A weekend in Taipei, Taiwan

A weekend is just enough to get a taste of Taiwan and realize you want to go back again before you’ve even left.  Taipei has an excellent public transit system, free wifi and lots of cultural & crazy experiences.  Here’s a quick preview of Ronda and my trip as we met my college buddy Andrew (who flew in from Japan with a few other friends).


Night Markets

If there’s one thing that Taiwan is known for its certainly the diversity of its night markets.  We stopped by at least 3 different markets and although some were “the biggest” or “best” according to a guidebook we found them all to be wonderful.  They sported an assortment of sights and smells including the infamous “stinky tofu” and all the parts of animals that you may not have wanted to sample.  I highly recommend just about anything on a stick and if you can handle the smell, stinky tofu is a delicacy!

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Night markets are easy to find and almost every subway station has *insert Taiwanese name here* Market listed on the exit signs.  We always felt safe but I advise anyone going to a public place like these market be careful with your valuables!

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Wulai

Wulai is a mountain village boasting the largest waterfall in Taiwan, an abundance of natural hot springs and the opportunity for a jungle adventure.  Luckily its only a 45 minute bus ride from Xiandan station at the end of the Green Subway line.  You can take a taxi for about $600NTD ($20USD) or ride the bus like we did for $15 NTD ($.50 USD).  Once there I recommend taking the cable car over the river to see the waterfall.  It was stunning and I can’t wait to share more; enjoy these photos for now. Continue reading

A visit to Yeongdongpogu Market

I’ve been to a few of Korean markets so far, there’s a great one that I walk to near my home; Namdaemun was a great time too but last Sunday I stopped at Yeongdongpo-gu Market.  I pass the self-titled subway stop for Yeongdongpo-gu Market every time I get on the train but it has taken me almost 4 months to actually check it out.

I got out of the subway and followed signs for the market to Exit 3.  On the street there no sign of a market but I kept walking straight following the crowd of Koreans.  At the end of the block I saw “Gate 3” and what looked like a subway entrance.  Turns out its actually a subterranean market!

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Down below I wandered in between an array of stores and boutiques.  At first I worried that I wouldn’t find anything that suited my holiday gift ideas.  It needed to be authentic Korean, lightweight so I could ship it and I didn’t want it to just sit on a shelf.  Store after store displayed women’s clothing.  Each one had a tailor attached to but all I could find were dresses, skirts, blouses, and just about every type of FEMALE fashion item.

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I texted a coworker to check if I had unknowingly walked into a market marketed to women.  She said I was just in the wrong section so I kept walking.  Turning the I found a rotunda with a small snack shop and display full of trinkets.  To my left was another long hallway; this time I could see stores of all kinds.

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There were sock vendors, hat vendors, belt vendors, and vendors selling things I didn’t recognize.  I saw a guy selling men’s slacks and another store with all the jewelry you could imagine.  The corridor kept going and was packed with people.  Luckily there were a few other shops interspersed.  I found a phone store next to a snack shop where I could buy all the cases and phone accessories I ever dreamed of.  The market kept going and I picked up a few items before realizing there’s no way I would make it through the whole thing.  I just don’t have that kind of shopping stamina!

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As I was heading back to the subway I noticed Lotte department store.  It was a lazy Sunday; why not check it out?  The first floor was littered with eateries.  I wouldn’t quite call it a food court since that elicits memories of cheap greasy food back home while these were exquisite bakeries and niche restaurants.  As I was strolling through my eyes became drawn towards a sushi display.  There before me delicately placed on tiny plates were dozens of different types of sushi lazily rotating around the top of a bar.

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Birthright Israel Outdoors – Waking up in Jerusalem

I woke up absurdly early from some awful jetlag. Luckily the evenings festivities hadn’t left me too hung over so I went out searching for Ari. As a staff member he mentioned going for a jog in the morning and I said yes, provided I wake up on time. When I realized I was up too early to find Ari, or well, anyone I ignored Einav’s rule #1 “Don’t leave the group” and went for a jog on my own. I’ll just stay on the road that the hotel is on. How bad could it be?

Saturday morning turned out to be a gorgeous day; the yellow bricks of Jerusalem were accented by the brilliant blue sky above. I stared long and hard at the Hebrew sign for our hotel and street name.  The road was eerily empty as the entire city was sleeping in after a late Shabbat. As I jogged further I started to see a few traditionally dressed Orthodox Jews walking with their families and pushing strollers. They must be on their way to Saturday morning Shabbat services.

I followed the light rail tracks down another half mile, passing an intersection with a police station. Remember the landmarks I thought to myself as the road eased into a slight downward incline. Checking my watch I gauged my pace and decided that 15 minutes was about a mile and a half and I should turn around soon. A block ahead I saw a big intersection as more couples started to filter into the mostly vacant streets. Although I could still follow the train tracks as they veered to the left I decided this was a good spot to turn around.

Following the tracks on my way back I scanned every building and sign on my right.  At each block I checked the street signs and looked for my hotel.  After another 10 minutes I started to get the feeling I went too far.  When I came to a bridge I knew I had passed the hotel and turned around and started again.

The streets slowly grew more crowded as I jogged back along the tracks.  I started to think it was a bad idea to go on this jog; I confirmed my fears when I got back to the intersection that was my first U-turn.  As I turned around again I was stopped by an American couple asking for directions.  All I could do was stare at their map and apologize that I too was a tourist and mentioned that I was also lost as the sun crept further into the azure expanse above.

It took me another trip to the bridge before I decided to stop jogging and walk slowly.  I finally found my hotel and quickly realized no one had noticed my absence.  A quick shower and I joined everyone at breakfast after my 30 minute jog became a 90 minute run.

Today’s festivities included a tour of the nearby parts of the New City before meeting our Israeli friends and heading to our first hike.  We got a crash course in Israeli geography as Einav planted landmarks on my new friend Nathan to give us an idea of what we would be doing in the days to come.

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We finally met our Israelis too!  Barak, Or, Dor, Omri, Alissa, Lihi and Shiran joined our tour guide Einav and “guy with a gun” Dvir to complete our party with 9 Israelis.  No we weren’t going on an epic adventure like Bilbo Baggins.  Wait, well, we weren’t looking for dragons or phat purple lootz but we did have a life changing experience and a grand ole time!

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A Brilliant Fortress

The ride from Seoul to Suwon is roughly an hour long.  Ben and I hopped on the subway after grabbing some Paris Baguette for breakfast and a Subway sandwich for a picnic lunch.  It was about 11AM on Sunday morning by the time we arrived in Suwon.  The guidebook said to get off at Suwon where we could walk to Hwaesong, aka “brilliant fortress.”

When I mentioned to my Korean coworkers that I was going to Hwaesong Suwon they were surprised I had even heard of it.  Few of them had been there although those who had said it was a good trip.  For the two of us it was as simple as looking in the guidebook under “day trips.”

The walk from the subway station to Hwaesong was longer than we expected but easy to follow.  There were brown signs every few hundred meters to let us know we were going in the right direction.  After about 30-40 minutes of walking we finally saw signs of the fortress.  There were massive walls that led up a hill towards a casual gate with a road running through it.  The forest erupted just past the gate and we continued our climb wandering up a trail through the trees.  Walking parallel to the wall we eventually came across a path that led up to stone steps that watchmen patrolled a couple hundred years ago.

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Stopping for a water break an a few pictures we realized that there were many more steps to go.  The walls were interspersed with arrow slits and holes for rocks or cannons and the climb kept going.  Before long we found ourselves at the top with a stupendous view of the city, a small pavilion and a crossbow tower.  We snapped off a few photos before breaking for lunch in the shade.

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After eating we continued along the wall passing a sign letting us know that we were about 12,000km from NYC before coming upon a marvelous bell.  The thunderous toll from this intricately designed artifact had a beautiful display surrounding it with a giant log hanging for those who wished to ring it.

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Most of this massive fortress was built in the late 1700’s under King Jeongjo and although most fights were likely with steel gunpowder was certainly in use.  Further down we passed wooden cannon and arrow towers.  The wall continued along with regularly placed slots for Korean warriors to attack their enemy while staying safe behind the walls.    We caught a view of the training yard where he had his soldiers learning “24 martial arts.”

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Stopping at another cannon tower Ben posed for a picture in front of the painted turret before starting our descent.  The way down provided a great view of the city inside the walls of this brilliant fortress.  We reflected on how the city has grown yet wondered how much there was actually a change in the life here in Suwon.  Hwaesong was predominantly a training ground and holiday retreat for the royalty so the locals ran a bustling town inside these very walls hundreds of years ago.

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Today we passed through the Paldalmun, or the South Gate, to find a town with a touristy market supplying all kinds of wares.   There were restaurants, banks, clothing stores and a mini-mall with stalls selling everything you can imagine; the street vendors were happy to see us and one of them even posed for a picture.

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We strolled through the bustling town on our way to the hanok in the center passing another fabulous bell before turning into the training grounds.  In the yard we found metal figures inlaid into the tiled floor demonstrating positions with various weapons for the martial arts. As we got closer to the hanok we saw the remnants of a parade full of traditionally dressed Korean guards.  We caught a few lucky glimpses as they exited the village.

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Ben and I continued wandering through the town heading for the western gate.  Walking down the narrow alleys we saw many modern homes and an absurd tire-man before coming to a green hill leading up to the rampart.  Following the wall south we were greeted with a magnificent display at the Janganmun, the North gate to the city.

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The massive entrance to Hwaesong was clearly refurbished with new wood and exterior paint but the inner decorations on the roof displayed colorful dragons keeping watch.  We climbed the steps to the top of the wall to find a yin-yang painted on a doorway that was clearly made for someone shorter than us.  Inside we found a semicircular protrusion of the wall from which they could bombard enemies who breached their first set of doors.  Atop the wall we found a cannon facing an obstructed view of the hills due to the modern apartments.

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Continuing along we quickly found ourselves looking at a sparkling river.  Taking off our shoes shoes we entered the river-house along the wall and quickly found ourselves resting among the natives.  After enjoying the picturesque view for a few moments we decided it was time to start our walk back to the subway.

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Along the way we stopped at one more gate but unfortunately it was covered with a bleak facade for renovations.  We continued catching up on brotherly things and enjoying a vigorous discussion on religion and politics during the remaining walk to the subway.  Hwaesong Suwon certainly was a “brilliant fortress” and well worth it; I wholeheartedly recommend the day trip to anyone who has an extra day in Seoul!