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Getting to Shanghai… November 19, 2009

Posted by jorkat in Shanghai.
6 comments

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m organized almost to a fault. Whether I’m packing for a one-year teaching contract in Asia or just a weekend trip, I never leave anything to chance. I always make lists of everything to bring and double-check to ensure that everything is packed.

So you can imagine our frustration when after having woken up at 5:30am, and arriving at the airport at 7am that the first question the check-in girl asked us was…

“When did you make this reservation?”

Oh no. Not a great feeling. We had presented her with all the proper documentation – the e-tickets from our travel agent and our passports. There was only one small problem – the airline had no record of our reservation ever existing, and it was completely sold out.

We had been planning this 3-day weekend trip to Shanghai to explore the city and see Tiger Woods play in a World Golf Championship event, since he announced his participation over 6 months ago. As I alluded to in this post about Tiger, there was never any doubt in my mind that we would be attending. Until we got to the airport.

I started to think that this would be the only "Tiger" I would be seeing in Asia.

Under the circumstances, I was surprised by how calm we were. I think part of that had to do with the fact that this wasn’t the first time this travel agent had made this kind of mistake. The Mulloskey’s went through a much worse experience when he neglected to book their flights out of Vietnam and they were forced to sleep on the floor of an airport…which they broke into…because it was closed. Did I mention they were in Vietnam?

Anyway, we were well aware of this travel agent’s track record when we started dealing with him. The reason we (and lots of other foreigners) kept using him is that he almost always has the best prices and he speaks very good English. I was always diligent in following-up with him to ensure that he had received our payments and sent us the e-tickets for our flights. We had used him for several other trips with no complaints whatsoever, until now.

Here’s the issue. Apparently travel agents can make flight reservations with certain airlines without making an immediate payment. So what I think this guy does is he quotes you a price, and then based on his experience will either pay the airline immediately if he thinks the price is going to go up. Or he gambles and waits until the last possible moment hoping that the price will go down, and he gets to pocket the difference. I’m not sure of the legality of such a scheme but if you play the game right, he probably makes a nice chunk of change on top of his commission.

There’s only one MAJOR PROBLEM with this so-called scheme. It doesn’t quite work out when you forget to pay the airline entirely and the reservation gets cancelled altogether. This is what happened to us. He quoted us a great price. We agreed to the price and transferred him the money. He took our money and sent us the e-ticket reservations. This was back in July. In our minds we were all set, until we arrived at the check-in and heard those dreaded words – “When did you make this reservation?”

No time to panic. It was 7am so we still had the whole day to figure out how to get to Shanghai. We had already made hotel reservations and our golf tickets were paid for, so we were going to get there regardless. We found the nearest internet cafe in our terminal and I checked to see if I had our travel agents cell phone number in my contacts. Unfortunately, I only had his office number which obviously wasn’t open yet.

We then started pricing flights online with various travel websites and it wasn’t pretty. We had paid less than $500 for 2 round-trip tickets to Shanghai and now we couldn’t find anything online for less than $500 each. Not to mention that we weren’t sure if we were going to get our initial payment back either. The flights being quoted online also weren’t ideal because some of them had connections or were leaving too late on Friday and/or coming back too early on Sunday. This was already a short trip to begin with, and most of our day on Saturday would be spent following Tiger.  We wanted to make the most of Friday and Sunday in the city.

After sending the travel agent a tersely written email asking him to call our cell immediately, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat and strategize. I wasn’t hungry as it slowly started to dawn on me that this trip might not happen. We decided over an Egg McMuffin and hashbrown to go to certain airline counters directly and ask them if they had any flights while we waited for the travel agent to call us back. If we didn’t hear from him by 10am, we would book one of the early afternoon flights from the internet and get to Shanghai ASAP.

Quick tangent. Every time we visit the airport I always look forward to the concept car they have on display called the KIA VG. It stops me in my tracks every time I see it. We had some time to kill in the airport and this post is a little short on pictures so here you go. I never thought I would see the day when I would take a liking to KIA’s. Don’t be surprised if you see me driving one of these when we get back to Canada.

As you’ve probably guessed based on the title of this post, we did end up making it to Shanghai and things couldn’t have worked out better.

We visited the counter for Korean Air and were quoted similar prices to what we found online. We explained our situation to the lady assisting and she recommended that we visit some of the travel agencies located on the basement level. I didn’t think they would be open this early, but much to our surprise they all were. The first one we walked into was called Hanatour where we met a nice young lady named Ji-Eun. She did a quick search for us and found a flight leaving at noon on Friday and coming back at 9pm on Sunday night. It was only $150 more than we had initially paid and the best part was that we weren’t losing anytime. Our departure flight was 3 hours later than our initial flight, as was the return.

The only decision left to make was, do we wait for our travel agent to call and hope that he agrees to pay for his mistake, or do we take our chances and book it right away?  Ji-Eun made the reservation for us and said we could wait about an hour to see if he called. Shortly after 9am, we decided to book the flight and take our chances with our travel agent upon our return. Lone and behold, minutes after we made the booking we received a call. It was him. I calmly explained what had happened and he agreed to fully reimburse us for the flights we had just paid for, which he did. Disaster averted.

It was quite an ordeal but we boarded our flights a couple hours later without a care in the world. We hadn’t lost any time and we now had most of Friday and a full day on Sunday to enjoy as much of Shanghai as possible.

The best part of the day was that Tiger and Phil were actually at the airport in Shanghai to greet us upon arrival.

I swear this was Katie’s idea.

We were relieved to finally be in Shanghai, and that Tiger had opted for his black hat that day. I had just purchased his white Nike Golf hat at the Duty Free shop in Korea a few hours earlier. Now that would have been embarassing.

Stay tuned for our next Shanghai post and an unforgettable day with Tiger, Phil and lots of Chinese people.

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Taiwan – Part 2 November 12, 2009

Posted by jorkat in Taipei.
4 comments

We received so much positive feedback from our 4-part, 10,000 word marathon Beijing conversation that we’ve decided to never do it again and go back to my long-winded essays with way more detail than necessary. Get comfortable in case you doze off.

Click here if you missed Part 1.

Highlight #8 – The World’s Fastest Elevator

The weather was less than ideal for our first trip to Taipei 101, so we decided to return on Day 3 and hope for a clearer view. The skies were still somewhat overcast, but I was determined to visit the 89th floor observatory aboard the world’s fastest elevator. I tried to convince the ladies to join me, but Mullin was the only one willing to come along for the ride.

The 1667-ft., 101-story building has 67 elevator units, including two that service the 89th-floor observation deck and qualify as the world’s fastest. These units rocket skyward at a peak speed of 3314 ft. per minute (fpm), more than 800 fpm faster than the previous record holder in Japan’s Yokohama Landmark Tower. By comparison, an airline pilot normally maintains a climb, or descent rate, of no more than 1000 fpm.

The airliner analogy is sound as you get a similar sensation aboard the elevator as you do during take-off, especially the way your ears pop from the rapid changes in altitude.

The view from the observation deck wasn’t spectacular, but the ride aboard the elevator made the trip well worth it. And yes, I suspect this is the first and last time I’ll ever write about an elevator ride, and acknowledge it as “worthwhile”.

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This picture was taken from…

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…the intersection at the bottom of this picture. This one was taken from the 89th floor.

Highlight #9 – Snake Alley

When we first started discussing some of the attractions that we wanted to visit in Taiwan, Snake Alley was one of the first ones that was suggested.

According to our Lonely Planet guide, the snakes used to be antagonized and killed in front of the customers as some sort of ritual ceremony before feasting on their blood and remains. For some reason, this practice has come under scrutiny and is not openly demonstrated to the public, at least no where that we could find. Stupid PETA.

After asking several locals for directions, we managed to find the infamous Snake Alley. As you’ll see from the pictures below, there are plenty of large snakes on display in front of most of the restaurants that serve various snake by-products. Mullin was feeling somewhat adventurous, and after promising Erin not to drink the snake poison, he basically ordered everything on the menu.

The various drinks placed before him consisted of snake blood, snake poison, snake penis (?), snake bile, and a partridge in a pear tree.

I’ll let the videos below do the rest of the talking.

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Highlight #10 – International Symbol for Underground Mall

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We got a good laugh from this one every time we entered the mall connected to the train station. Apparently this is the international sign for Underground Shopping Mall. Look how happy she is!! Unfortunately, we were unable to find any shoppers displaying the same raw emotion.

Highlight #11 – Shida District

This University district consisted a wide variety of funky bars and restaurants. We wandered around for a while, stopped for a few martini’s, and then ventured out again to find a nice dinner spot. We ended up settling on a very cool pizza place with a patio and a very entertaining menu.

The restaurant was called Maryjane Pizza so it didn’t take Mullin and I much convincing to give it a shot. Turns out that it’s owned by an American couple and the wife was responsible for writing the menu in its entirety.

Aside from the menu description pictured below, some of my other favourites included:

The Meatza – “Looking for a balanced diet? Go away. This baby’s got loads of bacon and it’s sprinkled with our specially spiced blend of pork and beef. The green peppers and onions are just for show.”

Quattro Formaggi – “Parmesan, blue cheese, ricotta and mozzarella. How cheesy? David Hasselhoff doing Michael Bolton covers. With Menudo. In Wisconsin.

The pizza was just as tasty as the menu was funny. A memorable dining experience.

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The side streets were packed with students of all ages.

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As with almost everywhere in Taipei, you can’t go more than a few blocks without finding a 7-11. No exaggeration.

Highlight #12 – Shindiaoling Waterfall Trail

This was the highlight of the trip by far.

As was the case for most of the trip, the forecast was less than favourable and called for rain throughout the day. Despite the poor weather conditions, we were determined to hike the trail to these spectacular waterfalls.

After a short train ride to the outskirts of Taipei, we exited the train at a desolate station that looked like it was straight out of the 60’s. There wasn’t a soul to be seen with the exception of the lone station employee. We followed our directions along the tracks until we came upon an even more desolate small town. And when I say town, I mean small assemblage of battered shacks. Once again, not a single person in sight. We entered the forest/jungle thanks to some lackluster signage and started our trek.

5 hours later we returned completely drenched from one of the most incredible nature experiences any of us have ever had.

We spent close to 2 hours following a somewhat obscure trail through the woods. We had to cross streams of varying depth and length, manoeuver through treacherous rock formations, and climb some fairly steep embankments to remain on course. All this while the rain continued to fall and compromise our footing and permeate our clothing. We came upon some rather large leaves which you’ll see pictured below, and I devised a makeshift umbrella which we eventually attached to Katie’s backpack to keep it’s contents dry.

As our hands started to prune and not a single item of clothing was dry, we heard a low rumbling in the distance that could only be one thing. The trek through the forest/jungle was a highlight in itself and we weren’t sure what to expect from these waterfalls, but as you can see from the pictures/videos, we were all pleasantly surprised and completely in awe.

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This is the first waterfall we saw along the trail. Not bad…

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Our makeshift umbrella. I should have been a cast member on Lost.

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These pictures don’t do it justice. The size and scope of this waterfall was breathtaking.

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The best part about the entire day was that aside from the train station employee, we did not see a single other person for the entire adventure. It was just the four of us and nature.

Highlight #13 – Beitou Hot Springs

This was the last stop on our trip.

Traditional public hot spring etiquette requires that bathers thoroughly wash and rinse off their bodies before entering the bath, do not wear clothing (including swim wear) in the bath and tie up their hair so that it does not touch the water. Most of the public outdoor hot springs in the Beitou area are modeled more after European spa centers and require swimsuits since you will be bathing in mixed company as was the case with this one.

Once again, it was raining but we called ahead to ensure that the outdoor hot spring was open as our flight was leaving in the early afternoon. Seeing as it was Monday morning at 10:30am, the death squad was out in full effect as we were by far the youngest bathers. I’d say the average age of all the other patrons was somewhere between coma and carcass.

Once we acclimatized ourselves to all the stares and various water temperatures, we sat back and relaxed while the rain fell gently and steam rose all around us. It was a perfect way to end a trip we will never forget. It was also nice having a bathing suit and not be faced with the prospect of Mullin’s junk in my face every 10 minutes. But that’s another story.

(We weren’t allowed to take pictures here, but Mullin snuck a couple as we were leaving.)

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While relaxing all together one last time before starting our trip home, we all marveled at how much we had accomplished in just 5 short days. At the same time, none of us ever felt rushed or stressed, it was the ideal mix of relaxation and sightseeing with two perfect travel companions.

We vowed that wherever our lives took us, that we would find a way to experience a trip like this together again one day. We can’t wait.

Stay tuned for our next post about our trip to Shanghai this past weekend.

Taiwan – Part 1 November 1, 2009

Posted by jorkat in Taipei.
4 comments

We received so much positive feedback from our 4-part, 10,000 word marathon Beijing conversation that we’ve decided to never do it again and go back to my long-winded essays with way more detail than necessary. Get comfortable in case you doze off.

Whatever you were doing about a month ago (the weekend before Canadian Thanksgiving), no matter how much fun you were having – I can assure you that our weekend was better. Period.

Despite not seeing the sun once for 5 days, a minor earthquake while we slept one night, and the threat of a super-typhoon looming over the entire trip, it was one of the most memorable holidays we’ve ever had.

Before arriving in Asia, I had no interest in ever travelling to Taiwan. I knew very little about it other than it doesn’t get along with China and it produced most of the toys that I played with throughout my childhood. But after speaking with some of the other teachers that had lived and worked in Seoul, they convinced us that Taiwan was a must see.

When we started discussing this trip with the Mulloskey’s over 6 months ago, we identified a variety of different potential venues for this 5-day holiday which is known as Chuseok or the Korean Thanksgiving. Shanghai was under consideration but was voted down because Katie and I will be going there next week to see Tiger. Guam and Philipines were both strong contenders but a bit far and pricey during this holiday. Both got levelled by Typhoons so we made the right choice in retrospect. Taiwan was right in the crosshairs of the said Typhoon but veered off course the day before our departure. It was actually bittersweet for Mullin and I as we were both secretly hoping that it would hit so we could experience a Typhoon. Erin and Katie did not share our same passion for extreme weather conditions.

Upon arrival in Taipei, we immediately headed for our hostel which was conveniently located in the heart of Taipei right next the main Subway/Train Station. We could not have picked a more ideal location and I must credit Erin and Katie for their research and preparation. I contributed very little to the decision-making on this trip and was very lucky to have such good travel companions that provided such wonderful, hassle-free options. Mullin was there too.

After dropping off our bags and marvelling at the room that the Mulloskey’s snagged (we were on the 22nd floor), we headed off to our first sight-seeing destination – Taipei 101.

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TAIPEI 101 is currently the tallest building in the world, at least until the Burj Dubai is completed later this year. Completed in 2004, TAIPEI 101 rises in 8 canted sections, a design based on the Chinese lucky number “8”. It is a homonym for prosperity in Chinese, and the 8 sections of the structure are designed to create rhythm in symmetry, introducing a new style for skyscrapers. The building is also designed to resemble a growing bamboo, a symbol of everlasting strength in Chinese culture.

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When it first came into view upon exiting the subway station, my immediate thought was that it didn’t seem as big as I expected. As we slowly approached on foot, it occurred to me why this may be the case. It’s the only skyscraper in the vicinity. We’re used to large elaborate skylines with numerous skyscrapers that provide a scale for just how large the world’s largest structures actually are. This one was all by itself with nothing of consequence nearby. Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely impressive, but it must get lonely without any other friends around to show off to.

Taipei 101 was the first of many highlights throughout our 5-day journey. Rather then bore you with the excruciating minutiae of every last detail, I’m going to focus on my personal highlights in a photo essay style format (in no particular order).

Highlight #1 – Beef Noodles

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Two of my favourite words (beef & noodle) are joined together to form my favourite meal(s) from our trip. Taiwan doesn’t have a defined specialty cuisine, they simply steal from everyone else. We enjoyed foods from all over – Indian, Malaysian, Middle Eastern, Thai and American (McDonald’s). These beef noodles came from a nice food court that had the widest variety of cuisines we’ve ever seen. I actually ate two plates in one sitting and then came back for lunch again the next day to enjoy them one last time. Let’s just say that me and the lady behind the counter would have been on a first name basis, if she could speak English.

Highlight #2 – Top Gun Huanlien

On day 2 we took a train a few hours outside of Taipei to a more remote area. While looking for accommodations we were pleasantly surprised by the occasional fly by of Taiwanese jet fighters. Most of them were just landing at a nearby air strip but Mullin and I still did our best to break the record for most Top Gun references between two human beings. We also completely abandoned our search for a hotel and left that up to the girls while we wandered around the small town trying to get footage of one of the Migs. Success!!

Highlight #3 – Massages

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These pictures speaks for themselves. I can’t remember the exact cost of a foot massage but it was somewhere between free and the cost of a happy meal. Throw a TV showing baseball into the mix and I probably would have paid for 100 happy meals to enjoy such an incredible sensation. The only downside was that Taiwanese people must have rock-hard feet because they absolutely rubbed the shit of ours, to the point where it was painful. I gave my guy the universal sign for take it down a notch fella, but it didn’t matter. Fortunately the Yankees were getting trounced by the Rays so that helped dull the pain.

Highlight #4 – Taiwan Beer

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It’s cheap. It has a cool can. And it’s delicious. Kudos to Mrs. Algate for this artistic shot, worthy of their next ad campaign.

Highlight #5 – The Toilet Restaurant

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We passed this restaurant and had to take a picture. All the seats inside were toilets. Check out the tasty sample dish on display in the front window. We actually thought about going inside as the menu looked pretty decent, but we were worried that the food would end up being kinda shitty. Badoom ching.

Highlight #6 – Sean Mullin

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If you know him, you’ll understand everything I’m about to say. If you don’t I think his personality and positive outlook on life can be summed up in my favourite quote of his from the trip.

“It smells good. I feel good. I’m happy.”

Another famous quote of his which wasn’t actually first said on the trip, but perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be Sean Mullin:

“Enjoying life as much as I do is absolutely fucking exhausting.”

The other great thing about Mullin is that he’s so busy enjoying life that he frequently likes to leave things behind. Here’s my Top 3 list of things Mullin forgot and had to run back for while we were travelling.

1) Passports in an open locker at the spa (realized they were gone 20 minutes before boarding a train)

2) Umbrella on the subway. It was pouring and fortunately, Erin was nice enough to share hers. I don’t think this is the first time this had happened.

3) His jacket on the plane. This happened at the very end. We were exhausted after a long day of sightseeing and travelling. As we were about to say our goodbye’s, Mullin realized that he left his jacket on the plane and spent the next 2 hours trying to get it back. Katie and I were home in bed within the hour. Mullin never saw the jacket again.

Highlight #7 – Taroko Gorge

This is my new favourite picture and one of hundreds that we took this day.

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Would you believe that we got it on the first take? Good, because we didn’t.

Taroko Gorge is an impressive 19-km-long canyon, situated near Taiwan’s east coast. The area of the gorge is also identified as Taroko Gorge National Park.  The most phenomenal aspect of the park is the amazing scenery. In a single afternoon you can travel from rugged coastal cliffs through a maze of subtropical forested canyons to high elevation subalpine coniferous forests. In about 20 kilometers the landscape rises from sea level to some of the tallest peaks in Taiwan at over 3800 meters.

We hired a private driver and visited three distinct parts of the National Park. The pictures below are divided into the three respective areas that we visited.

Shakadang Trail

Shakadang Trail is also known as “Mysterious Valley Trail”, which is named because more than 40 years ago a group of young folks entered the river valley and found it very secretive. This place has attracted more and more travelers, and thus everyone is used to calling it “Mysterious Valley”. It was officially renamed to “Shakadang Trail” in 2001 again in reference to the name of the river. This trail is built along the river cliff so travelers can easily observe both the folded rocks and ecosystem beside the river shore.

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Eternal Springs Shrine

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Swallow Grotto Gorge

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For an entertaining and much more detailed account of our trip, check out the Mulloskey blog right here.

Stay tuned for Taiwan – Part 2, coming on Tuesday.