Hong Kong — Taiwan Vacation, 2008

Hong Kong | Taiwan

In April 2008, I flew to Hong Kong to meet an American friend living in Danshui, Taiwan, currently enrolled in the Chinese Literature Department at Tamkang University in Danshui. Among our many interests, Marla and I share an admiration for Wu Bai and China Blue, one of Taiwan's premiere rock bands. We had tickets for two shows, and I can't think of a better reason to travel to Hong Kong and meet with friends than to attend these concerts. Wu Bai is knows as the "King of Live" and he and the band always live up to their reputation.

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I arrived first and spent the day sightseeing, shopping at the local jade market and slowly recovering from jet lag. The jade market was small, not like the weekend market in Taipei, but it had a good selection of items ranging from the ordinary to the sublime. One merchant in particular had exceptional pieces, so I went back the next day and purchased these pieces.

Our hotel was in Kowloon, near the night markets made famous in so many Hong Kong films like the Young and Dangerous series. We even witnessed an altercation in a street restaurant that reminded me of scenes in a triad film. Needless to say, we didn't linger. Note to myself, watch out for the cab drivers. Unlike in America they have the right-of-way and they would rather just hit you than slow down.

My first meal in Hong Kong was pickled cucumbers, not the best choice after a 12-hour flight and little sleep... when I looked at the pictogram menu I thought it was zucchini... well at least it was vegetarian. Visiting an Asian country definitely means leaving one's expectations behind and adapting to the culture. The waitress was eager to have a conversation with someone who spoke English, as her goal was to come to America and experience the culture and develop skills that could lead to a better job. I was happy to oblige.

The next day while walking in Kowloon Park, I was approached by a guy who was studying English and asked if I would help him with a lesson. He wanted me to listen to him read and summarize a report on the use of seat belts in the United States. I thought, "Why not, this could be interesting." His English and comprehension was quite good. He wasn't interested in me telling him that the report was somewhat inaccurate if compared to California seat belt laws, but that was a minor issue. It was a pleasant distraction to talk with a local while enjoying the sculptures in Kowloon Park.

Later, as we walked around Kowloon looking for a suitable restaurant, we were approached by a group of Koreans on a treasure hunt. One of their tasks was to take photos with a foreigner. I looked suitably foreign, so they approached me and asked for pictures. Little did they know that I like Korean movies, so I said, "Sure, why not." As they took photos (image), my friends did too.

Tanka junk leaving Sai Kung harbor
Tanka junks

Thanks to Marla's friends who live and work in Hong Kong, we traveled by car to Sai-kung, a seaside resort in New Territories. This fishing-village-turned-tourist-mecca offers spectacular views of the harbor, the outlying islands, old fishing boats (Tanka junks), and seafood restaurants offering the catch of the day. Most restaurants have row upon row of tanks fronting the restaurant, full of exotic and colorful sea life whose only destiny is to become someone's meal. Here's a link to a high-res image of fish tanks in front of a Sai-kung restaurant.

After the Hong Kong adventure, we traveled to Taiwan on separate airlines, Marla on EVA Air, and I on Cathay Pacific. I didn't fly EVA because their customer service was not very accommodating. They wanted me to first buy a ticket to Taiwan, and only then would they tell me the cost of the Hong Kong layover. On the other hand, Cathay Pacific had a good price and was able to quote a fare that included the layover in Hong Kong. The only complaint I had with Cathay Pacific was their tiny economy-class seats. They are definitely designed for small people, not tall Americans of Danish decent. In true Ugly American fashion I asked the stewardess if they could make the seats any smaller. Other than that, the flight was pleasant, the food good and the landings perfect. After all, takeoffs and landings are of upmost importance.

Since my flight left first, I waited at the Taipei airport for Marla's flight to arrive. After she arrived we collected her luggage and proceeded to find a cab that would take us directly to her apartment. Taking the train and bus would have meant several changes and by spending a little more money and taking direct transport, we were able to avoid lifting heavy luggage along the way. I not only had my luggage, but a full suitcase of items Marla had requested be brought from America.

I also took a cab to the airport on my return flight. At a cost of NT $800 ($24 US), and it was worth it. Even though,I was a bit apprehensive because the cab driver spoke no English and I wasn't sure if he was taking me to the right airport, we arrived early enough so that I could spend the last of my Taiwanese money on bottled water, water that I had to throw away before boarding the plane. You'd think that if you buy water after the security check-in it would be okay. Nope, if your destination is North America you are subject to restrictive regulations.

My Taiwan visit was filled with sightseeing in Danshui, Taipei, Jiufen and Yinge, a city famous for its ceramics. Sadly, I didn't take any pictures while in Yinge, and do regret not buying that beautiful yellow Gaiwan tea cup, even if it was expensive. I did buy the Koji ceramic sculpture pictured below for much less than it would have cost in other cities, and for much less that buying it at the exclusive airport shop selling Koji ceramics. You can read about the history of Koji Pottery and see a few more items at Gargoile's Far Eastern Bazaar.

Chinese Koji ceramic dog

Yinge is also the city where I got an education in buying jade. A shopkeeper spent quite some time with us explaining the psychology of collecting jade. He spoke Chinese so I had to depend on my companions translating the important parts. In a nutshell, his advise was to offer a third of the asking price and barter from that point on. In the end, buying a piece of jade depends on how much you like the piece and how much you are willing to pay.

Taiwan is a vegetarian's paradise. Most of the vegetarian and Buddhist restaurants offer buffets filled with hundreds of dishes to choose from, and you never have to ask, "Does this contain meat , fish or poultry?" You fill your plate and pay by weight. It's an excellent way to sample the abundant food choices. The image to the right was taken at Minder, located in the Eslite Bookstore near Taipei 101. It's just a small portion of the dishes in the Minder buffet. There are so many choices that you can't possibly try everything in one meal.

Minder Vegetarian Buffet

So that I would have no problems buying food while on my own, Marla made me a little card written in Chinese to show to food sellers, saying I was vegetarian and ate no meat whatsoever. It's a handy thing to have when you're on your own and don't speak Chinese.

xue hua bing, snowflake ice

Another culinary treat is xue hua bing(snowflake ice). One evening on our way back to Danshiu, we stopped at Shilin to walk through the night market. We were looking for a shop that served xue hua bing, a refreshing, low-calorie ice milk dessert. The frozen milk is shaved, and as it spirals into the serving bowl it resembles a snow-capped mountain. Because papaya and mango was out of season I couldn't choose the topping I wanted, so I settled for peaches. Although the peaches were canned, the dessert was very good. Refreshing, cool, satisfying.

One food I've never wanted to try is chou dofu or stinky tofu. I can't get past the smell. The odor is strong and pungent and carries quite a distance. You know a night market is nearby when you smell stinky tofu.

stinky tofu
Stinky Tofu (2 views)

Stinky tofu is made by marinating firm tofu in a brine of fermented milk, vegetables and meat. The brine may also include dried shrimp, amaranth greens, mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and Chinese herbs. The brine is fermented over several months, and depending on the method of preparation, can be extremely unsanitary. The brine is covered with maggots, and manufacturers who want to speed up the process have been known to add rotting food, human feces, and other unsanitary matter.

After the brine is fully ripe, fresh firm tofu is added and marinated from several days to a couple months. Sometimes quicklime is added to control the fermentation and maggots. When brine-soaked tofu reaches maturity, it is covered in white mold; black mold would mean it is not edible. (Source: Wikipedia and other web content).

I'm not sure if that would prevent unscrupulous manufacturers from selling the product. After all, if they add human feces and maggots to the mix, what's to stop them from selling spoiled food. I'm glad I never tried stinky tofu because it's definitely not a dish for vegetarians. Unknowingly eating tofu marinated in meat and shrimp is one thing, but maggots and rotting food is an entirely different matter. I've always thought that if Taiwan was judged by American standards, litigation lawyers would never be without work.

In researching stinky tofu, I discovered "Bizarre foods with Andrew Zimmern: TAIWAN" on YouTube. The series consists of six video clips of strange, bizarre and unique foods of Taiwan. For a "taste" of Taiwanese cuisine, check out these links:

Bizarre foods Taiwan, Part 1, stinky tofu and Bizarre foods Taiwan, Part 4, Taipei 101 food courts.

On weekdays I would take the train to Taipei and meet Marla after her Chinese language class. Her school was near the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, so I was able to spend some time strolling through the park, feeding the fish and enjoying a bit of nature in the heart of the bustling city. It's really a lovely park, although there are some who would like to change the name because it's a memory of past political strife.

We also visited 2-28 Peace Memorial Park, located in the Zhongzheng district of Taipei. Although the park area has been controlled by many political factions over the year, and been used for many purposes, it currently is the site of the Taipei 2-28 Memorial Museum, inaugurated on February 28, 1997 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 2-28 Incident. For an aerial view courtesy of Wikipedia, click here.

"The 228 Incident, also known as the 228 Massacre, was an anti-government uprising in Taiwan that began on February 27, 1947 and was violently suppressed by the Kuomintang (KMT) government. Estimates of the number of deaths vary from ten thousand to thirty thousand or more. The Incident marked the beginning of the Kuomintang's White Terror period in Taiwan, in which thousands more Taiwanese vanished, were killed, or imprisoned. The number "228" refers to the day the massacre began: February 28, or 02-28." (Source: Wikipedia)

2-28 Peace Memorial Park

About five years ago on my first trip to Taiwan, Taipei 101 was under construction. Although it was in mid-construction, it loomed above the horizon and was visible from many locations throughout the city. Richard Hammond, the well-known presenter on Top Gear, featured Taipei 101 in his Engineering Connections series for National Geographic Channel. In this episode Richard shows what a bird cage, bamboo, racing yachts, sports cars and seat belts have in common with the construction of Taipei 101 (Season 1, Episode 2).

Now that Taipei 101 was complete, I knew I had to go up to the 89th floor observation deck. Our first visit to Taipei 101 was marred by bad weather, so we chose not to go to the observation deck. It was raining with thunder and lightening, and the rain was driving so hard that even standing under the protective awning while waiting for the shuttle bus, our shoes and pants got soaked.

On our second trip to Taipei 101, I decided that no matter what, we were going to the top. The express elevator to the 89th floor was a very smooth ride and took less than 30 seconds. Because we took a late afternoon tour, we were able to watch the sun setting as the city lights came alive. It had taken five years but there I was, standing on the observation deck of the tallest building in the world. Very cool... (In 2009 it lost its designation as the tallest building in the world when Burj Dubai in Dubai, UAE, was completed.) For more images select the sidebar link to my Facebook Taipei 101 photo album.

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Hong Kong

Hong Kong, officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, is a territory located on China's south coast on the Pearl River Delta, bordering Guangdong province to the north and facing the South China Sea to the east, west and south. It has a population of 6.9 million people, and is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

This was my second trip to Hong Kong and I still feel that I have not seen even a small portion of what the city has to offer. Since we had only three days in Hong Kong and the main purpose of the trip was to attend the Wu Bai and China Blue Concerts, we couldn't devote too much time to sight-seeing. Maybe next time. (Hong Kong night skyline from Victoria Peak courtesy of Samuel Louie. For original full size 4,670 × 2,000 pixel image, select author link.)

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Hong Kong night skyline from Victoria Peak

Sai-kung Sai-kung, New Territories, Hong Kong

Sai-kung Town, also known as Sai-kung, is located on the Sai-kung Peninsula in the New Territories, Hong Kong. It has evolved from a fishing village into a tourist mecca, offering a wide variety of seafood in the restaurants that front the harbor. Whether strolling along the harbor and around the market center, or wandering along the back lanes, you'll find much to see in this little seaside fishing village. You can still take an old-style fishing boat to the outlying islands, where I understand they have 18-hole golf courses, among other things.

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Taipei Taipei

Two maps, Taiwan and Taipei-Danshui area

With its mass-transit system and connecting trains, it's easy to travel around Taipei and the outlying areas most times of the day or evening. When I arrived, Marla gave me an MRT transit card, and I found it to be a convenient and economical way to travel. Danshui is the terminus of the Red line, so as long as I got on the right train when traveling alone I knew I could make it back to Danshui.

Since this was my third trip to Taiwan, I didn't revisit the usual tourist sites like the National Palace Museum (the best of Chinese antiquities saved from the destructive powers of the Chinese Cultural Revolution), the excellent Natural History Museum (housing beautiful Tang Dynasty ceramics), or the numerous Buddhist temples. Instead we explored Taipei and Danshui and some of the outlying cities like Jiufen and Yinge.

One thing on my "must do" list was going to the Taipei weekend jade and flower market. The Taipei Weekend Jade Market is a site to behold. Located under an elevated expressway, it reaches from Renai Road and Jianguo South Road intersection down Jianguo Road to Xinyi Road. Jade, pearls and many other handcrafts and jewelry can be purchased at this weekend market. There are so many dealers that you're bound find something that fits your budget. There are serious jade sellers and those who cater to less expensive tastes. Most are willing to chat with a foreigner, and willing to barter if they think you are interested in a piece. Like with any barter system it comes down to what the jade dealer in Yinge said: if you like the piece and it's within your budget, then you might want to consider buying it.

Jianguo Holiday Flower Market, located next to the jade market under the overpass of Xinyi Road's Section 3 and Jianguo South Road in Taipei City, offers beautiful flowers, plants and bonsais, but being a traveler from another country they are meant to be admired, not purchased. The flower market also sells vases and good quality Chinese style wooden cabinets and stands. I was able to find a wooden stand designed for jade bracelets that worked well for a bi (jade disc) that I purchased on my first trip to Taiwan. The quality was much better that what I would have found for a similar price in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Jianguo Holiday Flower Market

Danshui Danshui

Danshui is a smaller city north of Taipei on the Danshui (Red) Line, and is located near the outlet of the Danshui River as it flows into the Taiwan Straights. (You can get a perspective of the location by moving your curser over the above Taiwan map). The trip from Taipei Main Metro to the terminus of the Red Line in Danshui takes about 40 minutes. Most of Danshui is easily accessible from the MRT station, and with all local buses ending up at the station, it's easy to get around the city.

The area was first settled by the Spanish in 1629 as the town and mission of San Domingo. In 1641 the Spanish were expelled by the Dutch, who built Fort Anthonio, forming what is known today as Hongmao Castle. Following the departure of the Dutch in 1661, Danshui continued to grow, and by the 19th century became the largest port in Taiwan . By the 20th century, accumulation of silt in the river forced most port operations to move further north to Keelung. Due to its close proximity to Taipei City, Danshui has become a favorite destination for city dwellers to visit and take a stroll along the riverside promenade. (Source: Wikipedia)

There are many shops and food stalls along the waterfront walkway. The food vendors offer a large selection of items to choose from. My favorite was deep-fried mushrooms coated in a special seasoning. Yummy, I want to go back for more.

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Danshui is famous for Iron Eggs. They are considered a delicacy and come in many flavors, from garlic to horseradish and everything in between, but no matter what the flavor, the predominant taste is of a hard-boiled egg. There are stores that sell nothing but these eggs. The dish takes a long time to prepare as the eggs are soaked repeatedly in a specially made marinade sauce consisting of prickly ash, star anise, cinnamon, clove, and fennel (the 'five spices' in Chinese). The eggs must be dried after each soaking. Repeated soaking with a long drying period in between makes the eggs more black and chewy. After all this time I still have a package... wonder if they are still good?

Iron Eggs are different than the ubiquitous tea eggs found in many locations in Taiwan, especially the convenience stores. Every 7-11 store has a crock-pot of eggs simmering in tea. They could have been simmering for days or weeks... I was afraid to ask. The 7-11 clerk got upset when I took a picture, but I didn't let that stop me. I did try tea eggs on my first trip to Taiwan, and like the iron eggs they taste very much like hard-boiled eggs.

Another Danshui attraction is Rainbow Bridge, also known as Lover's Bridge, located at Tamshui Fisherman's Wharf at the mouth of the Danshui River. The bridge span is modeled after a sailing ship's mast and rigging and the illumination changes color at night.

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Rainbow Bridge and Tamshui Fisherman's Wharf

Since we visited in the late evening very few restaurants and shops were open, and due to the late hour we couldn't catch a bus back to the apartment, so we had no choice but to walk back to Danshui proper. In America one would think twice before walking along similar streets, but in Taiwan it's relatively safe. On the way back we encountered a little pet pig outside a shop. He was leash trained and very friendly, and was happy to get some attention.

Pet PiggiePet Piggie soaking up the attention.

Jiufen Jiufen

Just one of the many streets in the Jiufen shop area.

Jiufen, located about an hour's bus ride from Songshan Station in Taipei, is a pleasant day trip that offers a glimpse into the past. Until the 1950s, Jiufen was a prosperous gold mining town, but as the mines died out it fell into decline. It is now a well-known tourist destination. Jiufen has provided the setting for several period movies and its downtown was used as a model in the anime movie, Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki.

Jiufen is famous for the many tea houses that offer spectacular views of the ocean and verdant green hillsides, streets filled with shops that cater mostly to tourists and ornate Buddhist temple (images located below).

From vegetarian to the most hearty meat eater, you'll find something to satisfy your taste. One shop is famous for pineapple cake, another for cubed sweet potatoes with a crackly sugar glaze, another for deep fried spiral cut potatoes on a skewer. Think of spiral-chips-on-a-stick... and now this fun food item has finally made it to America. Some resort towns on the East Coast offer the Tornado Potato as it is called here, and hopefully it will soon be available on the West Coast.

One also cannot avoid the less attractive sites in Jiufen. Mangy dogs roam the streets, looking for handouts from tourists and shop owners. The shop owners mostly ignore them, shrug their shoulders and say that the dogs somehow survive. I saw one mange-ridden dog lying in the middle of the street, lucky to avoid being run over by the busses that drop off day-tourists. This town is ripe for an animal rights activist group to come in and provide humanitarian aide to the dog population.

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Jiufen street scenes and temples

Taipei 101 Taipei 101

Taipei 101 in the clouds

Located in the Xinyi District, Taipei 101 was built at a cost of NT $58 billion, (US $1.76 billion). Construction began in 1999 and was completed in 2004. At its completion, the building owned by Taipei Financial Center Corp was listed as the world's tallest fully-occupied building. From the ground to the highest architectural structure spire, it rises 509.2 metres (1,670.60 ft). It consists of 101 floors above ground and 5 floors underground. The MRT is building a train line that will stop directly under the Taipei 101. In the meantime, free shuttle busses run on a continuous schedule, taking visitors to the nearby MRT stations. (The MRT station may have been completed by the time you read this.)

The building contains communications, conference rooms, a library, offices, restaurants, shops, a fitness center and two observation decks, an enclosed deck located on the 89th floor and an outdoor observatory located on the 91st floor. The building utilizes sixty-one elevators, including two high-speed observation elevators to transit the various floors.

Taipei101 is built to withstand earthquakes and typhoons. A tuned mass damper, (pendulum) positioned from the 92nd to the 88th floor sways to offset movements in the building caused by strong gusts. Its sphere, the largest damper sphere in the world, consists of 41 circular steel plates, each with a height of 125 mm (0.41 ft) being welded together to form a 5.5 m (18 ft) diameter sphere. Another two tuned mass dampers, each weighing 6 metric tons (7 short tons), sit at the tip of the spire. These prevent damage to the structure due to strong wind loads.

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tuned mass damper

Tapiei 101's style combines Asian, international, modern and traditional elements. The text descriptions on the 89th floor observatory explain (to quote literally)...

Ruyi decoration on Taipei 101; photo taken from the obsevation deck
Ruyi Design

Bamboo: integrated classical oriental culture, the shape of Taipei 101 looks like durable bamboo successively growing and also resembles the blossoming flowers bringing honors and richness. The architects symbolized this building as continuous Life cycle of traditional Chinese architecture."

Ancient Coin: In response to the main topic 'financial center,' a giant ancient coin was placed on the exterior from level 24 to 27 as embellishment, again exhibiting the conception of combining Chinese culture and western technology."

(Ju-i): Ruyi literally means "as you wish" or "may your wish be granted." A typical ruyi is composed of two parts, a head in the shape of a cloud , heart, or a species of fungus, (Linzhi, meaning "magic mushroom"), and a long handle in the shape of a flat S. In ancient Chinese era, ruyi symbolized not only blessings, but also power and wealth.

And... "Beyond singular design idea, using the propitious number 'eight' in Chinese culture as one unit containing eight consecutive floors, the architects created this mega structure with reduplicate units forming beauty of rhythm."

Both visits to Taiwan and Hong Kong were memorable. It's important to experience different cultures and life styles, so that we can be compassionate and open-minded. Travel changes one's world-view and opens up the possibility that we can overcome obstacles of cultural differences as long as we are open to the experience.

For more images of Taiwan and Hong Kong, visit my Facebook Photo Albums. Links are in the sidebar. While there, you may enjoy viewing my photos of England too.

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