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Japan Recap

Japan Recap

Hopefully we can get caught up on recap posts so we can write about our other experiences in more details, but for now we are doing our best!

Japan exceeded every expectation we had and is our favorite place we have been on this trip (and ever). It was a perfect blend of modern, exciting, clean, orderly, and safe. While we loved everything about Japan we also loved being able to experience it with my parents! We traveled way too fast, probably saw too many places, and I wouldn’t change anything! Japan is hands down the favorite place we have been to so far. We could not get enough of the culture, the language, and the food.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto

Cities Visited

Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima
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Things We Liked

EVERYTHING.

More specifically: great food, time with family, fancy toilets, friendly/helpful people, sushi, rules, bullet trains, easy availability of anything, craft beer, cleanliness, fall weather, ramen, people follow rules, seeing friends, efficient train/metro system everywhere….did I mention incredible food?

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Standing Sushi Bar is one of our favorites

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Things We Disliked

Expensive, crowds, strange showers, small hotel rooms/apartments and lack of trash cans.

Also, we didn’t get JR Passes (Japanese Railway) ahead of time…and you can’t get them once in Japan. This was a bummer as it would have saved us money and made our trip easier! Instead of the overnight bus we took to Tokyo we could have arrived in style by bullet train in less than half the time (and would not have had to sleep upright on a bus).

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Talk about luxury bus seats on the overnight bus!

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Highlights

1. The Bueschers Take Japan

 My parents came to Japan and it was some of the most fun weeks I have ever had. We made so many memories together and I am so damn proud of them! They adopted our independent style of travel (which can be so much work) and by the end of the trip they were pros at getting around the city. Also, big props to my Mom who chose Japan as a location even though she struggles to eat Japanese food. She did not like everything, but she tried *mostly* everything and was such a good sport! It was the best time and we were SO sad when it was time for them to go.  

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2. Ryokan

A ryokan is a Japanese style inn popular among Japanese tourists. When we decided on Japan as our location we knew that a ryokan stay was on the must do list. We walked into our room we found a traditional style room with tatami floor mats, a table with floor seats, fancy Japanese robes and no beds. We were not exactly sure how any of this works, but from what we learned on the internet is that ryokans are known for their multi-course meals they serve, onsens (Japanese hot springs), and traditional sleeping arrangements. We were so out of our comfort zone, but you know what they say about doing as the locals do. So we did! I feel like this expereince needs more explanation than I can offer here so a blog post is in the works.

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3. Sushi Dai

img_5533We waited in line for 3 hours to eat at the famed Sushi Dai. We sat down in the restaurant will 12 seats around 7:15 am. I knew since we were going in with high expectations that we would most likely disappointed….luckily, we were blown away! This is by far the best sushi I have ever eaten. I would go so far to say it was the best meal I have ever had. We went with the “omakase” which means trust the chef. The chef continued to put one delectable piece of sushi after another on our plate until we got to choose one last piece to end off on. For my last piece I asked the chef what her favorite was since she seemed to know what was up. Her reply was the sperm-sack of cod fish….uhhhh, I will go with the fatty tuna. Thanks.

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Tsijuki Fish Market

It is a tale that has been told before and will be told many times in the future by other travelers. We were out to see the famed tuna auction that takes place at Tsijuki Fish Market. We read online to get there between 3-4 am if you want a chance to be one of the lucky 120 people to see the auction. We arranged a taxi to pick us up at the apartment and drive us across the city, as the metro was not running at that hour. We arrived at the fish market at 3:30 am and we were greeted with the guards telling us we were out of luck and that the auction tickets were all gone for the day. Half asleep still and with no way back home until 6:30 in the morning we got in the queue for Sushi Dai, a famous restaurant in the Outer Market nearby. We waited for three hours before we ate the best meal we have ever had. See highlights for more on that experience.

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We had to wait another hour or two to get into the inner market to check out what all the hype was about. It was crazy and hectic with lorries driving everywhere (quickly I might add) and fish everywhere. It was visually overwhelming and we are so glad we waited to see it! The quick driving lorries seemed a bit hazardous to us, but we did our best to stay out of the way and not get hurt.

Craft Beer

After spending two months in Asia we have had our fair share of watery, Asian brews. They aren’t terrible beers, but they are nothing like our beloved craft beer. Living in Denver (and really anywhere in the US now) craft beers are all around. We love us a good, hoppy IPA and have missed them on our trip. Enter Japan’s craft beer scene. Not only do they have a lot of craft breweries they also have a small population of Japanese people interested in craft beer so they import many different kinds from the States too. My Dad is a fellow craft beer lover so it was only natural that we had to seek out some breweries and craft beer bars on our trip to Japan.img_8793

The Stats

Total Number of Nights: 16

Languages: Japanese

Currency: $1 USD = 103 Japanese Yen

Number of Miles Traveled:  4,060 miles (including our flight from Thailand)

Number of Miles Walked:  125.3 miles (average of 7.8 miles per day)

Steps Taken:  269,561 steps (average of about 16,846 per day)

Transportation Used: train, Shinkansen (bullet train), bus, overnight bus, boat, taxi, gondola, cable car

Type of Accommodations: Hotel (1), Apartment (4), Ryokan (1)

Number of Beds: 6

Met up with our favorite fighter pilot while in Japan!
Met up with our favorite fighter pilot while in Japan!

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Cambodia Recap

Cambodia Recap

On a whim we decided to buy a cheap flight over to Cambodia with one goal in mind…to check out the famed Angkor Wat. We spent some time exploring temples, discovering undeveloped beaches and learning about the horrifying past of Cambodia. Our time was mixed with extremely beautiful places, constant reminders of poverty, lessons about humanity, and we feel that we have left Cambodia with a new perspective. Out of all of the places we have been so far on this trip it was the most raw.

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Cities Visited

Siem Reap, Phnom Pehn, Otres Beach (outside of Sihanoukville)

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 Things We Liked

Angkor Wat, cheap beer ($0.50-$1), friendly people, nice beaches, no currency conversions (they use USD mainly), ease of travel, and very little language barrier

Things We Disliked

Tourists everywhere, bus rides (no road rules whatsoever and so many Cambodian karaoke videos), incessant selling of goods/services, lack of Khmer food scene (so much western food), and trash everywhere.

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Highlights

1. Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is a collection of ancient temples outside of Siem Reap and exploring here was exactly why we chose to make the trip to Cambodia. We spent a full day exploring the ancient temples and they never got old (even as we were dodging rain/mud for most of the morning). It was an absolute highlight of our trip so far! We will post more on Angkor Wat in a future post (and more pictures since we have SO many).

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2. Otres Beach  

After our 10 hour *slightly terrifying* bus ride down to the coast from Siem Reap, we were really hoping that it was worth it. Otres Beach (Otres 2 to be exact) was exactly what we were looking for. We arrived at our beach bungalow in complete darkness to dirt roads, a highly undeveloped area, and a lot of mosquitoes. The next morning when we woke up we were totally surprised to find our beach paradise! Although it was rainy season and we experienced our fair share of rain and clouds, we enjoyed some rest and relaxation on the beach. It was refreshing to be in an area where there is absolutely nothing to do but to kick off your shoes and relax for a while. We have heard that Cambodian beaches are what Thai beaches were 20 years ago before development and resorts were everywhere.dsc_0972-1

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Hardest Experiences

1. Killing Fields/Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

During the late 1970s, Cambodia experienced one of the worst genocides to have ever happened at the hands of their government at the time, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. It is thought that between 1.5 and 3 million people (roughly 25% of the population in Cambodia) lost their lives for no reason at all the short span of 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days.We spent the day visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the site of a former high school turned into one of the most notorious prisons (S-21), and at one of the most well known killing fields at Choeung Ek, best known as simply The Killing Fields. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo read more about the Cambodian Genocide click here or to read more about the places we visited click here. I honestly can’t write a post about our day spent at these places. Many other people have and they are a touching tribute to these places, but I don’t have the words to do it justice.

While we were grateful to learn about Cambodia’s past, we were equally horrified by what happened here and to see what humanity can do to one another. At the end of the audio tour at The Killing Fields the narrator said these words that won’t ever leave me:

“This was hardly the first case of genocide. We never thought it could happen here. But it did. And the thing is, it can happen anywhere…Tragically, it will probably happen again. So for your sake, remember us – and remember our past as you look to your future.”

2. Poverty

Processed with Snapseed.In our travels there have been many places that have evident poverty on this trip, but Cambodia’s poverty was the most palpable so far. It was a reminder about how incredibly fortunate we are. As we traveled 10 hours by bus down to the south of Cambodia, we were able look out the window and see a snapshot of life for many in this country. The scenery we passed along the way varied from basic houses to dilapidated shacks. This bus ride and our week here as a whole was eye opening and made us think about our lives differently. Why do I have so much when others have so little?

The hardest part of this is that this poverty exists all over the world, even in our own backyard. Cambodia is not even the poorest country in the world, not even close. It isn’t even the poorest country I have been to, but it still made us feel pretty shitty that we are fortunate enough to be traveling the world when some people haven’t even made it to the beach on the other side of Cambodia.

Tuk-Tuk Drivers

Our entire time in Cambodia we were asked if we wanted to buy a t-shirt, pants, bracelets, massages, pedicures….this happened as we are eating dinner in restaurants, seeing the iconic temples of Angkor Wat, or relaxing on the beach. Nowhere was exempt from touts. It wore us down.“Tuk-tuk for you? Where are you going? Maybe later? Maybe tomorrow?” We walk 5 more steps and get the same thing. Again. And Again. As much as we wanted to be annoyed we also tried to keep in mind that all of these people are just trying to make a living. Unfortunately, they have found that pestering tourists is the way to go about this. They even sell t-shirts that say “No tuk-tuk today” which is pretty amusing until someone tries to sell you that shirt over and over. Its a vicious cycle.dsc_0689We did hire a few tuk-tuk drivers while in Cambodia and this gave us the opportunity to not only get to where we wanted to go, but to also to learn from them about their lives in Cambodia. Life can be difficult in Cambodia and most people are working long hours just to get by with enough to feed their families and/or send their kids to school. It was humbling to learn about and we are thankful for our interactions with the people we did. These are some of my favorite moments from the entire trip. Special thanks to Sok and Nara for making our time getting around Cambodia so special!

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The Stats

Total Number of Nights: 8

Languages: Khmer

Currency: $1 USD = 4,000 Riel (KHR) = $1 USD (US dollars are the main form of currency we used here, although since there are no coins they use Riels for anything under $1. It was weird to go to an ATM and get USD back. Also, so nice not to have to convert currencies in our heads at restaurants!)

Number of Miles Traveled:  720 miles (including our flight from Thailand)

Number of Miles Walked:  38.4 miles (average of 4.8 miles per day)

Steps Taken:  82,613 steps (average of about 10,300 per day)

Transportation Used: tuk-tuk, bus, mini-bus

Type of Accommodations: Hotel (2), bungalow (1)

Number of Beds: 3

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Thailand Recap

Thailand Recap

Thailand was a place we couldn’t wait to visit and was on the list from day 1. We have heard from so many friends about the beautiful beaches, friendly people, great food, and laid back vibe (also, I had a quick visit here a few years back and loved every minute). After our difficulties in China we knew it was just what we needed. We flew into Chiang Mai planning to spend a few days there before taking the overnight train to Bangkok and eventually ending with some beach time on the islands in the south. Instead, we spent 12 nights in Chiang Mai before we flew to Cambodia. We felt as if we needed a more dramatic change of scenery…we were ready to experience a country totally opposite of the modern (and huge) cities we have seen and that we love so much, especially since we are heading to Japan and South Korea in a few weeks.

Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Singh

Chiang Mai was the smallest city we have been to so far. It was refreshing not to be in a huge city with millions of people. We ate delicious Thai food, a bit of western food, spoiled ourselves with cheap massages, and decided we liked it in Chiang Mai. We stayed 12 nights and enjoyed relaxing in our beautiful Airbnb apartment. After a few days we considered moving elsewhere to explore more of northern Thailand, but we didn’t.We were tired coming from China and Chiang Mai was a place for us to recharge. We are making a deliberate effort to not change locations every couple of days when possible…you get to experience places more fully if you stick around for a while. Our vacations in the future will consist of moving every few days trying to see everything. This trip is different. We aren’t going to see everything and that is okay. We rather experience each place fully and see far fewer places than burn out because we were moving too fast!

After our week plus in Cambodia we headed to Bangkok, Thailand for 3 nights. Our thoughts on Cambodia will be shared in a recap as well (coming soon). We loved Bangkok and feel like we barely scratched the surface. As soon as we started to grasp what the city was like and how to get around it was time to leave for Japan. We cannot wait to make it back there in a few months to see more of the city!

Cities Visited

Chiang Mai, Bangkok

Things We Liked

Food, an abundance of beautiful temples, khao soi (northern Thai noodle dish), $4 massages, laid back vibe, elephants, cheap everything, Bangkok, and comforts of home were not hard to find (craft beer, excellent burgers…)

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Khao soi
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Wat Chedi Luang – not taken with a selfie stick (that would be embarrassing)

Things We Disliked

A lot of tourists/backpackers, lack of sidewalks/crosswalks, Bangkok traffic, bad coffee, and Bangkok taxi drivers (nobody seemed to want to take us anywhere, especially not with the meter)

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Highlights

1. Elephant Nature Park

img_4377Interacting with elephants is high on most people’s to-do lists when in Thailand. Who doesn’t love elephants? Any amount of research about elephants in Thailand will lead you to information about the abuse of elephants in southeast Asia. The last thing I wanted to do was to contribute to this abuse so I was content to not interact with elephants. Thanks to some friends’ recommendations and some serious Tripadvisor research we decided to go to Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai.

The park was founded in 1990’s and has since rescued a lot of elephants from a life of abuse at riding camps, performing shows, and illegal logging. Many of the elephants here have disabilities and/or are very old. All of the proceeds they use to care for the existing elephants at the park and to rescue, or buy, more elephants from situations of abuse. We chose to spend our day at a nearby park that used to make money by offering elephant rides before partnering with Elephant Nature Park. Now the elephants get spoiled with bananas, watermelons, long walks, and mud baths – they seem so happy! The elephants are free to roam all day (and really could run away if they would like but why would you give up a good gig?). It was awesome to learn about each of the elephants’ stories and learn about the way elephants interact, as they are very intelligent and very social. We feel privileged we could learn so much about them and had the best day here!

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2. Thai Cooking Class

We both love cooking and have missed getting our hands dirty in the kitchen on this trip. We have yet to have a kitchen at any of the places we have stayed so we eat out every meal. Our day started with a trip to the market to get ingredients and then a day full of preparing/cooking so much food! On the menu for the day was:

  • Khao soi – the most famous dish in Chiang Mai
  • Papaya salad
  • Tom-yum soup (a favorite of mine)
  • Stir-fried chicken cashew nut — there was so much fire when cooking this
  • Mango sticky rice

I am sure making these dishes (and finding all the ingredients) in our normal life will be a lot more difficult than it was in class, but we felt like professionals and that we could easily do this at home! We enjoyed everything we ate and cannot wait to cook up some Thai food upon our return back home. (Side note: If you are ever in Chiang Mai and want to learn to cook…go to Nimman Cooking School! It was awesome.)

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Where is the Spice?

It is no secret that we love spicy food. We were very much looking forward to getting our hands on some spicy food in Thailand. We dreamed of the level of spiciness that makes your nose run uncontrollably and eyes water.

Every single time we ordered we would emphasize that we love spicy food and to make it really hot, but every time we were sorely disappointed. It seems as if enough foreigners have complained about their food being too spicy that they tone it down as soon as they see you regardless of what you say you can handle. Some things had a bit of spice to it, but no more than a mild at any Thai restaurant in the USA. Maybe we were doing it wrong. We can’t be entirely sure, but next time in Thailand we will find a way to make it happen.

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The Stats

Total Number of Nights: 13

Languages: Thai

Currency: $1 USD = 34.9 Thai Baht (THB)

Number of Miles Traveled:  1,250 miles (including our flight from China)

Number of Miles Walked:  99.4 miles (average of 7.6 miles per day)

Steps Taken:  213,685 steps (average of about 16,437 per day)

Transportation Used: tuk-tuk, songathaew (shared taxi), taxi

Type of Accommodations: Apartment (1), hostel (1)

Number of Beds: 2

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Scott floating down the river dodging the crocs (we randomly went river rafting for 30 minutes after our day with the elephants)
China Recap

China Recap

My first visit to China was 6 years ago with my parents. It was the first place I had ever traveled to outside of the USA/Canada (well, besides an all-inclusive resort in Mexico) and upon my arrival in Beijing I was excited, overwhelmed and completely terrified that I had signed up to spend a few months there. China taught me so many lessons about myself and the world around me, but most importantly it taught me what a small part of the world I live in.

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert

My parents and I on the Great Wall of China
My parents and I on the Great Wall of China – 2010

After my visit to China, I was hooked on traveling. My dreams shifted and I had a desire to explore as many places I could and to understand cultures unfamiliar and different to my own. As the years went on and a big RTW trip evolved into a real plan, China was immediately on the list. Before leaving the US we submitted our Chinese visa paperwork and passports to a questionable office in Aurora, Colorado (due to a lack of Chinese consulates remotely close to Denver), gave them  our money, and hoped for the best. A few weeks later we had passports and Chinese visas in hand…we were ready to take on China!

China did not go as planned for us. We experienced incredible highs and the lowest of lows. We were constantly challenged as we traveled here. I am so glad we made it to China on this trip, but I was equally as excited to leave. Scott on the other hand doesn’t share this sentiment…he feels as if we barely scratched the surface and that there is so much more to see. Maybe he will write about his thoughts and feelings, but for now here is our recap!dsc_0125

Cities Visited

Shanghai, Beijing

Things We Liked

The Great Wall, the Shanghai skyline, dumplings, Shanghai vs. Beijing soccer game (or football, whatever you want to call it), Forbidden City, and seeing friends/family.

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Things We Disliked

Dirtiness, constant littering, language barrier, lack of Google, weird pool rules (required swim caps), pollution, cultural differences (no personal space, people cutting in line, not helpful…), and slow internet. In general, everything seemed to be difficult for us in China and we were often frustrated.

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Lost in the Crowd at the Forbidden City

Tastes So…Numb

We had Sichuan food a few times while in China. This type of cooking often uses Sichuan peppercorn, sometimes called Chinese coriander. They are a bit spicy, very flavorful, but most of all….they make your tongue numb! The tongue tingling was strange and a bit unpleasant to us at times.

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Highlights

1. The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is worth a trip to China. We were on a mission to avoid the hoards of tourists you see pictures of on the Great Wall so we hired a driver to take us to a wild section of the wall, Huanghuacheng. We were picked up at 6:30 am and by 8 we were hiking the Great Wall. This portion of the wall is not fully restored and parts of it are crumbling which made for a slow hike (with a bit of scrambling). It was an incredible day that we will never forget. We will write a whole post on The Great Wall and our experience there (coming soon)!
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2. Shanghai by Night with My Dad

One of the highlights of our trip was seeing my Dad in Shanghai for one evening. I wrote more on his quick departure in the lowlights section. We met up with my Dad after he was done with work for the day and went to dinner at a nice place nearby our hotel. We drank fresh brewed IPAs (my Dad was not super impressed, but for us it was magical), ate a bunch of food, and caught up. It was while we were at dinner we realized this might be the only night we all have together in Shanghai. In order to make the most of the time we had, we hopped in a taxi headed to the rooftop bar at the Hyatt, Vue Bar, that overlooks the Shanghai skyline and the Bund. The views were AMAZING and it was an incredible experience to be there with my Dad.

The rest of the evening took us to Xiantandi and across the street from our hotel to have a few more beers and catch up as much as possible. We stayed up way too late and you could not wipe the smile off my face!

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3. Our 1st Wedding Anniversary

It does not feel like a year since our wedding already. The past year went by so fast! On the morning of our one year anniversary we woke up on the overnight sleeper train and had just arrived in Beijing! Although the train was more comfortable than we expected, we knew we wanted to spoil ourselves for the two nights o to celebrate our first wedding anniversary! We checked into the Renaissance Bejing Wangfujing Hotel and never wanted to leave! We even busted out our nicest of clothes (look out) and on the night of our anniversary we had the concierge make us a reservation at Duck de Chine where we wined and dined on the Beijing specialty, peking duck. It was a fabulous evening and we can’t wait for what year 2 of being married has in store for us!

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Lowlights

1. My Dad’s Early Departure from Shanghai

My Dad was able to work out his schedule so that we was able to be in Shanghai for a business trip at the same time we were planning on going to China. We would have 9 glorious days together in China! After a few weeks on the road by ourselves, we were very much looking forward to seeing a familiar face. As my Dad was on the long flight from the USA, my Mom was hospitalized with acute renal failure (among other things). At the time of hospitalization it was not immediately clear what was going on or how sick she was. Upon landing in China my Dad learned this news. My Mom was alone in Cleveland…and pretty much everyone they know in Cleveland was out of town for labor day weekend (and all of our family lives in Texas). We all wished we could be with my Mom at that moment and it was completely heartbreaking that we were all halfway across the world. Scott and I arrived in China Monday afternoon, spent one evening with my Dad, and sent him to be home with my sick momma Tuesday morning.

I am so happy he left to be with her. It was 100% what needed to happen. It hurt my heart that I could not be there with her. It also was really crappy that hanging out with my Dad did not happen as we planned it. I know my Mom was hurt that she “ruined everyone’s good time,” which made me sad. We could barely drag ourselves out of bed the morning my Dad left and we pouted for a full day. It was the lowest moment of our entire trip.

Thankfully, my Mom was released from the hospital several (long) days later and my Dad was there to hold her hand through it. She absolutely needed him more than we did. Scott and I learned that things don’t always go as planned and we grew from this experience. We adapted to our new situation and ended up having a great time in Shanghai!

 2. Our First Airbnb Fail

Airbnb has been our preferred choice for accommodations. Hotels and hostels are great, but we have loved the comfort of our own apartment with a bit more space. I had used Airbnb a dozen times in previous travels and we had used it several times since starting our trip and have been pleased every single time. Our luck ran out in Beijing….

We arrived at our apartment through a questionable alley to a building we probably never would have chosen. We aren’t picky and as long as the apartment is nice enough, we can overlook a lot of things. All of the reviews for this place were great so we were confident in our choice. The real problem began after we arrived inside the apartment and realized the level of dirtiness in the apartment. We would put on shoes when walking around the apartment, the bathroom looked as if it had not been cleaned in a year, the kitchen was not a place for food, and there were bugs everywhere (dead and alive). We tried to play it off as “not that bad” and went out for dinner. When we got back to our apartment later that night we were looking into activities to do for the rest of our time in Beijing. I got bit by several bugs just sitting on the couch for 30 minutes and we decided that was the last straw.

Scott spent the next few hours talking to Airbnb requesting a refund and looking for a new place to stay. The problem was made worse by the fact that our internet was slow and unreliable. Scott was using Skype to call Airbnb support and the internet would cut out and drop the call. In normal circumstances this would not be a huge deal, but since we had no call-back number and no access to email they had no way of reaching us (The Great Firewall is amazingly good at blocking Google even with the use of a VPN). It was already very late at night so we stayed there one night and booked it out of there as quick as we could the next morning!

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We would have chosen sleeping on the overnight train over this Airbnb any night…

The Stats

Total Number of Nights: 13

Languages: Chinese

Currency: $1 USD = 6.68 Chinese Yuan Renminbi (CNY)

Number of Miles Traveled: 1,283 miles (including our flight from Taiwan)

Number of Miles Walked: 113.4 miles (average of 8.7 miles per day)

Steps Taken: 243,934 steps (average of about 18,764 per day)

Transportation Used: train (high speed overnight train), plane, metro/subway, Uber, and taxi

Type of Accommodations: Apartment (2), hotel (3)

Number of Beds: 5

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Taiwan Recap

Taiwan Recap

Taiwan, you have won our hearts.

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We spent a total of 19 nights in Taiwan to kick-off our RTW trip! Our initial plan was to spend 4 nights in Taipei before heading around the country starting with the east coast and working our way clockwise around the island by train until we made it back to Taipei. We made it to Hualien, a city about 3 hours by train southeast of Taipei. We were supposed to spend 3 nights here before continuing our tour around the island. We stayed here for 4 nights and then decided our time was best spent in and around Taipei for the remainder of our time in Taiwan. We are not totally sure what made us decide to ditch our plan to see the whole country and head back to Taipei, but this is exactly what we did. We are a big fan of Taiwan and know we will be back one day to explore the rest of the country that we missed this time around. We do regret not seeing more of the country, but we are also happy that we took it slow and got to explore every inch of Taipei.

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Cities Visited

Taipei (15 nights), Hualien (4 nights), Keelung (day trip)

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Things We Liked

FOOD, friendly people, street food, non-street food, night markets, cleanliness, bubble tea, Taipei 101, mango snowflake ice, ease of transportation, sense of safety, and a lack of tourists (it felt authentic and not just another stop on the “backpacker trail”).

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Things We Disliked

Lack of public trash cans, no napkins at restaurants, stinky tofu, and unbearable humidity/heat (we knew it would be hot but we downplayed how oppressive it would really be). We also could have skipped the toilet themed restaurant, The Modern Toilet, and been completely content.

It is way more stinky than it looks.
Tofu with a hint of…dirty gym socks.

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Highlights

We will end up writing about all of our highlights in their own blog posts (we just have so much to say)!

1. Night Markets

The night markets of Taiwan are out of this world. In fact, they’re so incredible that there’s no way a few paragraphs in a ‘hightlights’ reel could ever hope to do them justice. Which is why a full post will be coming in the near future – fully dedicated to breaking down our night market experience, market by market, delectable street eat by street eat.

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Street dumplings

For now, know that Taiwan is home to dozens if not hundreds of night markets. Vendors wheel in booths, closing down entire blocks of the street. They serve everything from live seafood, to fried insects, to the stinkiest of tofus and these markets happen every night of the week, rain or shine, all throughout the cities. Locals and tourists alike stroll the streets, filling up on $2 portions of some of the strangest and most delicious foods imaginable.

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Various chicken parts

There are very few experiences in life that compare to the beautiful chaos that is a Taiwanese night market. Whatever fears we had about clean kitchens or food safety standards before setting out on our journey were certainly concurred on the streets of Taiwan. These night markets are worth the trip to Taiwan alone and we will most definitely be back.

2. Muyumugi Gorge

Everyone goes to Hualien to go to Taroko Gorge, the biggest tourist draw in Taiwan. We were no exception. When asked what else there is to do in Hualien there was not much else people recommended. Scott’s Taiwan research led us to Muyumugi, just one bus ride and a few miles of walking later, to the best swimming hole I have ever seen. The water was crystal clear and it was the perfect relief for the oppressive heat and humidity. Scott wrote more on our on our time at Muyumugi in another post.

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3. Food Courts

When someone recommended we try a food court in Taiwan we almost laughed. We both immediately thought of the mall food courts from back home with crappy food and Cinnabon on every corner. Fortunately for us, our food court experience in Taiwan was not like this. Their food courts had sections for just about every type of food (beef noodle section, Indian food, Japanese food…) and you could wander around for an hour before looking at all the menus. These food courts were impressively big and always packed. They are scattered around Taipei and we had the best and biggest one just 10 minutes from our apartment making it easy to get some good, cheap eats quick. Scott has more on this topic in another post!

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Lowlights

1. Taroko Gorge Tour

We signed up for a tour of Taroko Gorge, one of the most popular places to see in Taiwan. Our hostel set us up on a tour and told us it would pick us up in our hostel lobby between 8:10-8:40 am the next morning. We woke up early and went down to the lobby around 8 or so…ready to go adventuring! As time went on we realized they might have forgotten to pick us up, but we had no idea who to call or how to get in touch with the tour operator. At about 9:15 am the hostel receptionists showed up and realized what had happened, called their boss (who knew English), and tried to figure out something for us. They offered us a half-day private tour for just a little more money than the full-day tour we were supposed to be on. At this point we were frustrated and felt as we were being cheated out of our full day of adventures so we declined. Instead we decided to stay an extra night in Hualien and try to take the full-day tour we had originally signed up for. We wish we had done the half-day tour and been done with it!

The next morning the tour guide did in fact pick us up. We were on a tour with 5 others and nobody knew English (including our guide). Our guide would tell the car a bunch of interesting facts (I assume the facts were interesting at least) for 20 minutes and then say to us “to the left there are mountains” before continuing on in Chinese with more facts. It left a little something to be desired. A lunch break was taken in the middle of the day to an expensive and really terrible buffet. We were done and ready to head home before lunchtime and could not believe we had another 5 hours to go! As mentioned in a previous post, we learned maybe all day tours are not our favorite thing. Exploring Taroko Gorge was amazing and beautiful, but we never seemed to escape the feeling of being prisoners on this tour.

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2. National Palace Museum

With 700,000 pieces on exhibit some people call the National Palace Museum “The Louvre” of Asia. It is on every list as a must see place in Taiwan. We made the semi-long journey (a long metro ride and long walk) to the museum, paid our admission and were ready to see all of the things. Turns out that we just weren’t that interested (most of the explanations were in Chinese) and I got a migraine while at the museum. We were most excited about locating the “meat-shaped stone” which is a piece of jasper that has an uncanny resemblance to a piece of braised pork belly. We saw this work of art on Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover: Taipei and knew we had to find the prized piece. After walking through the entire museum and not finding it we did a quick google search before we learned that this piece is on a rare loan to the Asian Art Museum in San Fransisco. What a let down!

Photo Credit: https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/meat-shaped-stone-taipei-519005
Photo Credit: Art Net News

The Stats

Total Number of Nights: 19

Languages: Chinese and Taiwanese

Currency: $1 USD = 31.34 New Taiwan Dollar (NTD)

Number of Miles Traveled: 9,392 miles (including our flights from the US)

Number of Miles Walked: 156.9 miles (average of 8.26 miles per day)

Steps Taken: 337,605 steps (average of about 17,769 per day)

Transportation Used: bus, train, plane, metro/subway, and 9-passenger van

Type of Accommodations: apartment (2) and hostel (1)

Number of Beds: 3

Number of Items Lost/Ruined: 2 (Scott left his fancy collapsible water bottle on the train and I ended up with a ripped skirt beyond repair)

No seats on the train for those who don't buy tickets in advance...
No seats on the train for those who don’t buy tickets in advance…

 

The Supreme Taipei Food Court

The Supreme Taipei Food Court

In America, the term ‘food court’ is synonymous with shitty fast food, Orange Julius, and middle schoolers. How far from the truth this is when it comes to Taipei. We quickly found out that food courts in Taipei are nothing like what we think of back home. They’re filled with a dizzying array of every Asian cuisine imaginable, and all of it very high quality. To the uninitiated, it may be hard to believe, but the food courts of Taipei are not to be missed.

We spent our first few days in Taipei sampling various dumpling and noodle spots we’d picked out from an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover, but it wasn’t long before we’d exhausted his list and found ourselves wandering the streets, looking for a quick food fix. Since we were only a few days into our trip, our guard was still up when it came to food and we were probably a bit overly cautions when it came to sampling the various street foods or anything that didn’t come from a TV show or TripAdvisor. Since then, that fear has fallen by the wayside, but, at the time, our reluctance actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, leading us straight to the glorious Taiwanese food court.

The first time we entered one of these food courts was out of sheer desperation – we were starving, sweaty, and tired. We saw a mall, noticed a sign for a food court, and our bellies collectively said ‘fuck it, lets go’. Our jaws dropped when found row after row of shops hawking ramen, dumplings, pho, sushi, tempura, bibimbap, hotpot – you name it, it was all there.

For our first Taiwanese food court experience, we did a few laps around the halls and decided on a shop selling bibimbap. Bibimbap is a Korean rice dish served in a large, piping hot, iron bowl with various toppings mixed in like egg, kimchi, fermented veggies and meats. Typically, you get to pick out a few side dishes to accompany the bowl such as pickled seaweeds, fish cakes or more kimchi. At the time, this was my first experience with bibimbap and I had nothing to compare it to. But as someone with a deep love for food, I knew this place killed it. It was fantastic. Were all food courts in Taipei this good? We needed to find out. And we certainly tried to over the course of the next few weeks.

We found a food court in the base of Taipei 101 – once that tallest building in the world – that made the first food court look like child’s play. This one was three times as large with even more variety of food. Every Asian cuisine was represented, many times over in some cases. They had bakeries serving frosting topped waffles, stands serving exotic teas and sushi conveyer belts. We had another sampling of Korean food here. This time a Korean kimchi soup. Fantastic, once again.

During our final week in Taipei, we found what we would come to realize as the mother of all food courts: The Breeze Food Court at the Taipei Main Station. Now this place quite possibly the greatest food court in the entire world and that’s no exaggeration. This food court takes up the entire top floor of the main train station in Taipei. Each section of this food court is divided up based on cuisine. There’s an entire section devoted to beef noodle, a section for Indian food, a Chinese food section with Sichuan, Cantonese, or Hunan shops, a ramen isle, a hotpot row – the options go on and on. The hallways between the pods of regionally centric shops are filled with sit-down restaurants – everything from German food to coffee shops to hibachi. Incredibly, many of these sit-down restaurants have lines, out the door, of locals waiting to eat. The size of this place and the number of options is truly overwhelming. Deciding on a place to eat here is a time consuming task in it of itself.

We ate there twice over our last week in Taipei, having a Thai noodle soup one time and an Indian curry the next. The Indian curry, served with some sort of milk soup and miscellaneous fried chicken parts, was nothing special. With that many options there’s bound to be a few disappointments. On the other hand, the Thai soup that I’ve since come to recognize as Khao Soi was phenomenal. Khao Soi is a coconut curry-like broth with a mixture of soft egg noodles, some sort of protein (often times pork) and a garnish of fried, crispy egg noodles. The flavors are vibrant with strong hints of chili oil, lime and pepper. This particular soup substituted the fried egg noodle garnish for fried Japanese Enoki mushrooms. I ordered mine with fried pork while Shelby had the one with a chicken drumstick. Seeing Shelby make quick work of a drumstick with only a spoon and chopsticks made me realize how far our chopstick skills had come over the past few weeks.

Chopstick master
Chopstick master

 

The quality and variety of food we found in these mass collectives of fast-casual styled, culinary talent is truly remarkable from the perspective of an American. The only General Tao’s chicken we saw being served here was at a fine-dining, sit-down restaurant with white linen table cloths – an establishment that I once would have thought to be entirely out of place in a food court, serving a dish that seemed to be as equally out of place in it’s current environment. No McDonalds. No Panda Express. No Orange Julius.

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A+ presentation. No greasy McDonalds bags at this food court

If you had asked me for my thoughts on food courts before Taiwan, I wouldn’t have had much to say that was positive. But we’ve now seen the light. What once evoked images of adolescence, greasy fried food and scenes from Fast Times At Ridgemont High now holds a special place in our hearts and bellies. If you ever find yourself in Taiwan, do yourself a favor and find the Breeze Food Court.

Off the Beaten Path in Hualien

Off the Beaten Path in Hualien

I first came across Taiwan’s Muyumugi Gorge last spring in a short article that was linked to in a Reddit post. The author described an off-the-beaten-path swimming hole, just a short bus ride outside of Hualien, with water so clear you could see straight through to the rocks on the river bed. The pictures looked awesome and it sounded like not many tourists made it there so I promptly clipped the article to Evernote. Like most of the random tidbits that wind up in my notebooks, this article was on it’s way to being forgotten about until long after we left Taiwan, had it not been for a former coworker who overheard me talking about our upcoming trip. As it turned out, he had just come back from Taiwan a few days earlier and one of his highlights was the Muyumugi Gorge. Sure enough, the short article I had nearly forgotten about and his Taiwan highlight were one and the same, instantly bumping the Muyumugi Gorge up to the top of my list of things to see in Taiwan.

The big draw of Hualien for most people is undoubtably the Taroko Gorge, making it overrun with tourist year-round. And while the Taroko Gorge certainly factored into our decision to visit Hualien, the Muyumugi Gorge was the spot that I’d been talking about nonstop. So, on our first full day in Hualien, we set off via bus to find the lesser-known gorge.  The bus we boarded zigzagged back and forth through Hualien’s busy streets before heading off, into the hills just west of the city.

The little research we’d done prior to our excursion made it sound like you needed a permit in order to hike into the hills of the aboriginal village where the gorge was, and that the local police limited the number of permits to 600 a day. When the bus let us off at the final stop, we headed across the street to the police station, hoping that we hadn’t arrived too late to make the days allotment of visitors. To our surprise, we found that the ‘permit’ was just a sign-in sheet with only a few dozen signatures. On our way to the police station, we’d befriended another traveler, a Polish girl volunteering in Taiwan, and after few signatures, the three of us were on our way, hiking up the dirt road toward the gorge.

An old bridge alongside the trial
An old bridge, alongside the trial

 

A few vendors setup shot along the trail leading to the gorge
A few vendors setup shop along the trail leading to the gorge

 

Tunnels on the trail cut through the hills leading up to the gorge
Tunnels on the trail cut through the hills leading up to the gorge

For the first time on our trip, we’d left the large city and found ourselves in a lush, jungle-like setting. About three miles in, we started to see smaller trails leading down toward crystal clear waters that snaked through the hills. Even from fifty feet above you could tell how incredibly clear the water was. We headed a bit further down the main trail, leaving the small crowds of Taiwanese locals and tourists behind, and found a nice secluded area.

We spent the next few hours swimming and jumping off the surrounding rocks into the chilly water. You could see groups of small fish swim right up to the edge of the rocks that dotted the bank. The marble walls that surrounded the gorge, at points rising high into the hills, were lined with incredibly intricate patterns that seemed to have been polished smooth by the flowing water.

 

Crystal clear water
Crystal clear water

The entire scene was perfect – exactly what we needed after a solid week of trekking through city streets in ninety degree weather. It was also an unexpected and welcome surprise to find another Westerner. We’d been on the road for a little over a week at this point and it was refreshing to hear from someone else also navigating their way through Taiwan.

Crystal clear water
Crystal clear water

 

Cutting right through the hills
Cutting right through the hills

With only a few buses making the trip back into the main town, we made our way back down the trail, stopping along the way for a passion fruit popsicle from one of the local aboriginal vendors. We waited at the village’s one bus stop, an old tree in a parking lot behind the police station, feeling refreshed and totally relaxed.

Often times it’s a crap shoot when you hear about a ‘must see’ attraction. If the spot lives up to the hype then it’s often overrun with tourists. If the endorsement is the product of circumstances beyond the destination itself, then you’ll scratch your head and wonder what the person who made the suggestion saw in the place to begin with. The Muyumugi Gorge is one of the rare gems that exists in the magical grey area between tourist hotspot and disappointing dud. The natural beauty of the marble walls, the refreshing pools and the hike out of the aboriginal village and into the hills, combined with very few tourists make our day at the Muyumugi Gorge a clear favorite so far.

Lessons in Taiwan

Lessons in Taiwan

We chose to start in Taiwan for a few reasons: tickets to Taipei were cheap, we have heard Taiwan is a foodie’s paradise, it is small enough that you can explore the whole country, and it was in Asia (our desired starting point). To be honest, I am not sure if I knew that much about this country when we signed up to come here.

We have walked until our feet want to fall off, tried out the food, sweated more than I would like to admit (hello humidity), visited temples, explored nature, and tried not to get hit by all of the scooters. There are a lot of things we have learned about Taiwan and ourselves in the past two weeks.

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The MRT (Metro) & Friendly People

The subway system that runs across Taipei is extensive and easy to use (well, once you figure it out). When in a metro station there is a certain set of rules that should be follow. A person would assume that these rules would be posted everywhere, but they are nowhere to be seen. I suppose it is possible these things might have been posted somewhere in Chinese, but we will never know.

I think it is amazing people actually stand to the right.

The best way to learn about that set of rules is to look very lost and confused while in the metro station and wait for one of the notoriously friendly locals to show you the ropes. We had heard the people in Taiwan are very friendly, but we learned so first hand when a local woman saw us and thought that it looked like we needed some help. For the record, we probably did need help. She rode to the station we needed to get to (she took a transfer to another line with us) and walked us to where to buy train tickets for our trip to our next destination in a few days. We were blown away by her kindness and overall very impressed with the metro system as a whole. Here are some of the things we learned about the MRT:

  • There is no drinking or eating allowed on the train or in the station. I understand why chewing gum or snacks might be against the rules, but not being able to take a sip of water seems a bit harsh.
  • On the escalator everyone stands on the right side so that the left is clear for people who are in a hurry. While this is a common courtesy a lot of places in the world, it is very serious here and everyone does this.
  • You must queue to get onto the train. There are painted lines and arrows that will show you where to stand. It is astounding to me that people actually do this and enter the train in the order that they queued.
  • They play classical music to indicate the train is about to arrive. I think it is lovely!

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Night Markets

Taiwan is very serious about their night markets. Going to eat or even just walk around the night markets are hands down the best thing to do at night in Taiwan. There is so much delicious food at these markets that there is really no reason to eat dinner anywhere else. There are night markets all over the country and each one is a little different than the next one. There will be a whole blog post on the night markets in the future…there is that much to talk about.

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Trash

We have quickly learned that trash cans are few and far between. Everywhere we have been in Taiwan is so clean and there is no litter on the streets, parks or sidewalks. There have been many times we stop and get a bubble tea. This is all a great idea until you have finished your tea and are looking to get rid of it. WHERE DO PEOPLE THROW AWAY THEIR TRASH? It is confusing and after almost two weeks here I have yet to figure out how this country is always so clean when they make it so difficult to ditch your garbage.

On another note, the garbage trucks that come around to collect trash from houses and businesses have been a highlight of our time in Taiwan. A song plays as the garbage truck drives around indicating it is time for people to come out and throw their trash bags into the back of the truck. It is like a disappointing version of the ice cream man, but we are so amused by the way trash gets collected here. Scott had actually learned about this on a podcast before we came. The first time we heard the musical stylings of the garbage truck we ran outside to get a good look (and take some videos). The ladies working at our hostel thought we were crazy for being excited about garbage collection, but overall I think they were amused by our excitement.

The Magnitude of Taipei 101

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View of Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain

Upon completion in 2004, Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest building. It now ranks as the 8th largest building at the time I am writing this. We took the world’s fastest elevator up, clocking in at 37.5 mph, to the observation deck on the 89th floor to catch 360 degrees of incredible views. It is surprising to us that for such a tall building it is pretty hard to see when walking around most of Taipei, but I suppose that with other tall buildings around the view just gets obstructed. The one place that gets an unobstructed view is Elephant Mountain, which is a short hike from the city (actually just a bunch of stairs).

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View from the Observation Deck in Taipei 101

We also checked out the tuned mass damper. In an effort to try to keep my nerd level in check, click here to learn more about the damper and how it structurally supports the building. My engineering heart was so full after seeing this! They had some videos playing of some of the largest swings the damper has seen due to high winds caused by typhoons…although it would have made it more exciting to look at, I am glad the damper was nice and still while we visited 🙂

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Tours

We have learned that we really don’t enjoy tours. It might be alright to do a half day tour, but you put us on a whole day tour and we feel like prisoners. We have taken one tour since we have been on the road to go explore Taroko Gorge, one of Taiwan’s biggest tourist attractions. Nobody spoke English on our tour, but that was fine as we only needed the tour for easy transportation. Everything was going great until lunchtime when we were dropped off at a buffet that was horrible and expensive (at least relative to what he have been paying the $6.31 a person buffet was outrageous). After lunch we explored more places in Taroko National Park. We loved some places we visited, but being at the mercy of someone else’s schedule drove us crazy. If the tour would have ended right before lunch we would have called it a perfect outing. Lesson learned: if we do a tour, make sure it is for no more than a few hours.DSC_0316

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The day before the tour that never ended we decided to go independently to Mukumugi Valley to check out the scenery and go for a swim. This day was 10 times for enjoyable than the tourist “must do” Taroko Gorge as we were on our own schedule, we paid no money to see it (well, we did pay $3 round trip each for bus tickets), and we were not stuck with thousands of other tourists trying to see the same thing as us. Don’t get me wrong…Taroko Gorge was worth doing and we are glad we did it. It was stunning! We just have more fun seeing things independently and wished we would have skipped the full day tour. Our independent trip to Mukumugi felt much more authentic and it was a lot more fun. It also didn’t hurt that we could go swimming which was perfect in this oppressive heat and humidity!

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Plans Change

We have learned that plans can change at the drop of a hat. We were planning on traveling around the entire country, but after 4 days in Hualien we decided to go back to Taipei and stay for the next 11 nights. We found a nice apartment through AirB&B that has a couch/separate living room area which is a huge upgrade after staying in a room with only a bed and no windows for a few nights. We have decided to finish out our time in Taiwan here before moving on to China. Staying in one place will help us not burn out (the pace we were moving and trying to see things was far too fast) and maybe help us figure out a routine of sorts. There is so much to see around the Taipei area and we are excited to make it our home base for a while!

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Touch Down in Taipei

Touch Down in Taipei

The first day of our trip have been a whirlwind. One minute we were in New Jersey saying bye to family and the next (actually, more like 24 hours, but who’s counting?) we were halfway across the world. The only goal of the evening was to find our accommodations for the night, an Air B&B in the Da-an District. Our research, done on a layover in the San Francisco airport, told us there was a bus we could take from the airport to this area. Our research (or lack thereof) did not tell us which bus to take, where to buy tickets, or how any of this works. If we would have been on the Amazing Race, we would not have won. We are thankful that the Taipei airport has free Wi-Fi and that the internet exists. We did eventually figure out which bus to take and made it to our little corner of Taipei for the next 4 days. Upon arrival to our place, we knew we needed to find a beer after this crazy travel day. We found a bar steps from our apartment that looked perfect. The only problem was that they technically are not in business for another 2 weeks….lucky for us they invited us in to have a Paulaner beer and made us their official first customers! Thank you to the two British guys who are opening the bar who welcomed us in. IMG_4113

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Our rooftop terrace in Taipei

Being across the world and outside of familiarity takes some getting used to. It is sensory overload and we are trying to figure out everything one step at a time. These things include how to not get hit by a scooter when crossing the street, to figure out what is safe to eat, how to communicate when everyone speaks a language we don’t…the list goes on. We are working on getting used to the constant state of unfamiliarity.

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Our general plan for seeing the country was to start in Taipei for 4 nights, take the train all the way around the island starting down the east coast, back up the west coast, and then ending our stay in Taiwan back in Taipei. We have around 2.5 weeks total in Taiwan before we fly to Shanghai to meet up with my dad who will be there on a business trip. So far we have only have chosen our next destination, Hualien, and have booked accommodations there. Beyond that, it is up to us to figure out as we go!

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Although this Google map makes it look like we are driving, we will be taking the train all the way around!