Hello Kitty, Goodbye Ground

I’m not sure I get the Hello Kitty hype. She’s a cute cat, to be sure, but what’s she all about? Does she represent something in particular? And how is she so good at getting her face printed on merchandise the world over?

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKStore.jpg” title=”So.much.pink.” caption=”Need something pink before boarding? Stop at the HK store in Taipei’s airport.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKBreastfeeding.jpg” title=”Bizarre.” caption=”Or perhaps you can pay a visit to the HK breastfeeding room?” position=”center”]

Personally when it comes to Japanese cats, I’m more of a Maru fan. So for clarity, this article is not an endorsement of the Sanrio Corporation, Kitty, her views, beliefs, or fuzzy little friends.

Now that that’s out of the way. Eva Air (a Taiwanese carrier) has built a whole fleet of Hello Kitty jets so I’ve put together some photos to show you what it’s like to fly on one. By chance, we flew on two of them:

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKPlane.jpg” title=”Apples plane” caption=”The ‘Hello Kitty Loves Apples’ plane.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”HKPlane2.jpg” title=”Sanrio plane” caption=”…and the ‘Sanrio Family Hand in Hand’ plane.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”HKSeats.jpg” title=”HK seats” caption=”Starting to see a theme?” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKAttendant.jpg” title=”Attendant” caption=”Lest we forget this is a HELLO KITTY JET.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKMeal.jpg” title=”HK meal” caption=”Note the cutlery and fish cake. And that carrot is shaped like a bow.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKBathroom.jpg” title=”HK bathroom” caption=”Bathroom break? How about some Kitty toilet paper.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKFoisGras.jpg” title=”HK bathroom” caption=”For first-class passengers: Hello Kitty fois gras.” position=”center”]

So what do you think? Is this a fun marketing ploy on Eva’s part, or have they gone overboard here?

Taiwan Costs: $90 a Day

Compared to neighboring countries like Japan, travelers will find that Taiwan has a lot to offer for less than $100 a day.

Just want the numbers? Skip to the bottom.

A third of your daily budget will easily be spent on lodging. We found the cost to stay in hotels and hostels was a little higher than anticipated, at least when compared to how much you’ll pay for meals and transportation. And the rooms in Taipei tend to be TINY – we had smaller rooms here than in Japan, if you can believe it. Looking back, it would have been a good place to try couch surfing – even more so because a lot of people speak English there.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaipeiFood.jpg” title=”Night market” caption=”Thankfully Taiwanese food tends to be really affordable. Chicken feet anyone?” position=”center”]

In order to keep lodging costs down we used some reward points from Agoda.com, the site we use to book most hotels. Agoda’s reward program (among others) will give you points worth 5-7% of the hotel price. They’ll also price-match with competitors so you can book with them all the time. Over the course of the year we’ve accumulated over 100,000 points worth about $200, which isn’t trivial to the unemployed. This isn’t a plug for Agoda, merely a RTW money-saving tip!

Transportation costs in Taiwan are really reasonable, especially considering the small size of the country. Use the Easy Card in Taipei for good discounts on the Metro and city buses, and take slower trains between cities to save on long-distance travel.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaiwanHiking.jpg” title=”Hualien” caption=”Take the train down to Hualien for some great hiking.” position=”center”]

The capital city of Taipei has a lot of free sights and activities (check out my Taipei on a Shoestring article here). Like any great city, you can spend an afternoon just walking around snapping photos of everyday sights. Also, this is random, but if you need to stock up on medicine you can buy antibiotics here without a prescription!

[ptcPhoto filename=”WallArt.jpg” title=”Mural” caption=”A mural in Taipei’s Daan neighborhood.” position=”center”]

The daily average cost for our visit was $90.40 (or $45.20 per person per day), so we came in under our budget of $100 a day.

Here is a breakdown of all our costs during our stay. This table does not include costs to enter the country, which included an $40 flight from Sanya, China (we used miles for this flight and only paid taxes). Visas are not required for US citizens, so there were no other costs associated with entering the country.

Type of Expense Total Cost
(for 21 days)
Daily Average Notes
Lodging $735.08 $35 Our lodging choices ranged in price from $30 on Green Island to $41 in Taipei. The use of Agoda points brought one room down to only $12 a night.
Food $560.18 $26.68 You can get a meal of potstickers and boba tea for as little as $3.
Transportation (within country) $273.23 $13.01 Use the Easy Card in Taipei for good discounts on the Metro and city buses. Slower trains between cities are also discounted.
Entertainment $53.43 $2.54 Includes snorkel purchase, the Taipei National Palace Museum, the saltwater hot springs on Green Island, and the Taipei Zoo.
Alcohol $131.36 $6.26 Large cans of beer are about $1.40 in convenience stores.
Incidentals $145.18 $6.91 Includes the costs for items like sunblock, internet, clothes and donations.
Grand Total* $1898.46 $90.40 *Total reflects expenses for two people. It does not reflect costs to enter the country (i.e., visas or airfare)

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaiwanPieFinal.jpg” title=”Pie” caption=”The breakdown of costs in a pie chart.” position=”center”]

Some Examples:

Average cost of a sit-down dinner for two – $600TWD ($22.50)
A cup of boba tea – $30TWD ($1)
Metro fare, one way – $25TWD ($.85)
Cost of a 120-minute massage (sadly, I never did get one) – $1,300NTD ($45)

Scooting around Green Island

If you’ve had your fill of the city and want some fresh air, hop a train down to Taitung County. Once you’re there, embark on a journey across 20 miles of very rough seas (read: bring Dramamine) to Ludao Township, also known as Green Island.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIWalk.jpg” title=”Beach walk” caption=”We visited during the off season, and there was barely anyone there.” position=”center”]

Now a popular spot for Taiwanese tourists and scuba divers, Green Island was once a remote place of exile for political prisoners during Taiwan’s White Terror, a period of martial law that lasted from 1949 all the way to 1987. Green Island Prison is still operational, but the island’s main penal colony (the oddly named “Oasis Village”) has been converted to a museum.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GICliff.jpg” title=”Cliff” caption=”It would be difficult for anyone to escape.” position=”center”]

After being in cities for a while we were grateful to find that Green Island only has about six square miles of land and maybe 2,000 residents. The ring road along the island’s coast is just 12 miles long, but given the total lack of public transportation or taxis available it’s best to pick up a scooter and get around like the locals do. There is no shortage of two-wheelers on the island, and you’ll be bombarded with offers as soon as you get off the ferry. We picked one up for under $12 USD a day.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIScooters.jpg” title=”Green Island Scooters” caption=”Which one do you want?” position=”center”]

If you aren’t experienced with riding scooters this can be a good place to get in some practice. Just watch out for Taiwanese tourists (they travel in packs), coconut crabs, and other small animals crossing the road.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIRoad.jpg” title=”Open road” caption=”Open road on Green Island.” position=”center”]

We stayed just outside of the main village in town, which is basically just a strip of restaurants, dive shops and boutiques. If you walk a bit north you can watch the tiny puddle-jumper planes take off from the airport and see the island’s lighthouse. It actually has an interesting history: In 1937 a luxury ocean liner called the SS President Hoover ran aground there during a typhoon. Everyone survived, and members of the US public donated money so they could build the lighthouse and avoid more accidents in the future.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GILighthouse.jpg” title=”Lighthouse” caption=”It was designed by Japanese engineers, and then built by villagers in 1938.” position=”center”]

We also snapped this photo from the lighthouse, which went on to be one of our favorite Snapshot Sundays of the year.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIClouds.jpg” title=”Cloud watching” caption=”The clouds looked like a painting that day.” position=”center”]

Although the reefs around the island are well-known for diving opportunities we decided to snorkel instead of taking the chance that some important piece of safety information might be lost in translation. There are several places where you can snorkel without hiring a guide, although the locals will be really perplexed if you try to buy gear from them. “You want to snorkel?” they’d ask. “Alone!? Not safe!

[ptcPhoto filename=”GISnorkel.jpg” title=”Snorkel spot” caption=”There are tons of neon fish in there.” position=”center”]

Before long we realized why they were so apprehensive. Turns out that even though Taiwan is an island nation, many Taiwanese can’t swim. If you go on one of their “snorkel tours”, you’ll be fitted out in a full wetsuit, a mask and snorkel (no fins), and a lifejacket, and then pulled along on a rope lined with buoys while you peer into the water.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GISnorkeling.jpg” title=”Snorkel tour” caption=”No swimming is even necessary!” position=”center”]

The instructors bring bread to feed the fish and walk on the reef while pulling you along. There’s so much wrong with this, I don’t even know where to begin. Suffice it to say, we were happy to brave the waves and danger and go out on our own. If you go this route, though, you might want to take some water shoes to protect your feet from sharp rocks, and make sure you watch the sea conditions since it can get a bit rough.

After a full day of water sports make sure check out the island’s saltwater hot springs, one of only three in the world. It’s $6 USD to get in and they have about a dozen pools of different temperatures. They’re even open at night if you want to take in the stars and relax.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GISprings.jpg” title=”Hot springs” caption=”A hot bath with a view.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIEric.jpg” title=”Eric” caption=”We may have snuck some drinks in.” position=”center”]

Aside from the main tourist sights (which can all be seen in less than a day), there are some fantastic opportunities for hiking over volcanic rock and taking in views of the sea.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIWave.jpg” title=”Wave” caption=”Waves crashing against the shore.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIRock.jpg” title=”Volcanic rock” caption=”There were crabs scuttling around everywhere!” position=”center”]

Here’s hoping that developers don’t move in and change the landscape of this little paradise. It’s fine just the way it is.

Taipei on a Shoestring

After a month in China we took a little break and went to Taiwan. It seems like every time we visit a new place without doing any research or building up expectations, it ends up being so much better than we could have anticipated. With diverse food options, nice people, and a huge but approachable capital, Taiwan turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

The best part is that Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, has a ton to offer the budget traveler. Here are some ideas for free (and almost free) activities in the city.

1. Climb Elephant Mountain

It would be hard to miss the earthquake-proof Taipei 101. It’s one of the tallest buildings in the world, and much (much) higher than the rest of the Taipei skyline.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaipeiSign.jpg” title=”Taipei 101″ caption=”And they’re humble about it too.” position=”center”]

But at $500 NTW ($17 USD) each, visiting the observatory up on the 89th floor was a bit much for our budget. Besides, we were more interested in taking photos of the building itself.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Taipei101View.jpg” title=”Taipei 101″ caption=”From the top of Elephant Mountain.” position=”center”]

We found some great views of the Taipei 101 from the top of Elephant Mountain in Taipei’s Xinyi District. It’s a steep 30-minute walk up, so make sure you take some water – and don’t forget your camera! Climb up at sunset to see the city’s lights come on.

[ptcPhoto filename=”101Camera.jpg” title=”Taipei 101 at night” caption=”Snapping photos at sunset.” position=”center”]

Cost: Free

2. Go on a Boba Binge

Boba tea, aka “pearl tea” or “bubble tea”, was invented in Taiwan in the 1980’s before quickly spreading to café menus around the world. The most popular kinds are either milk- or fruit-flavored teas with balls of chewy tapioca, although variations are seemingly limitless. Taipei has more boba shops than you can shake a straw at, so you won’t have any problems finding one.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Boba.jpg” title=”Boba” caption=”Our favorite: Milk tea with bubbles. No frills.” position=”center”]

Cost: A cup of boba is normally less than $1 USD.

3. Spy on People Practicing Tai Chi

Word on the street is that the best place to see people practicing this ancient martial art is at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. We never made it over there early enough, but we did see people training in other places in the city. There are also plenty of places to take a class and try it out yourself, if you’re interested.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PeacePark.jpg” title=”Tai Chi” caption=”Tai chi at the 2-28 Peace Park” position=”center”]

Cost: Free

4. Gawk at Scooter Madness

This was one of our favorite activities in Taipei, and you won’t find it in any of the guidebooks. Get up before rush hour and head over to Taipei Bridge to see the spectacle – thousands upon thousands of scooter commuters on their way to work.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaipeiBridge.jpg” title=”Taipei Bridge” caption=”An insane number of scooters.” position=”center”]

There are over eleven million scooters registered in Taiwan, making it the most popular means of transportation. It goes without saying, but this activity can be a bit hard on the lungs – if you’re very sensitive to pollution it might not be for you. I really can’t describe what this is like, but Eric made a dandy video that sums it up quite nicely. Some humor was added to make the chosen soundtrack a little less intense.

Cost: Free

5. Feast on Street Food at a Night Market

Taipei has more than a dozen markets that open up when the sun and temperature go down. There are some great deals to be had if you want to do some shopping, but the food stalls offer the real bargains. Point to anything that looks good, pick up some beers at a convenience store for $2 USD, have a picnic and people watch. Watch out for fruit vendors at night markets like Shilin, though. They’re infamous for overcharging tourists.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TofuAndOmlette.jpg” title=”Omlette” caption=”You can smell the stinky tofu from a block away…the oyster omlettes are much tastier.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NoodlesHotdog.jpg” title=”Noodles” caption=”Taipei’s famous beef noodles, and a hotdog nestled in a rice-filled sausage bun.” position=”center”]

It happened to be that while we were in town Eric’s old friend and colleague Dan was there too. Dan’s from Taiwan, and he and his wife Feny used their amazing language skills while showing us around. They also treated us to a selection of snake products at Snake Alley. There are only a couple places left that still serve up our slithery friend, which is supposed to be effective in making men more…manly.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SnakeSoup.jpg” title=”Snake soup” caption=”It tastes like a cross between chicken and fish.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”SnakeShot.jpg” title=”Snake shot” caption=”Snake blood, bile, venom…other snake fluids. Bottoms up, boys!” position=”center”]

Cost: Street food is a bargain. You could go on a bender for about $10 USD.

6. Check Out Some Temples

About a third of Taiwan’s population is Buddhist, and a third is Confucian. So Taipei has some pretty neat temples where you can learn more about these religions or just soak in the dragons, koi, incense, and all kinds of beautiful eastern imagery. One of the more popular religious landmarks is the Longshan Buddhist/Taoist Temple in Taipei’s Wanhua District, a good example of Taiwanese classical architecture.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LongshanTemple.jpg” title=”Longshan” caption=”Taiwanese temples go heavy on the dragons.” position=”center”]

Our favorite was the Tien Ho Buddhist Temple. It’s tucked away in a busy shopping district, but once you’re through the gates you’re presented with an open courtyard, intricately carved dragons, and hundreds of glowing red lanterns.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TienHo.jpg” title=”Tien Ho” caption=”An unlikely place for a temple.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TienHoLanterns.jpg” title=”Lanterns” caption=”Lanterns at Tien Ho” position=”center”]

Cost: Free

7. Lose a Staring Contest at the Martyrs’ Shrine

The National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine is dedicated to the 330,000 people who sacrificed their lives to the revolution preceding the establishment of Taiwan. The military police officers who guard the main gate have been rigidly trained to stand like expressionless statues, never moving – and barely even blinking! Get there on the hour to watch the changing of the guard, but stay a bit longer to take photos after the crowds clear out.

[ptcPhoto filename=”MartyrShrine.jpg” title=”Martyrs’ Shrine” caption=”It’s amazing how long they can stand so still.” position=”center”]

Cost: Free

8. Just Wander

Taipei is an extremely safe city with low rates of violent crime, pickpocketing, and other crimes against tourists. Hop off the metro at any random stop and you’ll probably find something interesting and off the beaten path.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaipeiStreet.jpg” title=”Signs” caption=”A busy street in Taipei” position=”center”]

Cost: Free!

Snapshot Sunday: Rush Hour on Taipei Bridge

[ptcPhoto filename=”RushHour640.jpg” title=”Rush hour” caption=”Rush hour on Taipei Bridge – Taipei, Taiwan” position=”center”]

With 415 scooters for every 1,000 people in Taipei, two wheelers dominate rush hour. And they aren’t just used for the commute – it’s common to see entire families crammed onto one scooter: A dog perilously balancing on the floorboard followed by the dad who sits in front of a child, perched in front of the mom holding a baby and groceries for the evening meal.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.