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Macau + Victoria Peak

Friday, October 31st, 2008

I took the 40km ferry to Macau today.

Basic info on Macau is: Former Portuguese colony, handed back to the Chinese in 1999 just a couple years after Hong Kong was handed back by Britain and it is now the Macau SAR with a very similar political status to the Hong Kong SAR. Macau was the first established European port in Asia, long before Britain gained Hong Kong.  I thought this was just a simple ferry ride, but you get your passport stamped on departure from Hong Kong & on entry to Macau and vice versa too.  I had no idea I actually had to go through immigration.  I’m getting really good at filling out entry forms for customs now…

The reason most people come to Macau now is for the casinos, the Las Vegas of the East. I walked by them on the way to and from the ferry terminal, that’s all on that. Central Macau looks very much like Portugal, except everyone there is Chinese. The stone streets some with mosaic patterns on them remind me very much of Portugal.

main square

The ruined Sao Paulo cathedral sits on top of a hill near the town centre and is quite impressive even though the front is all that remains.

ruins of Sao Paulo cathedral

I wandered around the back streets, some of which looked like they were taken straight out of Portugal, but were full of traditional Chinese medicinal shops. I found Portuguese custard tarts too… Ate a turtle casserole for dinner which was bloody hard with chopsticks! The city is a remarkable mix of Portuguese and Chinese creating a very interesting place, quite different than the British influenced and now incredibly international Hong Kong.

Upon arrival back in Hong Kong I caught the end of the skyline light show for the 3rd time, this time from the ferry, I noticed it was significantly less smoggy today and decided to take the tram up to Victoria peak to see the view. The peak is the highest point on Hong Kong island at 1800ft. Great view from above, it was still hazy but part, possibly a lot of that was the weather, extremely humid the temp was reaching the dew-point and during the time I spent out on the observatory my shirt collected some moisture! This picture doesn’t really do it justice…

view of Hong Kong from 'the peak'

Here’s a comparison of the smog level..

Earlier this week

Now I’m eating one of the custard tarts I bought in Macau and deciding what to do here tomorrow, which will be my last full day in Asia…

Hong Kong pt2

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Well I have now explored more of the main areas of note around Hong Kong and the surrounding areas. The public transit system here is flawless as far as I can tell. Cean, safe, fast and not expensive. I have used buses, trains, a ferry and a cable car all paid for with the one transit card you buy. It’s so easy, more cities should adopt such a system. Though why they call it the octopus card is beyond me, must be where London got the Oyster idea from?


Lantau Island is by far the largest island in the HK SAR, connected by a bridge to the mainland. I took a cable car over the hills to the ‘big buddha’, the largest outdoor buddha in the world. There’s a couple temples in the quite remote area too, a big contrast to the densely populated and hectic Hong Kong Island.

tian tan buddha

Went back to Soho at night, stumbled onto a Belgian pub and had a beer. Then onto a Chinese place for dinner. I seem to be eating a lot of noodles here, they’re everywhere! What’s amazing to me in the Soho district is the % of Westerners to Asian people, there’s more Westerners here wining and dining. Now once you get off the island and go to Kowloon that number reverses itself dramatically…

Today after a late noodle soup breakfast, I went farther North on the mainland to the New Territories to see the 10,000 buddha monastery. It’s a good walk up to get to, 400+ stairs and the pathway is lined with golden buddhas most of the way up as it winds by jungle.

path up to the monastery

Though the jungle was fenced off unfortunately. The temple is unique simply for the vast amount of buddhas in and around it…

walls of the monastery

I spent the rest of the afternoon on the South side of Hong Kong Island at Stanley walking around the bay and market. After buying a couple things there I caught the bus back across the island, which took twice as long as getting down there due to rush hour traffic. I didn’t care though, I love riding on the top deck of double decker buses. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was in town today and tickets were apparently in such demand that after the shows sold out they decided to broadcast a live relay of the concert outside the concert hall in the piazza overlooking the harbour for free! So I sat outside in the perfect evening weatherwise for it and heard Stravinsky’s “Firebird” which was very good while enjoying the view of HK island. The light show of the skyline was during the concert too, pretty cool evening.

HK Island light show

I’m really enjoying Hong Kong, tomorrow I’m taking a ferry to Macau for the day.

On a funny note, while I was waiting for my order of noodles to be brought this evening after the concert the employees (age 17ish I’d guess) of the restaurant were cleaning up etc since it was about closing time. They were all speaking Cantonese, but I knew exactly what was going on between the manager and a couple employees. Cracked me up no end. Like watching a Hong Kong version of my old job. Nice to see the same stuff goes on in that particular working environment in other parts of the world…

Hong Kong

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

So I got up at 5, got on a nearly empty train to Taipei. Watched to sunrise over the ocean shortly after the journey began which was kind of cool, but I don’t like beating the sun up. I got to the airport roughly 3 1/2 hours before my flight, but when I got to the check in counter they offered to put me on an earlier flight to Hong Kong. 2 hours earlier, so no waiting around for hours at the airport. First thing I noticed in Hong Kong was the smog.

Hong Kong island from Kowloon


It was hot too, not quite as hot as Taipei has been though. I got to the hotel easily enough via airport bus and met the owner who is very friendly and speaks excellent English. All the transport signs are in English and Cantonese and I think anyone I’m likely to be dealing with will speak English, which makes being here pretty easy.

I’m staying near the tip of the mainland peninsula called Kowloon, not on Hong Kong island itself since it’s much cheaper here. Only one stop on the metro from the island anyway. My hotel is on Nathan road, which is the main street through Kowloon.

Nathan road, Kowloon

Full of shops, restaurants, double decker buses, taxis and hawkers. Way too many hawkers, many of whom seem to be originally from India. Foot massages, tailors, jewelry shops, restaurants and fortune tellers seem to be the most popular among them.

After checking in at the hotel I wandered down to the promenade at the end of the peninsula to get a view of Hong Kong itself. Quite impressive. After walking around there for a while I took the metro under the harbour and found one of the nitelife districts very close to the central metro stop. Lots of shops, mainly western, restaurants featuring all sorts of food and plenty of bars. Hadn’t seen this many western people since, well since before I was in Asia. I had some noodles for dinner, and then stumbled on some kind of street carnival. After that started to die down I stepped into a pub where they were showing a live premier league game, I never turn down the possibility of seeing Chelsea lose so I had a couple beers there.

central HK at night

Today I ate lunch at a dim-sum restaurant, mmm pork dumplings, then went to the Hong Kong museum of history. Pretty interesting how the British gained it 160 years ago, all to do with trading and war with China over the opium trade. They even had a video at the end of the display where I could watch good ol’ Price Charles officially handing over Hong Kong to the Chinese in 97. Hong Kong is part of China, but as a “Special Administrative Region” with a high level of autonomy. No visa required to land here, I got 180 days stamp upon arrival.

After that, and finally getting my laundry done so I can put truly clean clothes on tomorrow (first time in a while!) I went down to the promenade again, this time for the night view which is better than the day view.

HK Island at night from Kowloon

They also put on a sound and light show involving a lot of the buildings in the skyline every night, pretty cool.

After that I took the ferry across the bay for the view, and then went to Soho, another top dining and entertainment district on HK island. Not much Chinese food in this area, but whatever is there is a quality place for the most part. I ate Ukrainian, partly because I didn’t want to walk to another region where I could find more local food and partly because, well, how often do you see a Ukrainian restaurant? I think I’ve could’ve eaten something from any continent on earth at a place on this one street. It also has an escalator running through it from the business district to the high rise apt bldgs on the mountain…

an entrance to the escalator up the hill in soho

Taroko Gorge, sort of… + Taiwan rail

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

So the plan was, go to Taroko Gorge Nat’l Park today. Seemed easy enough, loads of buses going there and plenty of trails once you got there. Or so I thought. Stopped at the tourist office and enquired about bus times and was told that there weren’t any today b/c there was a festival in the park. They had a free shuttle from a nearby town (why the hell they picked this place I have no clue) to the festival which was by the welcome center just inside the park. So I take a train to the nearby town, get on the shuttle bus which takes me to the park. My thought was I’d just ditch the festival and go hike, then show up back at the bus area when they started shuttling people back to the station. Brilliant eh? Well it would’ve been, except that after walking the 1km to the trail head I found the gate locked and do net enter signs there. So they basically close the vast majority of the park to the public to have a music festival. Awesome. So I took some pictures around the trail head area, really nice and I’m sure the trail is stunning!


Back to the festival area since there was nothing else to do, it was classical music (at least the bit I saw) and they played part of Beethovens 6th symphony (it sounds the same in Mandarin!! ;) but all in all the event was uninspiring. They seemed to want to talk more than play music for the most part. Great setting for a festival though, Muse should play there or something…

Now we come to the exasperating part of the day. I’m calling it the Port Bou experience (anyone who has gone from France to Spain via train on the Med. coast will know what I’m talking about).After the music festival is over, everyone lines up for the buses. All very orderly and they have enough buses for everyone.(!!!!) Once we arrive at the train station though, the major flaw (or flaws) in the organization of this event (and the Taiwan rail system) were exposed. The event was over at 16:00. A train departed to Hualien (the major town in the area, where I was staying and almost everyone else came from) @ 15:54. About 10 minutes before all the buses arrived there. Next train? Not until 17:05. (with their completely illogical schedules here) No extra train to get all these people home, just one train would’ve been enough, instead everyone is forced to stand at the station (which is tiny with precious little seating) for an hour. I was hoping for some kind of riot with some looting but it wasn’t to be…

One Taiwanese guy (around my age) came over at some point, introduced himself in English and started talking to me which did lighten the mood. The younger generation of Taiwanese are so friendly and usually speak at least some English.

That basically sums up the transport (HSR excepted) in Taiwan, at least my experience with it. The train schedules make no sense, and getting anywhere takes far longer than it should. I ended up getting royally screwed with my train back to Taipei for tomorrow morning. My flight to Hong Kong is around 2pm, fast trains from here take aprox 2 hours and I have to leave at 5:40am. The 6:15am train was full, and there are no trains after 6:15 that would get me to Taipei in time. I’m trying to get from a major city on the Northern East coast to Taipei.

Seriously, wtf?

Fed up with trains, I spent the evening checking out the town centre area of Hualien, it’s pretty happening. I had some stir fried ostrich for dinner and some bubble tea afterwords which greatly improved my mood. Now I’m off to bed, tomorrow’s gonna be a long day. I’ll be in transit for 12 hours in all, woohoo!

Yushan National Park

Friday, October 24th, 2008

Got a taxi from Yuli up to the national park in the morning since there is no public transport here, the driver was very friendly and helpful despite not speaking any English. He went with me into the visitor centre and found the attendant for me, she spoke English and gave me the trail info I needed. Then the taxi driver said he’d drive me to the trail head and pick me up there later in the afternoon. Perfect!

view from Walami trail Yushan park

I hiked on the Walami trail, which is one of the more popular ones in Taiwan. It was in very good condition but I didn’t see hardly anyone else on the trail. A nice change from the parks in Korea. The trail runs up along the side of a mountain overlooking the river valley below and many other mountains. Very nice views throughout.

view from Walami trail Yushan park

It was pretty humid but not hot so hiking was pretty easy, it wasn’t even that steep. Parts of the trail were cut out of the cliff edge and with vines hanging over the top almost creating a tunnel effect. Apparently Taiwan has around 400 kinds of butterflies, I’d believe it. Just on this hike I probably saw 20+ kinds and I only went 4.5km in. I didn’t see any monkeys unfortunately but I did hear them a couple times jumping through the brush between trees.

the trail

My taxi driver showed up at the agreed time and I was back at the train station in time to catch the 4:30 train. Transport worked a little better here today. Now I’m sitting at a hostel in Hualien, my base to explore the Taroko gorge tomorrow.

10 weeks in…

Friday, October 24th, 2008

After leaving my 2nd and particularly nice hotel in Tainan with people bowing to me almost as much as Japan and walking in front of me to open automatic doors for me!!!  Another arduous day of travel ensued, it is amazing how long it can take to get anywhere on such a small island.  I spent 6 hours on trains or in train stations today, it is really starting to get irritating because I am spending all my time in transit and not actual seeing much of anything.  I finally got to Yuli, on the East coast which is a gateway to the Yushan Nat’l park.  The town itself isn’t much at all, I stayed at the only hotel I saw and it wasn’t great, pretty cheap though.


A few observations about Taiwan.  Once you get out of Taipei, Taiwan is a whole different place.  Much less english spoken or written.  Travel is much more confusing but mainly just takes much longer, and is much less efficient, which is a real contrast to Taipei where they have the most reliable metro system in the world.  I really miss the Japanese infrastructure now.


Now for some general thoughts on the trip so far.


I feel like the standards are dropping in each country I go to.   Japan having probably the highest standards in most areas that I’ve ever seen.  Then S.Korea, very modern and high standards in Seoul and in Busan somewhat, but in the smaller towns the standards slip.  Taiwan is similar to Korea in that sense, Taipei is probably the most hi-tech place I’ve been with a super efficient transit system.  Though not as clean as Japanese cities (but really, what is?) it really is a great place and easy to experience.  Once outside of Taipei though things drop off quite quickly.  People stare a lot more, and it’s just more work to travel here.


I enjoyed Japan immensely almost the entire time I was there.  Korea was good most of the time and I had some great experiences there.  Taiwan, except for Taipei is more hit and miss for me.  What I’m not sure is if the amount I enjoy a country is tied to how modern and easy to travel through it is or if it is the different cultures (which have varied quite a bit just in these three countries), and the friendliness of people etc etc.  I think it is probably a combination of all the above, maybe also the order I’ve visited these countries…


I am looking forward to being back in a English speaking country, which I will be in just over a week.  There I will be able to eat dishes made with lots of cheese (the main thing I miss in meals here) and converse with people without complication.  Also understanding announcements on buses & trains again will be nice.  Don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying Asia, this really is an experience (and a good one most of the time!) but traveling through countries not knowing any of the local languages can be a lot of work, especially in Asia where the culture and everything is so different from normal for me or any Westerner.  Here in Taiwan where there are precious few hostels, half the time I feel like I am the only westerner in town…


2 more days in Taiwan before I fly to Hong Kong and I hope to be spending it hiking/seeing some mountains here on the East coast.

trains, buses and bikes…

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Before leaving Taipei I went up the “Taipei 101”, which is the worlds tallest building. It also has the worlds fastest lift to get you to the lookout floor, a decent view from up there of the surrounding area and some mountains. It’s strange though compared to other skyscrapers I’ve been up, because the 101 is the only tall skyscraper on the horizon. It’s not in a district with a bunch of really tall buildings like you would see in Chicago, New York, Tokyo etc, it’s the only only really tall building in the city and it’s also the biggest in the world.

view from 101

After that I caught a bus to Sun Moon lake, got there in the evening and just stumbled into a hotel that looked nice. With the weekday discount it cost me what a basic motel room costs in the US. Reasonably expensive here, it’s the nicest place I’ve stayed on the trip so far. I even had a hot tub in my room.

The next day was basically irritating, with nothing going as I expected. First, the lake area was over rated in my opinion and it was even to hot & humid to hike anywhere. So I caught a bus out of the mountains, had to change in Taichung so I jumped on one of the high speed trains which was really nice even though I was only on it for 30 minutes.


The place I was going is the starting point of the Alishan Forest Railway, a narrow gauge rail that goes to the mountains. So I arrive in town (after a 30 minute bus ride from the HSR station) and discover that the railway is not running due to damage from the typhoon the other week. Closed for the rest of the year. I could’ve gotten a bus to the same destination the next morning, but the train ride and scenery was supposed to be half the experience. So then I decided to grab another train farther South to Tainan. This was just a regular express train, but perfectly nice and dirt cheap. I got to Tainan around 7:00 after spending 5 hours in transit and only gone around 90 miles. Good thing none of the travel cost me much. Found an adequate cheap hotel and walked around the city in the evening, had some good noodles for dinner and spent the rest of the night walking around the technology shops until they closed…


After that less than enjoyable day I had decided to spend 2 nights here in Tainan, but in the morning I decided to change hotels. I found a very nice one not far from my first one, considerably more money but it included internet, breakfast and a bike for the day. I jumped on the bike and rode over most of Tainan, stopping to see the main sights. It’s pretty compact, about 3/4 of a million people live here so nothing like Taipei. Quite a few temples to see here, some old city walls and a fort. I saw all of that easily in the day, I enjoyed seeing the city by bike, the only downside is the air on the street is quite polluted due to all the scooters. Sooo many scooters here.

old city gate

I still don’t really have a plan for the rest of my time in Taiwan, probably just going to head to the East coast after this and see what happens…

Taipei pt2

Monday, October 20th, 2008

Taipei is cool. It’s a huge city, but it doesn’t feel that huge. At least not like Tokyo or Seoul. There’s mountains within reach of the metro here, and the metro is one of the best I’ve used. One of the best things here is the night markets, there’s a lot in Taipei, all offering a plethora of shops and all sorts of food, street vendors and restaurants. Walking through these markets is really an experience.

shilin night market

I went to the North edge of the city and did a little hiking in the jungle. Unfortunately it took me a while (in the heat of the day) to find the trail and after a little ways it seemed to end at a road and I couldn’t find the rest of the trail though I was sure it existed. So I turned around and went back to the train station, I did see several different butterflies (apparently there’s 400 varieties here), star fruit growing on trees by the trail and the sounds are really cool in there…

jungle hike

I’ve been here for 4 nights, explored most of the main areas of the city, hiked a little and eaten quite a few of the popular foods at the night markets. I also found a belgian beer bar in the night market close to my hostel where I spent some time, and money a couple nights indulging my desire for real beer which has been sorely lacking on this trip.

A few other things about Taipei. It is the most wired place I have ever seen. Wireless internet is everywhere, the have it at all the metro stations and many restaurants offer it for free. The metro itself is one of the easiest and most efficient systems I’ve used: Clean, cheap, air conditioned and on time! The only downside here is during the heat of the day, 12-3, the heat + humidity is quite intense. I’m hoping the mountains are a little cooler.

But overall I’ve really enjoyed my time in Taipei, the people are friendly, a fare few of them speak English, the food is good, and just walking around the city is fun. Especially the popular districts. Next I’m off to explore the rest of Taiwan, 6 more days here isn’t sounding like much but I’m going to see as much as I can…



Friday, October 17th, 2008

I got to Taipei around 11:00 AM, it felt a lot later cos of the one hour time change and the fact I got up at 4:45. Then I stepped outside the airport and it felt tropical. The heat is intense, and it was 20F higher, and much more humid than what I’ve been used to in Korea.

By the time I had gotten to the hostel, checked in and got my stuff organized it had cooled off somewhat so I headed out. There’s tons of scooters here, everywhere but despite there being far more than in Korea, they seem to drive on the sidewalks less. My hostel is only a couple stops on the metro from the main station so it’s really easy to get around. I started at the main station and just wandered around for a while, coming across the memorial peace park and eventually ended up completely by accident in the Ximen district. It’s like the Shibuya of Taipei. Young people everywhere, clothes and electronic shops all over the place, lcd displays advertising all sort and no shortage of small food stands.

Ximen district

There’s 23 million people in Taiwan, and almost half of them are in the Taipei metro area. So it’s a really big city. Full of small street vendors offering all kinds of chinese, taiwanese and other varieties of food. It seems more popular to eat this way than actually sit down in a restaurant, and everything is cheap. The also have night markets all over the place here, every district has it’s own. They offer just about anything you could think of to buy or eat.

The common language here is Mandarin Chinese but there are many dual lingual signs in English too and the amount of people understanding (and actually speaking it to me) English seems to be considerably higher than Korea or Japan. that may just be Taipei, but it’s nice for sure.

back to Seoul…

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

I decided to stay another day in Busan partly because I liked it and partly because it made getting the high speed train to Seoul the next morning easier.  I went to the beomosa temple complex with slightly low expectations due to the amount of temple I’ve been seeing and the crowds that are usually at them.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it practically deserted, one of the nicer temples I’ve been to and the location where it’s perched on the hillside has good views of the surrounding area. 


Next it was back to Seoul for my last night in Korea before my flight.  The high speed train here is less flashy than the Japanese one but has the same top speed, unfortunately they haven’t put the high speed track the whole way from Seoul to Busan yet.  Even without that it still only takes 2:45 to get from one end of the country to the other. 

I found out by mere chance that South Korea were playing a world cup qualifier at the world cup (2002) stadium in Seoul on the very day I was back in Seoul.  Tickets were $15, so after one last meal of dolsot bibimbap I headed over there.  The stadium wasn’t very full, but the fans that went were really into it.  It was vs the UAE, hardly a top class opposition, but I did get to see Park Ji-Sung in action for his country and score.  The Koreans won 4-1, quite easily and I can’t imagine what that place would sound like if it was full up in a top class game.   

Right now I’m sitting at the really nice airport in Seoul waiting for my flight to Taiwan, had to catch the 5:30 bus this morning to get here in enough time.  Not something I hope to repeat many times this trip.