Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Best Things About Taipei

My personal blog writing continues to be embarrassingly sporadic. I tend to post about all our adventures on Facebook and get lazy from there. A professional hazard, I guess. Too busy creating content for work, but you won't hear me complaining as I love what I do. This is a long overdue post that came to mind as we took our second trip to Taipei, Taiwan at Christmas (2018). We had been to Taipei (and southern Taiwan) near the beginning of our stint in China and this was a welcome chance to see more. We did some of the major tourist sites the first time (Taipei 101, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and the more popular night markets). This time, we focused on spending time in neighborhoods, parks, exploring more diverse street food (and food in general) and just soaking up the city.

We stayed in an Airbnb near many of the universities and in the heart of the Shida night market, so we had tons of back alleys with local food spots and shops just outside our door. And, it had a massive rooftop deck overlooking the city (covered, which is perfect for Taipei's rainy weather). I highly recommend a rental apartment over a hotel room in Taipei.

The view from our deck
Taipei is a special breath of fresh air (sometimes literally) when you live in mainland China, especially a big city like Shanghai. The culture will feel very familiar, but everything is a bit easier. Both times visiting, we had people pretty immediately stop and ask us if we needed help as soon as we stood around looking for something. And, each time it happened it was genuine and they helped put us on the right path. So, here are the top reasons I love Taipei and why I think Taipei (and Taiwan more broadly) should be on everyone's travel list.

Some of my favorite things about Taipei:

1. It's easy to escape the urban environment of Taipei for a nature or small town break. 

I loved spending time walking around Da'an Forest Park. It was a quick walk from our apartment and I went there on a few occasions. It's a massive park with a lot of activity and many different areas.

Bird watching in Daan Park

Additionally, my "must do in Taipei" list for this time included hiking up Elephant Hill at Sunset for a view of Taipei 101 and the city. It's a pretty serious uphill (stairs) climb but worth it for the views. You can easily access Elephant Hill from the subway, just a couple stops from Taipei 101. This whole area was so attractive, I'd suggest going a bit ahead of sunset and spending more time walking around.


We also spent a day visiting the National Palace Museum and then heading up to Tamsui. It's a fun, though very touristy, old fishing village. You simply take the metro about 40 minutes from the city center and everything's within walking distance.
National Palace Museum

Food, shopping, fun in Tamsui

Water views in Tamsui

Unfortunately, with the rainy and foggy weather, I didn't think it was worth doing the other nature activity I'd planned to, the Maokong Gondola. However, this would be high on my list if I returned. Again, you can access it right from the subway and can also visit the Taipei Zoo. The ride itself looks stunning and then you can spend time exploring the tea plantations there.

Yangmingshan National Park is another natural attraction with easy access from the city. And, many people take day trips to Pinxi, Jiufen, Yehliu Geopark, and Shifen. You can do it on your own, or Viator and others offer packaged tours to hit the major spots.

If you want to go further afield, Sun Moon Lake would be an option. And, we absolutely loved our time in Hualien and Taroko Gorge (a few hour train ride from Taipei).

2. Food is one of Taipei's main attractions.

Ranging from ubiquitous night markets and delicious street food to ultra-modern cuisine, with everything in between. You could spend days just exploring markets, and years hitting all the different street food vendors and small shops for different specialties. Street food is accessible and safe.

I have to admit one of my favorite things about Taipei is the Japanese influence in cuisine. If you aren't aware, the Japanese occupied Taiwan from 1895-1945. You can still see remnants of that time and Japanese influence in everything from architecture to food. Of course, Japanese cuisine has spread far and wide, especially in neighboring countries. But, Taipei is a Japanese food lover's paradise. We were lucky to get a reservation at Da Wan Yakiniku restaurant on this trip (you can reach them via their Facebook page, make sure to plan well in advance). They have very limited space as everyone is seated around the bar/cooking area with essentially your own chef and food consultant, who will guide you through a delicious meal. Meat eaters will savor the various cuts of wagyu beef, but everything from the seafood to the veggies was outstanding.


My other two favorite food activities on this trip were: Aquatic Addiction and Taipei Eats' Dadaocheng tour. Aquatic Addiction is a complex sitting next to the Taipei fish market. It includes several different restaurants and little sushi and wine bars, as well as a food shop. The fish was unbelievably fresh and it was a fun atmosphere. I'd suggest walking around and taking a look at the whole place and then trying to find a spot. It can be crowded, so you might have to wait, but you can often grab some quick sushi or a drink in the meantime.

Dadaocheng has interesting 19th-century architecture and a thriving food scene of local treats. We tried everything from fish ball soup (sooo much better than I expected--these fish balls were stuffed with pork! might sound gross, but I assure you it is not) to herbal tea and warm rice cakes and a refreshing icy dessert. Our guide was informative and fun, and we had so much food we were turning down tastes by the end.


 

3. You could spend days exploring all the alleyways.

I'm a sucker for winding alleyways and just getting lost exploring. Our Airbnb location was perfect for this, in the heart of the Shida night market and surrounded by tiny streets full of shops, food, and cafes. Every neighborhood of Taipei seems to have atmospheric alleys with local flavor, hip cafes, tiny stores, hidden restaurants and bars.


4. Taipei is a book lovers paradise.

Taipei is home to the 24-hour Eslite bookstore, perfect for browsing on a rainy day (or night). I noticed a lot of people reading (books, not just their phones!) throughout the city. Taipei's many cafes are perfect for wiling away the day reading over a cup of coffee. Check out this list of Taipei's bookstores from Culture Trip for more to explore.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Six Years in Shanghai...Too Many Adventures to Count


Yep!

Sightseeing on our initial visit: Yu Gardens in August (boiling!)

The six years in Shanghai have flown by, full of new friends, goodbyes, travels, fun of all kinds, new jobs and exciting work, and the ups and downs of life in China. I'm so happy I documented my travels so well at the beginning and so disappointed I've stopped. But, on the other hand, I'd rather be soaking up all life has to offer than writing about it.

Recently, I was a guest on the Expat Rewind podcast. The host, Stephanie, is one of those new friends I've been lucky to meet in Shanghai. She attends the Podcast Brunch Club I run and we're also in book clubs and other groups together (there are so many more of these now than 6 years ago!). On her podcast, Stephanie asks people to read something they wrote online in their first year abroad and reflect back on it. I chose my post "The Ever Present ____ of China". You can hear my interview with Stephanie here:


This really got me looking back at the blog, thinking I should pick it back up, and generally reflecting on my adventures. I don't even know where to begin in covering everything I've experienced during this time. I've made great friends, visited almost every country in Asia, traveled around China's main tourist spots (and a few less visited), explored countless lanes in Shanghai, learned quite a bit about China and Shanghai, eaten at some of the most amazing restaurants in the world, and experienced all the ups and downs of daily life in Shanghai.

I always describe Shanghai as vibrant and dynamic. I can't pick two better words. 

Vibrant...

There is never a lack of things to do, people to meet and places to explore. I've really seen those opportunities (for a foreigner, in particular) blossom in the past few years. Scroll through meetup.com and you can find city walks, hiking groups, art groups, book clubs and something for nearly any interest. Each weekend an art group I'm part of goes on outings to various galleries and museums, never running out of new places to see. There are countless travel groups if you want to take anything from a day trip to a nearby village to a sojourn to Tibet and Everest Base camp with others. 

This international city with over 25 million people has a pulse all its own. I live at its very heart, not far from East Nanjing pedestrian street, a neon-lined shopping street that's always crowded except at about 4-5 AM. People's Square, my neighborhood, is the city center and was the racing grounds back in the day when foreigners sat at the nearby hotels/clubs watching the races with their tea and cocktails. You can still see the array of art deco architecture from that time, mixed in with busy streets and double-decker tourist buses. On weekends, you can barely walk through the park as its so packed with elderly people advertising their children at the "marriage market". And, old-school, lively Shanghai shopping takes place one street behind my home. Older people doing their daily shopping come out early to find tonight's dinner among the tubs of live seafood, small vegetable shops and butchers. Street food vendors offer starchy, oily goodies to get you going for the day.

Colors, sounds, and a solid mix of old and new abound. One street looks like the future, the other a step into a China past that is slowly disappearing. Within one street you see sleek hotels, office towers and luxury cars on display and the bicycle repairman who's camped out to repair the more traditional means of transport.

Dynamic...

Leaving for vacation means coming back to a changed city. You might find your favorite new restaurant has closed or perhaps the entire block of homes nearby is gone. You'll have 10-12 new restaurants to try, though, and plenty of new sites to see. Even long-held traditions and culture change at a pace you don't typically see elsewhere. Adoption of technology happens so fast, it skips over 3 or 4 iterations elsewhere. 

Rules change too fast to keep up. You always have to assume they'll be different, ask lots of questions and persist. 

The way the government can implement change astounds. We overlook a massive elevated highway and it used to be honking from dawn til midnight. I even said in my old blog post that this would never change. Never say never here. They started levying big fines for cars honking and made that problem disappear. Scooters, unfortunately, don't abide by those rules so it's still far from silent. Smoking is another impressive rule change. They had half-heartedly banned indoor smoking before, but then got serious about it. Importantly, they created significant fines for the businesses so they'd serve as enforcers rather than complicit rule breakers. Poof...the indoor smoking went up in smoke (for the most part). 

Like so many things, this is an example of how China has shown me the subtle pros and cons of different ways. It's highly complex governing the world's largest population. I'm not condoning all of its behavior by any means, but living here does teach you not to judge so quickly. Or, with your own cultural lense, without taking the time to observe and learn.

I'm glad to be back to blogging, though I won't promise to keep it up. But, I'm hoping to do a couple more reflection posts before we leave. And, perhaps to document more of the trips which I've missed writing about here (there are tons of photos on Facebook!).

In the meantime, there are always more Shanghai adventures.

Visiting the "Hidden Library" recently in Shanghai, a Ming and Qing era home which has not been remodeled












Saturday, March 19, 2016

Five Resources That Make Shanghai Expat Life Easy

Yes, there are many challenges to life as an expat...especially for an expat in Shanghai, China. Pollution, internet frustrations, trying to read those thousands of characters and perfect your tones, and the overwhelming noise and traffic of 24+ million people. But, really, let's be honest, we have it easy as Shanghai expats. Incredibly easy in many ways. Some of this is just thanks to modern tech that has generally made life easier as an expat or traveler, but there are many unique (and ever-changing) conveniences in Shanghai that make up for the lack of Google Maps and Translate.

Here are my top five Shanghai expat lifesavers (particularly geared to those of us with limited Chinese skills):

WeChat: The indispensable communications app that does so much more. First, you need it to get or keep in touch with anyone here (calling or texting is so old-fashioned!). With the ubiquitous use of WeChat, I now end up connecting with every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Xu, Apple and Dolphin) because we can easily translate each other's messages and not deal with messy attempts at phone calls. It's how I make my haircut appointments and was the only way I could negotiate with my gym a couple months ago. Group chats are used for planning every event (and laughing at all the resulting pics). Everywhere you go there's a QR code to scan so you can keep updated on the latest happenings, receive discounts, login to wifi, make appointments and more.



WeChat Wallet: Ok, yes, more WeChat love. But, this one deserves a separate mention. It’s (relatively) easy to set up (make sure you know the exact way your name is written on your bank account, and that this phone # is listed on that account). And, once you have it set up you won’t know how you lived without it. Just a short list of things I did using WeChat wallet recently: received money from a student, topped up my mobile phone, bought dinner, paid for groceries and a Taobao order, bought event tickets and paid my electric bill. Just another way you can avoid leaving the house when Shanghai feels a bit overwhelming! And, just wait until you receive some random hongbao money at Chinese New Year.

BonApp: Since this app arrived, I have been one happy camper (eater). It makes searching for restaurants in English easy and has a great review community. Besides reading reviews (local friends tell me they trust it more than the Chinese app, Dianping) you can check out the hours of the place, special deals, and the nearest metro stop and location (on a great map, in English!!!). You can save a wishlist of places you want to check out to refer back to when you're stuck in that rut of going to your old favorite too often. Plus, they have Deals and Meets so you can check out cool new places and special events. And, for many of the restaurants you can make a reservation right from the app via Chope (I’ve yet to try out Chope directly, but it works great via BonApp).



Sherpas: The classic savior of all lazy Shanghai expats. Other English-language food delivery sites have popped up, but this is still the best for service and the huge array of restaurants. Tip: order during happy hour (2 pm-6 pm) for free delivery! Seriously, if you’re not a Shanghai expat you probably don’t know the beauty of sitting home in your PJs, browsing through hundreds of restaurants, picking anything you fancy and getting it delivered free in about 45 minutes (and, you can also order booze and even cigarettes…clearly this could bring down the world if it went worldwide). I was so lazy (or productive?) that I ordered a cup of coffee the other day. There are many other great specialty delivery services for wine, specific foods, etc. that also make life in Shanghai great (shout out to Spread the Bagel!). Food from the Hood is the next one on my radar.



Kate and Kimi: Of course, you can get your groceries delivered in Shanghai (I can’t think of any category of item someone won’t bring to your home here) and you have tons of options. There are bargains to be had at the big stores (Carrefour, Yi Hou Dian), if you can navigate Chinese (even if you don’t, a lot of people manage it with some help setting their account up initially). But, as a Shanghai expat sometimes you need those comforting tastes of home. Darn those cravings for that ridiculously priced cereal or cheese! My #1 online grocery store is Kate and Kimi. They have a good selection (and many items I can’t find elsewhere) but the best is their BSK fresh selections and all the local "foodpreneurs" they promote. I am in love with their salads and chopped veggie kits as well as the meatballs and stews for quick dinners. Read my more detailed post reviewing Kate and Kimi favorites.

And, a bonus 6th: My newest favorite is Baopals, a simple way to shop on Taobao and your gateway into a world of goods. Check out more about Baopals and get a coupon to try it out here.


Kate and Kimi: My Favorite Choice for Groceries in Shanghi

Kate and Kimi online grocery store made my list of top five conveniences that make Shanghai expat life easier. So, what has me raving about Kate and Kimi?
  • Wide selection of products (imported, fresh/local, healthy and pre-made/easy dinners plus a huge selection of fruit, veggies, meat...)
  • Convenient delivery (multiple time slots and quick turnaround--I usually choose the early AM slot which cuts down on waiting around). What is better than groceries coming to you--for free*? *with minimum order
  • Easy payment options (WeChat Wallet--I love you!)
  • Good customer service: they've emailed me and credited the amount when something was out-of-stock and they respond quickly to questions or problems
  • Discounts and sales: they have a random sales page where you can pick up some bargains and they offer discounts for various groups (I'm a member of Shanghai Expatriate Association--SEA--and they offer an every day discount to group members)
But, the unique food options make Kate and Kimi my favorite Shanghai grocery store...

Blue Sky Kitchen, Kate and Kimi's own kitchen providing handcrafted specialty foods

Blue Sky Kitchen

Salads and Glow Bowls: BSK offers an array of tasty salads and "glow bowls" which make perfect, healthy on-the-go lunches. My favorite is the Tuna Nicoise (with dill dressing) and I also love the Roots and Kale salad (yum...beets!). You can choose your homemade dressing to personalize it to your tastes. The glow bowls include loads of veggies, kale and quinoa. I've had the Buddha's Delight several times...it comes with a delicious cashew honey mustard and is loaded with healthy ingredients like carrots, sweet potato, broccoli, dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds on the base of kale and quinoa.

Nicoise salad
Kate n Kimi Happy Buddha Glow Bowl
Roots and Kale Salad
Sliced and Diced Cheeses and Veggies: The prices are reasonable for the diced cheeses and it's easy to grab a few bites to go as a snack. Especially when you're cooking for 1-2, having someone else gather a variety of veggies and prepare them for you is not only convenient but is often cost-saving (and less wasteful). My favorite at Kate and Kimi is the stir fry kit! I cook it up with some ginger and add a little soy sauce and vinegar at the end and it makes at least two meals with rice.

Sir Fry Kit: mushrooms, edamame, peppers, cabbage, onion, snap peas
Yogurt Pots and Homemade Applesauce: I tried the yogurt pot with blackberry chia jam and it might be my new favorite breakfast, but I also can't wait to try their overnight oats and homemade applesauces. What a great way to get a healthy start to your day!



Easy Meals and On-the-Go Solutions

Lizzie's Smoothies: I'm not a big smoothie drinker but we tasted a couple of these recently and I can really see how great they are for a nutritious solution on-the-run. The Basil Drop had a fresh, tart taste and the Pink Punk kept Mr. Twowhotravel fueled up for nearly half a day through several classes and the grueling Shanghai commute.



Easy Meals: Kate and Kimi carries delicious local flavors with homemade sauces, stews and meatballs. We love the Chicken Basquaise (just serve over rice) and chicken meatballs (serve over pasta or with some crusty bread). The Chicken Tagine may become a new favorite!

Chicken Basquaise over rice (Kate and Kimi can even deliver the wine!)
International flavors/frozen meals: Kate and Kimi also carries a selection of frozen meals, including my husband's beloved Hot Pockets (which I had not previously seen at other Shanghai grocers).


Kate and Kimi also carries our favorite bagels from Spread the Bagel, which is an added convenience not having to place a separate order (though I wish they'd add the whole wheat bagels!).

In addition to all the specialty items, you can find your everyday items such as frozen beef, chicken, canned goods, pantry items, and a large selection of veggies and fruit. If you live in Shanghai, check out Kate and Kimi for an ever-growing selection of great groceries, delivered to your door.

*I was given several items to taste test for this blog post, but all opinions and the decision to create this post were strictly my own and based on my honest reviews from personal experience.

Monday, March 14, 2016

A New "Pal" for China Expats: Baopals

I'm working on an article on my top conveniences that make life easier as a Shanghai expat...these are the little things that I will definitely miss when I move away. Life as an expat is infinitely easier today with all the technological help, and no where is that more true than China/Shanghai. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share my latest find in convenience: Baopals.

Baopals' tagline is "Taobao for the rest of us". Yes, Taobao in English so you no longer have to awkwardly translate or ask a coworker for help. There's a little more to it than that...here's a description from their site: "We bring you all the products and shops from China’s Taobao and Tmall, the largest marketplace in the world. We’ve reorganized the products into baopals’ own departments, and added plenty of other tools to make it easier for you to find what you want. From there, simply choose your items, checkout with a variety of payment methods, and we’ll make sure your items get to you!"

For those that don't know Taobao, it is a massive marketplace of products and has just about anything you could ever want. Many Shanghai expats I know use it, but it's tough to navigate if you don't read Chinese. Not only does Baopals make it more accessible but you have a contact who can help if any shipping or other issues arise. They take (and will be adding more) additional payment options as well.

I ordered my first product recently...found just what I needed, saved about $10 over Amazon.cn and it was delivered to my local convenience store within 2 days (this is one of the handy shipping methods, so you can get the items at your convenience rather than coordinating home or work delivery...you receive a text and show the code at the store). We'd been searching for some odd light bulbs for our apartment and also got those for next to nothing in one day.

If you're an expat in China, here's a little gift for you: a coupon for 10 RMB for baopals.com.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Sri Lanka's Southwest Coast: Galle and Unawatuna Beach

We spent the last few days of our trip to Sri Lanka relaxing on the southwest coast. We stayed at the wonderful Thaproban Beach House in Unawatuna and enjoyed visiting the town of Galle as well. After a lot of driving and seeing so much diversity over the past several days, it was wonderful to settle in to this little beach town for some true R and R.

Thaproban Beach House and our lovely balcony room with a view to the ocean

View from Thaproban's restaurant
A lovely beach and cove for water sports/swimming

Evenings on Unawatuna


A great thing about Thaproban is that they have three resorts in Unawatuna and you can use the amenities at all of them. I loved staying right on the beach, but it was great to be able to go to their resort down the road for the pool (in an amazing oceanfront setting) and spa.





Unawatuna offers plenty of relaxation and fun. Yes, it might be considered a bit touristy (some say spoiled) and you will have to constantly say no to sales offers (everything from fruit to sunglasses and clothing) but we found it quite peaceful in the off season. There are plenty of little shops, restaurants and bars. You have to while away some time enjoying beachfront dining and cocktails...or water sports for the more active vacationers.

I also enjoyed walking down to Jungle Beach (just me, the monkeys and the Buddhist chanting along the way) and the Japanese Peace Pagoda. The other great feature of Unawatuna is the surrounding area, with lots of other lovely beaches and Galle nearby (as well as turtle sanctuaries, wildlife sites and tea plantations).


We had our driver take us in to Galle to spend the afternoon and evening there (about a 15 minute drive). Galle reflects the Dutch and Portuguese colonial era of Sri Lanka and is one of the best preserved examples of a Portuguese fortified city in Asia. It has lovely shops and restaurants and it's well worth spending some time walking along the city wall and enjoying the colonial architecture.






Strolling around the city wall as sunset nears, you will find plenty of other people enjoying the afternoon hours: tourists (even some from our adopted home wearing evening gowns...go figure!), local children playing sports, families enjoying a snack and even a few animals. Walk past the iconic lighthouse and continue around the wall, and stroll through the little streets to fully enjoy Galle.







There's a big cricket ground in Galle, but we happened upon an impromptu match in the middle of town. Then, we settled in at a nearby spot with a great view over the wall to watch sunset (and the buses full of others enjoying it too). It was a perfect way to spend my birthday...of course, capped off with a tasty meal. We enjoyed the art deco architecture and ambience (and food!) at Deco on 44.