Friday, February 1, 2013

Taipei Birf-day

   On my 30th birthday I had a surprise dinner in Frankfurt with some of my colleagues, organized by my wife before she left on a work-related trip to the States.  It was an amazing effort and a good time, but the lid was blown off the surprise before the delivery.  No big deal, it was still much-appreciated.

  Fast-forward one year to January 2013.  Marisa was poised and determined to deliver a surprise that would permanently erase my 30th birthday from memory.  In an effort to "test the waters" she asked me if she could plan a surprise weekend trip for my birthday and wanted to check on what weekend worked best.  My ears perked up and I was thrilled with the idea........I mean who doesn't want to finish out a work-week and then head to the airport without knowing where you're going?  Awesome right?  So I gave her the green light and we picked a weekend.

  All was well until a couple of weeks before, while Nicole was visiting, when - in a moment of frustration with the booking plans - she said "I'm having so much trouble with booking our flights to Taipei"......................followed by a moment of silence as I looked to her and to Nicole and back to her and the realization hit her that she'd just blown the surprise again.  To be fair, I had guessed that we might go to Taiwan since we'd talked about it before as a possible weekend trip and I really wasn't disappointed because it was still an unexpected trip.  This is just to set you up for my 31st birthday trip, which was a blast!

  Taiwan is an interesting bird identity-wise because in some sense it is simply Chinese territory and in some sense it is an independent entity, but not in the same way that Hong Kong and Macau are (one country - two systems).  To be honest, I'm still not totally sure about the political identity of Taiwan but it's safe to say that the world (or at least the U.N.) views it as part of China.  It's still confusing since they have their own currency and government and for a while there weren't even flights between the "Mainland" and Taiwan.  Regardless, it was named the island of Formosa by the Portuguese explorers which means "beautiful" and I think that adequately describes the place.  We stuck to the capital city of Taipei on the northern end of the island, but would love to return to check out some of the natural wonders that Taiwan has to offer.  For now, enjoy some pics from the weekend....

 Taipei 101, the former "tallest building in the world" now stands at #3 on the list after being ousted in 2010 by Burj Khalifa in Dubai, then again in 2012 after the completion of the Makkah Royal Clocktower Hotel in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.  Taipei 101 was the champ from 2004 until 2010 and was designed to look like bamboo.

 The flag of the Republic of China (ROC, aka Taiwan) flies proudly next to good company.  Don't confuse it with the People's Republic of China (PRC, aka China).

On our visit to Taipei 101 we were surprised to experience a record-holding elevator.  I expected it to be like a Six Flags ride, but it was hardly impressive.......except for that one time when my ears popped on the way up.

View (through tinted glass) of some of metropolitan Taipei.  When you're looking from one of the tallest buildings in the world you don't exactly get a "skyline" view.

The building tour really went all-out, even allowing you to see this large, heavy steel ball that helps keep the building stable in the wind.  It's suspended from cables and sits on a hydraulic cradle that allows it to move with the wind instead of the building.

Asian cultures seem to make cartoons out of EVERYTHING.  In this case we actually have a cartoon figure representing the big ball thing in the above picture!  Seriously.  It comes in six different colors and the bulk of the gift shop included dolls, keychains, t-shirts, etc with these "Damper Babies".   On a side note you can see that Marisa is standing at 382 meters.........the highest that she's been since high school.

 
Not sure of the use of this vehicle, but it's worthy of a spot in the blog.

Taipei is covered head-to-toe with interesting sculptures that scream for a photo-op. This one appears to be pointing at..........

Spider Man or Spider Boy!  I'm doing my best web-slinging impression alongside the cartoon hero.

There's no shortage of memorial temples and such to honor those that fought to promote a democratic China and vowed to re-take the Mainland from Mao's communists.  Here's Sun Yat-sen chillin in an armchair, admiring his temple.  This statue stands in stark contrast with most European statues that usually involve some guy on horseback.

Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall.  It's pretty much used as a community center, sort of like the Cobb County Civic Center, but I'm sure it has more than just "Gun n' Knife Shows".

Taipei seemed to have a nice mix of green space and city, perhaps a slightly higher ratio than that of Hong Kong.

 The Longshan Temple was one of the busiest Buddhist temples I've ever seen with dozens of people pouring in and out of this place.  I'm not sure of the whole procedure, but snacks and fruit are purchased and left on tables, incense is bought and burned in metal holders, people stand and pray, kneel and pray, sing songs from a book and bow a lot toward a golden figurine inside the temple.  It made for a great people-watching spot.

We passed through a handcraft market outside of the Red House.  It's a great spot for Etsy-like products and unique graphic tees.

Identical buildings face each other and host the National Theater and Opera House, directly adjacent to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial.

Sunset made a nice view of the gate for the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial.  This guy led the unsuccessful effort against Mao Zedong and the Communist Party following WWII.  He was eventually forced off of the Mainland to seek refuge on Taiwan.

We were also fortunate to come across a Shanghai-style dim sum restaurant:  Din Tai Fung.  While we thought we were experiencing something really local, it turns out that this place is a chain (but I think this is the original location).

Din Tai Fung is known for a pork dumpling called xiao long bao.  It was very good and distinctively different from the barbecue pork buns famous in Hong Kong - cha siu bao.

The night markets are the thing to do in Taipei.  Unlike other Asian markets, these are more focused on street food than on other goods.

The markets are a family affair with games for the kids and food for everyone.

We ate before we came and had to pass on the meat table.  With Asian street food, you're bound to come across some random organs that are unidentifiable.

The narrow, crowded streets also feature small tables packed with locals chowing down.  It's difficult to tell where one "restaurant" ends and the next begins.

On our last day we ventured out to a fishing village to enjoy the weather, the waterside, and more street food and markets.  These are potato chips that come with your choice of seasoned salt.

Upon reaching the Fisherman's Wharf we saw this vicious teenage scooter gang being dispersed by a security guy.

This bridge is the highlight of Fisherman's Wharf as it's supposed to be a great place to catch a sunset.  Unfortunately we ran out of time and had to see it at midday.

"Lovers' Bridge" as it's known, was a nice last sight  before we left.

Scratch Taiwan off the list!

It was a fantastic weekend getaway, an excellent birthday trip, and maybe next year Marisa will come up with an even better "surprise".

--Justin
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