Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Taroko National Park (太魯閣國家公園)

One of the biggest reasons to head over to the east coast of Taiwan is to check out Taroko Gorge, Taiwan's "Grand Canyon" in the Taroko National Park (太魯閣國家公園)

So, despite the rainy weather on Monday, Nick and I suited up in our ponchos, hopped on our rented scooter, and headed up into the mountains to check out the gorge.

Due to the rain, almost all of the park's hiking trails were closed, even the "Tunnel of 9 Turns" which is supposed to be the most beautiful part of the whole park, but that didn't prevent us from having a great time.

The bottom half of the gorge is completely cut out of marble, and because the water was pretty low during our visit, we got to see some beautiful marble river beds

One of the first things I was struck by as we started our ascent into the gorge was a massive, vertical wall that had been cut so smoothly from the mountain, it almost looked like a gigantic slice of birthday cake. It doesn't look like much from the picture, but the sheer enormity and severity of it was breathtaking, and it was only a preview of what was to come.

As we drove through the gorge, we stopped along the way to take pictures and enjoy the scenery. The gorge is dotted with pagodas, shrines, and other treasures.

In the middle of the gorge is the TINY town of Tiansiang (天祥) and just before you reach it you can see the pagoda of the Hsiang-te Temple.

It's the first pagoda Nick or I have ever climbed into and it was as dizzying as it was stunning.

I actually felt a little bit nervous up at the top because the ledge was so small and we were up so high. Just as we arrived at the temple, three tour buses had pulled up as well.

Thankfully, we beat the tour groups and were up there alone... I think I might have had a heart attack if I had been sharing that tiny little space with other tourists (o god, I'm turning into my father!)

here are some views from the pagoda:

Although we had been told by a well meaning park ranger to stop at Tiansiang and turn back, Nick and I decided to press on, up the mountain to see what we could find, and the higher we went, the more gorgeous the scenery.

We kept driving until we weren't going up any more and at about 2:00 we decided to turn back.

As we headed down the mountain, we managed to find a couple of trails that were open, and although we didn't venture out too much, we did check out two pretty cool (and scary) suspension bridges crossing over the gorge.

The bridges offered a great view to the gorge below, and I can only imagine what we would have found if we had been willing to hike in the spotty weather.

On our way out of the park, we stopped by the Eternal Spring Shrine to take some pictures and enjoy the view.

The shrine was built to commemorate the lives that were lost in building the roads through Taroko.

Despite the intermitent rain, we had a fabulous time driving through the gorge. It is an absolutly beautiful park and it felt really great to be up in the mountains, enjoying the beauty of Taiwan. Living in Taichung, it's easy to forget how beautiful Taiwan is, but one afternoon in the gorge was enough to remind us!

Taipei 101 and the "Super Big Wind Damper"

In fulfillment of our obligation as tourists in Taiwan, after visiting the Chang Kai-Shek memorial, we made the trip to Taipei 101 - currently the worlds tallest building.

First stop was the basement food court for some good eats! They have a pretty good food court down there complete with an Auntie Ann's Pretzel stand!! (of course, I had to have one!)

After our dinner of pretzels and a Japanese-style BBQ, we headed up to buy our tickets for the observation deck. I was feeling excited to make the trip to the top until I realized that the ticket price was $400 NT(~$13USD) per person.

I have to say, I was more than a little deterred. Of course I'll spend $400 NT on beer without thinking twice about it, but $400 NT for an elevator ride!? Now that's pushing it!

Thankfully Nick talked some sense into me and we headed up to the top. It is, after all, the tallest building in the world!

I thought it was pretty cool, they gave us boy/girl tickets!

The first thing that impressed me about the building was the elevator. Taipei 101 has the fastest elevator in the world! The observation elevator (which goes from the 5th floor to the 89th floor – 382 meters) takes only 37 seconds to reach the top, topping out at 60 kilometers / hour (over 30Mph)!

I was VERY impressed.

Once the elevator gets going, they dim the lights and play some planetarium music and have a mini light-show on the ceiling. They even have a little electronic display to show you where you are in the building. It’s definitely the chillest elevator I have ever ridden in. I was all about it.

Actually, the elevators were one of the most impressive things about Taipei 101. 101 has 50 elevators and with over 10,000 people working there every day, the average elevator waiting time is less than 30 seconds!!! Just imagine if all transportation was that efficient!

Another really cool feature of Taipei 101 is their “Super Big Wind Damper.”

(Actually, this is a poor translation, the Chinese says "world's largest wind damper")

The tallest building in the world of course must have the largest wind
damper in the world (to help stabilize the building) and it is the only wind damper of this size viewable by the public.

It’s basically just a huge cement ball spray painted gold – but I still found it very impressive. It is suspended from the top by cables and supported on the bottom my hydraulics and by counteracting the wind, it will reduce the buildings movement. Pretty neat.

After checking out Taipei’s sprawling cityscape from the indoor observation area, Nick and I headed up to the outdoor observation deck on the 91st and I have to say…. I was a bit disappointed by it.

I guess you have to take a lot of safety precautions when you are building an outdoor observation deck on the world’s tallest building, but they really obstructed a lot of the view with huge metal grates and a concrete ledge that came up to my chest and extended a couple feet out... BOO I could barely see anything!

The massive metal grate didn’t only serve as an eye-sore, it was also musical…. The wind blowing through them created the most unpleasant ringing sound – on par with nails on a chalk board (or my singing according to Nick). I even took a video so I could share the experience with you:

So we headed back inside to check out all of the cool stuff they had on display: videos showing the building in process, art from around the world, fun facts about 101’s various features and lots of other cool stuff like a huge coral gemstone gallery

And some cool jade sculptures – like this one of a giant cabbage!

Although the outdoor observation deck was a bit of a buzz kill, overall I’d say the trip to the top was definitely worth the $400NT. Not only did we really enjoy ourselves, but now we can say we’ve been inside the world’s tallest building AND the world's fastest elevator! Not too shabby.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Chang Kai-Shek Memorial, Taipei, Taiwan

On Friday, Nick and I began an 8 day vacation to Taiwan’s east coast. Our first stop was Taipei.

We were lucky to get two absolutely beautiful days in Taiwan – blue skies and a pleasant breeze.

After arriving in Taipei and dropping our bags off at the hostel, we headed straight to the Chiang Kai-shek memorial for our first stop. As we emerged from the on-site MRT station, we saw a mass of Taiwanese tourists heading towards the monument!

They moved together like a heard of buffalo on the run, all of them scurrying up the stairs together in a wave of people. Nick and I trailed behind; a bit disappointed to see them, but realizing that if I just waited a couple of minutes, they would all be herded inside and I could take a picture of the memorial with no one on it.

Once we arrived the inside, we realized that they were all rushing to catch the changing of the guard which happens every hour at the memorial – and we were just in time.

The ceremony lasted about 5 minutes and was a pretty cool sight with bayoneted-rifles and very serious-looking young soldiers.

Immediately after the changing of the guard, the herd receded back to their tour bus shepherded by a flag-bearing, microphone-blaring tour guide. In the blink of an eye, all the people were down the stairs and out of sight. It was amazing. There was neither time for individual exploration of the premises nor time to relax and take in the beauty of the park.

They sure don’t like to waste any time!

It was good for Nick and I though, because we could relax and take it all in in relative peace and quiet.

The monument is an imposing blue and white structure with great landscaping and matching gates to the north, south, east, and west. It really is a beautiful memorial.

The hall is flanked on either side by the National Theater and National Concert Hall (above)

(This is of the National Theater which is located in the park with the CKS memorial)

They actually have a museum in the lower level of the structure, but we didn’t even realize it was there the first time we went and missed it altogether (the signs are not in English.)

On Saturday, though, we returned to check out the museum and we weren’t disappointed. The exhibit areas are full of pictures of the late president and glowing reviews of what an inspiring person and valiant leader he was for the Republic of China.

Chaing Kai-Shek.... world advocate for democracy - except for in Taiwan, which he ruled as a dictator

Unbiased? Definitely not.

Interesting and fun to visit? Definitely.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Nick's a Star Too!!!

Watch out Brangelina! Nick's got his own advertisement as well!!!What a handsome boyfriend I have!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Bit on Homophones

It is amazing how much you learn about your own language once you start to teach it.

Simultaneously studying Chinese and teaching English has given me some great new insights on the art and science of both languages, and I have to say, it has been quite eye-opening.

One of the most interesting things I have learned is how ignorant people (myself included) are of the difficulties inherent in their own native tongue.

For example, it wasn't until this year that I realized how complex and confusing English grammar is. For the most part, it has always just been second nature for me. (As a side note, it also wasn't until this year that I learned how to to spell the word grammar!)

I also had not realized until recently, how vast and varied the choices are in the English lexicon. I have come to appreciate the beauty of our language - with so many words and their subtle shades of meaning. Choosing the perfect word for any given situation is an art that is almost impossible to teach to an ESL student.

After a long day of teaching English, am I perturbed, irritated, annoyed, vexed, disgruntled, fed up, exasperated, or simply displeased?? The choices are endless!

Recently, I did some editing for a fertility clinic's advertisement in which they claimed they could help you "breed a baby!" Of course this sounds ridiculous, but how are they to know that we only use the word breed when we're talking about farm animals!

As I am becoming more and more aware of the intricacies or language, I continuously find myself baffled by many of the things that my students say to me when we discuss the differences between Chinese and English.

One of the most common things that I hear goes something like this "English grammar is so difficult! Chinese is much easier, we don't have any grammar."

I must say, this is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard! It is true that Chinese grammar is simpler than English grammar, but just because there is no conjugation of verbs does not mean that the language is grammar-less!

I have been studying Chinese for the last 7 months and I can assure you that Chinese has grammar - I myself am having a heck of a time trying to master it! But no matter how much I argue with them, some will simply not let it go. Many native Chinese speakers are utterly convinced that their own language has no grammar rules!

But by far the most befuddling thing that I have heard from my students is that English is difficult because it has a lot of words that sound the same but have different meanings.

Really!? Homophones are what makes English difficult for a Chinese speaker? The Chinese language has got to be the KING of homophones, and you think homophones are the difficult part of English?! Well, to each his own I guess.

It is at this point in my lesson that I usually write the word homophone on the board and start pointing out examples like through and threw, or right and write. Then my students will start to join in with words like
  • bunch and branch
  • indivisible and invisible
  • require and inquire
  • bubble and Barbara
and my favorite
  • ambulance and excellence

Yes, the difficulties for them are not the actual homophones in the English language, but the words that almost sound the same.

On one hand I can kind of see where there coming from, but on the other hand - well I really just can't!

To understand my complete exasperation at this answer let's take a look at the Chinese language. The language has four tones, which means there are four ways to say any given syllable.

The syllable ma for instance could mean mother (first tone), horse (third tone), to scold (fourth tone) and could be a verbal question mark ma (neutral tone).

On top of having four possible ways to say one syllable, if you choose just ONE way to say one syllable, you are still left with many possible characters - each character having its own meaning.

For example the syllable bi (fourth tone), gives you 58 possible characters!!!! (比 ,必,庇 ,拂 ,泌 ,俾 ,祕 ,陛 ,埤 ,婢 ,敝,畢 ,閉 ,弼 ,愎 ,賁 ,痺 ,睥 ,辟 ,幣 ,弊 ,碧 ,裨 ,蔽 ,壁 , 斃 ,臂 ,薜 ,避 ,璧.... )

That is 58 possible words (and meanings) for ONE phonetic pronunciation

And homophones are difficult in English!? Not even close!!!!

But, What can I say... there is no wrong way to write your own language, right?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Danshuei 淡水

This weekend was our friend Eric's birthday, so a small group of us got together to celebrate!
And just how to do you celebrate a birthday in Taiwan, you ask... at the KTV, of course! 
Any time we hang out with Eric we are guaranteed to have a good time, especially when there is dancing involved... he's awesome! Check out his dance to Britney Spears' Oops I Did It Again!

After a couple hours of singing and games

we turned in for somewhat of an early night, to store up our energy for Saturday. Eric spent the night in our spare bed room and then we all went up to Taipei early Saturday morning to spend a jam-packed day together.

Our first stop in Taipei (after lunch) was at the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院). Although the museum is in Taipei, they managed to build it in an area that is completely surrounded by lush green mountains. The scenery was beautiful, the air (seemed) clean, and the sky was BLUE! It was a gorgeous day.

Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take any pictures inside of the museum, but it was definitely neat. They actually have artifacts from China dating back to 8,000 years ago!!! 

I have to admit, I felt a bit rushed through the museum (we had a full day planned) so I would definitely like to go back again another day, just the two of us, to spend more time reading about the history and checking everything out. 

After the museum, it was off to Danshuei 淡水 to see the sunset. The Danshuei River runs through northern Taiwan and feeds into the Taiwan Strait about a 45 minute MRT ride from Taipei.

Like any tourist attraction in Taiwan, the board-walk area was crowded and full of street vendors. Even so, it is a really nice little area. It was so nice to be out of the city and actually near the ocean that neither one of us actually minded the crowds.

By the time we arrived in Danshuei, the sunset was already drawing near, so we headed to the Pier to buy a ticket for a sunset boat ride.

Unfortunately, our timing was a little off. So, we ended up (not) watching the sunset from a long line on boardwalk (with a completely obstructed view of the sunset) instead of out on the water!

Fortunately, our friends were gracious enough to hold our place in line so we could get a view of the sunset. 

I must say, it was refreshing to see the sun actually set for the first time in months.

Just as the sun set, we boarded our boat to Fisherman's Wharf (淡水漁人碼頭).

Fisherman's Wharf was much less crowded and had a really nice feel to it. There really wasn't much to do there except walk around and take in the view, but it was really enjoyable. The restaurant right on the pier had a great female singer who that added to the whole atmosphere... it was very relaxing.

The main attraction of Danshuei's Fisherman's Wharf is a little bridge that reminded me of Boston's Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge

(picture from here)

but a bit smaller....

From the bridge, we had a great view of the pier, the ocean, and the sky

For the casual tourist in Taiwan, I don't know if I would label Danshuei as a must-see attraction... it's a pretty typical wharf-area you can find pretty much anywhere, but for someone living in Taiwan, it's a great way to "get out of the city" without actually leaving the city.

Both at the museum and at the wharf, there were large crowds to navigate, but we did go out on a Saturday, so this is inevitable. Fortunately, it wasn't so much that it stopped us from enjoying the day. 

It's pretty rare for us to see a blue sky here and even rarer still to catch a view of the sunset, and spending the time with good friends made it even better!