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Tainan, Taiwan
I'm an ESL teacher from Colorado. I worked in Taipei in 2000 for over a year, paid off my undergrad loans, traveled, saved $ to travel some more. So when I got pregnant in grad school I thought I could return to Taiwan, be economically self sufficient while my daughter masters Mandarin.We came to Tainan when she was 2. Taiwan is an excellent base to explore Asia, while living in relative (gun free) safety and benefiting from a cheap and efficient national health care system. The people are amazing too. I have friendships that are 14 years old and I'm always making new ones.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Above the clouds: New Years Day in Taipingshan

Snow in Taiwan!

My New Year's Eve was mellow. I was in bed on the 31st by 10 pm. My life here in Yilan M-F is exhausting. Come Friday night I am passed out on my sofa if I didn't make it to my bed. But the early bird gets the worm and we were up and out the door early January 1st on our way to Taipingshan National Forest Recreation Area- the closest park to the more popular and photogenic Taroko National Park.

My friend AJ drove which was a relief because once in the park, there was zero visibility as we climbed the mountain road switchback in a permanent cloud. We literally couldn't see more than 15-20 feet, it was a bit scary as local drivers are not as safety oriented- no light and as fast as possible. We passed a few accidents and had a few close calls.

Finally after reaching higher altitude, maybe after 22 km on the main  (and only) park road, we drove above the clouds and the views were glorious. We got out at the first trail to stretch our legs, it was an easy 20 minute walk, not much of a hike along an ancient, twisted train track dating back to the cypress logging days.

Train wreck! Love the moss and the view from there are glorious mountains as far as the eye can see.

We continued driving further into the park, past the lake where all the people were and hit an outer trail- Beech Trail. It started our fairly flat the first hour and then descended straight down. The return meant coming back on an almost vertical ascent, but that part had steps. It provided a good workout and lovely views of the clouds rolling below us in and out of the curves of Prussian Blue mountain ranges.

We ended our day when it quickly started getting dark, like around 4:30. We decided to try our luck at the hot springs near the entrance. Having been here before we knew the parking lot is small and we wanted to chance getting a private outdoor pool. Knowing it was a holiday weekend, we drove in and were stopped by traffic. It took about 10 minutes to get into the parking lot which was full and had several big buses from Taipei taking up a lot of room, and probably pools. Still we found a space in the dirt parking lot they carved out near the river below, We got lucky and a private outdoor "Family" pool was available in 40 minutes- just enough time to refuel on surprisingly good food and a cup of super strong coffee.

Our private room, the outdoor view was more like a giant window letting the dark forest at night.

The hot spring water was piping hot, we had to add more cold water, but soon were soaking away our body blues from both sitting in the car too long and from the exertion from our hike. It was perfect and the 50 minutes for 1000NT went by too soon. 

We made it back to Yilan and had enjoyed the rest of our 4 day New Years weekend, chillaxing and eating out. Actually I can't remember what we did, 17 days ago seems like another season after the week I had.....to be continued.

Lofty dreams for 2015 inspired by standing on the pinnacle of a colossal view 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

So long 2014

 Tung Flower Festival, Sanzhi

In this 4 day weekend, today my Saturday, I for once didn't do much of anything, which is kind of strange, and irregular for me, but necessary. I took pause to reflect on the year that's just faded into memories and photo albums. It was a busy year, but there are just a couple of stand out experiences I am forever grateful for. In chronological order:

1. Chinese New Year in Myanmar

Just getting there was a trip, I missed our flight from Singapore into Yangoon. I loved Burma, the people, so many ethnicities, and the food was better than I expected. It was hard traveling for Z, we covered a lot of distance in a short amount of time, which meant night buses galore coming into town at 5am. She's a seasoned trooper, literally the best travel buddy I've ever had. (Full Myanmar photo album here).

 In Myanmar, I have to say my 39th birthday was amazing. We went into a teak plantation and hung out with working elephants who were making a camp for that spring until the rainy season came. We rode their little troupe and watched a mom play with her baby (she is free from work the for 3 years while caring for her baby).

The elephants and their handlers were making a temporary damn for the elephants while they worked there for that logging season. They cut down a majestic, old grandfather tree by hand, which pained me to see such a grand old tree fall, then the elephant dragged it back to their little damn. We watched from the elephants back, their handlers were kind, there were no canes or whips, just clucking and speaking to them. They are handlers of the same elephants for life and its the elephants who pick their handlers. Their wives and children all live together in a little camp of 2 or 3 huts by the river. As for "tourists" there was just me, my daughter and a French lady. It was hardly the kind of elephant set up "rehab" I've seen in Thailand. This was no walk in the park. We were tagging along while they worked-and this was their day off, making a little damn. There were no trails in this teak rainforest, the elephants were bush-wacking with us on their backs. I was just worried the tree would land on us as we were right next to it while they used muscle and an ax, but they were experts. They have been loggin teak with elephants since ancient Thai and Burmese kings considered it the royal wood for palaces and temples, since British colonials increased the demand. Unfortunately the demand for teak continues. Though the handlers told us they replant so as to not over log, I fear money and the military junta's hand will continue to play a negative part in order to feed the insatiable demand by Scandinavian furniture makers.

For lunch we went to a little auntie's place across from the local school; a one room dirt floor, 3 bamboo walled hut with 3 classes, big kids, little kids and those in between. Being surrounded by their smiles made my incredible birthday.

Z putting thenaka on my face while lunch is cooking
The school house 

Of course Inle Lake was amazing, colder than we expected but an adventure exploring by boat. Then there was Bagan and exploring the endless tamarind tree fields littered with old temples,  and Mt Popa, the Burmese Mt. Olympus. One day we rented a horse cart and the driver gave Z the reigns the whole day. It was great fun.

One of the most memorable Burmese experiences was our "hell train" adventure. We took what I thought would be a 6 hour scenic train from outside of Inle Lake (Shwenyaung) through the mountains to Thazi.
All smiles as our "hell train" left in the morning
It took 15 hours, our train was at a standstill in the middle of nowhere for sometime as a train further down the line broke down. The last 4 hours were freezing. The train was a living relic from the British Empire, wooden, and looked like it hadn't been cleaned since colonial times, it was covered in rust, dust, open windows, the toilet was a muddy hole cut into the car.

 I was nursing a kidney infection and met a friendly and knowledgeable Israeli acupuncturist who smartly got out in the next stop 4 hours from Inle.

We pulled into Thazi at midnight and were stepping over sleeping bodies in the dark sprawled all over that station. The stars were amazing. We walked to a roadside motel and crashed hard after a hot shower. The next morning early we took a local bus (van packed like sardines) to Lake Meiktila. I paid few pennies extra to sit in front with the driver, Z got car sick and he slowed down, but we made it.


2. I got my APRC!

Finally after 5 years I could apply for my coveted Alien residence card. Thanks to my friend and Chinese tutor Kevin for fronting me the 10,000NT in March to get it.(See Congrats To Me! I'm legal!)

3. A Family Visit

My parents and brother Ed visited Taiwan for the first time in July 2014. It was the first time my mom and bro have been out of North America. Unfortunately, when they visited there was a heat wave and it was the hottest at the suburb of Taiwan (Banciao) we were staying at. Of course they were troopers, sweating buckets but just grateful to be together again, to be with their granddaughter.

They really didnt have enough time to learn to appreciate the local food. My Dad and bro only stayed a week, my mom stayed a few weeks longer and helped watch my daughter and pack my things while I worked my last weeks at Share Fun.

After a few days exploring Taipei we went to Jiaoxi for a few days exploring the local waterfalls, hot springs and we took a boat to Turtle Island to see the dolphins. Then my Dad rented a car and we drove to Taroko along the scenic but dangerous Suhua Highway. Afterwards, we all headed south to Tainan.

In Tainan I showed them the Confucius Temple, they enjoyed eating at the western food restaurants by local expats (Funkoo, Tin Pan Diner). It was crowded at my little apartment, and hot, so my Dad moved my mom and bro down the road to the Tai Landis Hotel next to Mitzuokoshi. Before my Dad and bro took the highspeed back to Taoyuan, we did a family group photo session which was good fun, at least my daughter was in her element.

4. Starting a new life in Yilan

Thanks to my co-worker Steve for getting me this job. He was a big help during the interview process, settling here and getting into the swing of things at school.

Moving was not easy, in fact it was harder than I expected- and I moved around my whole life so I thought I was used to these things. I went through bags of books, clothes, giving them away and still I had so many things I had accumulated from 6 years of living in Tainan. It felt great to say goodbye to my job as I felt stuck there, and yet compared to my job now in Yilan, my job down south was so much easier, less stress. I loved teaching the kids there and building relationships with families, with the community there. That was hard turning my back on, and yet life is temporary, our lives in Taiwan are temporary. 

We took a chance on Yilan and getting used to the life here was also more difficult than I expected. I knew it wasnt going to be easy, that it would take a few months to find my groove, learn a new system, but I think for all the increase in workload, I am more productive and am learning a helluva lot in terms of teaching and planning. I'm teaching junior high, elementary and kindergarten of all levels which requires a lot more planning, prepping and flexibility. There is good and bad at every job, of course this one is no exception, but when I stop learning then its time to change my outlook or change my scenery. As for my daughter she is learning English and Chinese. Her Mandarin is fluent, but I was starting to get concerned for her English writing, so I hope she can improve in this area.

Exploring Yilan has been good fun and having a car, finally after 6 years is so much more convenient than my grass cutter scooter. Parking in Yilan City is no picnic, but at least we are dry when it rains. Speaking of the rain, I don't have enough fingers to count how many people warned me of winters here, that I wont see the sun for months, and yet the weather has been pretty good, good enough to explore on the weekends. Living in Anping I didn't really see the mountains like I do every day here. On my way to work I look at those mountains everyday and every day they look different, I also see Turtle Island and the ocean right before I pull into work, cant beat that. Its a small dose of positive energy before I have the dreadful task of parking.

I should mention the apartment I have now is a big step up from the old one I had in Anping. This place is outside the congested, small laned city center across from the massive park on the grounds of the County Government Building and is 3 years old, furnished and bright. My drive to work is a straight shot down a non residential-commercial area. I feel blessed.

5. My Santa Cruz Consort

My dearest was my neighbor in Anping, my good friend and this past year he continued to be my kind, patient, sacrificial partner when I needed him most. Andrew helped me move, he helped my buy my car and drove it here from Tainan, he visits on weekends whenever he can. He is a great blessing and positive male energy for me and my daughter.

For these 5 above blessings, 2014 has been a predominately positive year. Other standout experiences of 2014; visiting my old friend of 14 years north in her home in Sanzhi, Saturday yoga with the ladies in Anping and a Single Mom and Daughter Dragon Boat Weekend in Kenting.

 I also have to mention that this year we were divinely free from sickness and robustly healthy, so we were physically able to enjoy these blessings, which is something not to be taken for granted. You can eat clean, exercise, meditate, sleep well and then have what the news headlines recently called, "bad luck." As for us, it's more than good luck that sustained us this past year, it was lots of prayers by family and friends back home, simple prayers by us here and busy angels raining heavenly love. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ring in the New Year in Yilan? Possibly Maybe

Still haven't made any plans for our upcoming 4 day weekend? I'm undecided myself. Should I stay or make the journey south to Tainan and see old friends. If you're undecided,  then take a chance on Yilan.

 In case a nightlife is your scene then save your trip to Yilan for another time. There is none of that. But you could catch the first morning light of the new year at Su-ao overlooking the Pacific at 6:37am. There are several coffee shops overlooking the beach.

You will find more accommodation options in Jiaoxi as its tailored to Taipei weekend goers who want some hot spring waters in their bathtubs.  However there are some hotels in Yilan City too.

Across from Yilan Train Station
Getting here:
Driving from Southern Taiwan, there are several options, either way you will come through some of of Taiwan's and Asia's longest tunnels.

From Taipei: The buses (Capitol Star and Kamalan) are faster than the train unless you get on the fastest train that goes to Hualien. Tickets are sold out by now, you can go still, but you'll be standing in the aisles. The bus from Taipei Main Station and City Hall, leave every 15 minutes and is around 120NT and the drive is around 70 minutes. The bus depot in Yilan is behind the train station, you'll need to take a taxi or rent a scooter to your hotel. Even with a valid car driver's license, foreigners can only rent the smallest scooter, you need a scooter license to rent bigger scooters.

Balagov's Ukrainian Cafe

Where to eat:
Of course Yilan City looks like any city in Taiwan, you can find noodles, dumplings, rice boxes anywhere. But if you want a real treat head to Mr. Balagov's Cafe (Guava Dog in Chinese) for homemade healthy Ukrainian food. The space itself is gorgeous with Ukrainian knickknacks, wall stencils, every corner has some folk art that Sergei the owner brought back with him. He is an interesting dude, having lived in Brooklyn for years, his English is excellent and his wife is aboriginal so she of course also speaks Mandarin. She has helped me out when I needed to find something in Yilan.  I go there once a week as a treat and often buy a bottle of Kvass to last me during the week, sometimes I splurge and buy a loaf of rye break or homemade Ukrainian sausage. My favorite meal is the set meal with meatballs and mashed potatoes that includes borscht soup, kvass and apple cake. He also serves Turkish coffee and sheesha, should that tickle your fancy. The homemade  blueberry and mint ice-cream with crepes are also good. Definately wash your meal down with a big bottle of thirst quenching Russian beer. You wont reget coming here. What never fails to astound me are the local tour buses and crowds that head to the mediocre place next door. Taiwanese tourists come to Balagov's to take photos of their gorgeous little garden and cottage and then eat at the bland run of the  mill Taiwanese place, passing over a local treasure. Don't make the same mistake.

If you want to eat Italian,Thai, Sushi Express or go to Tasty's head to Lunar Plaza, the local mall. There is also a Carrefore in the basment and parking, which is a royal pain if you are driving a car.

Beer at Piggy's

Other recommendations are Awesome Burger which is like a mom and pop TGIF set up. They have a peanut butter burger which I havent had the desire to try, tho I love peanut butter. My kid likes the bacon cheese burger and onion rings. I also like Piggy's Bar for their jalapeno poppers and Mexican lasgana. Their beer list is amazing, you can get a variety of Canadian ales, lagers and stouts some of them organic. If you are in Loudong (checking out the nearby waterfalls or Botanic Gardens), you can eat Indian at Spice Land , definitely for Taiwanese palate,so ask for hotter curry. The naan bread is too starchy for me, but the sweet, coconut naan is a great post hike pick me up. I recommend  the chai coffee, and pineapple chutney with scones are amazing. In Loudong you can have an organic brunch at Light Brunch and Cafe (03-954-3397). There is also a dynamic duo who drives around Yilan County and makes custom pizzas out of their truck which has a built in stone oven. Sunday they are in Touchung, Wednesday they're in Nanfang'ao, Thursday in Jiaoxi, Friday in Zuangwei, and Saturday in Su'ao (0963-623210). There is also Tavola's, and Brown Taffy, which I still need to check out.

Biking along Yilan Riverside Park

Where to workout:
Yilan Sports Park has a weight room, track, outdoor rings, parallel bars and huge rollerblading rink. You can also rent a bike hit a trail and bike on a bike path all the way to Loudong Sports Park. There is an indoor pool.. You can hit 3 hiking trails in Jiaoxi near the waterfalls or outside Su'ao. You can also run the stairs and so some yoga at Yilan County Government Building. The green field looks great for a run, but the ground is treacherously uneven under the thick grass. Better to run at the empty track at Yilan sports park or any of the bike trails. You can pick up a detailed map of all the bike trails at the Tourist info center at Yilan Train station.

What to do:
It will probably be cold, so warm up in the hot springs, Jiaoxi, Fanfan or in Taipingshan. If its not raining, bike along the coast or head to any of the lakes and rent bikes. Jiaoxi, Nanao and Loudong have some great waterfalls (see my post "Whats Not There To Do Here").

If its raining, you can still enjoy the hot springs, but there is also a local brewery, honey museum and farms galore.

What Taiwanese tourists do when they arrive at Yilan is take photos of the train station, and across the train station is a hanging train which I suppose is interesting in its own way. What is also standard is hitting the night market in Yilan (Dongmen Night Market) and Loudong. I'm over night markets, they seem to be all the same to me, but there is a guy in Yilan,"The Watermelon Prince" who has a stand near the bridge and he sells the freshest juices. Other than that, its just like any other night market, dumplings, stinky tofu, greasy and fried anything. The morning market in Yilan is far more interesting.

I might of convinced myself to stay here and relax.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Hot and Au Naturel

Walking to Fanfan to cross the river

Here is a brief summary of more hot springs in the Yilan area. I already have mentioned hot springs in Jiaoxi, these outdoor Japanese pools (see My Family's First Visit and scroll down). My favorite hot springs are right in the river.

These are known as  梵梵溫泉 (Fàn Fàn Wēnquán) Fan Fan Hot Springs and are beside the small aboriginal mountain town off Highway 7 in Datong Township on the way to Taipingshan. Its about a 40 minute drive from Yilan up a winding mountain road. You can either park your car in the village and walk 10 minutes along the river, cross the river (shin deep) or continue your drive past the bridge and turn left under Highway 7 and park. You will see other cars.

There are always people here on the weekend, but the river is gracious, you can walk along the river and there will be pockets of boiling water, enough for everyone.

The sound of the rushing river drowns out any loud, obnoxiousness, its very tranquil like that. I arranged the rocks the way I liked it, and when we got to hot, went into the freezing mountain water. I really want to camp here though.

The second springs is further down the 7 inside of Taipingshan National Park 太平山森林遊樂區, called by either Jioujhihze or Renze Hotsprings. You will have to pay a not very cheap entrance fee for the car, per person, dogs are not allowed.


 My friend brought his dog, so my kid had to beg and plead for us to keep her in the car just long enough for hot springs. The hotsprings itself is a typical entrance for a nice public pool. They have private rooms with giant tubs as well. The water was very slippery with all the silicon, great for soft skin. A 2 minute walk from the car park, there is a touristy geyser people boil eggs and corn. I really want to return to the park sometime this winter and see, hopefully snow. Being in the hot  springs in snow, is not to be missed.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas in Yilan

This is our 7th Christmas in Taiwan and our first in Yilan, so it was a cold and rainy Christmas, and on top of it I had to work. And even more joys we all have to work on Saturday, the fun doesn't stop. Fortunately I have an easy schedule and am just teaching " How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to all my reading classes, tweaking the level content as needed.

Our Christmas here was subdued to say the least, simple and spare.There is no chance of our Christmas being an excuse for consumerist over consumption, I can't afford it and am saving for upcoming excursions. It began with our tree of course. I had ditched our Tainan tree on the move north to Yilan and I guess all the hand made ocean theme ornaments along with it. So this year, our tree was simple, I like it better. It just had red ribbons, candy-canes, red apple ornaments, origami stars (that were addicting to make) and real pine cones dipped in red paint. The lights didn't look right, so I took them off and we put them in my kid's room for fun. My daughter started making her own origami creations and writing notes and stuffing them in the tree. She had no stocking this year.

Christmas presents almost didn't happen for my daughter. On Wednesday she lost her black clog like shoes that are apparently necessary for her "fancy" uniform she wears only once a week on Wednesdays (the other days is her sports uniform). On Wednesday after school she has her badminton class, so she changes her shoes. Well, she lost her shoes, couldn't find them Wednesday morning, and livid, I told her if she didn't find them I was taking her presents back and using that money to buy her new black shoes. Luckily for her she found them under the car seat;a real Christmas miracle for her.

Christmas Day at the Kindergarten department

I sound mean, right? Well losing and forgetting things, water bottles, coats, umbrellas is far from an isolated incident. I don't bust my ass at work and buy her nice things, so she can just lose them...Scrooge Mom.


On Christmas Eve she opened her smallest gift, a pink alarm clock that she asked for. In  Taiwan giving someone a clock or watch is a major faux-pas, I had no idea! Not that I cared, I didn't have a Taiwanese mom filling my head with superstitious fluff like its bad luck to give someone a clock. But it was nice to learn something new, we lived here almost 7 years and I never heard that one before. Surprisingly my daughter hadn't heard that either and she knows more about things like this than me. (To offset the bad luck of receiving a clock or watch as a gift, the receiver must pay the giver a penny or 10 NT piece).

On Christmas morning, it was just another school day.  I woke up at 6 am, had a coffee, checked the headlines, did a workout, same old routine. I said she could open her 2nd present if she got ready for school on time. So she jumped out of bed 15 minutes early all by herself, not needing her new alarm clock. Her second present is some kind of purple and pink shooting arrow contraption, called "Rebel" so she can play "Hunger Games" -not that she ever saw the movies, but she saw the trailers and apparently that's enough to knows she likes it.

By the end of Christmas day I was too tired to drive us to a nice restaurant to eat. I had planned having a delicious, Christmas dinner at Balagov Ukrainian restaurant. Their cottage is so nice and cozy and European feeling, it would be perfect for Christmas. However, the rain just made me want to stay home. I made a simple, not very exciting lamb and chickpea stew with steamed millet. For desert my kid ate a candy cane and I had the last shot of Amarula.

Kindergartens parade in the teacher's room, Christmas combined with Halloween

The highlight was my kid opening her third gift. Instead of opening it as soon we came in the door, she waited. She took her shower first and then happily opened and played with her new doll. She wanted a real doll that pees and poops, and this one does. It also talks and giggles. I enjoyed watching my daugher be this doting new mom, she was so careful and gentle and responsive. I enjoyed playing with baby dolls so much younger than her, its interesting she's interested in this kind of role play now. She forbid I should tell her friends at school for fear of being called a baby, but I think its sweet. This doll is pretty demanding, but the giggling makes up for it. I had to pry her away from play to eat her simple dinner.  She named her doll, Jazz.


Our Yilan Christmas was quiet, plain and mellow.
Last night, her new pink alarm clock started ringing at 1:30 am, she of course slept right through it.