Beautiful Beijing & The Forbidden City

Saturday, June 9 - Sunday, June 10

Remember several months ago when Tina and I boarded a plane headed for Thailand and I was all but peeing my pants with excitement?!?! Yeah, I wasn't quite as excited {most likely just because I'm not sure that's physically possible to be more excited} but I was pretty darn close...I was heading to China!

The Great Wall has always been such an intriguing landmark to me, but so out of reach from Northwest Ohio that I never wanted to dream too big {{lesson learned!}}

My last day in Taiwan was Saturday, July 9 and I was so full of mixed emotions as Clement and Director Chen drove me to the airport; heartbroken to be leaving a country I had fallen in love with, excited to be seeing my friends and family so soon, nervous about traveling through China alone, tired from lack of sleep...truly...everything was hitting me at once. We said our goodbyes and as they drove away it finally hit me and the tears began to wonderful, amazing, and life-changing year of teaching in Taiwan was over. Lucky for me though, a quick 3 hour nap landed me in the heart of Beijing at Beijing Capital Airport...China here we go!

I hopped on the Airport Express line connecting to the subway and headed downtown towards my hostel, Saga Youth Hostel {PS-if you're heading to Beijing anytime soon I HIGHLY recommend this hostel!}. I arrived around 7pm and after situating myself in my bunk, I met several of the guys in my dorm room and after talking for a bit we decided to head out together for dinner. Marcus, from Germany, suggested a large night market about 20 walking minutes away, so we headed out. One of the many things I love about traveling alone and staying in hostels is meeting so many people along the way and the discussions that come along with these new-found friendships. We enjoyed our evening at the market sampling some dumplings, meet skewers, sugar coated cherry tomatoes, and ending our scorching hot evening with delicious mango ice cream!

Waking up Sunday morning I hit the ground running early on, I only had 6 days in Beijing and I had to make the most of it! After grabbing some street-food breakfast meal I hopped on the subway headed for Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City {only 2 subway stops from my hostel!} to begin my day.

Walking out of the subway station I found myself standing right in the middle of Tiananmen Square and was in awe both at the size of the square as well as the sheer amount of people {and umbrellas for the sun!} that were covering the square. I walked around the square for a while before I found the underpass leading to the entrance gates of the Forbidden City. Now I paid attention in history class {more or less..} and I knew the Forbidden City was big and all, but oh my was HUGE! The 950+ building cover around 180 acres of land and while you are walking from one building to the next, you look out and the layout gives the impression that the Forbidden City (the palace from 1412 - 1920) goes on for forever.

When entering the city I decided to purchase the GPS audio guide they were offering and was so glad I did! Other than being an amazing map (no place in China that I went to had maps for people!) it kept track of where you were with a blinking red light, and upon approaching an important area or building would begin telling you about the location until you moved on. By using the guide I was not only able to keep track of where in the palace museum I was, but also what else there was to see ahead of me (aka, tons!) The architecture of the palace buildings reminded me a lot of many of the temples in Taiwan, both in structure as well as color choices. Although we were not permitted to enter many of the buildings, many of them were set up with furniture and artifacts from the emperors and it was neat to see the period pieces from a culture so different from my own! After 4+ hours of walking {99% of which was outside} in temperatures reaching the high 90's, I decided that I could only see so much of the palace in one day and headed back to my hostel to cool down for a bit.

After a quick cool down and power nap {never underestimate the power of an afternoon power-nap!} I headed back out for the evening towards the Temple of Heaven. Though not entirely far from my hostel, by the time I got there they had stopped selling tickets to enter inside the temple, so I opted to buy a ticket to simply walk the gardens around this iconic 200-year-old temple. Although I was bummed I couldn't go inside the temple {haha you know how I love my temples!} the gardens around it were beautiful and I loved getting a glimpse at the evey day life of many Chinese people. There were small groups of people covering virtually every flat space of the gardens playing cards and mahjong, men and women alike; it was quite fun to see!

Once I left the gardens, and after grabbing a snack at a local bakery since I was STARVING!, I headed off in the direction of the local silk market. The hostel had posters of recommended sights in Beijing and little bits of info about each one and after noticing the market was open late (many things closed between 4 & 6) I figured it might be a fun way to spend my first evening in China! Getting to the silk market was a breeze and I quickly located a small restaurant with an ever  instant waiter and figured I'd give it a try...I mean where else can you get a "fast food", duck sandwich for dinner!!! I enjoyed my sandwich along with the free fries and nuggets they brought me out later as well! :)

Walking just a couple feet from the duck restaurant I found myself in the midst of the silk market. This 8 story building is filling with vendors trying their hardest to sell you anything and everything under the sun. Every two feet had someone shouting "hey pretty lady" or "do you need a..." and "I give you good price". I just had to laugh....things we never see in America! I browsed the isles for a while before buying my brother a Beijing soccer jersey and told myself I'd be back again when I had a little more sleep on my hands! Back to the hostel I went and after a little online research for the rest of my Beijing stay...I quickly crashed...midnight comes all too soon when you're traveling!

Taiwan Summer Camp

I can’t lie, I wasn’t looking forward to summer camp. It’s written into our contracts that we have to provide our school with either a summer or winter camp and my school and I together decided a summer camp was best for everyone, but that didn’t mean I was looking forward to it! I had 8 days to relax before I left Taiwan after school was over and camp was taking 3 days of that…and I just wasn’t the happiest of campers. But, as time got closer I quickly began to realize that I had as much freedom over camp as I wanted and my directors only request was that we “have fun time”…fun? I can do that!

They were hoping to have 25-30 kids sign up for camp from 8am-12 for 3 days right after school was out. I’d be the main teacher but would also have a co-teacher each day along with Clement our English military guy to help out…easy peasy….until it wasn’t. They blamed it on the fact that my name was on the signup sheet and I was [I quote] “popular with the kids”, but the next thing I knew, we had 68 kids signed up and only a small classroom to hold us all in…oh buddy, things are going to get interesting!

After a little revamping my original camp curriculum we came up with a plan that would work with more than double the original amount of kids and still hopefully be a blast for the kiddos. Next began Clement and I's mad dash around Hsinchu to locate some of the odd ball materials I was hoping to find {{can anyone say piñata hunting in Asia?!}} I'm still not exactly sure how we did it, but we found everything we needed (or suitable substitutes lol), got all the kids situated in a single room, and had a blast doing it!

Here's a quick rundown of our week:

Monday - What do you look like?

On Monday we kicked camp off with learning how to describe a person, their figure, and hair types. The only obvious way to follow up this lesson was to play the largest version of Guess Who that I have ever witnessed! After a couple practice rounds against yours-truly I supplied small groups with mini, printed versions of the game and let them have at it. They had never seen the game before and had a blast! I was asked to play one movie during summer camp and it fit perfectly into Monday's schedule, so while the students were watching "How to Train Your Dragon" {hey might as well pick something I'll like as well!} I set up my popcorn maker for a little American style popcorn...holy moly, the kids went nuts CRAZY! They had never seen a popcorn maker before! They plowed through 2 pounds of kernels before the movie was half over and left not a single crumb behind! Needless to one was a hit!

Tuesday - Kickball fun!

In Taiwan children LOVE to play baseball and badminton. During any given break throughout of the school day you can ALWAYS find children playing both games around the playground. Unlike many of the students in the US though, none of them knew how to play kickball! I thought summer camp would be the perfect time to introduce them as well as working in a little baseball vocabulary into the mix for them as well. We went over the rules and logistics of kickball {pretty quick and easy after playing baseball everyday!} and then practiced some terms and phrases that we could yell {{kindly!}} while playing. Then we let loose. 6 teams were created allowing us to have 3 games going at once [remember...68 kids!] so one game inside the air-conditioned-ish gym and the other 2 was a ripe 92 degrees and 80% humidity...needless to say we didn't last long before we moved inside too! We created a last minute tournament of sorts and allowed the teams to compete inside. The last 45 minutes of camp we offered a teacher vs. student game and the kids went wild (in Taiwan I rarely saw teachers or parents interacting with the kids at their kids). We happened to have 6 adults handy and about 40 of the kids wanted to play...I'm still not sure how the team of 6 managed to win, but the kids had an absolute blast! Day 2 of camp...complete!

Wednesday - Let's go to Mexico!

Holy moly was Wednesday a blast! I had been looking forward to this day and I am happy to say that fun was had by ALL! We started our day off by learning a little about the country of Mexico, where it was, what we eat, and what some places in the country might look like. The kids also tried their hand at counting to 5 and saying hi & bye in Spanish {they decided this was much more difficult than English!} Afterwards we learned a simple Mexican partner dance {I may have never laughed so hard as I did watching the kids trying this dance!} and then broke open the "Mexican food" [first I have to give my disclosure here...Mexican food doesn't exist in Taiwan...anywhere! I had my mom sending my hot sauce because I couldn't find ANYTHING! So, we went with the twisted Taiwanese forms of Mexican food!] First up the kids tried a popular Mexican candy called Pulparindo, some like it while others ran for the trash! Next up was cucumber pieces dipped in Tajin (a powdered lime & chili seasoning) and most of the kids came back for more! Lastly was our Dorito party {I warned you of a twisted form of Mexican food!} Clement had bought 12 bags of Doritos and the kids devoured them! We had mild and medium salsas along with Valentina sauce from Mexico. Though the kids were reluctant to try to spicy we began with a few brave ones and pretty soon they were all trying and mixing all the sauces...they were hooked!

To end our fun filled we headed to the gym armed with 2 piñatas, waayy too much candy, a baseball bat, and 68 over-the-top excited was piñata time! ;)

Last Week of School

I say it every year, but this year was especially terrible. I feel like it was just August and I was meeting my students for the first time, and here I am now planning last week of school activities for the little guys I have come to love so dear! Our school year here is a tad bit longer and the dates are a little skewed from the typical western school calendar, so our last day of school wasn’t until Thursday, June 30.

When I taught first grade back in Ohio I always tried to make the last day full of fun memories for the kids. I know many teachers like to multitask and put in a movie while they finish up end of the year work, or have the students help prepare the classroom for summer, but for me it’s a time to celebrate! We’ve all made it through another school year and we all need time to relax and have fun!
Enter Miss St. John’s “Minute-to-Win-it” games!

I have over the last couple of years compiled a group of fun minute-to-win-it games that require few supplies and are easy for the kids to understand, and I most certainly didn’t want to deprive my Taiwan students of the fun! If you have never heard of minute-to-win-it games before they are essentially small games that you try to complete in under 60 seconds. They are fast, fun, and easy, and always a hit with the kids!

This year, since we only have 40 minute periods, I narrowed our games down to 4 including eating a cookie placed on their forehead without using their hands, keeping 2 balloons afloat for 60 seconds, stacking 36 cups into a pyramid, and getting a tissue paper fish to cross a finish line by fanning it with a plastic folder. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but I promise you…we all had fun! J

Tokyo Take 3 – Fish Market & Harajuku

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Oooh buddy! The last month of my life has been a whirlwind of emotions, travels, and turning my life upside down, but hopefully I can get everything up to date on here {fortunately for me, my adventures rarely stop…unfortunately for my blog, my adventures rarely stop!}

Day 3 in Tokyo I told myself I’d take it a little easier, I had been go, go, go for far too long and my body was finally screaming at me to take a break! After going to bed at a somewhat decent time the night before I woke up somewhat early in hopes of making it to Tokyo’s morning fish market. From what I have read this is the largest fish market in the world! The daily market begins around 4-5 am with the most popular tuna auctions, but they only let a limited amount of visitors in to see the auctions each morning and it is recommended to line up for tickets by 3am. I thought it would be cool to see, but at 3am, my pillow is also really awesome! So needless to say I didn’t see the tuna auction, but I was at the market by 9:30am and was able to stroll through the outdoor fish markets and other vendor stalls, which was really fun to see in its own respect as well!

If there was a type of fresh fish or seafood that you were craving, the Tsukiji fish market had it…guaranteed! Also if sushi at 9am is your thing…the various stands squeezed between the fish stalls had you taken care of in that regard as well! The options were terrific, the people watching was amazing, and the smells were quite questionable, but overall, I loved this unique market. As I was starting to head out my stomach took over and decided it needed food like 2 hours ago, I wasn’t so keen on fish at 10am, but wasn’t sure what else to try. I spotted a lady stirring a large pot and figured I’d try what was inside…that’s when she pointed behind me and I saw a line at least 15 people deep waiting to eat at her stand {she literally had 5 chairs at her stand and people were eating elbow to elbow!} I figured it had to be good and hoped in line, still having NO idea what she was selling. I watched what people ahead of me were buying and when it was my turn did my signature “1 please” and sure enough, I always get 1 of the “house specialties”! It was a braised pork over rice and tasted pretty close to what I’m assuming Heaven tastes like if God decided to give it a flavor!

After the market I walked in the direction of a famous park in Tokyo, but instantly decided to not pay to go inside when the rain sprinkles turned into a light drizzle, so onwards and upwards! One of the last place I really wanted to check out was in an area called Shibuya. Many of the sites that I read about Tokyo on recommend this area and I figured it was worth a visit! Getting out of the subway station there is a 5 way intersection immediately in front of you, and this intersection is unreal. I have NEVER seen such a busy intersection in my life! As soon as the cars get a red light there are people coming and going from literally every direction filling the entire area in the blink of an eye. I just stood through several red lights watching everyone around me before I actually crossed the street!
I walked around this area for a bit picking up a couple of souvenirs along the way and stopping at a local curry joint for a late lunch before running into a pair of traveling girls {one from Australia & the other Germany} who had only met the day before as well. We stopped for some desert & drinks and enjoyed each other’s company for the afternoon until we parted ways.

The last place on my personal Tokyo list, and about the last my poor body could handle!, was to check out the geek/anime culture in the Harajuku District. Holy moly, was this area weird! Lol I loved it! There were people dressed up quite eccentrically, shops selling clothing that I never knew existed, and just overall “creatures” that you might have to look long and hard to find in the mid-west of the USA! But, here they were, all together, and all for my personal people watching enjoyment!

After Harakuju I went back to my hostel for a short nap (7pm naps are a thing…right?!) And then per the suggestion of the girls I had met earlier in the day, found an Okonomi restaurant near where I was staying. I was told it’s a traditional Japanese food and some people call it a Japanese pancake…I had nothing else, and boy was I in for a surprise! I ordered a pork Okonomi as it looked like that was a popular option and was then quickly worried when they turned a burner on on my table and presented me with a bowl of white mush, cabbage, a raw egg, and raw meat….ummm, is this my meal?! After a minute or two I caught a waitress’s eye, pointed at the slimy, raw bowl of food in front of me and shrugged my shoulders, she quickly caught on and came over to make my food for me! She mixed everything together into a questionable looking paste and tossed it on the griddle in a thick pancake like form. Later I went to check if I should flip it and another waitress quickly slapped my hand away! Haha…they have this covered now. Eventually my food was ready and as I am eating it yet another waitress comes over and takes it from it and starts covering it with a number of sauces from the table (I had been trying a new one with each bite!) and then hands me my food back. It may not have been the most flavorful food in my life, but the experience still makes me chuckle!
I went back to the red-light district for a bit to take in some more of its craziness, and then called my last night in Tokyo a wrap.

Wednesday, before flying home I packed my bags, grabbed some pork & rice for breakfast and headed back to Harakuju only to find that the shops weren’t open yet. I took that as my clue and headed to the train station, airport bound, and ready for one last week of teaching in Taiwan.

Tokyo Shrines & Day 2

Day 2 in Japan started out just a tad later than expected! Between being 1 hour ahead of Japan and having just finished touring mason around for 2 weeks I was pooped and no alarm was going to get me out of bed as early as intended! {now in my defense though I was up, dressed and grabbing breakfast by 9am!} 

I'm not sure what a typical Japanese breakfast consists of, but when I woke up Monday morning I was starving and walked in the first place that was open with a decent amount of customers inside. Now, Japan LOVES vending machines, and many of the restaurants are no different. In this one you walk in and use a small machine to select and pay for your order, afterwards you sit down and hand your receipt to a waitress who uses it to order your food from the kitchen and then bring it to you. Odd for me, but benefits for them is they don't need many staff working and the menus are in multiple languages! I decided on a fried pork loin and rice as it looked like a common dish others were eating! 

After breakfast I began walking and stumbled upon a small shrine with several torii gates leading to it. Of course I had to stop and investigate for a bit before continuing on my way! Again today I skipped the JR trains as much as possible and often found myself stepping into intriguing shops and markets along the way!

Finally I was almost to my destination when I realized that directly across the street was the famous Ameyoko shopping street. I stopped on by with no intentions of buying anything really and made it a whole 5 feet before  I stumbled upon a used kimono shop (umm hello Tracy paradise!) and couldn't possibly resist buying myself a beautiful blue & purple kimono! I excitedly took my purchase and continued on taking in the sights and sounds (and let's be honest some snacks as well) before heading back in my original direction of Ueno Park. Sadly, in my opinion, the park was nothing extraordinary, maybe if you were wanting to check out the several museums they had there it might have been more eventful, but nonetheless I took a stroll through the park, checked out a shrine and a Hiroshima Memorial before heading back out.  

My next stop, and quite a hike later!, was the Seno-ji Temple and goodness was it beautiful! The shrine itself was huge compared to the others I had seen in Tokyo and it also had a pagoda near it and an archway at the entrance with one of the biggest paper lanterns I have ever seen! Much like the shrine yesterday, you cannot enter the main portion of this temple, but rather bow & clap your hands several times before tossing several coins into a trough and sending your prayers to the gods. This area was definitely a tourist attraction as there were hundreds of people scattered about, but between the gorgeous views and prime people watching opportunities, I was as happy as could be!!

Before leaving the area, they had several stations to retrieve your fortune. You chose a metal tin (think a heavy Pringles can!) and shook it around until a small numbered stick came out the single hole in the tin. You then matched your number up with a drawer that provided your fortune. I'm supposed to lose something, be late, catch a disease and I don't know what all else! Luckily there were instructions to tie your unlucky fortunes to a pole and not take them with you...I happily obliged! 

Next on my list, and what I had been catching glimpses of all day through the trees, was the Tokyo Sky Tree. The Sly Tree is the tallest structure in Tokyo standing at 2,080 feet high and is primarily used as a broadcasting tower though there is also a restaurant and observation deck inside as well. The first observation that I stopped at is a little over halfway up the tower and includes stunning views of the city below, including a section with a glass floor allowing you to see the ground some 1,000 feet below you! Unfortunately it was just cloudy enough the day I went that I wasn't able to see Mount Fuji {motivation to visit Japan again!}

After the sky tree I stopped at CoCo CurryHouse for dinner after a recommendation from a friend before heading back to the hostel and crashing hard for a late afternoon nap!

After my lovely power nap I decided to explore the Shinjuku area near my hostel, only to discover that the largest red light district in Tokyo was a short 10 minute walk from my hostel! {lesson learned} needless to say I was able to walk around and people watch for several hours before it was time to head in for the night in preparation for Tokyo day 3!

Tuesday's Taiwan-ism {Taiwan Grocery Store Part 2}

Several weeks ago you may remember my food post all about the unique veggies typically found in Taiwan. Today I'm finishing that mini-series with a followup post about the fruits found here in Taiwan. Sadly I will be honest and say this post is not entirely complete as the fruits available here have varied wildly with the season, but if you look back on older posts you can read more about the persimmonsjujube and wax apples that were much more common in the late summer months.

{Lychee - This is a funky little fruit! It is the size maybe of a walnut and has a hard type exterior that you can use your nail to break and easily peel off of the flesh inside. The inside resembles in both look and texture that of a naked/skinless grape with a hard seed inside. This fruit is quite sweet and in Taiwan is called a dragon eye because once peeled it closely resembles an eye with the black seed inside!}

{Dragon Fruit - Ooh, I love this stuff! The inside is that of a soft kiwi texture and is either bright pink/red like the outside or white; both with many eatable black seeds inside. The fruit is mildly sweet without much of a distinct taste, but it's super juicy and great in the hot weather!}

{Durian - Also commonly known as the stinky fruit! Never before in my life have I seen signs saying that a specific fruit isn't allowed in certain train stations or other public establishments before I met dear durian. I have yet to actually try this fresh as I've never heard anything good out this spiky fruit, but I've had flavored treats and dried pieces of the fruit and those were enough to tell me to stay away!}

{Winter Melon – Holy moly, this has to be the mother of all fruits! These suckers are GIANT! Though I’ve also never had these raw, I don’t think they are popular to eat raw but rather to cook into soups or as side dishes to other meals. In my opinion it more closely resembles the flavor of a vegetable like cucumber or squash, but it’s not bad!}

Bonus videos! Check out these short video clips below that I took inside one of my local grocery stores. 

Tokyo Disneyland

Oh Mickey Mouse! I've been obsessed since I was a kid and just the thought of possibly seeing him in a kimono makes my inner 6 year-old self unnaturally excited. There wasn't even a question as to whether or not I was going to Tokyo Disneyland, just rather when and how!

Because I was traveling through Tokyo solo and in order to help save both precious time in Japan as well as money, I opted for a weekend Starlight pass that allowed me in the gates from 3pm until closing (7 hours should be more than enough time to get a couple Mickey pictures!) The other great thing about my starlight pass was that I was able to tour around Tokyo for a while in the morning before heading to the parks!

Getting to the parks took a little bit of time but was quite easy thanks to the lovely subway (or JR train as they call it) throughout the city. I got off at the Disney stop though and thought I would cry. It looked like it was going to start raining. {lucky for me God must be a Mickey fan as well because he quickly cleared the skies up for me!!}

It was a little daunting to walk into an unknown amusement park alone for the day not knowing where to go first, but I did what any good westerner would do and promptly began following a group of girls in kimonos haha! I quickly discovered that Japan was preparing for the holiday of Tanabata which from what I can tell is some type of holiday for lovers and sending their wishes to the gods? (I may or may not have totally butchered that so please don't take my word for it!!) {ok update...I was finally able to google this stinker! There were 2 gods in the sky separated by the milky way and they are only allowed to see each other on the 7th day of the 7th month bringing about the Tanabata Festival...there we all learned something today!}

Anyways, for me this entailed seeing tons of people of all ages dressed in their holiday kimonos while walking through the parks, as well as Disney having a large set up under the World Bazaar when you entered the parks to put your wishes on Mickey shaped papers and tie them to a tree so they could be sent to the heavens. {also this means they have a special parade with Mickey and Minnie in the traditional holiday garments that Tracy missed by 20 minutes when she got to the park....grrr is all I can say}

To commentate my time in the park I wanted to purchase something uniquely Tokyo Disney, but surprisingly their stock in nontraditional Disney items is quite limited. I settled on a small bag to use for traveling that has my dear Mickey dressed from head to toe in traditional Japanese clothing!

The layout of the park was pretty similar to Disney World in Florida with Cinderella's castle in the center and 5 different themed lands surrounding it. In acuity many of the rides were the same as well though Tokyo did get a couple that were unique to them, and of course I saw Mickey, watched the light parade at night, rode on Dumbo, the tea cups, watched the firework show and everything else that makes Disney Disney!

One of the exciting parts for me was realizing the big "thing" for Tokyo Disney. I'm Florida people love to buy and collect pins. In Japan people love to buy and collect popcorn containers and the rotating flavors of popcorn they offer. POPCORN and MICKEY MOUSE?!?! My life was pretty complete. I looked over the list of the flavors available that day and marched around the park until I found someone selling a fresh batch of Soy Sauce & Butter say it was unique is an understatement!! 

I was in the last wave of 2 of people to mosey out of the park around 10:45 and though beyond exhausted I was happy! Oh so happy! Thank you Tokyo for an amazing first day!