Tantalizing Taipei (Day 1)

I have just returned to Japan from a grueling, three-day tour of Taipei with my good friends from college, and there is only one word that can describe the experience as I think about it in retrospect: tantalizing. Eating the delicious street food in Taipei’s famous night markets, traveling through the city with my friends on motorcycles, and making new friends are the experiences that make this trip unforgettable in every sense of the word. Taiwan will always have a special place in my travel heart. My parents always talked about “doing what the locals do” on vacations to the American South, and I was finally able to experience “doing what the locals do” and “eating what the locals eat” while in Asia and I will not forget it anytime soon.

Following months of discussion with my Taiwanese friends about when I would make the short journey from Osaka, Japan, to Taipei to see their country, I was off on a Saturday morning flight to begin a nonstop weekend of sightseeing and indulging in local style. Things started off rather uneventfully in Japan as I took in a remarkable sunrise at the airport.

IMG_9548
Sunrise at Kansai International Airport Terminal 2. (c) Erik Jacobs, erikabroad.com

Following the short flight and about an hour long bus ride from Taoyuan International Airport to the Far Eastern Hotel, the trip was set to begin and I could not have been any happier. Meeting my friend, David, from college in Taiwan was something that I had always planned to do but never knew exactly if or when it would happen. To make a long story short, I joined the International Students Association at my university following my return from Japan in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011. My friend and I joined because we wanted to return the favor that Tokyo residents had given us during our time there. Showing them around America and helping them come to love the United States seemed like second nature to us. I made some great friends in this organization, and it is always a real pleasure when they host me and how me the ropes of their homeland much like we showed them America.

After a few minutes of waiting outside the hotel in the sweltering Taiwanese heat, David showed up on his motorbike and we were off to his university to drop off my bags and head to our first stop of the day, a pool party in the heart of Taiwan!  Along the way, I was quite nervous because it was my first time riding on a motorbike. Aside from worrying about falling off of the bike as we weaved in and out of traffic, I had to contend with my concerns that other bikes would hit us. Add my insatiable desire to take photos into the mix, and it was a stressful and enjoyable ride to the university.

DSC06737
Riding through Taipei.
DSC06731
First time on a motorbike, Top Gun style.

 

After we made it to the university, we met with one of David’s Taiwanese friends, Eric, and continued onward to the pool party. Along the way, we passed Freedom Plaza, which is a gargantuan monument and plaza in honor of Chiang Kai-shek, the founder of Taiwan. It was cool to drive by here given how many lectures and discussions we had in my AP American History course with Mr. McKenrick about the Red Chinese and Nationalist Chinese, but more to come on this landmark in my post about my second day in Taipei. Here is how the main gate looked from the road.

DSC06725

Our marathon day then continued as we traversed some shopping areas in Taiwan, as my gracious hosts wanted to make sure I had some famous Taiwanese bubble tea and chicken cutlets the size of your face. I didn’t believe them, but I sure did when they arrived a few minutes after our order was placed.

DSC06742DSC06751

After some more bites to eat and a stop at Starbucks so I could use the wi-fi, we checked into my hotel and were off to more famous Taipei attractions, on motorcycles, of course.

DSC06763

DSC06757

First up on the list of things to do on Saturday night was a stop at the world-famous Shinlin Night Market, located in northern Taipei. I first heard about this location on the Travel Channel and was tying to see if it would live up to the muster. Fortunately, the bustling corridors of tourists and locals, vendors and peddlers lived up to all of my expectations. I told my friends that I wanted to try “all of the foods the Taiwanese eat at these places,” and we sure did. First up on the list was a food I saw on one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows, the oyster omelette. I love oysters and eggs, so what’s not to like about this option? It was delicious and hit the spot! The coolest part about this market is that there is also an underground section!

DSC06764

Market

Omelette

Next up were two more famous Taiwanese dishes, stinky tofu and fried crabs. I also head about both of these on the Travel Channel and I can confirm their deliciousness. I am always skeptical about eating new foods, but for some reason I was a little more willing than usual on this trip. The tofu tasted delicious for something that smelled as putrid as it did and the crabs were just as I had hoped: crunchy, salty, and delicious.

DSC06773

DSC06775

After these foods, we passed by some delicious fruits and tried some more great street food, papaya milkshakes! They were tantalizing. On the way out of the crowded market, the sounds of Chinese merchants, Japanese tourists, and the pattering of feet created a harmonious sound that somehow brought calm and order to the chaos. Shinlin Night Market was one for the ages as far as I am concerned. The only downside to it all was the cockroaches infesting the parking garage. No more commentary on that!

Fruits

Those of you that read this website that I fixate on a few things when I travel. First and foremost, I try to capture the energy and excitement of the moment in which I am by taking candid photography. After that, there is nothing more interesting than architectural photography. In Asia, the unique blend of Western influences (Macau, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia) and Eastern style make for some exciting photographic canvasses. The modern cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore also offer spectacular nighttime skylines and viewing opportunities. Few things compare to shooting Shanghai from across the Bund or Hong Kong from Victoria Harbor. Taiwan also offers a spectacular night view, but the trek to get there made it all the more worthwhile.

Once we were done at the night market, David, Eric, and I hopped on our motorcycles and headed to a more secluded, “locals-only” location to view Taipei 101 and Taipei’s Ferris wheel all at once. My friends said this site was relatively unknown until more recently, and for good reason. We turned up an unpaved roadway and ascended a large hill for nearly ten minutes over bumps, potholes, and ruts to make it to our final destination. With little surprise, we were greeted by dirt on our clothes from the kicked up dust, and a lot of Taiwanese locals posing for photos with and taking photos of the city skyline. It was remarkable. Unlike other cities i have seen in Asia, Taipei is dominated by Taipei 101. There are few other buildings in the city which stand out or even rival its height. Other cities I have seen usually have a “high-rise district,” much like Shinjuku in Tokyo, but that is not the case in Taipei. As we stood there, I thought about where I was and with whom I was.  Looking out over a vivid green Ferris wheel, the world’s second tallest building with one of my good friends in college was a beautiful sight. After a while at this spot, we headed out for some more late night food before splitting our ways, only to rendezvous the following morning for my Taipei exploration.

Night View

My first day in Taipei was fantastic, but I had no idea how much better things would get as the weekend progressed!

Advertisements

Sunrise at the Airport

Sometimes the smallest things in life are the most beautiful. This is the scene from Kansai International Airport (KIX) this morning I’m Osaka, Japan, as the sun rose. Headed to another major Asian city near you this morning.

IMG_9549.JPG

IMG_9548.JPG

Read Your Passport Like a Novel

I don’t know what the most exciting part of traveling is for you, but one of the moments I anticipate the most when I travel is getting a new passport stamp, whether it be on entry or exit into a new country or my current country of residence. While our encounters with customs officers may not always be brief or enjoyable, there is (usually) one payoff at the end of the questioning period: the coveted passport stamp. From entry to re-entry permits, student and work visas, temporary visa-free stamps, and other visa-on-arrival programs, our passports tell stories not only about ourselves, but about the travels and journeys on which we embark when we have the time and money. I recently filled up an entire page of my passport with visa stamps from Korea, Japan, and Singapore, and I realized my passport would have some fascinating stories to tell if it could speak. Here are some of those stories, from the first visa page.

photo 1

As I open the first page of my American passport, with its chipped cover and its unraveling sides, I begin the journey down the trail of my life for the last three and a half years. The first pages boasts a full-page Japanese student visa complete with my Afro, which was my signature style for several years during the early 2000s up until about 2012. “How did I look so young,” I always ask myself, but the second page is where things get even more interesting. Even better yet, I still don’t know how I made it in Japan when the only Japanese I knew was self-taught on the grueling plane flight from New York to Tokyo. 

There is a landing permission sticker granted by the Japanese government under its old immigration system, which basically signifies that I have permission to remain in Japan for fifteen months (in 2011-2012), but not express written permission to leave without paying for another sticker to be put on that page. Underneath that lies the proof that I went to speak to immigration officers at city hall in Tokyo’s Meguro-ku (目黒区) neighborhood to register as a foreign resident. It’s amazing how my long journey back to Japan can conjure up so many memories when just looking at a page inside of a flimsy book. Even more telling, though, is the other stamp I have on that page: a departure stamp from Narita International Airport, dated March 15th, 2011. One of the defining moments of my life up to this point is definitely the Great Tohoku Earthquake, during which I lived in Tokyo. Seeing that stamp triggers flashbacks to my frantic rush to the airport while trains were still not running on schedule. I will write about that experience in another day. This page appears to be a window into my soul for Asian travels, but it gets even better upon further examination.

photo 2

My friend Andrew and I were able to snag the elusive Canadian entrance stamp during a road trip through Montreal and Quebec City en route to Fundy National Park back in 2013! After going through a barrage of questions about drugs and alcohol, we had a short talk with customs officials and they agreed to I’ve us the entrance stamp at a small border crossing between Vermont and Quebec. The unique thing about this stamp is how the French is on the top of the stamp with English on the bottom half of the stamp. It was a sign of things to come for what we would encounter during our road trip through French Canada.

Turning to the next page, I see a myriad of stamps and staple holes, but my most prized staples come from the two Special Administrative Regions in China, Hong Kong and Macau. Last year, the authorities stopped stamping passports in these two cities, and I would be lying right now if I was happy that my passport has flimsy pieces of paper stapled to it instead of having actual stamps. Still, they make for an interesting story. I remember speaking with the authorities and asking for a stamp but they regretfully informed me that they were no longer issuing stamps. This encounter was certainly the low point of a remarkable first trip to Hong Kong and Macau. I have been back three times since and each city always gives the same piece of paper, affixed to the passport. Nothing beats a stamp, but I will settle for the stapled visas. 

photo 3

The next page of my passport conjures up memories of my marathon trip through Southeast Asia this year, with stamps from Singapore and Thailand playing predominate roles. The extravagance of the airport in Singapre coupled with the magnificent view from atop the Marina Bay Sands pool deck coupled with the tough immigration in Bangkok re-enter my mind as I look at this page.

Further down on this page, there exists a phantom stamp of sorts, an Ameriacn re-entry stamp without an exit or entry stamp in its vicinity. I went to Israel in 2011 and this stamp actually became an issue at the border crossing station in Jolan Bator, Malaysia. I was grilled by immigration about this stamp but actually ended up having no problems at the end of the day. Why is there no stamp to match up with this American one? It’s simple: Israel. At Ben Gurion Airport, I handed over my passport to the official and asked for the stamp to be put in my passport, but the official refused, and perhaps it was for the better: I may not have been able to enter Malaysia that night had there been more issues. i clung to my passport all night on the overnight train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

 

The next page in my passport is filled with even more interesting stories, ranging from a one day junket by ferry from Singapore to Indonesia and the subsequent exit and re-entry Singaporean stamps. 

Perhaps the most exciting and elusive stamp for Americans is the special stamp I have from China, documenting that I am allowed to stay in China for up to, but not exceeding, 72 hours as a part of a new visa-free stay program the Chinese government implemented for Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. I was fortunate enough to spend a night on the Bund and a day on the town before heading back to the airport after a 26 hour layover. The view from M on the Bund immediately comes to mind. 

photo 1

The final page of stamps I have is the same photo that greeted you at the beginning of this article: stamps from Korean, Singaporean, and Japanese immigration officials. Each time I leave Japan on my work visa, I get a special stamp saying I have a certain resident status and that I am permitted to return to Japan on my visa. Seeing those reminds me of coming “home” to Japan, and also conjures up memories of my first international trip from Japan to Korea, last September, to see friends from college. I will be back to Korea again in the near future, but nothing will equal the excitement from the first time when I touched down at Gimahe International Airport last September. From the bind at customs returning from Korea this July to the relative ease with which I am usually whisked through customs in Japan, lost memories and images always come back to me when I look at my passport’s ever-filling pages. 

With an adventure to Taipei on the horizon within the next ten days, I felt the urge to flip through my passport, and my passport decided to bring back some great memories and long forgotten stores of being out on the road. Open your passport sometime and look at it. You’ll find out it is the shortest and most interesting novel you will ever read. 

What stories and stamps does your passport hold? 

Unforgettable Hong Kong (Day 1)

My one friend once told me, “There are only three great cities in the world: New York, London, and Hong Kong. Someday you will see for yourself.” I had my doubts, but once I moved to Japan I knew I had to go to Hong Kong to see if my friend was a soothsayer or if Hong Kong was overhyped. My friend certainly hit the nail on the head when it came to Hong Kong being one of the world’s “great cities.”

Before I travel, I often create expectations and conceptions about how places will be, how the people will be, and how enjoyable a certain location will be. Sometimes I am dissappointed and other times my expectations are completely destroyed as a destination outshines even my highest expectations. I must admit that Hong Kong destroyed all of my expectations and then some. My journey to Hong Kong with one of my close friends (and Macau in its own right) is an adventure I will never forget.

Things got off to an interesting start- a start that is only possible in Japan. Because public transportation in Japan shuts down between basically midnight and between five and 5:30AM, it was impossible to make it to the airport in time for checkin and security clearance prior to our 8:30AM departure to Hong Kong. The trip to Kobe would have taken too much time. As a result, my friend and I pulled and all-nighter on the cold, hard, wooden benches of Kansai International Airport Terminal 2. I will undoubtedly have to do this again because of the early nature of some of Japan’s international flights, but this is something to which I do not look forward, even in the slightest. We took advantage of the free rental blankets at the airport, made some new friends who were bound for Korea, and slept as best as we could for about four hours.  Once the terminal filled with people bound for Taiwan and South Korea, we were alive, awake, and ready to take on Hong Kong. Following a quick money exchange and an old school walk on the tarmac, we were onboard and ready to start our adventure in Hong Kong. I had to do the obligatory Richard Nixon wave and peace symbol before boarding. Image

Walking on the tarmac towards the Hong Kong-bound plane. © 2013 Erik Jacobserikabroad.com 

Four hours and one long nap later, we touched down in Hong Kong and it was so exhilarating to know I had finally arrived to one of my top travel destinations! Ever since I have been a child, I wanted to visit Hong Kong and I knew I was only a few minutes away from getting the coveted passport stamp to finally verify I had made it to the former British Colony! There was one catch- Hong Kong (and Macau) STOPPED issuing passport stamps in July! I was so disappointed when I passed through immigration and a flimsy card stating my permitted length of stay was stapled into my passport. One of my favorite things about travel is getting passport stamps and I was robbed of the Hong Kong stamp! The disappointment quickly faded as we headed towards our first destination of the whirlwind trip: Hong Kong’s famed Big Buddha. Image

Hong Kong International Airport. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Following a short and remarkably easy ride on Hong Kong’s MTR, my friend and I exited and “minded the gap” as we made our way toward the Big Buddha. After a stellar hour long wait in the serpentining lines, we made our way onto one of the crystal cable cars for the unforgettable ride going through Hong Kong’s rolling hills and lush forested areas en route to the Buddha. If I can make one recommendation here, you MUST pay a few more Hong Kong Dollars and get the crystal carriage cable car for two reasons: First, the line is much shorter than the standard carriage line. Secondly, you can see through the bottom of the carriage and view some winding trails through the mountains, several inlets, and various other cool spots during your ride. The view was amazing. Image

Cable cars. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After a trek through a heavily tourist area filled with nick-knacks, trinkets, and fake souvenirs, we had finally arrived at one of the most iconic images of all of Hong Kong: the staircase leading up to the 1996-built big Buddha statue. The view was completely breathtaking when you reach the bottom of this staircase. Unfortunately due to bad lighting with the sun directly behind Buddha, the photo cannot give this scene the justice it truly deserves.

Image

Even though this Buddha was only finished in 1996, the amount of tourists and locals alike at this site was incredible. Buddhists praying, Asian and Western tourists taking photos, and the Korean comedy group outside one of the shops along the route there stuck out the most to me. Of course a trip to this Buddha would not be complete without a photo posing just like the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world.

Image

Posing with big Buddha. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After another breathtaking ride on the cable car (this time at sunset) and checking in at our hotel on Hong Kong Island, my friend and I began our journey to another one of Hong Kong’s must-see attractions: Victoria Peak.

I had always heard fables about Hong Kong being the shopping Mecca of East Asia but never truly gave those claims the credence they probably deserved. After having lived in Tokyo for a few months in early 2011 as a study abroad student, I though nowhere in Asia could possibly beat Tokyo when it came to glamorous stores, ritzy stores, or sheer opulence. I was resoundingly incorrect. The walk from our hotel to the famed Victoria Peak Tram took us through a shopping mall which hosted stores like: Marc Jacobs, Burberry, Cartier, Gucci, and other top dollar stores, stores I had never seen before outside of a magazine or New York City. I was in awe at the wealth I had only started to see in Hong Kong. Things got even more interesting when we made our way to the tram.

I had never ridden a vehicle on such a steep incline in my whole life. Last summer, I attended language school in Oakland, California, and frequently went to San Francisco for sightseeing, eating Japanese cuisine, and visiting Fisherman’s Wharf. During that time, my friends and I took an obligatory ride on the outside of one of San Francisco’s cable cars. While those streets were steep, the Victoria Peak Tram took steepness to a whole new level. The tram ride felt like it was on more than a 45 degree angle for the entire ride up to the summit. As the car increased speed, the steepness also increased to the point where people were holding on for dear life as they attempted to stand in the cable car. I have added a photo from the inside of the car to give you an idea what this ride resembled. Image

Inside the Victoria Peak Tram. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

Following this ride, we had finally arrived at Victoria Peak, although a clear view of the city was not yet available from the tram exit. Already only in our first few hours of our four day excursion to Hong Kong and Macau, I felt our trip had met its moment of truth. Ever since I saw the first photo of the nighttime view from Victoria Peak, I knew I had to go there. I had pumped up this view to be as good as the Grand Canyon, but in a different way. The lights, the buildings, and the view had to be breathtaking, didn’t they? On the ride up to the top, I had noticed that the Bank of China lights were off and I feared for the worst. I will let you be the judge of how the view was at Victoria Peak before I write any more. Image

Stunning Victoria Peak. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

As you can surely see from this photo, reaching the top of Victoria Peak and peering over the handrail was one of the happiest and most rewarding travel moments I had ever experienced. The view there was everything I had imagined, and then some. The glistening skyline off of Victoria Harbor, the twinkling lights in all directions, the cool wind coming across the viewing balcony, the messages on the International Commerce Centre, and the moving lights on the Bank of China Tower combined with some new friends I made (more on that in a later post) to make this a night I will never forget. While this world seemed expansive, I was also reminded that the world is such a small place. A friend of mine from Japan happened to be there at the exact same time with his parents! We said our hellos and continued onward with our evenings. Moments like that are just one more reason why I love to travel.

I even went ahead and purchased one of the commemorative photos they had for sale. Someday I will proudly hang that in my room alongside my photo atop Roppongi’s Mori Tower in Tokyo. Image

Me with Hong Kong and Kowloon in the background. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

While the next morning called for a 4:45 am wakeup to make our ferry to Hong Kong, that did not seem to matter at all during our first night in Hong Kong. Never in my wildest dreams did I think Hong Kong could live up to the expectations I had built for the better part of 15 years. Happily, the city destroyed all of those expectations on the first night. From the rural and cultural Buddha to the urban and unforgettable Victoria Peak view, I had a feeling that the best of Hong Kong was yet to come. After a long walk back to our hotel, I settled down for a short night’s sleep.