Saturday, May 4, 2013

Taiwan Touch Your Heart

There is SOME truth in advertising.

It touched mine.

When I left Taiwan back in November, I knew I’d be back again some day.  All my good deeds and positive karma joined together with the forces of the universe, and it worked out perfectly for me to return to Formosa before heading off to Vietnam.  As I stepped off the plane in Taipei, I was transported back to my first arrival on the island.  Except this time, I had family waiting for me; just like coming home!

The first weekend of my trip, I attended my old roommate’s wedding.  Muni married her long-time love Nick in the longest wedding ceremony I have ever been to.  And the reception!  So much food, so much entertainment, so many guests.

Muni and Dad walking down the aisle

Abi sings a song for Muni and Nick

Reuniting with all my people was what I was most looking forward to.  And having no job or any other silly responsibilities gave me the time and opportunity to do all the things I wanted to do.....

Spending time with some of my favorite Wugu-ites at Nick and Muni’s wedding!

(Most of) the Shane Wugu crew!

Eating 12 courses at the wedding reception with Ellen

Biking from Wugu to Danshui with Yun Lin!

Trusty rented bike

On the ferry back across the Danshui River with Yun Lin

Biking over Guandu Bridge

Soaking in the hot springs at Wulai with Alex!

Alex weighs the pros and cons of public hot springs

Catching up with Abi over Yummy Burger!

Familiar ol' Wugu bus stop!

Taking in the sights from the Neihu Miramar Ferris Wheel with Cody and Austin!

Neihu Ferris Wheel

Rollin' over Taipei

Meeting up with friends from all over the place!

My old students Terry and Jack came to visit during dinner!

Dora rests after cooking a delicious curry dinner.
Fire wants to be juuuuust like mom....

Betsy and I are likely the most fabulous people in the bar.

True moment of laughter with Janet!

Late night drinks with Cody, Ben Ben, and Aiyana

Spending loads of quality time with the Taiwan branch of the Baker Tree!

Yeah... we're obviously related. Emily, Austin, Cody, and me!

And even a little freelance teaching when I filled in at Shane for a day!

I miss teaching these kids!!

The two weeks I spent back in Taiwan were amazing.  I knew that Taiwan would always feel like home in some way, but being back there with my friends and family made me realize that a bigger part of my heart than I expected will belong to the tiny little island forever.  Taiwan Touch Your Heart!! <3 

And STAY TUNED for my new blog about life in Vietnam.  Coming soon.... Samantha in Saigon!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Samantha in China

For some reason, I’ve always wanted to visit China.  So when I decided to teach in Taiwan, I knew I couldn’t go back home until I spent some time in Dàlù.  How could I be so close and NOT set eyes on one of the Seven Wonders of the World?

Bucket List: check!

So after two weeks of travel around Taiwan, I repacked my suitcase for the cold weather of Beijing, and set off to the airport with my partner-in-crime, Chia-Chien.  A full day of airports, trains, subways, and rude hotel managers later, we settled in to a cute and quiet bar called the Drum and Bell.  Next time you’re in Beijing, find it!

Enjoying a cold beer at the Drum and Bell Bar

The next morning, we headed straight for Tiananmen Gate, to pay homage to Chairman Mao.  There were cops EVERYWHERE!  Of course, there is always a large police presence at Tiananmen, but we were lucky enough to be touring the capital city during “election” week.  The Chinese government was changing leadership, and they were not about to have any form of resistance or protest.  So we waited in line, avoided eye contact with the officials, and hurried through security checks to enter the Forbidden City.

How now, Chairman Mao?

For 500 years, commoners weren’t allowed inside the palace grounds, so Chia-Chien and I relished every moment inside the walls.  The over-the-top grandeur of the Forbidden City is nothing to sneeze at.  Walking around the palace, listening in on other people’s tour guides, I realized just how little I knew of the history of the Forbidden City.  The architecture and artifacts were beautiful, and we could have easily spent all day inside, walking around the various buildings, temples, libraries, and exhibits.

Palace Guard

Forbidden City

Outside the walls on the other side, we entered Jingshan Park, which features a hill built from the land excavated during the construction of the moat (moat!!) around the Forbidden City.  We climbed the hill and wandered the paths, watching Beijingers stroll, play Chinese Checkers (the real kind), smoke cigarettes next to the “No Smoking” sign, and play hacky sack.  At the top of the hill, there were amazing views of Beijing, including a panoramic of the Forbidden City palace and temples below.

Forbidden City from the top of Jingshan

Back down the hill, we stopped in at a tea shop for a traditional tea ceremony.  The lady nearly dragged us inside, but I’m glad we stopped.  The tea was delicious; I bought black lychee tea with rose buds.

Steepin' some tea

Feeling revived and highly caffeinated, we meandered over to Beihai Park.  The park surrounds a pretty lake, on which you can rent paddle boats during warmer weather.  It was a bit brisk for those kind of shenanigans, so we stuck to walking around, looking around.  We stopped for a break by the lake and ate a lunch of fried wonton chips and sweet honey cakes.  For about $2US, it was the tastiest street food I could have asked for.

Beihai Park

Strolling along Jade Islet

Apparently we hadn’t seen enough bodies of water for one day, so we exited Beihai and headed over to Houhai.  This area is very popular with the locals, for shopping, eating, drinking, and playing.  Even in the chilly temperatures, there were lots of people out socializing, and I could see why it was a popular hangout.  We even saw a couple hard-core Beijingers braving the frigid water for a swim across the lake.

Dedicated swimmer

Venturing off the beaten path, we got lost in a nearby hutong, or alleyway.  The hutong are ancient streets dating back hundreds of years, and wandering down the twisting, dead-end paths was one of my favorite parts of Beijing.  We quickly discovered that the old homes did not have bathrooms, as we saw old lady after old lady teeter out of her home, across the street, and into one of the many public bathrooms located all through the neighborhood.  Can you imagine?  Less than three blocks from the hustle and bustle of modern restaurants, bars, and shops, and people are living without a toilet in their home.  And parts of the hutong were fixed up as tourist attractions themselves.  The contrast was sobering.

Hutong street

That night, we hopped in a rickshaw and putt-putt-ed down the frighteningly busy streets to Quánjùdé, a famous Peking Duck restaurant.  It was possibly the most delicious bird ever.  We ordered a duck and some side dishes, and ten minutes later, a man rolled a cart next to our table and carved the duck right there.  He was incredibly fast and precise, and his hard work was devoured with a smile.

Quack quack, chop chop

With full bellies, we paid the bill, hailed a taxi, witnessed a fist fight between cabbies, and called it a night.  We had to rise early in the morning to start the best day EVER.

We gobbled down our breakfast buffet, jumped in the waiting bus, and began our tour of  the Sacred Way and the Great Wall.  We had quite the international crowd, including tourists from Pittsburg, Austria, Scotland, Switzerland, and Malaysia.  And of course Milwaukee and Taiwan.  Our fearless leader Amy guided us first to the Sacred/Spirit Way at the Ming Tombs.  The Sacred Way is the road leading up to the emperors’ tombs and is lined with statues of real and mythical creatures to guard the path.  It is considered the road to heaven.  The statues were beautiful!

Entrance to the Sacred Way



Mythical creature

After walking the road to heaven, we boarded the bus and stopped at a local jade factory, for a lesson in geology and some high-pressure sales pitches.  We also ate lunch, which was the true highlight for me.

And now, after much ado, we arrived at THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!  Hooray!  Definitely on my bucket list, and it should definitely be on yours!

We visited the Mutianyu section of the wall.  This is a lesser-visited section of the Wall, but no less breathtaking.  Mutianyu offers a couple miles of exploring along the Wall, with both updated and ancient areas to wander.  We took a ski lift up from the parking area to the entrance.

Ski lift to the Great Wall

This section of the Wall is quite steep in places, and we were often crawling up the stairs with our hands, as if climbing a ladder.  I can’t even describe.... I mean the beauty... the history.... I just.... I mean.... just look!

The Great Wall of China

Wall / mountains

Climbing the vertical stairs



Great Wall

So steep!

We spent about 2 hours or so walking along the Great Wall (I’ll never get tired of saying that), including the area that was clearly marked “Do not enter! No visitors beyond this point!”, but was not otherwise blocked off.  This forbidden zone was an area of the wall that was much older and not well-maintained.  In fact, there were several places where the wall had completely crumbled, leaving nothing between you and a rocky fall to your death off the side of a mountain.  It was my favorite part.

Great Wall gazing

Crumbling old wall

Standing on top of the world!

Not to be outdone by the journey up the mountain, the mode of transportation back down to the parking lot was none other than a toboggan.  That’s ride, a bobsled ride to exit the Great Wall of China.  Why not?

It's bobsled time!

Later that night, we ate at a restaurant called the Xinjiang Red Rose.  It serves regional Chinese food and offers live music and dancing.  The food was great and the entertainment was wonderful.  The only bad thing I can say about this place is that they allow smoking, and the men at nearby tables were liberal with their cigars and pipes.  

At breakfast the next morning, Chia-Chien got hit up by some Taoist monks for money, which I found pretty funny, but apparently she did not.  They invited us to join their table, and when we politely declined, one of them told Chia-Chien about her future, gave her a prayer card, then asked for payment.  She handed him a few bills, to which he replied, “It’s really not enough.”  Ummmmm, beggars can’t be choosers.

We packed our bags with a couple stolen items from the breakfast buffet and took the subway to the far north west side of the city to the Summer Palace.  We exited the station and were immediately greeted by a half dozen cab and rickshaw drivers, insisting that we should take a ride to the Summer Palace because it was “so far” away, much too far to walk.  A five-minute walk later, we arrived at the Summer Palace gates.  So far.

Summer Palace Gate

Built by one of the Emperors as a summertime escape from the city, the Summer Palace is a sprawling collection of temples, gardens, and bridges that easily takes a full day to explore.  One of the main areas is Longevity Hill, which is a manmade hill built from the dirt used to enlarge the neighboring Kunming Lake.  It was on this hill that I encountered a lovely Beijing man who found great joy in laughing at me for no apparent reason.  Oh, and also we saw these beautiful sights.

Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha

Pavilion of the Five Regions

One of my favorite areas of the Summer Palace was Suzhou Jie, or Suzhou Street.  This street is built along a river, with just a narrow sidewalk between the shops and the water.  Apparently, Emperor Qianlong liked the style of the merchant streets typical to south China and ordered Suzhou Jie built at the Summer Palace, so he could enjoy the shops and restaurants when he vacationed to the grounds.  When I grow up, I want to be an emperor.

Suzhou Jie

Palace hideaway

Finally, we walked along the Long Corridor, which is a spectacularly painted covered walkway stretching nearly 1km along Kunming Lake.  Now the emperor could stroll outside without being bothered by that pesky sun or possible rain.

Long Corridor

Ceiling of the Long Corridor

At the opposite end of the Long Corridor, a strange marble boat sits in the water of Kunming Lake.  This infamous structure is a symbol of the pure extravagance of the royal family.  Who needs a marble boat??

Marble boat on Kunming Lake

That afternoon, we were so hungry we were ready to eat our own arms.  Luckily, we found a northern-Chinese ethnic restaurant and ordered some dumplings and a fish “side dish.”  Again, the food was overwhelmingly delicious, and I’m sorry, but take a look at this fish!

Our "side dish": spicy fish with peppers over lotus roots

Chia-Chien had grown tired of doing all the translating and trying to explain Chinese history for me, so we split up for an evening of solo sight seeing.  I headed back to Tiananmen Square to see what all the fuss was about.  When I arrived, I remembered that the Chinese government was changing leadership and the whole area around Tiananmen was closed off.  I was able to walk around the perimeter, but I couldn’t cross the barrier into the actual Square.

Tiananmen Gate at night

Government building next to Tiananmen Square
I'm SURE they were choosing the new leader at this very moment!

And now, for a story of intrigue and bad language.

At the south end of the Square, there is an old pedestrian street called Qianmen, where they’ve installed a trolley to transport tourists along the shopping district.  It was here that I encountered a pair of grifters.  Two very friendly Beijingers chatted me up and invited me to have tea with them.  They took me to a tea shop that must employ them as scam artists and tried their best to stick me with the bill at the end.  I didn’t pay for them, but I did get ripped off with outrageously expensive tea.  The menu said 50Y per person, which is a bit under $10US.  That alone was pricey enough, but when the bill came, they had charged us 50Y EACH for the tea, so since each of us ordered tea and sampled each selection, we had to pay 150Y per person.  That’s almost $25US!  I had already made them removed a 100Y sitting fee, and I was angry that the menu had been so misleading.  Obviously I wouldn’t have sampled their tea if I knew I’d be paying for it.  Anyways, the bill came, I begrudgingly paid my 150Y, and waited for the girls to do the same.  They hesitated, looked at me with wide eyes, mentioned they didn’t have any cash, and awkwardly waited for me to offer to pay for their part.  I did not.

Qianmen Pedestrian Street

Wait, it gets better.  The girls offered to walk with me back to the subway station, where we would take trains in different directions to get home.  When we walked across the street, I noticed a few things I wanted to check out, so I told them to go ahead without me into the station.  Three minutes later, I saw two girls in very familiar coats scurrying out of the subway station and across the crowded plaza.  I knew then that I’d been had.  Those girls were scam artists, employed to do just what they did to me and they were headed back to find more suckers.  I was feeling cheated by the Beijingers and somehow emboldened by the proximity of Tiananmen Square, so I followed those ne’er-do-wells back in to Qianmen.  

James Bond style, I hid behind bushes and blended in with tourists groups until I spotted the girls hiding in a bank lobby.  I went in, approached them, and said, “So this is your job? Trying to scam visitors out of money at tea shops?”  They looked down at their hands and said they were confused by the subway map and need to find a different line to get home.  Likely excuse.  I snottily informed them that this kind of behavior is what makes the Chinese people look bad in the eyes of the world.  I admit, this was a stretch, but I was on a roll.  Now a security guard from the bank was approaching, and I didn’t want to get involved in an international crisis.  I mustered up all my courage and my only Mandarin foul language and said, “Gan ni ma!” (fuck your mother).  Yeah, take that!

The beautiful entrance to Qianmen Street

Sadly, this incident was only one of many that left a bad taste in my mouth towards the Beijingers.  The city, sights, and food were great, but I didn’t much care for the people.  Compared to the Taiwanese, I’m not sure anything can compare.  And I know, I know, I was only there for a few days and didn’t get to know the locals personally.  But still.  Just ask Chia-Chien; she’ll tell ya.

Scams and extreme subway-spooning aside, I am so thankful for my time in China.  I will never forget standing on the Great Wall, strolling around the Summer Palace, or stepping back in to history at the Forbidden City.  And I’ll never forget the free booze on the international flight home.

Uhhh, excuse me.... Can I have another beer?