. Not necessarily a fancy restaurant, just a real one. I haven’t been anywhere with cloth napkins, either. Plus, you never ever tip the waiters.

Food is different here. I don’t just mean the types of dishes, but just how they describe it. Whatever you read on the menu is EXACTLY what you get. If it says “rice and beef,” you get white rice with beef. Never expect vegetables unless they are explicitly mentioned, because 9 times out of 10 you will be disappointed.

Cellphone picture of "fried noodles with mushrooms" from the school canteen. How many mushrooms do you see? Because I only see one. This was a bad dinner.

Things are a little different at supermarkets too. You know how lots of foods at home say things like “added blahblahblah” or “great for blahblahblah”? Like, how the blue orange juice carton is always “plus calcium and vitamin D”? They don’t put any of that stuff, and black it out with Sharpie on the imported items. I have no idea why, but I can usually read what it says through the marker anyway.

Nutrition facts are different, too. It will still tell you what the serving size is, but the calorie counts and everything else is all based on 100g. So, that means, even if there’s only 40g in the package, it will trick you into thinking you’ve just eaten 750 calories because that’s how many are in 100g. Plus, sometimes they’ll randomly put it in kilojoules instead of calories. Who knows what a kilojoule is? I sure don’t. It’s all very confusing. Speaking of strange units, fruit is priced by the pound, but everything else is metric.

Pretty much everywhere, but especially in Hung Hom, there are little corner markets for fruit. You can get fruit at the big supermarkets too, of course, but it seems like the locals go to these little places more often. They have a very farmers’ market feel, until you see the stickers on the fruit saying they’re all grown in California or Florida. New Zealand, sometimes, too. But they’ve got all sorts of fruits – regular ones like apples, bananas, grapes, and oranges, but also dragon fruit, starfruit, and pomelo. They usually sell chestnuts, too.

The picture on the left is sort of a dry goods store – I don’t know what else to call it. They usually have a sign that says 茶, tea, so my guess is they’ve got loose tea in some of those huge crates. They also have lots of nuts and dried beans and that sort of thing. These are everywhere.

Shopping
Most clothes here are one size only, and you can’t try anything on. Only real stores have dressing rooms, and by that I mean they have an actual cash register instead of a calculator and an envelope, and the clothes have tags on them, sometimes even with barcodes. Sometimes. The one-size clothes stores only keep one of each thing out, and if you want to buy it, they run into the back closet and come out with a little plastic baggy with your shirt or whatever inside. Can you believe that? All the clothes are packaged, like when you order them online. I don’t know why they keep it packaged that way, but it’s always strange to unwrap my clothes from a little plastic bag.

Also, every subway station is a shopping mall. I don’t know how else to explain it. Most of them are in the basement of a multistory mall, and the ones that aren’t still have tons of stores and are probably within a 2 minute walk from a mall. Hong Kong has more malls than anywhere I’ve ever been in my entire life.

Backpacks
Girls don’t wear backpacks here. I showed up on the first day of school with my Google backpack, feelin’ supafly, and people are staring at me like I’ve got my pants on backwards.

Me on the first day of school.

The girls always either hold their books or put them in some gigantic “purse” that really has no business being so large. A lot of guys even carry messenger bags! I felt pretty stupid until I got to my computer networks class, where my backpack gave me the instant cool factor. I am always the coolest geek in the room.

Mango Rice Noddles

This is officially my longest weekend ever. No class from last Friday through next Thursday because of 中秋节 (Mid Autumn Festival)! We only officially get Monday evening and Tuesday off, but I already have no classes Friday, Monday in the daytime, and Wednesday. Basically I never go to school.

Friday I went on a four hour hike on Lantau Island to a small fishing village called Tai O. It was such a long hike, but totally worth it. It was a paved sidewalk almost the whole way, which was very strange to see on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, but it made it a lot easier. Tai O is amazing – all the houses are up on stilts for when the water comes in, and the marketplaces have all sorts of crazy things. It’s mostly dried fish, but all kinds of fish – I saw dried shrimp, squid, seahorses, even blowfish. I even saw what looked like a dried shark! Just on display at the storefront though, not for sale.

Walking around, we saw someone making those bubble waffle things! It was really neat how they do it – you pour the batter into the mold, which is sort of like a waffle iron except handheld. Then you hold it over hot coals until it cooks! This one was way better than when I got it a little while ago in Mong Kok; that one had been sitting out for awhile (aka not blog-worthy), but this one was nice and fresh. It tastes just like a waffle, but the shape just makes it way more fun. It’s like bubble wrap!

Then Saturday I went to Macau, which was awesome. Macau used to be Portuguese territory, so the mix of culture there is so unique. All of the streets have Portuguese names, and you can definitely see the Portuguese influence in the architecture, but everyone is Chinese! Plus, it’s sort of like the Las Vegas of China – tons of hotel casinos. Ones you’ve heard of too, like the Venetian and the MGM Grand.

We walked around a bit getting some street food… EGG TARTS!! They’re hot, with a really buttery crust and eggy filling. They sell them all over at little shops along the street for ridiculously cheap. Also, if you walk around the marketplace people will try to get you to eat samples of whatever they’re selling, like these awfully dry cookies and amazing beef jerky thing. You could basically eat a whole meal there for free! I also got a delicious matcha milk tea with red beans (my favorite) instead of my usual boba. For some reason, none of my friends like red bean… they’re crazy. But anyway. We went to the Ruínas de São Paulo, one of the most famous landmarks in Macau, and that’s basically it. I’d definitely like to go back and explore a little more and see what else Macau has to offer; I feel like there is so much more to see there!

After all that adventuring, I was feeling pretty tired today and just stayed local. We went to a place in Hung Hom called Dumpling King for dinner, and had noodles and 饺子, or pot stickers. It seems like dumplings are the only time I can get vegetables! I had some that were all veggie and some with spinach and pork, plus freshly made soy milk. They were pretty greasy, but very fresh – you could tell they had just made them.

Then we went to a place right next door for dessert, and of course I got sago – mango with fresh mango chunks and grass jelly.  It was sooooo good. Seriously, sago is my new favorite food. Someone else ordered peanut 汤圆 (tangyuan), which is sort of like mochi filled with peanut butter and served in a sweet broth. And then, one of my friends ordered…. mango rice noodles. Or, “noddles,” as the menu said. I don’t know what the waitress thought she ordered, but it definitely wasn’t mango rice noodles. It was a big bowl of grass jelly in this ridiculously strong sesame soup with a little bit of mango on top.

I didn’t think it was that bad, just too strong. I was the only one who didn’t make a gross face when I tasted it. Next time, I think we’re all going to order by just pointing to the pictures.

Hong Kong Hodge Podge

I’ve been in Hong Kong for about a week now. So much has been going on! Classes started today, so up until then everything was go go go go go, see this, do that, nonstop action. None of my classes start until Monday, though, so I have a little while to relax.

Eating here has been very hard. I’ve been slowly introducing meat into my diet, and I hate it. The times I avoided meat, I either couldn’t find anything on the menu or felt terrible because all I had was rice or noodles. I can barely find anything with tofu here, which is a surprise, let alone vegetable based dishes. It’s literally impossible to keep a well-balanced vegetarian diet here.

First thing I noticed when I got to Asia: the vending machines. They’re so cool here! I don’t know what about them is so awesome, but they’re just fantastic. You can get so many different types of snacks from vending machines, but I think the drink machines are even cooler:

So many types of juice and tea and soy milk and everything! I wish we had vending machines like this back home.

Another thing is the markets. People just stand out on the sidewalk selling fish or meat or whatever. I was expecting this, but it’s still so cool to see.

Some notable things I’ve done since I’ve been here: coolest thing so far, I think, was visiting the Nan Lian gardens. The landscape is beautiful, with so many plants and a temple. Visiting was such an amazing experience – probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. According to Wikipedia, my favorite source of information, the temple was built in 1990 in the style of the Tang Dynasty; it was gorgeous, but I can only imagine how much better it would be to visit a temple actually built that long ago.

Along the way, we stopped at a little fast food place in the subway station for lunch. I ordered one red bean and one sweet potato bao. Instead of sweet potato, I got something purple – I thought it was taro, which is always purple, and I was really disappointed because I HATE taro. When I ate it, it wasn’t bad, and actually tasted like sweet potato, so honestly I have no idea what it actually was. But it was good. And I got it in the subway station… Seriously? This was way better than the kind I get at home. I’ll go somewhere else and get the real, non-fast-food kind, and my mind will be blown.

Another really exciting thing is the street food. In Mong Kok there are tons of little booths where people sell delicious and terrible for you fried food.

The food either comes on a stick or in a bag, but the bag isn’t any neater since the grease soaks right through. And did I mention that no one gives napkins in Hong Kong? The only place I’ve seen giving napkins is good old Mickey D’s.

Earlier this week I went to Ocean Park. Don’t be fooled like I was – it’s not a water park. It’s actually the most confusing theme park I’ve ever been to. They have a couple of small roller coasters, a dolphin show kind of like at Sea World, an aquarium about as big as the one in Long Beach, and…

PANDAS. I was freaking out when I realized the park had pandas. I had never seen one before, and they had TWO. I wish I had bought something cheesy at the gift shop to commemorate the experience.

Finally, yesterday I went to the Peak, which is a spot on top of the mountain in Hong Kong Island where you can see literally everything.

Gorgeous, isn’t it? Gotta love that smog.

I feel like I’ve already seen so much of Hong Kong, but there’s so much to do. I’ve only had a little taste (hah) of the city, and really only tourist attractions. I can’t wait to really learn my way around, interact with local people, basically just live here. This is going to be such an exciting time.