Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A series of scenic eye candy II

Jiu Fen is a scenic village located in the outskirts of Taipei. It used to be a properous town as gold prospectors came to Jiu Fen in hope of striking it rich. Gradually as the gold eventually depletes, the town soon deteriorated, and it was later restored to a tourist destination.

Francis commented that most visitors on free and easy tours to Taiwan tend to miss visiting Jiu Fen, because of its relatively inconvenient distance from Taipei (takes a couple hours by bus). At the same time, he extolled the benefits of going on tour packages vs free and easy, i.e., we save money since tour companies get group discounts on accomodation and they plan our travel route in the most convenient way so that we don't waste too much time travelling between destinations. Yup, yup I totally get his point. However guided tours still can't beat the flexibility of free and easy tours.

Prior to reaching Jiu Fen, Francis was already raving about the yummy snacks (e.g. fried pork pieces and 'guo dong'/fruit jellies) that a local specialty store sells, and gave his thumbs up to this store ("EM1!!").  Please see this post if you don't know what I am talking about. :) And so, this was the first store he brought us once we reached Jiu Fen. You won't believe the crowd that was swarming this store - and according to Francis, this wasn't the most crowded he's seen!

Anyway, he told us to grab baskets and grab 5 or more items to get 1 free for certain categories of snacks, and to also grab more packets of their famous and "limited edition" dried longans, because they were so easily sold out. Like the typical Singaporeans we all are, most of the tour group did as was told. Lol.

Remember the stall name, it's called Ah Xin's Store

Since we were supposed to have lunch on our own, Francis made a couple of recommendations. Among them was this stall, highly recommended due to their "QQ" (i.e. spongy textured) fishballs and drunken chicken. We tried them out, they certainly lived up to expectations! The chicken was flavoured with wine, and had an unforgettable but satisfying aftertaste. The fish balls, sotong balls and meat balls were also spongy and very tasty! Forgot to take photos of the dishes though.

Be sure to commit this stall's name to memory! A must-visit if you were to visit Jiu Fen.

After a thoroughly satisfying lunch, we proceeded to explore the rest of the old village. The village reminded me of the other quaint villages in central Japan, in terms of the architecture and the general atmosphere. This wasn't all that surprising, since Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese for over 50 years during World War II. Evidently the Japanese influence continued to linger on.

Exploring the depths of Jiu Fen village 

We were literally following the Taiwanese 'way of life' (i.e. of having several meals a day), because not long after, we spotted an interesting looking snack stall and couldn't resist buying this.

Noticed the white balls? They are ice cream scooped on parsley, generously sprinked with chopped nuts and wrapped in "poh piah" skin. Needless to say, it was truly delicious. We noticed this stall guy looking as though he was sharpening his knife off this huge brown "block". When I took a closer look, I realised it was actually a huge slab of brown sugar peanut!

Having had delicious dessert, we burnt off the calories by trudging further up the slopes. A wonderful view greeted us.

View from Jiu Fen (the village is on a hill) 

Some other random scenes encountered.

I really liked this vintagey shop window

The plumpest, cutest, chihuahua I've ever seen. The Taiwanese sure feed their dogs well!

The last snack we had at the village was these balls containing some yam and vegetables, and maybe some meat. Couldn't really make out what was inside, but what matters most is, it tastes great!

While waiting for the bus to pick us up, we observed the chaotic roads. In fact, Francis commented that it was common to encounter accidents along these roads. Indeed drivers attempting to drive along these roads had to have excellent skills in manoeveuring the steep, narrow slopes and drastically winding bends. We were lucky our tour bus driver was an excellent driver.

Last glimpse of Jiu Fen before bidding a fond farewell to this quaint village.

A cute and random store

In retrospect, we were lucky that day to not have met with rain at Jiu Fen. Francis said 9 out of 10 times he visited Jiu Fen, it rained. For all we know, it could be just his luck though. ;)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Google Books Review - The Bitter Stickgirl unanswered

Stickgirl's book is going places! It's now on google books, and I wrote the first review. I hope the link works even if you don't have a google account. Let me know if it doesn't. If you're a fan of her facebook fanpage, you'd realise her fan base is growing steadily. I believe in time to come, Stickgirl will achieve world domination. :)

Here's the review (from Google books):

The Bitter Stickgirl unanswered is a collection of drawings done by the very talented Stickgirl (aka Ms Liu Xiaofen). Containing some pictures from her immensely popular blog (http://stickgal.blogspot.com) started in 2005, as well as new drawings, this little hardcover book is a great debut to introduce the protaganist, Stickgirl to people who are new to her.

In the blog, we observe that Stickgirl's journey through life, just like the best of us, have had its equal share of highs and lows, while being bittersweet at the same time. While her blog portrays a variety of issues - irksome social ills, high points and pitfalls of relationships and other musings in light hearted, humourous tones, this book mainly chronicles her many unanswered questions in life, in the same brand of humour that most blog readers know and like.

Most of us could identify with this question "what do I want in life?" and the picture is of Stickgirl drifting along aimlessly. Stickgirl is sometimes prone to insecurities, for example "are they talking about me?", a question she wonders when she walked past a group of chatting girls, only for the reader to find out that they weren't. She also suffers from an occasional bout of guilt, wondering "am I a bad person?", while looking at her devil-horned mirror image. In relationships, she excitedly anticipates her crush's call ("is he going to call?") and struggles to forget an ex-boyfriend ("should I let go?").

Although at the end of the book, all the questions remain unanswered, as readers, we don't mind, because deep down, after looking at her beautifully rendered drawings, we find ourselves not requiring answers to the questions after all.

This is not the book to get if you are looking for answers to life's questions. If you would love to start or end your day with a smile, this book is for you.

A series of scenic eye candy I

Everyone knows food in Taiwan's yummy. Would you believe it, even a random highway convenience stop has pretty good snacks? We randomly bought little pancakes containing creamy custard. Maybe because we're hungry, but they're really yummy.

Wu Lai was the first sight seeing spot on the itinerary. From a distance I caught sight of the waterfall - it was graceful, small and quite pretty. However if there were a competition, it would lose big time to the heavy weight champs at the Taruko National Park in Hua Lien (those magnificent waterfalls were a dime a dozen every 20 paces we walked, and they were seriously grand). Nevertheless this "little" waterfall has its charm.

A hotel beside the Wu Lai waterfall. The hotel guests have a heck of a view!

We were supposed to take a mini railway train that was pretty near the waterfall, but when we got there, it was closed! Apparently this has never happened before. Bummer.

Francis, our guide, led us to a flight of stairs. For a split panicky moment, I thought we were going to ascent this thousand-steps flight of stairs. Thankfully he led us DOWN for our leisurely stroll to Wu Lai Old Village.

Thankfully we didn't have to climb this flight of stairs

Some sights we saw along the way.

I thought this tree was pretty

The railway tunnel we didn't get to pass. :(

Great  presentation on mural of the little railway train we never get to take

En route to Wu Lai Old village

Scenery flanking the sides of the river bank we crossed to get to the old village. Feels rustic.

Snapped a series of interesting looking snacks stalls, but didn't try them though. There was one stall we did try though. It was the wild boar chinese sausage (shan zhu la chang). I was never a fan of chinese sausages, but this was seriously good. Forgot to take pictures though. For those interested, it's the first stall on the left when you enter the village. Highly recommended by Francis. While on the bus, he devised a way to tell us if a certain stall's stuff were good to buy or eat (without incurring the stall owner's wrath if it were bad). "EM1" for good, "EM2" for average, and "EM3" for bad. Pretty good code words huh.

I have too many pictures to share, and this will turn out to be one long post, so I'm going to break this day into a series of posts. Next up, Jiu Fen!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Smallness of this World

This is totally random, but I had to share with you something I experienced today.

Today I met one of my Taiwan tour group members! This might not seem like much, but it happens that she works in the same company as I do, and knows one of my department colleague!

During the trip, we've talked and shared stuff, but we've never mentioned where we worked or what we do. So it truly came as a surprise to realise today that we were colleagues all along!

So glad to have met you A*, the smallness of this world continues to intrigue me.

The Day Reveals Itself

Before I start, guess what's this? Something we saw late that night after releasing the Heavenly lanterns.


Keep Guessing

Have you guessed it yet?

Ok stop being annoying you say. Ta dah!

This is what comes out from that tray with those numerous metal rods. It's a tray full of soapy solution to create upsized dreamy bubbles like this. You can only find it here in Shangrila Ilan Leisure Farm. Don't believe this hotel is Shangri La? Here's further proof.

It says "Xiang Ge Li La" in pinyin

I've had a hard time believing I've actually stayed in a Shangri La brand-ed hotel mainly because this hotel gives off a really family-oriented, cozy vibe, and none of that cushy, luxurious aura that most brand name hotels exude. That little soapy tray is a case in point! Which 4/5-star hotel has that?

Here are other lovely spots in the hotel grounds.

Absolutely the plumpest duck I've ever seen in the flesh

Guess what I was posing beside? My brother's actually petting this friendly little dog which seemed like a cross breed between a spaniel and a 'sausage dog'

So incredibly adorable right? The dog, I mean. ;)

The ducklings in their daytime glory. They waddle in a tightly knitted group. So kawaii! ~faint~

Just a quick post on day time in Shangri La. Hopefully to follow up with the rest of the day's activities soon!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Hands up those who love Taiwan!

I've been working a few years now, and realised I haven't once sponsored my parents for any overseas trip, so I think it's time I did. At first I wanted to bring them HK, for unadulterated eating and shopping, but my mum's more into sight-seeing and I've noticed her fascination with Taiwan, so I decided to go for Taiwan (affordability was a factor too) although I've backpacked there once before. I'm not a fan of tour packages, but out of pure laziness, I decided to book one via Chan Brothers at the NATAS fair back in March. It's the 7D Classic Northwest Taiwan package.

Of course, my brother's come along for the ride, and the lucky dude, doesn't need to pay a thing (cuz he's not working), and so my Dad paid for his share. Oh well.

The airline we took was China International. In my honest opinion, not the best there was, but it's still better than Garuda (and that is another story). I was pretty surprised when the stewardess announced that CI had some kind of cooperation with Garuda (perhaps to share their fleet of planes?). Bad weather ensued 3 hours into the flight, and the plane was lurching umpteen times like we were on a roller coaster. Needless to say, those of a weaker constitution threw up their lunches during the ride (my mum included). Seriously, I've never taken a flight where so many people threw up, the gagging noise was literally everywhere. However, in fairness, I think the main reason was because the plane was relatively smaller than the usual Boeings owned by SQ, and so more prone to the mercy of the air turbulence and extremely heavy downpour in Taipei. Not a very good start to a vacation, I guess.

We were pretty late in arriving in Taipei, and sad to say, passing through customs wasn't a breeze at all. I think we had the good fortune of passing through this custom officer on his first day of work.

(In Mandarin, translated, of course)
Him: Where are you staying in Taipei?
Me: ? I don't know, we weren't given the address, we'd be moving hotels everyday anyway.
Him: Don't you have a tour guide? Get him to tell you, otherwise you can't pass.
Me: WTH?? (under my breath)

Anyway my family and myself had to get out of the queue, I quick dialed the Taiwanese tour guide's no, asked him for our Taipei hotel, wrote it down on the customs form and begged to get back into queue to clear customs. Super peeved, I tell ya!

Anyway we finally met our Taiwanese guide. His name is Francis, a cute, dimpled guy, who looked in his late twenties/early thirties (later I came to know, he's 32). Got on a mammoth tour bus (made to ferry 30, I think) together with 10 others in the tour group. Pretty fortunate cuz I really dislike big tour groups. We had no tour leader from Singapore, since our group's very small, so Francis is the only guide.

And off we were to Ilan for a "farmstay" at Ilan Leisure Farm. I had to type " ", because if this place were a farm, then Hotel 81 would be a goat pen. It's Shangri La, for goodness' sake!


Firecrackers, it was lit later!

The hotel looked like a charming bed & breakfast, its reception is housed in a wooden lodge, there was smoking firewood for warmth in a corner, and cobbled stone pathways leading to our rooms. It was late at night though, and I couldn't take half decent photos. Ok, maybe that's an excuse, I'm just not a good photographer.  :(

A smoking log, how cozy is that?

After a 10-course dinner whom nobody can finish (seriously, they intend to fatten us up during this trip), we headed to the courtyard to catch the after-dinner entertainment organised by the hotel staff. Mainly lighting of firecrackers, performance of the Ma Zu (diety who watches over the seas), rolling tang yuan, spinning tops, duckling race (I kid you not) and release of the heavenly lanterns which was what I was waiting for, I didn't really care for the rest.

This costumed guy was literally walking straight towards me, I almost stumbled getting this shot

Sorry for the crappy photos, but you get the idea.

The ducklings were the sweetest things ever. So yellow and fluffy, and very much asleep. Later they were roused awake to compete in a race, where all of the hotel guests could place bets. For the closet pundits in all of us.

Ducklings fast asleep in a box before their big race


Meet "Xiao Hei", the cutest black mutt with the cutest collar.
He/She's the first of many, many shots of dogs that I took during this trip.

 Writing wishes on the heavenly lantern/"kong ming deng".
To make it look more authentic, I wrote chinese characters, and vertically down. haha.

Top spinning competition 

Restraining the ducklings that were eager to start the race (btw, no. 2 won)

As you can see from the photos, it was drizzling throughout, and I was worried that we couldn't release the heavenly lanterns. Thankfully, the rain remained a drizzle and the slight breeze helped carry the lanterns up to a decent height. It may be an Ilan tradition and all, but at the back of my head, I was wondering if we'd be creating pollution by doing this. Francis reassured that someone will be picking up the lantern remnants. He also shared that in the past, one of the lanterns fell on someone's house and caused a fire. As such, it was mandated that such activities be restricted only in areas with no residences in the vicinity. I forgot to ask him about the origins of this tradition though.

Lighting our lantern

4 shots of heavenly lanterns up in the air

The cobbled walkway back to our hotel rooms

It's a pretty action packed first night, I must say. Hopefully I'd manage to follow through with the rest of the trip when I get the time.


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