Holidaying in Taiwan

Our family seems to be developing a yearly tradition of meeting somewhere in the middle between the UK and Australia to spend time together. This year our destination was Taiwan.

I didn’t know too much about the country other than it was an island, it’s well known for its food crazes and that it was of those weird territories of China. Unlike China though, I didn’t need to apply in advance for a visa. Like our trip last year, my sister did a lot of the “tour” planning working out a good balance of time with a tour guide and some free time to wander. I’ll write a bit more about the different destinations in a different post. Here I want to focus on what I discovered about the country.

After our nine day adventure I had a very different view of Taiwan. It seemed to be a lot more in touch with nature than the mainland. While China has had its number of major food scandals this year, and they are infamous for the pollution in their cities to the point where people won’t travel there in certain times of the year because it is so bad, the Taiwanese seem more if touch with where their food comes from.

Organic weeks to be a big movement and a lot of their food seems to focus on locally grown and seasonal produce meaning fresher foods, more flavour and just better quality meals.

Although taipei has some level of smog, the rest of the country appears beautifully maintained and cared for.

Vegetarians will have no problems with eating well in Taiwan. Buddhism seems more prevalent here so vegetarian restaurants are easy to find and there always seem to be at one if not more options at a restaurant. Of course there are also many great food options for omnivores because Taiwan is so well known for it.

Other things we ended up doing include the following list:

Cing Jing Farm

This farm is located high up in the mountains, making it ideal for the sheep who graze freely on the green grassy slopes. Consequentially, it’s worth watching where you step as the footpath is littered with droppings! We walked around the grassy knolls before sitting down to watch a performance from Mongolian horseback riders in a small courtyard.

Paper Factory

I wasn’t expecting this part of tour to be very exciting, but it turned out far against my expectations. The paper factory demonstrated the process of how Taiwanese paper is made (particularly by hand), talking about the different materials and what each one is used for. They even had an interactive part where we had a go at printing on some handmade paper and turning it into a fan.

Of course you can buy all sorts of paper craft to take home, but the most fascinating was the paper designed to be eaten. Crafted out of vegetable fibres, and then seasoned with various coatings such as sesame, chocolate and pepper.

Takoro National Park

We did a lot of driving around the island to get around to different parts, and a large part of this was driving through Takoro National Park. This gave us lots of opportunities for appreciating the natural scenery and many photo opportunities!

Shakadang Trail

We stopped in this particularly scenic location as it was well known as a walking trail, providing many more opportunities to connect with, and appreciate the Taiwanese landscapes.

Wood Cutting Museum

Part of Taiwan’s history includes being occupied by the Japanese. We visited a wood cutting museum that demonstrated how the Japanese set up a village dedicated to wood cutting, including the art craft of wood carving resulting in some amazing creations.

Night markets

With Taiwan being so known for its food, there is nothing more synonymous with the Taiwanese than the night markets. This is often where new foods are trialled, and you’ll often see queues of people patiently waiting for particular food stuffs. Some of the more famous items (some we tried, some we didn’t) included:

  • Oyster omelettes – Made by frying some tiny oysters, covering them with a starchy liquid that turns a bit gelatinous, fried with scrambled egg, often some lettuce and then topped with a salty brown sauce.
  • Pan fried buns – Fluffy white buns, filled with a vegetable and pork mixture and then grilled to have a crispy bottom. Beware the hot liquid that often sits waiting to explode in your mouth!
  • Stinky tofu – Not really much more to say!
  • Fried chicken cutlet – The most famous of these is the Hot Star Fried chicken, that feels like it’s almost half a chicken flattened out, breaded and crisp to perfection and then spiced with lots of pepper and some chilli powder. We had to try this one – perfectly crisp and juicy on the inside.
  • Coffin Bread – A french toast creation, deep fried and then hollowed out and filled with any choice of savoury or sweet fillings. It’s supposed to be very crunchy but I didn’t try this one.
  • Grilled corn – You’ll see lots of white and yellow corn stands around. Often BBQ-ed with some sort of sauce
  • Scallion pancake – Typically a breakfast item, this pancake is flaky, salted, and full of umami.
  • Deep fried bread and egg – Definitely not the sort of food you want to have everyday, but a fascinating process to watch made. The person at the cart typically flattens a ball of white dough, throws the pancake into a deep fryer for it to puff up. They lift it up, crack an egg into the oil before cracking the yolk that then “glues” the egg back to the bread as they put the bread back down. Seems like a pretty popular treat, and is often brushed with some sort of salty, brown paste.
  • Ice cream spring roll – A dessert, where a thin spring roll wrapper is laid out, scraped peanut brittle scattered in the middle before being rolled up with scoops of ice cream and coriander. You’ll be surprised by how well this one works!

Of course there are many other market foods worth exploring and trying. I highly recommend trying the fresh fruit stands as they are all often very flavourful, fresh and super sweet!

Even after a short time, we didn’t get to see all of the island and I’d definitely be keen on heading back again one day soon.

How I borrowed an iPhone 5C for a week

For just over a week, I have been the owner of a blue iPhone 5C. Here are a couple of pictures of the phone before I returned it yesterday.

iPhone 5C

iPhone 5C

I wasn’t planning on being an owner of the iPhone but it turned out to be an emergency situation. It sort of started out like this…

I had a physiotherapy appointment in the morning and I happened to be carrying a bag I wanted to donate to a charity bin on my way home. I sat in the surgery waiting for my appointment, and like most other people, sat there checking twitter, email and everything else. I got called in for my appointment, and after finishing went straight away to the place I could donate my bag. The charity bin looked like this:

The Charity Bin

I pushed my bag through the slot, firmly pushing the bag and closing the door with acceleration to ensure the bag found its way deep inside the bin where no one could easily pull it out. I turned, and proceeded home. It was about half way home that I realised my phone was missing. Not in my jacket. Not in my pockets. Panic set in as I slowly realised my phone sat firmly inside the bag I just donated, and that bag sat firmly inside a steel bin where I could not retrieve it.

I ran back to the bin to see if I somehow could pull the bag out with a strap, but it was simply not possible. All I could touch was a big metal scoop and I could only see the deep black void of the bin’s insides.

There was a number on the bin, but then I had no phone to call it with. I had a flight to catch in the afternoon, so time was of the essence. I headed straight to the apple store. I was fortunate everything happened very early. I was in the apple store by 10:30am and with a new iPhone shortly after.

Why an iPhone 5C you ask? I would have bought an iPhone 5S but they were all out. The only options were a 5C, or an 8GB 4S. I went with the blue iPhone 5C you see in the pictures above. The salesperson assured me I could return the phone within 14 days and possibly upgrade to the 5S if I came in on a day they had any in stock. That seemed very reasonable to me.

Phone done, but not yet connected. I made my way to an EE store to get a replacement sim card. I was fortunate they could make a replacement on the spot for £10. So by about 11am I was reconnected to a telephone network. Racing home, a quick sync with my laptop brought the rest of the phone back up to scratch with important things I would need for my travels including apps that stored my travel details and contacts for people I needed to reach.

Not yet done, I headed back to the charity bin to call the number. I also made sure I took a picture of the bin that you see above. I’m thankful the number was on the bin. A guy called Kevin picked up who I explained my situation to. He was very reasonable, and I left all my contact details with him. Kevin explained that they only collect from the charity bins once a week, but they could try to send a person around. I told him that I would be out of the country so he said he would call me if they found anything. I understood his sentiment that there was no guarantee they would find it but I was certainly hopeful.

With nothing left that I could do, I headed home and tried to not worry myself about what just happened. The event was past and there was nothing left I could do. Still, I felt quite badly as I packed for my work trip (and I do feel guilty and definitely ashamed about it even now).

Kevin left a message three days later. I listened to the message, expecting the worst. Fortunately he surprised me and told me they had found my phone and I could come and pick it up when I was back in London. I was so relieved and thankful.

The first day I was back in London, I went to their offices in Beckenham to pick up the phone. I dropped off giant-sized Toblerone to say thanks – my last trip was to Geneva and it felt most appropriate.

After this time, the phone was truly drained. I plugged it into a battery pack I recently bought, and 20 minutes later it was back up to about 20%, enough for me to feel happy to try restoring it. iTunes worked seamlessly, I dropped in the new sim and tested everything worked. Phew! Everything appeared to work.

After resetting my iPhone 5C to its original condition, I headed back to the apple store with everything in hand and I was able to get a refund for my purchase. Yay!

Short Stop in Poland

Despite being in Europe for a long time, I realised that I never made it to Poland. I figured it was one of those countries I would eventually have some reason to go. A few weeks back that reason arrived as I was speaking at Poland DevDays held in Krakow.

The wonderful organisers put us speakers up in a very nice hotel called Hotel Unicus. Everything was very comfortable in the rooms and the breakfast stylish. It was located just off the main street and convenient walking distance to the old town square.

My original plan was to stay the weekend, but because I had been travelling for the past six weeks, I decided it would be better to fly in just for the conference and have the rest of the weekend back in London. My options included RyanAir from Dublin, or a hellish triple stop via London, Berlin before finally arriving back in Krakow that I think ended up being an 11 hour journey. I wasn’t particularly thrilled by RyanAir and I avoid flying them wherever possible. This trip didn’t really change my mind either.

I did have a couple of hours to walk around town before the speaker’s dinner, held the day before the conference. The old town is very traditional with lots of interesting buildings. The town is circled by a giant circular park, the remnants of an old city wall that surrounded the town.

I did manage to find a very traditional Polish restaurant for a light, late lunch. They had a lunch special that included some sort of vegetable soup and perogis.

Although perogis are typically pork based, I somehow ended up with vegetarian ones with onion and cabbage inside. Surprisingly tasty even though they look rather bland looking.

In the heart of the city centre is a large church and a giant square filled with stalls and dotted with restaurants and cafes. I would have liked to have spent more time there but only had enough time to walk around. I did notice that tourism seemed to be booming with so many different people successfully selling rides on little tour trams or trollies around town.

I didn’t really have any problems getting around with English, although I was warned by the conference organisers to never arrange a taxi without agreeing a fare, or pay the “tourist rate” for fares.

I’d certainly like to get back to Krakow for a short weekend break. It is still reasonably cheap and the town seems to be bustling with activity.

The Wedding of Tim and Anne

I have known Tim and Anne for a long time – maybe half a decade at least. I knew them before they got together and I really appreciated their invitation when they asked me to attend their wedding in Devon. It’s the first time I had been down to Devon and a whole bunch of us made our way, which took about a five hour car journey on the way down.

We didn’t have any satellite navigation built into the car on the way down, and went through one iPhone using the TomTom application just to get out of London and my phone was almost tapped taking over using normal google maps. It didn’t really help we got caught up in the roadworks.

Tim is Canadian, and Anne from the region hence the wedding being based in the southwest corner of England. Being my first time to the area, I was surprised by how much of a surfing culture there was in the area. We stayed at The Thatch, a lovely B&B as the manor the couple had hired was housing all the guests flying in from overseas.

The Thatch served a mean breakfast, but with all the travel I’ve been doing for work, stuck to having a hearty breakfast of porridge instead of some fry-up I could have had.

Tim and Anne held their wedding at an amazing Manor, nestled away in the winding roads surrounded by green hedges and only enough space for a single car. We made good use getting taxis back and forth as we were in no state to be driving, particularly after the wedding.

The wedding ceremony was perfect – very British, slightly cheeky, and to the point. It really reflected the wonderful couple and it wasn’t long before the ceremony gave way to drinks outside, an amazing dinner with amazing drinks including a fantastic light-flavoured Zinfandel red wine that I could have just kept drinking all night. But then they had some good scotch behind the bar that I couldn’t resist.

The cutting of the cake was a spectacle but, like other parts of the wedding, this one was well thought out with each tier in the cake being a different cheese wheel. If you know any British person, you’ll probably know their preference for cheese after meals since most of the British desserts tend to be puddings rather than fancy cakes. And good cheese it was.

Here’s me with the lovely bridge and groom.

An awesome evening with some very good friends, and what a blast being able to be part of such a special occasion.

Berlin, Paris, London

I’m sitting here on the August bank holiday weekend and the weather is absolutely spectacular (sarcasm really doesn’t come across online). Actually it’s completely drizzling outside, although not particularly cold. I feel sorry for all the tourists around town.

The last couple of weeks have been busy with a project in the office, but that’s not to say that I haven’t had much fun. I had a couple of weekends travelling to other parts of Europe – both a long weekend in Berlin catching up with some old haunts, nice food and great company.

This visit to Berlin reminded me of all the lovely things about the city – the cycle friendly streets, the beautiful food and pricy offerings at KaDeWe, the reasonable prices (though increasing as times goes by) of the cafes and restaurants as well as the ever-expanding coffee joints brought in my the technology sector.

I also managed to visit my old flat mates, who happened to be in Paris studying a French course for a few weeks on a weekend. I actually can’t say that I have eaten very well in Paris in the past, but with a bit of research and luck, we ended up indulging in some really decent places. Paris was also quite strange this visit because August is the time when all the locals end up on their holidays (even some of the people who run hotels).

During the day the streets appeared rather empty, like a classic zombie movie with the only survivors wandering wandering around being other visitors to the city. Fortunately there were enough places open in the more touristic areas to keep us occupied including a nice game of boules along Paris’s very own beach strip along the river.

We walked along the river for some time before attempting a river cruise that turned out to be, both very awesome, relaxing and resulted in a good amount of exposure to the sun.

Gumtree

I have been based in London the last couple of weeks and it has been great to have a bit of a regular routine, which means eating better, going to the gym and just simply feeling like I have been living life. I recently moved places again (although I’m still in Clerkenwell) and although I’m still settling it, I have definitely taken advantage of the move by working out what sort of things (e.g. stuff I don’t use) I can get rid of gumtree.

So far, it’s been pretty successful selling items that I found myself not really using and I’ve got back more than a few hundred quid using Gumtree to do so. If you’re thinking of doing it, I find that I get the most results by posting on a Thursday or Friday, pictures help as does as useful blurb about how used/new an item is as well as if it comes with a box. There are a few scammers out there, so the usual disclaimer I add is about how I will only deal with cash (e.g. not post an item for paypal) and exchange the item in person.

Some not-so “big data” analysis on my weight

My gym has a nifty scale that measures all sorts of things such as weight, muscle mass, body fat, and indications of where it is distributed. Although I am highly skeptical with how accurate devices like this are, I think they are good as a comparative tool to look at the device. They installed it at the end of October last year and you can email results to yourself (which my OCD side tagged, labelled and archived so they were easy to compare).

After six months I thought it would be interesting to look at changes in the baseline and what I think may have caused them.

Given how much I like to enjoy myself trying new foods and restaurants when travelling I wasn’t so surprised at spikes on the trips such as Christmas or new projects abroad. One really surprisingly (but really shouldn’t be surprising) is the impact that the ski holiday had on my weight. Yes, you’re out skiing all day burning calories but probably not enough to balance out the hearty meals (breakfast, French meals) and the amazing four course dinners we would have (complete with wine and Apéritif)

I’m surprised that Brazil didn’t have as much effect as I thought it would have, although the combination of a bit of food poisoning and most Brazilian foods not really being heavily processed probably had something to do with it.

Work Travels

This year has involved a few short term projects and a little bit of travel. Most recently, my current client is split across three locations and the work that we have to do involves visiting and talking to people at each location. Fortunately European summer has finally set in and we’ve had some pleasant weather in each place.

Our first town meant that we stayed on Hayling Island – the closest, well known town is Portsmouth and is located on the south coast. The island is rather small, and requires taxis everywhere. Fortunately we were lucky to watch a few lovely sunsets.

This week, we ended up down on the south coast for a day before flying out to Milan (Italy) to visit another office. The sun has been shining and we’ve had some heavy rain. Fortunately we’ve had the good weather mostly afterwork.

Admittedly we haven’t had much of a chance to see the city, but being Italy we have eaten very well including a few tastes of authentic Gelati, the classic Milanese risotto and some good Italian pizza.

We even have directions home in case we get lost!