ten things I never told you

there's been a lot of Taiwan and traveling going on around here lately. but sometimes I like to take a step back, make a cup of tea, do a silly self-portrait session, and get a little personal.

so I made you a list - of ten things I've never told you. [or at least not recently.]

I once spent 3 months without Facebook.

and let me tell you - it was glorious. not having to see all the pointless things people share, get wrapped up in political arguments, or feel the need to be posting things so others could judge my life. BUT then we decided to move abroad and Facebook [sadly] became my main method of communication with those back home. I try to post often enough that people know what's going on in my life, but not check it so often I upset myself. it definitely helped that I made a major "friend" purge before deactivating my account.

I have a weakness for regency era romance novels.

and I mostly download the free ones from kindle, so I've read some pretty terrible ones. I definitely appreciate the freedoms I have as a woman of the modern era... but something about that part of history resonates with me. I also have a weakness for historical fiction in general. and British things. so maybe it's not that surprising.

I'm afraid of going to the dentist.

I don't like going to doctors of any kind and thinking too closely about even visiting someone in the hospital makes me sweat. I went to the dentist yesterday and had myself all psyched out that I had a cavity and was dreading getting it drilled and filled. nope, no cavities. thankfully I found a dentist here who is super nice and treats me like the scared 5 year old I am when I walk in her office.

I'm writing a book.

ok, I definitely have mentioned this on the blog before. but it's been a while since I've written about it. and it's been a while since I've done serious work on my manuscript. I have a pretty solid rough draft of my travel/expat memoir thus far. and I'm getting back to work on it recently. but it needs some revision and refining before I even start looking into the publication process.

I crashed my scooter.

or really, I fell off of the scooter and bruised my knee so badly I couldn't walk properly for two months. it happened back in the early days of this blog so I didn't make a big deal of it. I was still adjusting to life in Taiwan and I didn't want to leave anyone with a negative impression of my experience here. so I wasn't completely honest about it. maybe someday you guys will get the full story.

I forget that I've been to Spain.

I visited Spain for a two week study abroad program in college. but that was over a decade ago, and my photos were all terrible quality since I didn't want to buy a larger memory card. [which, by the way, is my biggest travel regret. ever.] someday I hope to go back and retake those photos. in the meantime I'll just try to remember - oh yes I have been to Europe.

I ran a half marathon once.

that was in 2011. I'm still amazed and proud that I could find the dedication to train for it. and in 2013 I managed to run a slightly shorter 10 mile race. running and I have kindof a love/hate relationship, but I'm hoping to find another half marathon to tackle next spring.

I rarely leave the house without mascara.

unless I'm going for a run, or on vacation, or in desperate need of coffee. everybody needs some kind of security blanket right?

my tattoo is a symbol from a video game.

I modified it a little, but my tattoo is based on the triforce from the Legend of Zelda series. in the games, the smaller triangles that make up the triforce stand for courage, wisdom, and strength [or power.] there's a lot of other meanings wrapped up in it for me... but those three attributes are something I try to remind myself of every day.

I didn't want to move to Asia.

I know. this from the girl who is always talking about her love for Taiwan. five years ago I was terrified at the thought of even traveling to China for business. it just seemed so... foreign. when we started looking to move abroad I quickly had to face the reality that the most opportunity [and lowest cost of living] was in a place that was at the bottom of my list. having never visited Asia at all before moving here, I was terribly anxious. but now I can't imagine how things would be in our life otherwise.

and those are all the deep, dark confessions I have for today. I hope you enjoyed a little peek into my head and I'll be back with more tips for visiting Taiwan next week.

what are some things you've never shared on your blog?


a short sheep story

while New Zealand is famous for its epic scenery, it is also known for one fuzzy mammal: sheep.

driving through the countryside on our 3 week road trip afforded plenty of opportunity for sheep spotting. catching them on camera, however, proved to be a challenge. my friend and I soon made it a goal to achieve the perfect sheep shot. up close through a fence, or maybe with rolling hills and bales of hay in the background... but the sheep were not cooperative.

time and again we were foiled. they were too far away, the grass was too tall, we couldn't get the right angle. until the day of our Hobbiton tour. as we were pulling out of the lot to make our way up to Whitianga, we encountered a pen of sheep right at the side of the road. we leapt out of the car, cameras in hand, excited to finally have the perfect opportunity.

and the sheep ran away from us.

please take a moment to picture this scenario: me, standing with my camera on the side of a road, stomping my foot and yelling "damn it, come back here!" to a flock of sheep. there may have also been some "here, sheep-y sheep-ies!" uttered to try enticing them over to me. also, with no success.

are you laughing hysterically? because I am.

thankfully I had better luck with the penguins, but there's a reason why most of my New Zealand photos are of mountains and plants: they don't move.


visiting Taiwan: a guide on how to travel

a guide to traveling in Taiwan: information on all major types of public transportation and tips on how to use them to efficiently travel around Taiwan

so you've decided to visit Taiwan.

first, let me say: good choice! Taiwan is one of the most overlooked destinations in Asia. many travelers don't realize just how much this island has to offer. Taiwan has blue beaches and green mountains, marble gorges and tall forests, colorful temples and mouthwatering cuisine. but before we talk about the destinations in Taiwan you should visit - let's discuss the insanely clean, organized, and efficient transportation system that will take you to all these wonders.

a guide on how to travel in Taiwan: when to use which kinds of public transit [bus, train, subway] and when to take a cab or car

arriving in Taiwan

the island has a number of smaller airports, but the major hubs are Taoyuan International Airport / TPE and Kaohsuing International Airport / KHH. most travelers arrive at Taoyuan and make their way to Taipei [just north of the airport] by taxi for about 1200 to 1500NT, shuttle bus to Taipei Main Station for about 85 to 140NT, or by connecting by transfer bus to the high speed rail [30NT bus fare, 160NT HSR.] for the past few years they have been working on a train line to connect the high speed rail to the airport, and the latest update says it should open December 2015.

if you plan to travel within Taiwan by air, most major cities have an airport. however, the island is small and rail options are abundant. I would advise getting around the island by other means once you arrive.

do I need a visa to enter Taiwan?

the Bureau of Consular Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan has a list of countries that qualify for visa-exempt entry. the United States, UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, and most of Europe are on this list and citizens qualify for a 90-day stay, with no fees on arrival. you can find more information about visas here and remember to please double check with your own country's regulations if you have a question. [also important to note: Taiwan is the Republic of China, and a visa that allows you into mainland China / the People's Republic of China is not valid for entry here.]

traveling in Taiwan using EasyCard

get yourself an easycard

traveling around the island can be a breeze if you're prepared. Taiwan's public transit system is clean, efficient, and inexpensive. to be honest - this is my preferred way to get around. you can purchase an easycard in any Taipei Metro station, from a machine or the person at the service counter. the easycard requires a 100NT deposit and you can add value to be used for subway or bus fare, purchases at 7-11 or even Starbucks. otherwise you will need to carry exact change for buses, and buy a subway token each time you'd like to ride the MRT. there's a reason why they named it easy card.

public transit etiquette in Taiwan

behavior on the buses and trains is different from many other countries I've traveled to [and places I've lived in - ahem, New York.] for the most part, people are orderly and stand in lines. there are special seating areas for elderly, injured, or pregnant passengers. and the biggest difference: everyone is quiet. sure, some people have hushed conversations. but most are just sitting, or texting on their phones. they don't play loud music or yell to each other down the car. and if you make a lot of noise? you'll get the stink eye. my best advice is to be quiet and respectful, and to follow the rules.

view from an MRT station in Taipei

MRT: Mass Rapid Transit

the Taipei Metro subway system is hands down the cleanest and most efficient I've seen worldwide. no food or drink are allowed, the trains stop in the exact same spot every time, and there are designated waiting areas where people line up to board the trains. all stations are equipped with English signage, tell you how long until the next train arrives, and have helpful maps that show you the location of the station and where each exit leads into the surrounding neighborhood. as I mentioned last week, they also offer free wi-fi. [note that Kaohsiung also has an MRT system, though it is less extensive.]

when to take the MRT: anytime! trains on the Taipei Metro run from 6am to around midnight, depending on the stop. you will scan your card [or pre-paid token] when entering the station, and scan again [or deposit your token] when exiting at your destination. using your easycard will give you a fare discount.

riding the bus

outside of Taipei and Kaohsiung, the public bus system is your best bet for getting around a city. there are a handful of apps out there that will help you make sense of things, and google maps is usually pretty accurate on using buses. many stops have signs that estimate when the next bus arrives. I've grown to love taking the bus - most days. the time tables are not always accurate, and on smaller buses I've had issues with drivers only making requested stops. but 95% of the time the bus will get you where you need to go.

and as Felix pointed out in the comments, you can also take buses between major cities or to tourist destinations. for those you should buy your tickets ahead of time at the bus station.

when to take the bus: when your destination is a hike from the MRT line, the bus is more direct, or when you are in a city without MRT service. the bus usually has a sign that tells you to pay on boarding or alighting - when in doubt do what everyone else is doing. swipe your easycard to pay or carry exact change [typically 15NT per ride.]

TRA: Taiwan Railways Administration

the TRA rail system in Taiwan connects all the island's major cities in a giant loop, with a few offshoots for special tourist destinations. it is also crazy affordable. when I think of how much I used to pay to ride New Jersey Transit from Princeton to Penn Station, I cringe. [traveling from Hsinchu to Taipei is about the same distance, for a tenth of the price.] there are several companies that operate trains, with varying stops along the routes and thus varying trip times and prices. many trains have assigned seating. make sure to hold on to your ticket, as you will need to scan it both to enter and exit your station.

when to take the TRA: if you're traveling to anywhere on the east coast of Taiwan from Taipei, or out to a tourist destination from a High Speed Rail station. you can also take the TRA to save money if you have the time. if you plan to travel on a weekend or holiday, book your tickets in advance. this website has some great info and photos explaining how the TRA booking system works.

THSR: Taiwan High Speed Rail

I don't know how else to say it: I love Taiwan's high speed rail system. not yet a decade old, this line runs down the west coast of Taiwan from Taipei to Kaohsiung [Zuoying.] that's about the same distance between New York and Washington DC - and the high speed rail can get you there in an hour and a half. the cost is about 3 times that of the TRA and the trains don't circle the island, but I always think it's worth the price to get there in half the time or less. the HSR also does reserved seating [as well as a few cars for non-reserved.] you should also hold on to your ticket while riding, as you will need to scan to both enter and exit.

when to take the high speed rail: anytime you're moving up and down the west coast. connect through Taipei Main Station or ask a cab driver to take you to the gaotie: gow [like "cow] tee - a [like the letter "a"] and be prepared for speeds up to 300km/hr.

taking a cab in Taiwan

as much as I like to sing the praises of public transit, sometimes you just want to take a cab. most drivers will be able to get you to your destination if you show them an address or map on your smartphone [even better if you have the address in Chinese.] I like to pick up business cards to hand the drivers, since the address is usually in Mandarin. cabs in Taiwan are cheaper than Europe or the US, with the [plentiful] cabs in Taipei being cheaper than the rest of the island. some cab companies will also allow you to hire a driver for 4 or 8 hours - rates depending but around 1500 to 2500NT from my experience. ask your hotel to arrange this.

when to take a cab: when you are in Taipei and going somewhere far from the MRT or bus, have luggage with you, or late at night coming home. you might also consider a cab if you have to wait 20 minutes for the bus and are running late. and of course cabs will get you around other cities when public transport is lacking.

renting a car or scooter

if [and only if] you are in possession of an international driver's permit, you might consider renting a scooter or car for your travels in Taiwan. this country is a right-hand side driving country, with speed limits posted in kilometers per hour. if you are scooting, wearing a helmet is required by law. scooters, buses, and the ubiquitous blue trucks seem to rule the road here in Taiwan. if you do decide to drive here I can't stress enough: be careful.

when to drive yourself: if you are planning to go off the beaten track, having your own wheels can be useful. much of central Taiwan is inaccessible by public transit. these roads can also be steep, winding, and in ill repair so plan accordingly.

a guide to traveling in Taiwan: information on all major types of public transportation and tips on how to use them to efficiently travel around Taiwan

there are a few off-shore islands which can be reached by ferry boat, but other than walking or biking, I think I've covered all modes of transport in Taiwan. I'm pretty sure you're tired of me using the words "clean" and "affordable" and "organized" so I'll just reiterate one last time: it really is easy to get around here using public transit - even if you can't read or speak Mandarin.

this post is the second in a series of tips for visiting Taiwan. for more information, please see:
part 1: a guide on what to pack
part 2: a guide on how to travel [this post]
part 3: a guide on where to go + what to see


Seoul searching in South Korea

honestly, I have mixed feelings about our time in Seoul. when we visited, the city was a complete opposite of what we had been told to expect. thanks to our arrival on the eve of lunar new year, the bright and bustling city of 10 million was not much more than a ghost town. and the whole experience was negatively colored by jet lag and the fact that I ate nothing but a handful of granola bars our entire time in South Korea.

how did we even end up in Seoul? we had a 20-hour layover on our way back from New Zealand. South Korea was not really on the way to Taiwan, but the airfare was cheap. it was bitter cold and we were all exhausted from three weeks of travel, and many shops and restaurants were closed for the holiday. and after all the planning that went into New Zealand, we had utterly neglected to research anything about what to eat, see or do while in Seoul.

the morning after our arrival we woke to empty streets. I went in search of coffee to fortify myself. the only place open at 8am was Starbucks, but wonder of wonders, in Korea [unlike Taiwan] they believe in the power of soy peppermint mochas. I'm ashamed to say that might have been my most enjoyable moment in Korea.

I look at the photos and I see a beautiful and unique city. but I just feel... bleh. so bear with me as I do my best to tell you what we saw, mostly by accident. [I only know the names and facts because I took pictures of all the signs - which helpfully had english translations.]

bosingak belfry

we had less than four hours to explore the city. so we wrapped ourselves in every layer of clothing we had and walked towards this large bell pavilion we had spotted on our drive in the night before. apparently you can book tickets here to see a traditional bell-ringing ceremony... but of course not on the lunar new year. I'm not sure if the little cartoon bell we saw on streetlamp everywhere was related, but he sure was cute.

jogye-sa temple

we left the belfry and went in the opposite direction, serendipitously discovering this temple which happens to be the headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. [kindof a big deal.] the grounds were a bit of a mess, as they were clearly setting up or taking down for a new year's celebration. but the buildings were still lovely.

one of my favorite things about traveling in Asia is finding the differences between each culture's temples. so how does a Korean Buddhist temple compare? definitely more colorful than Japan, but similar in materials and structure. I loved all the greens, teal, and turquoise in the painted decorations and the silver guardians were an interesting touch.

sadly, whatever peace and enjoyment our visit to the temple brought me was squashed in a few short minutes during a trip to the restroom. many temples offer public facilities - usually not western style or the cleanest, but when you need them they are often there. as a white foreign female I occasionally have trouble in Taiwan being ignored and cut in front of while waiting in line. my experience in Korea was far worse. I felt like a filthy stray animal who had wandered where they did not belong, just begging to be spat on or kicked at. I was literally shoved out of the way, given dirty looks, and ultimately left the restroom nearing tears and ready to leave the entire country behind.

gyeongbokgung palace

by the time we reached the palace I think all of us were about done. the masses had begun to emerge, and we quickly tired of the crowds. [especially me, after my restroom experience.] we opted not to go inside as we didn't know how long it would take, and the ticket lines were insanely long. instead we wandered the surrounding neighborhood where the streets were more quiet.

insa-dong neighborhood

after a few dead ends, we stumbled into what could only be Insa-Dong. we had heard such good things about this maze of shops and alleys. I think a visit on a non-holiday, a weekend afternoon or evening this place would have been hopping. as it was, we couldn't even find an open place that the four of us could agree on to eat. [part of this being we know nothing of Korean cuisine. #travelreasearchfail.] our fingers and toes and noses were numb, we were starving, and we still had to find our way back to our hotel to get a cab to the airport. so we just left.

I don't mean to sound like such a downer about our whole experience - this city clearly has potential. we just weren't there in the right moment, or in the right frame of mind to see it. I think with more planning, and at a different time of year Seoul could have a lot to offer. our visit was mostly cold and confusing - and hungry. we were all coming down off the New Zealand high and I think not yet ready to be re-immersed into Asian culture.

this feels like one of the strangest posts I've ever written, but I can't bring myself to give you a shiny and cheerful account of Seoul when that was not my experience. we saw some beautiful things, had a few enjoyable moments, but our short time in South Korea left me feeling bewildered. I don't want to say I didn't like it, but I definitely didn't love it.

but hey- at least this was a place I didn't have to feel awkward about using my selfie stick.

have you ever been to a place that was completely unlike your expectations? do you have any recommendations that might help me enjoy Seoul if I ever go back?

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