Monday, 28 December 2015

Taiwan intro feat. LOTS OF FOOD

Did you know that some Taiwanese call themselves the 'children of the Sweet Potato'? Taiwan is shaped like one. I would personally love to be the child of a sweet potato. I guess that's why I found myself in Taiwan.

When planning my trip, Taiwan was one of the original countries it was planned around. Not a well-known country, but all my friends who'd ever visited praised it no end - my friend Patricia describing it as the best of Vietnam added to the best of a more developed country. So, I booked a nice four-full-days-stint at the highly acclaimed Meander Hostel, Taipei. (I warmly recommend it, btw, pleasant and sociable and has everything you need, and very easy to meet other travellers at their breakfast!)

Photo shoot in the old streets
So, what is Taiwan known for? Stunning scenery, good food and friendly people was what I was expecting. Also a fair level of development, as it experienced a post-war 'miraculous' growth in the second half of the 20th century and is today one of the prominent 'Four Asian Tigers' (concerning rapid industrialisation) in the company of Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. 

Despite still having a high population of mopeds and scooters, Taipei, the capital, has one of the most efficient metro systems in the world, which you can navigate with the easy-to-use local public transport card, Easycard (I was slightly disappointed it wasn't called 'Squid' or 'Pufferfish', since it seemed that sea creatures was the go-to-theme when metro card people considered names for them – there's the Oyster Card in London, obviously, and in Hong Kong it was the Octopus Card.).

#squadgoals in Taipei metro
One of my favourite things in Taiwan, however, was all its culinary delights. Firstly, it is home to My True Love, bubble milk tea

Secondly, Taiwan also has an amazing street food business going on, to be seen notably in its numerous night markets. 

In my travel journal I made a special two pages about Taiwanese food (largely thanks to the awesome stickers I found of them). 

I love markets, and in Taiwan most of my meals constituted of random bits and pieces bought from various stalls, night markets and elsewise. 

Significant Taiwanese foods include (and their ratings in 1-5 stars)...
  • Sausages filled with sticky rice. Rating: ****

  • Stinky tofu, the famous Taiwanese fermented tofu whose smell is best described as one you would imagine coming from a potion made out of strongly scented old socks. (Also, my brother's nickname is Tofu... Providing me with a new handy batch of witty comments. :) ) I was gonna try it... But I didn't. My friend said it was really good though. Rating: N/A 
On the left we have stinky tofu, on the right sausage filled with sticky rice served with veggies
  • Seafood on sticks. I wasn't gonna try, and I didn't. But for seafood-lovers it was pretty good. Rating: N/A

  • Sweet little gems with sweet stuff (usually red bean mush or green tea mush) inside. Rating: ***

  • Steamed sweet buns with a sweet interior. You could choose a pig, a chick or a something else. They were so cute that I had to ask T to halve the sad pig face for me so that I didn't have to perform the killing act myself. Rating: *****

  • Steamed pork buns. Same as above, but savoury with a pork filling. Rating: ******* (aka AMAZING)

  • Un-steamed pork buns. The best ones we waited for for about ten minutes when the members of this family-run stall made them in front of you. Rating: ****** (aka AMAZING)
Dunno why I have no pic of the bun itself!! But here is the family preparing them
  • Pineapple cake (traditional Taiwan style). I was well impressed with this one - pineapple in any other form except fresh is not usually my favourite thing to eat... But this was good. Each (numerous) sample I had. Rating: ****½
Cheers google
  • I don't even remember what these are... Reddy sugary coated somethings. Looked about 130% too sweet for me. And I am not one to shy away from sugar. Make for a good photo though. Rating: N/A 
  • Fruit tasters. Especially at Shillin night market, the most famous and most touristy, we were recommended not to buy fruit coz it was exorbitantly priced, but luckily the keen seller ladies were very eager to give out generously sized tasters on sticks. I refound my love for custard apples, most definitely... (Tho, interestingly, white-insided dragon fruit doesn't seem to be a thing in Taiwan! They only had the more photogenic, but substantially less scrumptious dark pink version...) Rating: ***** (custard apples)

  • Tea-marinated eggs. Yes. I was sort of reassured to hear what they were after a few days of mentally slightly gagging every time I passed them at various corners or convenience stores - I was imagining a Taiwanese equivalent of Vietnamese hot vit lon (fertilised duck egg) swimming in, er, I dunno? Womb juice?? Ok, sorry. But it wasn't anything (seriously) dodgy, just a few harmless boiled eggs swimming in tea, basically the staples of a British breakfast rolled into one, right? Anyways, my half-Chinese friend L managed to persuade me to try one, and, well, it wasn't bad. Not sure it was the best thing in the world either, though. Rating: ***½
Nothing wrong with a bit of tea 
  • The “Best Breakfast Ever” (BBE) (not strictly speaking a food stall, but part of a food court... but Taiwanese food anyways) This is a general label for it, not my personal opinion. All I know is that the queue had epic proportions - we were told it'd be an hour, but it ended up only twenty minutes. L ordered all their 'most popular foods' for us. Well, it ended up being nice, but nothing crazy impressive, imho. But, well, clearly a cultural experience! Rating: ***
Ordering the soya soupy stuff with breadie things
It came along with fried bread things filled with omelette, and various filled buns
The food area was crowded
Our night market highlight, however, was my first ever celebrity selfie! :D No idea what this Taiwanese dude's name was, but he arrived, with a charismatic girl, escorted by numerous video cameras and surrounded by giggly teenagers and curious families. Later we saw him on some foody advert and on TV, so we guessed he was a celeb chef or something. He was very confused when we requested a selfie, but was a good sport about it! 

Photo taker is our famous pal - others are my awesome hostel friends T & J 
So that was the introductionary and esculent (new word of the day, 'fit to be eaten') bit of Taiwan. 

Some tasters of future Taiwan entries...

Taipei lol
The sights of Jiufen
My bamboo-munching pal 
Until then, cheerio, and have a great final days of 2015! Any ideas for interesting New Year's Resolutions?


Friday, 25 December 2015

HK Airlines

Let me tell you about Hong Kong Airlines.

For some reason, when I booked my flight from Hong Kong to Taipei with them, I was under the impression they were a reputable airline. I'm not quite sure why. It was a wrong impression.
Courtesy of google,
Ok, in all fairness, they were much more efficient than, for example, Jetstar, to inform of a flight time change. Oh, they informed me weeks in advance about my flight time change. Except they missed the tiny little detail of when the new departure time was. They also sent me a helpful text. “Old departure time: – - New departure time: --” Thank you so much, Hong Kong Airlines.

So, when they never followed that e-mail or text up with the revised departure time, I sent customer service an e-mail. They immediately sent me back a lovely automated e-mail thanking me of my query and promising a reply within 24 hours. Excellent.

After about 48 hours, I resent the message to a different e-mail address.

I sent three e-mails altogether. No reply to any of them.

It came to the day of my flight and it was time for online check-in. My mobile informed me that it cannot open a new tab (to get to the check in page) before closing any old ones, regardless of the fact that I had a grand total of one tab open at that current moment in time. Well, that wasn't Hong Kong Airlines' fault, just my silly cheapo Vietnamese smart phone-wannabe's, but still. I tried checking in on James' computer, which didn't work either. (Dunno if it was James' computer's fault, which I doubt, because I blame Hong Kong Airlines.)
Eventually I got my dad, in Europe, to check me in onto my flight. That worked, fortunately, and he was also able to tell me that the departure time was still the same as it was from the start. No change after all. 

By the time I got to the airport, my original perception of the high quality of Hong Kong Airlines had retreated into the same corner of unicorn-filled Neverland that included polite, considerate, Vietnamese truck drivers with impeccable driving records.

I wasn't surprised that my flight was due to depart from gate 512, which is probably the furthest away gate there is.

I reached the gate, and they informed us we were boarding on time. I joined the queue. We waited, and waited, and waited. We saw the shuttle bus behind the closed doors of the gate, and it was waiting there for a good twenty-ish minutes. The airport officials did come check our passport and tickets though -  this involved a single girl, vaguely haphazardly choosing who to come up to next, and taking a quick look at your documents. I'm sure you could've, without even seriously trying, got through the gate without your passport being checked, just by edging slightly forwards in the loosely held-up queue.
When we finally got onto the bus, and the bus drove up to our plane, we were given the exciting opportunity to have a pleasant, cosy ten-minute wait locked inside it, staring hungrily at the steps to the aeroplane. We watched a few random guys walk down the steps, and a few minutes later a gaggle of three or four chatty, laughing ladies who I deducted to be the cleaners, judging by their outfits and the bin bags they were carrying. It was quite interesting – obviously there are aeroplane cleaners, but for my whole previous 24 years they have managed to stay hidden from the passengers.

So, after a few more random people had descended the steps of our aircraft, the bus doors opened and we were allowed up and in.

As you can maybe guess, the quality of their organisational skills was comparable to the skills of an average Vietnamese waiter / waitress correctly taking in your complicated food order. There was no “rows 1-12 board first”, no “passengers in window seats board first”. Additionally, this was a surprisingly big aircraft, one of those long-haul ones with two seats, then four in the middle, then another two (and your own TV screen, which I never did try out...). And they had no concept of directing the passengers to the correct aisle, resulting in, as you may imagine, slight chaos.

I happily found my seat quite quickly, settled down and spent an entertaining ten minutes watching my fellow passengers not find their seats and the stressed air hostesses trying to lead them in the right direction, sometimes climbing over other seats or grouping together in one row, waiting for the passengers to get past. All in all, a captivating experience.

Nonetheless, when we finally got going, the flight did go well though, with a smooth landing in Taipei. And there were plenty of plusses: the air hostesses did try their best and they were friendly and had awesome outfits, you got free newspapers, there was plenty of leg room (not complaining about the big aircraft!), it was half-empty...

So, would I recommend Hong Kong Airlines? I must admit, as I just did, that it wasn't all massively straightforward, but they did manage to redeem themselves eventually. How, I hear you ask? You got a warm, FREE sausage roll on the flight. Seriously, what else could you ask for. And I'm not even being sarcastic. I think.
Courtesy of google
Anyhoos, made it alive to Taiwan! Aaaaaaand next stop: Taipei 101!



Monday, 21 December 2015

The joyful cable cars of Oriental Venice

Before I begin, please forgive me. The title is misleading. The joyful cable cars are not actually in the Oriental Venice, but I have been sat here for way too long trying to think of a title for this blog post (I eventually decided against my dad's suggestion of 'Ngong Ping Pong Kong'). The joyful cable cars were on the way to Ngong Ping , while Oriental Venice is a village fifteen minutes' bus ride away from Ngong Ping. 



So, Ngong Ping is essentially a tourist village on the island of Lantau, near Hong Kong airport. Don't let the tourist villageyness put you off though.

The airport is the area to the left behind the hill

Firstly, I must tell you about the old Hong Kong airport, Kai Tak. It was insane. Starting off as a small airport outside of the central, er, village, Hong Kong rapidly expanded and in the 1990s the airport was literally in the middle of the city, with dangerously low-flying aircraft dodging the mountains and ever-rising buildings. Unfortunately, though, I missed it by eighteen years, as it closed in 1997. :(

The old Kai Tak airport, courtesy of Google
But luckily Hong Kong didn't completely give up on airport awesomeness, because even though the new airport wasn't as excitingly placed as Kai Tak, they created the nearly 6km long Ngong Ping cable car route which went, well not over the airport, but close to it. So, from this cable car you could see aeroplanes taking off and landing on this island airport of their's. Pretty cool.

Aeroplanes landing
After experiencing the Longest Queue Ever (LQE) of one and a half hours (luckily it was in bits and pieces – you always thought you'd reached the end of the line when you got to the stairs / the ticket office / the corner / the ticket inspector etc., only to be greeted with yet another continuous queue, so you never felt completely past hope), we got onto the cable car. And it was totally worth it.
The third section of the LQE
Over the sea and watching the aeroplanes, going over the mountains, over some temples and then seeing the first sight of the famous Big Buddha. You could also see the ongoing construction site which is the half-built Macau bridge which'll eventually connect Macau (64km away) with Hong Kong, apparently in 2017.

Bridge construction
Ngong Ping itself is a little village with quirky souvenir shops (selling magnets, keyrings and make-up pouches with the happiest cable cars you could imagine as well as chopsticks ornated with pandas, cats, fish and I'm sure cable cars too), interesting photo opportunities (a 3D-image of Tai O, the fishing village we went to afterwards, and pink dolphins etc.) and numerous restaurants with less-than-delighted waiters and waitresses (where I had the only ramen of my trip, despite spending a whole week in Japan...)

SO GLAD I bought this. Make-up bag feat. happy cable cars HELLO
Chopsticks galore
Ramen with dumplings
Do you think the shark was vegetarian, or if it's like a tofu version of shark meat?
3D fishing village photo op
When you go beyond the eating holes and the cabins of mammon (my dad calls shopping centres 'temples of mammon', but the nickname for souvenir shops should be something smaller, right?) you get to an area more traditionally Chinese, with a pretty arch, a monastery and the famous Big Buddha. Oh, and cows. 

We attempted to take photos with them, but they were being a little moo-dy (thanks James) and refused to pose.

Not today mate

The colourful monastery of Ngong Ping was very pretty with Buddha-statues playing funky guitars.

We climbed up the two hundred-ish steps to the "buddhaful" (again, thanks James) big Buddha as well, where the views of the Hong Kong archipelago were gorgeous. 

After Ngong Ping I had a quick nap on our bus to our next destination, Tai O

Tai O is this surreal, quaint little fishing village, with residents many of whom may not have even left the village. Tripadvisor describes it as 'Venice of the Orient'  - an accurate description to a certain extent. It is built around the sea and canals, and the houses are stilted, the people are smiley, and the seafood is dried.

Exhibit A
I don't think that vegetarian diet agreed with him...

You can also find various useful objects in assortments and piles around the village. 

After a photo sesh through the village, we were disappointed to learn that we'd just missed the opening hours of this good cider place James knew of. Luckily a few doors down was something maybe even more interesting - this shop/house we'd passed earlier, curious – surrounded with paintings of cats and, what it seemed, to be the actual models for the paintings. 
Painting and model
Going through the gate we found a little cat-themed souvenir shop and what turned out to be a cafe – and my first ever cat cafe. And it definitely did set a high bar for any future feline-themed coffee shops.

THEY WERE ADORABLE, IT WAS ADORABLE, one of the best finds of the trip. <3 TAI O CAT CAFE HOW I ADORE THEE. I felt no need to frequent any other cat cafes during my trip since nothing could beat this meow-gnificently purr-fect cat-fé where I spent some paw-sitively paw-some meow-ments (k maybe it's time to go to bed...)

(like a good essay...) IN CONCLUSION our day at Ngong Ping and Tai O was my favourite day out of four splendid days in Hong Kong. Anyone who says Hong Kong is just high-line pompous skyscrapers... go to Tai O, because you are wrong. 

So, that was Hong Kong. As I said, one of my new favourite cities in the world. 

Next stop: Taiwan! 


PS. Thanks again to YOU who read this, and everyone who's ever mentioned to me that they read my blog, I really appreciate it!! :) And as always, feedback and comments are more than welcome, would love to hear more!