Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Terrific Terrifying Taipei!



I put that in just to make you drool. Desserts were yummy!

Before we move on to our next port of call, I have to relate another little parenting story which happened a bit earlier in the trip, but I forgot to tell you  about...

The kids are growing up, yes? Well, this trip Video Boy was in the Teens group on the ship, so he didn't have to sign in or out of kids club, he just turned up. Panda Girl was allowed to sign herself in and out, except if we were in port (so she couldn't just wander off the ship without her parents, say). 

Despite the ship being rather large, it is a confined space. The kids were instructed to be at the Kids Club or in the rooms, unless we came and got them or gave them specific instructions. So far, so good. Except the night Panda Girl rang after kids club and Hubby answered the phone whilst trying to watch the end of a movie. He thought she said she was on her way back to the room. It was 10pm.

10:30pm - no Panda Girl and Kids Club is closed.

11pm - no Panda Girl and no way to ring her and find out where she was. We were getting kind of antsy.

11:30pm and we are running panicking through the ship looking for her. No Panda Girl. WTF???? 

I was stressed, but OK until Hubby uttered the words "what if she's fallen overboard?". FREAK OUT.

11:45pm Hubby is out doing circuits of the ship. We are about to call the Purser's Office when a face-painted Panda Girl turns up at our room. I have never been so relieved to see my baby girl in all my life! She had rung and told Hubby that she was taking her little 7 year old friend back to her room. Once there, the friend didn't want her to leave as her mother was nowhere in sight and so she succumbed to some peer-pressure and stayed with her. To say Hubby was angry when he got back was an understatement!

Anyway, many tears and hyperventilating ensued (Panda Girl, mostly). She ended up having to sleep in our room as she couldn't calm herself down. We kept her on a pretty short leash for the rest of the cruise as penance for all the extra grey hairs and heart problems she gave us! Kids, man! Is it any wonder I drink?

So....next stop, Taiwan!!! After another relaxing day at sea in which we managed not to lose our daughter, we arrived in the port of Keelung, at the northern tip of Taiwan. It's about an hour (25km) away from the capital, Taipei.




You could, of course, catch a Princess bus into Taipei (and do the tours too!) for about $69 each, but there was a friendly Visitor Information table set up who pointed us in the right direction, so we decided to catch the train. It was the ubiquitous cloudy and misty weather and was actually drizzling, but we walked around the block to get to Keelung Train Station and got all brave and bought our tickets to Taipei (all trains go to the capital from Keelung) - cost us all of $2.50 for 4 return tickets!

Downtown Keelung

They have the best bakeries. Video Boy got told "no" though!

Look how many characters it takes to say "no pet" in Mandarin!!!

Keelung train station

Catching the train

It was a pleasant trip of about 45 minutes. We arrived in the thriving capital - trying to remember where our platform was for the trip home. It can be difficult to find your way around any new city - you have to get orientated, figure our where you are and then where you want to get to. This is NOT made any easier by the maps at the train station entrances:



Who doesn't have north pointing up? Asian cities, that's who! Once I figured out what the hell was going on, we walked another couple of blocks to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. If there is one thing that these people are good at, it's building really HUGE monuments to themselves! It was a huge open space, with some Sunday morning sporting thing with kids everywhere carrying Kinda Surprise bags and with that harsh-sounding Mandarin voice over a very loud speaker system shouting out instructions to them all. We finally felt as if we were in Asia!

Downtown Taipei on a quiet Sunday morning
The front gate



Memorial Hall - it was under renovation (bit of a theme happening during our trip)

National Concert Hall


National Theatre


Drumming demonstration

It was at the Memorial that we lost our squatty-potty virginity! One thing you don't think about before you say "let's go on a holiday to a foreign land" is the toileting differences. We all get very used to what we have at home, and even the US versions of loos are weird to me, with their water up so high. But these Asian toilets are an experience you have to be prepared for! The big difference is you don't sit (even if you are a girl). It is basically a hole at ground level that you squat over and hope you don't wet your feet. The ammonia smell is an extra added touch. Apparently, they are quite the business for doing your business (view link at your own risk), but anytime I found a western toilet, I was there! Stay tuned for the Japanese version!

Moving on...we then had to tackle Taipei train station - we managed to use the machines to buy our tickets and then found the right platform to catch the train to the National Palace Museum (where we also caught our first non-English speaking taxi - point to the map, people!). I'll admit to feeling pretty chuffed about our ability to navigate our way using public transport in a large, new, non-English-speaking city! Maybe we could do OK on Amazing Race one day!





Cameras were not permitted inside, but it was vast! It has a larger collection than Beijing and we did a quick history lesson looking at bowls that were 7000 years old, Qin Dynasty paintings and amazing jade and ancient books (which are not quite the same when you can't read the language). Totally packed to the gunnels with tourist groups - we avoided them by sneaking into the exhibits backwards (ie: going in the exits and out the entrances).

Lunch...we went to the "Food Court" which had waitresses bring your selection. Luckily it had English on the menu, otherwise we don't know what we would have been eating!



The fried cuttlefish balls and some weird seafood mornay toastie thing (it was nice though!)

We decided to catch a cab to our next destination across town because they were so cheap and we were starting to run out of time. It's quite fascinating in itself just to drive around a new city, keeping an eye out on the all sights:

They take entire families on their mopeds - including the family pooch!

That looked like fun...

Taipei 101 Building - Panda Girl really wanted to go up this because she read about it an Artemis Fowl book. It was about 2pm-ish - we figured we had time - we had to be back on the ship by 5:30pm.


But first we had to lose Panda Girl in the giant shopping mall at the bottom (we went to the toilet and assumed she was with us when we came out - Video Boy was like "um, seriously guys, where's Panda Girl?" and we realised we had left her behind!!!! Don't panic, she was still in the loo). And then we had to find the lifts to take you up to the observatory. I swear we walked around for at a half an hour, exploring dead ends and getting dodgy advice before we found it. And then, we had to pay. Which we did. And then we walked around the corner to find the mother of all queues to get in the lift. Hubby was getting stressed about time.

There were the obligatory photo ops - so I just took a photo of our photo (good enough).


The lift in the building is amazing! It goes up 89 floors in 23 seconds - the world's fastest passenger elevator. It was fun doing the jumping thing!


So, finally up there - views were quite spectacular:






Who's afraid of heights?

They have this "damper" thing in the middle which is to stop the building moving in high winds. They have heaps of souvenirs based on it called Damper Babies.

And if we thought it was hard finding the lift to get up the tower, it was almost as hard going down - you had to walk/run through this entire floor of souvenirs (which wasn't even the gift shop) and then get back in a gigantic queue to get back in the lifts to get out. Hubby was very time-stressed by now.



And so our own very "Amazing Race" started - we had to figure out which exit we came out of, where the train station was (hint - it's NOT the underground parking station).  I felt a little reassured when we spotted the Princess buses still at Taipei 101. We gave up on finding the train and just caught a cab through the Sunday afternoon traffic back to the Taipei Station.

We then had to find our platform to Keelung. It took us about 20 minutes of up, down, zig, zag, asking people who couldn't speak English, asking people who could speak English but who didn't know Taipei Station at all, looking at upside maps and FINALLY found our platform, where we had just missed a train and had to wait 17 loooonnnnng minutes for the next one. I was sure that it only about 45 minutes and being 4:30pm I thought we would be OK to get there at 5:15pm and back on the boat by 5:30pm. 

It was The. Longest. Train. Trip. EVAH. And 1 hour long. The train pulled up at 5:30pm. I was soooo stressed by then, but surprisingly, Hubby was calm. We were at the back of the train and had to push through a billion Taiwanese to get to the exit and to a cab, which nearly left me behind, "rapido!!!" "big boat!!!".  The cab-driver was an absolute champion! He gunned it like there was no tomorrow, only to have to wait at the lights, which helpfully counted down the 65 seconds until the next green light. A white knuckle ride if ever there was one, people!

We pulled up to the wharf - the police on duty didn't want to let us in until we yelled "we're supposed to be on the ship!!!" and he waved us through. The cab-driver fairly hurtled to the gangway and came within inches of a moped driver with a death-wish. My window was open and I'm fairly sure I heard collective "gasp!" from the crowd gathered on the promenade deck. Hubby threw about $300 Taiwanese dollars at the driver (about $10 Australian) as we got out of the cab to the cheers and applause of the gathered crowd! 

As we rushed up the gangway at 5:38pm, the pursers had our passports ready to hand over to the port authorities so we could get to the next port!!! I wouldn't have been surprised to find Phil standing there saying "Ingi and family, you are the last team to arrive. I'm sorry to say you have been eliminated from Princess Cruises!"

I don't know how long they would have waited for us, and I had no intention of finding out the rest of the trip. 

We were slightly relieved to find out that, in fact, we were not the last passengers to arrive and another couple were stuck in a cab in Taiwan traffic and that they would wait for them. As we got into the lift to our cabin, I burst into tears - the stress of the last couple of hours just flowed out of me. I then sucked up any remaining dignity I had, and went to the bar, accompanied by pats on the back and cheers, and had A VERY LARGE CHAMPAGNE. That was too close and we were very glad not to have to make our own way to Kagoshima, Japan by plane with only our backpacks for company.

 View from the bar as we set sail from Keelung. I need another champagne.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Happy in Hong Kong - Day 2

OK. I'm not happy. I'd finished this post (after delays of about a week) and Blogger wouldn't save it or publish it. I should have, at that point, copied and pasted (and apparently bought a Mac), but I didn't. So here I am again trying to remember all my witty words....

Why the delays? Oh you know, house flooding when we got 230mm of rain overnight:

Our garage had at least an inch of water sweep through it

And our office/Video Boy's room got wet carpet (again).

I'll admit to going online and seeing what real estate we could buy if we sold this piece-of-#%$& house and started again...Cleaning up the above mess sent me into a spiral that set off another migraine. Our tax is (over) due, I have to reconcile about 3 months of bank accounts in MYOB, I've been out to work to pay for my new house, oh and I've been homeschooling our kids so they don't turn into illiterate/innumerate ingrates!

But I want to get out this post and finish off Hong Kong! So here goes nothing (may the Blogger gods be kind to me!).

Day two in Hong Kong dawned much like the first - foggy and misty. Fellow cruisers reported not being able to see a thing (a white out) at the Peak yesterday. We did have a mooring-mate at Junk Bay overnight - the Sea Princess, whom we sailed to New Zealand on! It looked a bit small in comparison to our Diamond Princess behemoth, but we have fond memories of her.




One of the biggest impressions Asia left on me is the number of people who live in high-rises. They hang their washing out the windows to dry in the dust and smog, whilst living in a shoe-box. It makes me feel very lucky to have won the birthplace lottery and ended up in Australia on my 1000 square metres (even if it does leak).

Oh and we learnt our lesson from the day before - we carried jumpers and raincoats with us!!! 




The sun-gods were smiling though, because as we caught the tender over to Hong Kong island, the clouds burnt off and we were left with sparkling sunshine and we could at last see the tops of the high rises and the Peak!




And so a quick change of plans meant we hopped back on that Big Bus and went to the Peak tram station...along with hundreds of other tourists who had the same idea! Luckily our Big Bus tickets included tram tickets, so we avoided the ticket queue that went around the block and just got on the queue to get on the tram.





The Peak Tram is much like the Scenic Railway back home in the Blue Mountains or the Wellington Cable Car in New Zealand - really, really steep climb! You can see why they built it - it would have been a killer of a walk! Back in the day, they used to get some poor sucker to cart tourists up in rickshaws! They would have been supremely fit.






The view from the top was quite spectacular - apparently it is getting quite rare to have a clear day, so we lucked in! I'm sure there is a bit of pollution involved, but just looking out over such a spectacular skyline was an experience:

No fear...
 





Some of the most expensive real estate in Hong Kong (and therefore the world)



Everywhere in Asia comes with a built-in shopping opportunity. They have totally embraced consumerism! You have to run the gauntlet in many situations, but we did stop occasionally and pick up and item or two - we got a beautiful teapot set here and Panda Girl got a great Swatch watch.





After grabbing a bite to eat, we rejoined the queue to head back down:













When we got down the bottom, we waited a while to get back on the Big Bus, and then decided to live on the edge and catch a cab...except there weren't any. So, after having a look at the map (you are never really sure just how far the distances are) we decided to walk back down the wharf area, and surprisingly, it was a pleasant walk through parks and mostly downhill.

We spotted bottlebrushes (Australian natives) which made us feel homesick!

Beautiful open spaces, where you felt like you could breath again.

There are large bits of Hong Kong's shopping area where you can't actually walk at ground level, because there are no footpaths - they only have these crazy elevated pedestrian walkways, where no-one stays to the left or to the right and you just have to go for it! We managed not to lose the kids :-)




There is a lot of construction going on down in the wharf/waterfront precinct - it would be interesting to go back in a few years time and see what they've done with the place! More shopping, no doubt!

Old meets new - ferries, sampans and highrises



We managed to find where we should have eaten the night before - the ferry terminals had great food! No English at all, just point and hold up fingers to say how many (beware though - two can mean two lots of three or four!!). All dirt cheap and totally yummy!



A pleasant tender ride back to the ship, so we didn't miss it. Apparently, if you are not on a tour and don't get back in time, they don't wait for you. We did hear later, apparently, that there were some people left behind in Hong Kong. As if you'd be late...





Once back on board, we actually were about an hour late in departing as we had to wait for the authorities to clear us to leave. As we sat with our engines keeping us in one spot, the sea mist rolled back in. But finally we were cleared to leave, waving a Hong Kong that was in there somewhere goodbye as we headed out for another day at sea before our next port of call, Taiwan!





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