Friday, January 30, 2015

Taiwan: Sun Moon Lake

After the failed sunrise, we ate breakfast and packed up for the next adventure. We're scheduled to go out to Sun Moon Lake and our driver arrived to pick us up at the hotel. It turned out that we were the only ones so we basically got a private driver. The driver is a really cool guy and had some really funny stories. He's really knowledgeable about all the touristy things and answered a lot of our questions. He's a really smooth driver which was much appreciated on the windy mountainous road down from Alishan. I took motion sickness medicine anyway, just in case. Halfway down, we ran into a road that had recently poured asphalt so we had to wait around 10 minutes for it to finish drying before being able to drive across. This was the first of the unfortunate events of the day.

We arrived at Sun Moon Lake to find heavy fog all around us. This was the best view of the lake we got from the visitor's center:

Our tour had included a day of a hop-on,  hop-off boat rides that would have taken us between three different parts of the lake. When we got to the first hop on point, the ferry people said that there might be a chance of service suspension due to heavy fog. Our driver told us to call him if we happen to be stuck somewhere. We were supposed to have 3-4 hours on our own to explore the lake before he takes us to Puli and then to the high speed rail. We opted out of going to Puli since it seemed like a mostly industrial town and we would have just gone to see chocolate and beer factories. We thought this would give us more time around the lake. 

We hopped onto the boat and sat in some really heavy fog. The boat ride included some commentary but we really couldn't see anything that they were trying to point out. As soon as we got to the second hop off point, they suspended the ferry service. This was unfortunate because the second check point was mainly hiking up to see temples which included some scenic vista points of the lake. We figured we wouldn't be able to see any views of the lake so we called the driver to pick us up to go to the third ferry station. He was nice enough to come and pick us up. 

We got to the third station and ate some street food. We debated to stick around the area or to go up to this aboriginal themed park via gondola. We decided to go to the aboriginal village since there wasn't much to do around the lake due to the fog. So the driver once again drove us to the entrance point for the gondola. We arrived at a scene of fire trucks and ambulances. It turned out that this was their monthly emergency drill so the gondola up to the park was closed! So basically we encountered blockage of road, water, and air all in one day. The driver ended up driving us up to the theme park where we managed to get student prices for entrance. They wouldn't give us a discount on the gondola not being opened because there is another gondola service in the park itself and that's still running. 

The park itself had a mix of performances, amusement park rides (yes, there was a roller coaster and other large rides), and parts dedicated to showing the traditional houses of different tribes. 

There weren't a lot of visitors at the park and we had a lot of it to ourselves. They opened the rides just for us, basically. The driver picked us up after we were done and took us to the high speed rail station where we got bento boxes for dinner. We played a card game on the train and got into Taipei later that night.

The next day, we did a lot of the sights around Taipei, going to the Elephant Mountain, Longshan temple, CKS memorial, and eating a lot along the way. I left for the airport after we went to to Sunnyhills to eat their pineapple cake.

Taiwan: Alishan

Since I got a one way flight back home, I had to find another one way flight back to Asia. One way direct flights between San Francisco and Hong Kong are really expensive so I was looking around for a good stopover when some of Yalu's MBA friends happened to be in Taiwan around the same time. So I joined them for a few days as a short stopover trip. We booked a 2 day tour to go to Alishan and Sun Moon Lake. I usually don't like organized tours since they tend to make you feel like cattle. But this one was really good since we had a lot of time to do whatever we wanted. The tour basically organized all the necessary transportation. Let's start from the beginning.

I flew into Taipei airport and quickly repacked my luggage. I had a big luggage, small luggage, and a backpack. I packed everything I needed for the Taiwan trip into my backpack and stuffed the small luggage into the big one and left the whole thing at a "Left Luggage" near the baggage claim. You can leave bags there for a small fee for up to 30 days. I thought I would be able to get the bag back when I check in but apparently for big luggage, they just put them right onto the plane for you. For carry-on size items, you can get it after you get through security. It was a bit annoying to not know this beforehand but it's a convenient service. After getting out at arrivals, I got a sim card that gives me unlimited data and some amount of minutes for 3 days. It was all very easy. I got on a bus and met up with friends all within 2 hours of landing.

I got in at night and we got up early the next morning to take the high speed rail to meet our tour group in Chiayi. The tour group turned out to be a van with 4 other people. The driver took us up to Alishan with short stops for lunch and such.

Arrived at the Alishan visitor's center:

There used to be train service from Chiayi all the way up to Alishan. But part of the railroad got wiped out by landslides after a typhoon. The railway is a private one and they haven't been able to come up with the funding to repair it. So the only way up is by car or bus. It's a shame we couldn't take the railway since it seems to be a very scenic one. You can see the part that's damage:

After the driver dropped us off at our hotel, we had a couple of hours to wander around the visitor area. We went to a couple of tea shops to try out the famous Alishan teas. The second place we went to had really good teas at decent prices. It's run by a family and the father and son poured us many flights of tea and had some great stories about how to tell good quality tea. The tea leaves I got from them are some of the best I've ever had. So fragrant and the taste doesn't fade even after making many cups. 

We then met up with a guide who took us through a short hike. She described different sights and was a pro at knowing which angle to get the best photos at each spot. I really enjoyed the hike as we got to see some really beautiful areas and it was not a strenuous hike.  

Our tour gave us vouchers to one of the restaurants where we had hot pot for dinner. The tour was all very do-it-yourself. We could have chosen to eat somewhere else but we didn't really want to think about it. The hot pot was decent. We had two options to see the sunrise the next day. One was a train ride somewhere and the other was a car ride to another part. We chose the train ride and the next morning we got up in the dark and was met with a ton of people at the train station. I really didn't know there were so many tourists. Unfortunately, we couldn't really see the sunrise as there were too many clouds. Apparently it's really hard to see a good sunrise. There's about a 30% chance to see a good one. It was kind of strange as well since there were two older men who stood up on a ledge and talked about random stuff the whole time. The scenery was still nice though.

This was the start of our day of unfortunate events. I'm going to save that one for the next post.

Christmas at home

I'm supposed to be studying for a project management exam so this is where I procrastinate and blog instead. This post is long, long overdue. For some reason, I always think that when I go home, I should have a lot of time to blog and catch up on other things. But it never happens. So here's a post about spending my first Christmas at home in a long time.

I was home for about 2 weeks. I managed to redeem some miles from Singapore airlines for a one way flight home. 

Snowball hogging all the slippers:

So many presents! I basically brought home a suitcase full of presents for everyone. Both of my cousins are also back for Christmas so we had a feast at our house and a really great time opening presents. Just like the old days when we were all still living at home and going to school.

Victor sleeping with a huge bear:

Snowball sleeping in his "tent". We got a dog toy for Snowball since the dog dogs are all much bigger than cat toys. He didn't seem as enthusiastic about the toy as we thought. Maybe cats are just not that into big toys...

The weekend after Christmas, we went on a snow trip to a ski resort in Lake Tahoe. We joined a tour group that basically took a bus full of us from the Bay Area up to Reno on Saturday. On the way, we stopped by Lake Tahoe. It's really beautiful. My mom, brother, and I went with my aunt, two cousins, grandma, and my brother's friend's family. There were 12 of us in total. The next day, we got up really early to go to the ski resort to go skiing. We got beginner ski package tickets that included rentals and lessons. The resort became packed with people really quickly and the lessons took forever. At some point, my brother, his friend, and I got bored of the lessons and we were itching to go up the ski lift. It's the boys' first time going so I warned them about getting on and off the lift. We managed to go up and down the slopes twice without any incident. The third time, my brother's friend fell and got soaked near some melted snow. He managed to walk down and we got him back inside. Then my brother and I took our cousin up the lift for one last run. We lost her on the last part down the slopes and waited for a while before she showed up. She said she literally rolled down the last hill. Anyway, incidents aside, I think we all had fun.

New Year's Eve dinner from Sushi House! I think American sushi places are really creative with the sushi, especially the rolls. You don't really find rolls with all the different toppings and such in Asia. I find that my American friends are always after "authentic" and "recommended" places to eat. I'm always skeptical when someone says something is "authentic". What makes something authentic? Does good food have to be authentic? Or is good food just a category by itself?

I got this snowman cake making kit from Muji and made it with my brother. It took us forever! The pieces were tiny and it was so hard to keep the chocolate melted so that we can decorate the snowmen. There's a toothpick on the bottom of the first photo for scale. Anyway, not sure if this all got eaten. We made it the day before I left.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy 2015!

2015 should be another great year. I'm expecting a lot of life decisions to be made this year along with some big adventures.

Midnight hike to see sunrise

I'm still not sure what made us want to do this but we decided to go on a midnight hike up Lantau Peak to see the sunrise. It all started with a whatsapp conversation about what to do for one of Xiaodi and Albert's last weekends in Hong Kong. One of their coworkers suggested this hike to see the sunrise. With the help of modern technology, no plans were fixed until the day of. On Friday, I was chatting with various people to see if I was going to sleep that night or go on a hike. I wasn't too enthusiastic about this midnight hiking business and would have rather do a sunset hike. But Sally wanted to do it enough that I went with it. Xiaodi abandoned us at the last minute.

It was really cold that night. Temperatures dropped quite a bit that day and hovered around 10 degrees Celsius. It is usually colder on Lantau so I dressed up in many layers and filled a thermos with hot tea. We left our apartment at around 12:30am and took a night bus to Lantau. We "picked up" Albert on the way and napped during the bus journey. I was surprised that we managed to wake up and get off at the right stop. We nearly went all the way to the airport. We hung around the empty mall spaces in Tung Chung and waited for Albert's friends. One of them has done the Oxfram Trailwaker (100K hike) and another guy has done this hike before. Another of their friends came along. So all in all, we had a total of 7 people on this hike.

Usually, for this hike, you can take a bus from Tung Chung to the start of the trail. But there were no buses when we arrived and we didn't want to get to the top too early. So we walked along a paved road for nearly 2 hours to reach the trailhead. We checked the time a lot to make sure that we wouldn't arrive too early or too late. The actual trail was pretty steep. But I think we paced ourselves pretty well. I used to think that you should just keep going steadily the whole way to avoid being too tired out. But the guy in front had a different idea and walked maybe 20 steps, stopped for 3 seconds, and then continued. I thought this was pretty good for going up as it allowed us to rest a bit and not strain ourselves too much. We had longer breaks for snacks and water but we got up pretty quickly as it was cold. Along the way, we saw other groups ahead of us and passed a few groups on their way up.

At the top, we saw some people camped out. I was surprised that they managed to pitch a tent in such high winds. There is also a small man made shelter thing in case you got stuck up there in inclement weather. It was so cold up there that I couldn't even get my own phone out to take any photos. We huddled around and ate food to keep ourselves warm. Even after 5+ hours of being in the cold, my thermos still had warm tea inside. The sun came up slowly up the gray skies. Albert has one of those nice cameras that was able to capture more light than our eyes.

After a while, we really couldn't take it anymore and started our descend. There were some big rocks along the trail down that provided us shelter while we saw the rest of the sunrise. We ended up at the Big Buddha, which was pretty quiet since there was not tourists about. We narrowly missed one bus and had to wait an hour for the next one. Luckily, there was one place opened that served us food. I don't think eating greasy instant noodles was all that great for my stomach though. Should have just stuck with something light. Anyway, we made it on the next bus and I managed not to throw up on the way down. Lantau roads are very windy and I always feel a bit nauseous.

By the time we got back home, it was nearly noon the next day (Saturday). We were still bundled up in our coats even though people on the streets were wearing one layer. With our 12 hour adventure completed, we quickly showered and went to bed. I had thought we would be able to get up towards evening and go see the fair in Victoria Park. But that turned out to be more than we could handle and we just basically slept the entire day. I got up in the afternoon to eat and watch some TV. Got up at normal time on Sunday morning feeling refreshed. It's amazing how much difference it makes to get properly rested.