Tailored Clothing in Taiwan
When one thinks of fine tailored clothing, the idea of luxury, extravagance, splendor and deep pockets might come to mind. In fact, in my opinion, getting clothing made is very positive and extremely cost effective. With tailor-made clothing, the clothing you get really fits “you” accurately, and you can proudly say that the item is one of a kind. If this is the first time you’ve had clothing made, you should plan on spending around an hour going through the entire process. Most tailors will keep your measurements so repeat orders are faster, although some of us may find it necessary to get re-measured more than we’d like (see the Taiwan food posts). First off, you need to find a tailor, which in Taiwan is pretty easy. However, finding a tailor you like and feel comfortable working with is another thing. There are clusters of stores around Linshen North Road, the main train station, or alternatively check out Taipei’s Ximen (西門) district for tailors that cater to the student or recent graduate. You can also ask your hotel for assistance. There are a variety of options to choose from, but typically items include shirts, slacks, blazers, skirts, dresses and suits. In order to get an accurate fit, the tailor will take about 10 to 15 minutes to take a lot of different body measurements. It might not be the most enjoyable experience, but after you’re done your new clothing will fit like a glove. At this stage you’re ready to start making some critical decisions regarding your new clothing. For me, this is the fun part as you get to make material and style choices as to the type of cloth, design or pattern of the tailored item. The tailor will have many material samples for you to choose from. Before you head over to the store, just have a sense of what colors you like and want, as this will make the decision process easier and quicker. If you have no idea what you want or find the process too daunting, skim fashion magazines to find things you like. Better yet, take the magazine with you and show it to your tailor. If you have a current piece of clothing you really like, just bring it along and the tailor will understand what you are looking for. If you’re just getting shirts or slacks, the tailoring processing is quick and straightforward. Two to five days later you just return to the store to pick up your new garments. With a blazer or suit, you will need to return to the store once or twice for fittings. During each of the visits, you will need to try on the garment and the tailor will review the progress and make changes where necessary. At the same time, this is also your review opportunity, so make changes if you don’t like the way the jacket fits on you as it will be difficult to make changes after it is finished. Shirts typically take two to five days to make, and suits five to seven days, and you should check with your chosen tailor before starting the process to make sure you can get the clothes before you leave (some shops will ship the order back to your home country for an extra cost). Prices range from NTD$1000 for a shirt to NT$18000 for a suit, although of course this depends on the tailor, material, and sometimes quantity of the items. Of course there are other tailors in Taiwan that are cheaper (and especially more expensive), but for the quality and service I feel these prices are acceptable. Happy tailoring!
Shopping for Cameras
Buying a camera in Taiwan can either be an enjoyable experience or a nightmare. Like everywhere in the world, the shopping experience always depends on the store and especially the staff servicing the purchase. That said, whether you are a visitor or a local, Taipei is an amazing place to pickup a new camera or accessorise your current kit. Photography is very popular in Taiwan, so cameras and accessories are available throughout the city in specialty camera shops and even general department stores. It is common in Taiwan for stores selling the same type of thing to be grouped together, and the same is true for photographic equipment. In Taipei, for the most comprehensive and convenient shopping experience, one should head over to the BoAi Road area (you can start here: http://goo.gl/maps/2CmxY). Within a roughly three block area, there are over 40 stores selling everything from cameras and lenses to bags and other kinds of accessories you did not realise you could not live without. Many major international brands are sold in Taiwan, including Canon, Nikon, Casio, Panasonic, Pentax, Olympus, Leica and more. Local brands include Benq, Premier, and Genius. Naturally Mandarin and Taiwanese will be the primary languages, however some of the stores will have a member of staff who can speak English (see my recommendation below). I think it is part of the fun when in a foreign country to try and interact, and shopping is a great way to do this. In my opinion, it is better to know the type of camera you want, i.e. a point and shoot, DSLR etc. Then have a walk round and ask to see what is available and note the model numbers of those that you like. After you have a list, check online for reviews and narrow the list down to one or two. I recommend this because even if the member of staff speaks great English, explaining the technical specifications is difficult and can get lost in translation. The next day head back to the stores and find the best price. Of course one of the advantages of having the stores in one area means it is quick and easy to compare prices. While it is possible to haggle the deal, the prices are often as marked. However, you may be able to get things thrown in (i.e. a memory card, battery etc.) so I would take this approach. And it is far better to smile when doing negotiations, an aggressive approach will usually not help (as with most dealings in Asia). As with all Asian countries, cash is king, and if you pay in cash, you may get a cash discount (as it saves the credit card fees). Don't quote me on that though. Other things to look out for are the OSD (on-screen display) and documentation. It can be surprisingly difficult to change the language of the OSD when everything is in Chinese, so if the store doesn't change it for you, ask them to do so. With the global camera brands, the OSD and support documentation (user manual, quick start guide, warranty) are typically available in multiple languages (English, French, Japanese, German, Chinese and more). For the local camera brands, English and Chinese are typically the norm. Before you make the purchase, it is better to ask the seller to confirm the available languages. Also note though that you can download manuals and documentation for many of the major brands. You should also check the warranty, and if it is only for Taiwan this may be a factor to consider before you buy. Other things to check are the voltage of the battery charger (although they virtually all cover a range from 100V to 240V) and the power cord. I recommend buying plug adaptors in Taiwan as they can be expensive overseas, and don't rely on buying the whole power cable overseas as thy can be ridiculously expensive. So enjoy the shopping even if it's only window shopping, and when you have finished, why not try a pig knuckle flavoured ice cream…
Where to Go / What to See
In spite of its frontier status, Kinmen is more developed than one might expect. You will find a large number of computer shops, wireless Internet connections, ATMs are everywhere and cell phones work all over the island. Restricted areas are clearly marked and considering the amount of mines still buried here, it's highly advisable to heed the warnings. There are some gorgeous beaches on the island, but most of these are still dangerous. The mines are slowly being cleared, but as the shifting sands have moved many mines from their original positions, this might take a while. Zhaishan Tunnels It is still all things military that influence most of Kinmen's attractions. The amazing tunnels at Zhaishan are a good example of this. Built out of solid granite, they were blasted during the day then the rubble cleared at night for five years non-stop. The Y-shaped tunnels were designed to hold up to 42 (small) supply boats to protect them from mainland attack. We were lucky enough to meet Mr. Chen, a Park Ranger, and his nephew outside the tunnels. Following him down a short narrow path (it is unmarked, but you will see a path leading to the ocean from the left of the souvenir/refreshment stall), we came to the ocean and the entrance to the tunnels. The tunnels themselves have not been used for 30 years due to the water level dropping substantially, but the concrete piers that surround the entrance are still intact. A concrete platform, or "bridge", leads over the entrance to the tunnels and onto the piers. The bridge looks dodgy, well it probably is dodgy, but we made it across safely. The "pill" or sentry boxes at the end of the piers have a grim past. Mr. Chen took delight in telling us the story of the frogmen. I should mention that the mainland is very close at this point and so it is possible to swim across the narrow stretch of water. When tensions were at their height, frogmen from both sides would swim across to the other side in the dead of night. It is often so dark at night that you can't see your hand in front of your face, Chen explained, so the frogmen would prey upon any hapless sentries that weren't paying attention, slit their throats and take back an ear as a souvenir. We didn't spot any one-eared people, but the story appears to be true. According to one soldier currently doing his service, they still swim across, but these days it's to steal soda cans as souvenirs. Entry to the tunnels, the park and parking are free. Kinmen National Park There are a few pieces of military hardware at Zhaishan, but there are many more in the Kinmen National Park. Tanks, guns of all descriptions, planes - if it shoots, flies or blows something up, it's probably there. What makes it all the more fun is that there are mini "re-enactments" throughout the park. These range from a one handed mannequin driving a tank to a surprisingly realistic sentry crouching with a rifle. In one of tunnel a "commander" is sitting at his desk. The room is quite dark and the "commander" quite fierce when suddenly an air raid siren goes off. Normally this wouldn't bother me, but in Kinmen, surrounded by military hardware, it seems sinister. Next, lights start flashing, loud crashing noises come through a huge (for a 2m square room) loudspeaker at substantial volume and orders start being shouted. More deafened than panicked, we make for the door when we are blinded by the powerful strobe light creating the explosion effects. Finally, stumbling out of the cacophony, we encounter a small child outside the tunnel who must have thought aliens had landed. I suppose for all intents and purposes, he was right. Apart from the military fun, the park itself is quite extensive. There is a campsite, tennis courts, rose garden, hiking trails, and a memorial dedicated to Sun Yat-sen, although it seemed to have more to do with Chang Ching-guo than Sun Yat-sen. There is a room with various old photos, but the one we liked most was one of Chang meeting a platoon of female soldiers. Quite progressive we thought until you look closer and see that the soldiers are wearing high-heeled boots! On translation of the accompanying sign, it becomes clear that the soldiers are not soldiers at all, rather they were there to boost moral. From the "peak" in the centre of the park you can see ocean on two sides. The island is wee. Gukang Lake Gukang Lake is the largest natural lake in Kinmen. It's not that large, but a perfect place to drop by for lunch or a break. A modern pagoda has been built at one end of the lake. It's not worth making a detour to Gukang Lake, but worth a stop if you pass by. Kuningtou War Museum This area is a must see. On October 25th, 1949 an invasion force of 10,000 Mainland troops landed on the north west coast of Kinmen. Over the next 56 hours, a fierce battle raged as the Nationalist army crushed the invading force killing 9,100 and taking 900 prisoners. As with all the major tourist spots, the museum is well signposted and information in the museum is bilingual. The guide inside asked us to sign the guest book, but there was no entry charge. You can't actually access the coast from here. There remain live artillery positions behind the museum and trying to go through the locked door with barbed wire did not seem like a good idea. Beishan Beishan is a two-minute drive from the museum. Fighting all around this area was fierce and a lot of it house to house. One building remains that shows the ferocity of the fighting. It must have been impressive for the time. Now it remains a ruin peppered with bullet holes. Take a walk around the village and imagine what it must have been like. You can almost hear the families gathering in the courtyards when the place was a thriving community. Lincou Village is also in the area with similar style buildings. Ci Causeway Driving back to Kinchen from Beishan taking the west coast road, you will go past Two Carp Lake and Ci Lake. Ci Lake actually opens to the sea and this is where you will find Ci Causeway. It's a great place to watch the sun set over the water and beach, and is also the best area for bird watching. The information display (again in English) tells the visitor to enjoy a walk on the causeway, and indeed there is a path to the beach. Soon enough, though, we encountered the familiar land mine warning signs. Surely that didn't mean the beach, I thought to myself and started to walk towards the sea, albeit following some footsteps. When the footsteps abruptly stopped, so did I. Besides, the stakes in the sand were spoiling the view. On a clear day you can see Hsiamen in the mainland from the causeway. Watch out for those frogmen. Shuitou Pier If you want to visit Hsiao Kinmen (Little Kinmen), this is the place to catch the ferry. Mashan Observation Point This is also a must see. On the northeast tip of the island is the heavily fortified observation station of Mashan. This was the most militarily active place we visited, with armed guards and dogs at the entrance. Attempts at striking up friendly conversation did not work here, the guards seemingly trying to assess whether we were stupid or just mad. Reach the entrance via a path camouflaged with trees forming a canopy, with a tunnel network either side. These are doors we would not be trying to enter. At the end is a narrow tunnel that leads down to the actual observation point, and this was the only place we encountered where photos were not allowed. There are high-powered binoculars (free despite the coin slots) with which you can spy the mainland, which again is surprisingly close. You can actually see the Fujian coast quite clearly with the naked eye, but using the binoculars, you can also make out several small islands. Having opened up substantially in the last few years - after the bombings and throat slittings stopped - Kinmen shows great promise of developing into destination for the traveller looking for something a bit different. At the moment, it hasn't really been discovered by tourists, but it is getting there. Two days was not really enough, so if you can, plan for three. We did not make it to the southeast part of the island, the granite hospital or the Cultural Village, which we would have liked to. Despite the short amount of time, we had a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable trip and would highly recommend this as a quick off-island excursion.
Home to guns, guts and kaoliang, the tiny island of Kinmen conjures images more of a frontier fortress on the battle-line between mainland China and Taiwan than a weekend tourist destination. But don't let its rough exterior fool you. Kinmen is both a relic of Taiwan's military past, a reminder of its tenuous present. Although off the traditional tourist route, Kinmen has a surprising amount to offer the visitor in a relatively small space, which is why I am breaking this into two posts. Since military hostilities have subsided somewhat, much effort has gone into promoting tourism. These efforts appear to not only be directed at the Taiwanese tourist, of which there are many, but the Western tourist as well, evidenced by the proliferation of English signage. A word about spelling. The beginning "K" sound is actually pronounced with a "J" sound. You will also see some of the spellings with a "J" instead of a "K" but as the majority seemed to go with a "K" we will too. There are many flights to Kinmen from Songshan (Taipei Airport), although flights stop in the early afternoon. Call ahead to reserve tickets then pick them up and pay for them at the airport. The flight takes about 45 minutes. It is also possible to take a ferry, but as time was short, we didn't look into this option. Either way, you will be required to show ID, so bring your passport. Kinmen Airport (Shangyi Airport) is modern and cosy, situated in the centre of the island. Check with your hotel to see if they will pick you up from the airport. If not, or if you aren't hiring a car, a taxi won't set you back too much to pretty much anywhere on the island. If the taxi doesn't use a meter, make sure you fix the price before you go. There are buses on Kinmen, but the best way to see the island is under your own transport. You can hire either a car or scooter easily enough. Bring your international license. Credit cards are accepted everywhere and no deposit was necessary. Details on insurance was vague when renting. Basically it boiled down to, "You hit something, you pay for it." The good news is that the roads are quiet, even on a weekend. If you are going to hire a car, the car hire company will pick you up from the airport and take you to their office. When you return the car, they will run you back to the airport. The company we used didn't charge us until we dropped the car back and there were no hidden extras. Kinmen is a small island, but the road signs are somewhat confusing. It seems that no matter where you are in the island, there is a sign to Dingbao. Why, we couldn't quite figure out, and in fact we never actually made it to Dingbao. Kinmen is broken into four townships, Kinchen (SW), Kinning (NW), Kinhu (SE) and Kinsha (NE). Kinchen on the west coast is somewhat built up, comparable perhaps to a small rural town like Miaoli and is a good base from which to explore the island. Many hotels have been built in the countryside, which is fine if you are after complete isolation, but there may be absolutely nothing around it. In spite of its frontier status, Kinmen is more developed than one might expect. In addition to the aforementioned free broadband access in the hotel, one will find a large number of computer shops, wireless ADSL in the Kohican coffee shop, ATMs are everywhere and cell phones work all over the island. Restricted areas are clearly marked and considering the amount of mines still buried here, it's highly advisable to heed the warnings. There are some gorgeous beaches on the island, but most of these are still dangerous as they could naturally make good invasion points for mainland troops. The mines are slowly being cleared, but as the shifting sands have moved many mines from their original positions, this might take a while. I'll list some locations you should visit in the next post, but I want to mention probably the most famous export from Kinmen, kaoliang. As I mentioned in the Matsu post, kaoliang is colourless firewater made from sorghum (a kind of grain). Kaoliang is the drink you will experience at weddings and banquets and the like. It is usually drunk only as a shot. You won't find many cocktails using kaoliang! Oh, and the "good stuff" is 58% alcohol. There are two kaoliang factories in Kinmen, the old one and the new one. The old one is, well there isn't much to see, but there is a shop/tasting room. And it must be said they didn't scrimp on letting you taste the stuff. In fact, this is probably the only time I have ever refused a free drink. Mind you, as we were leaving we found out that the chap who was plying us with the stuff didn't actually work there. He was just fitting an ATM machine. There's a real family feel to Kinmen. Tours are only available in large groups at the old factory. Also, the bottles you see in the cabinets are not actually for sale. The bottle of "Long Life" liquor for example, or the "Taiwan Militia" were quite entertaining. You can buy the standard stuff there or visit the small store just outside the factory for a more elaborate selection (fancy bottles go for NT$3,000 and up). By choice, visit the newer factory. It's easy to spot as it's on the road to the airport (on the west side). You will be able to smell the kaoliang long before you actually see it. The first thing you will see is an enormous bottle. There is parking inside, and a quick word with the guard should see you in. There is a lot more information here about kaoliang and you can take a factory tour. At least that's what the guard said, but alas (or thankfully) it was closing time?K More in the next post, once my head has cleared.
As summer approaches and things heat up, my thoughts inevitably turn to cooler escapes. And that inevitably means it's time to run for the hills. Big hills. I've already written about Lalashan and Alishan (shan as you might have guessed means mountain in Mandarin), so I thought I'd bring you something new. When a friend mentioned Wuling Farm I must admit I had not heard of it before. This is always a good start when planning a trip though for me, and a quick check of the website looked promising. (http://www.wuling-farm.com.tw) The one thing that especially stood out was the Formosan land-locked salmon. This I had heard of before as one of the species indigenous to Taiwan and another on the critically endangered list. All in all then it promised to be an interesting trip. It takes about 4 hours to drive from Taipei, and there is a bus from the Main Bus Station. Mind you the roads are mountainous, so if you are driving prepare for plenty of stops, and if you go with anyone who gets car sick, travel sickness medicine would probably help. Also be prepared for the weather to close in without warning. We had brilliant sunshine for two days, but driving back the clouds swallowed the road making the trip down challenging. Did I mention having adequate travel insurance? Although Wuling Farm is in Taichung County, it is just over the border from Ilan County, and with the Hsuehshan Tunnel we chose this route. It's a beautiful trip for the most part, and it reminds you just how fertile Taiwan is. Cabbages line riverbeds and hillsides for much of the way at varying degrees of growth from sea level to higher elevations. Wuling Farm is not actually a farm as you might expect in that you won't see herds of animals or fields of crops. It's more of a National Park or ??Recreational Farm??, and it is very well run. The Wuling National Hostel (http://www.wuling-farm.com.tw/room_01_en.html) is where we chose to stay. It's right in the heart of the park and provides one of the few places to eat, good clean rooms as well as lots of information for things to do and see in the park. If you have a party of eight or so, you can also stay in one of the wooden cabins, although you should book any type of accommodation ahead of time. It's a mighty long way down if it's all booked! As I mentioned, although Wuling is not a farm in the traditional sense, there are orchards of pears, apples, peaches and plums and tea is grown in abundance. Hiking is a probably the thing most people come for, and the scenery is really beautiful. There are hikes of varying degrees of difficulty, from mostly paved to one of the most dramatic of all hikes in Taiwan, Snow Mountain (Hsuehshan). Note though that this hike will take a couple of days and you will need to have permits before you are allowed to enter this part of the park. Still, the entrance to the trail does offer stunning views of the mountains, and is worth a trip. Weather permitting, you might see a sea of clouds effect as we were lucky enough to. Watching the clouds literally wash over a higher mountain peak in the background over the mountains in front of us was breathtaking (but alas loses it's charm in still photography). As mentioned in the intro, the other big attraction in Wuling is the Formosan landlocked salmon. This critically endangered species is one of the indigenous Taiwan species that has suffered greatly from the enormous growth in Taiwan over the last few decades. Thankfully, conservation is being treated ever more seriously, and Wuling is now key to the salmon's survival. As a result, most of the rivers in the area are off limits, although still beautiful to appreciate from hiking trails (including viewing platforms where you can glance the elusive fish). The future is still uncertain for the salmon, but at least there is hope. The other thing you will notice in Wuling is the flora. With the cooler climate, there are more species that you will be familiar with. It really adds a splash of color to an already spectacular place enhancing the overall feeling of well being. Well it did for me anyway, and my daughter declared them beautiful as well. One thing to note, it really does get cold up here and that is also a theme you will notice around the park. While we were here (May) it dropped to 13C at night compared to 26C in Taipei. It can snow in the winter so be prepared. I know I have said this before, but when visiting Taiwan it would be such a shame to miss out on the mountains. It's a different world to the plains and cities and is in my view a must.
Shopping for Electronics
In many ways, buying electronics in Taiwan is a shopper's dream. Imagine markets devoted purely to electronics, from circuit board testers to the latest netbook. With all this choice however, it can be a daunting job trying to find what you want. As it's unlikely that you'll be buying a 42" flat screen TV or an air-conditioner, I'll focus on the smaller items that will be more likely to tempt you, and in particular, notebook computers which are items of choice for many visitors. The first thing you need to do is get a good idea of what you want. Start with the generals (brand, model number, PC or Mac etc.) then get more specific (processor, amount of RAM, graphics cards etc.) If you have a specific model in mind, try and bring a print out of the model from the manufacturers website, as specific model numbers can differ in different areas of the world, so the KO123u in the States might be the KO125x in Taiwan. If you don't have a specific model in mind, then make a quick list of the things that are important to you. For example: type and speed of processor(s) amount of RAM size of hard drive screen size/resolution DVD/CD recorders number and type of ports (USB, DVI etc) Everything changes so fast in the computer world that it is not worth getting into specifics here. I think it makes life a lot easier to have these things in mind though, as the choice you will find can be overwhelming. One other important thing you should check is the warranty/guarantee. Some brands offer a global warranty, and unless you are resident in Taiwan, you should really go for this option. Now you have a good idea of what you want, there are basically four options of where to buy: Computer markets A local computer shop A chain retail outlet Computer shows The computer markets offer the widest choice. They either come in the format of a mini-mall packed full of small computer and electronic stores, or a whole street such as the famous Guang Hua market in Taipei. Whether or not they are cheaper is open to debate, but for custom built machines, you will certainly find what you want here. However, expect a more hectic experience. During the weekends the places are packed and if you dally for too long asking for a price, you might well get swept down the aisles. If you know what you want (hence my suggestion of making a list or identifying a specific model) and are computer savvy then you will get more out of the markets. A fair percentage of salespeople at the markets speak English and in general they are more used to dealing with tourists. That doesn't mean the prices will be marked up however as there are simply so many stores that wouldn't make sense. Local computer shops are becoming rarer (not counting those in the markets). The choice is likely to be limited, but if you see the model you like, the service is likely to be good if they can speak English. It doesn't hurt to pop in and ask in any event. The retail chains aren't usually cheaper and don't offer much in the way of extra service. If they happen to have a "can't resist sale" then fair enough. Computer shows can offer real bargains, but they can be pandemonium. Not so much getting swept down the aisles as thrust down white water rapids. You will also probably not have as much choice in the exact specs. Still, if you want to buy and there is a show coming up, it's worth a look. Just remember your life jacket. No matter whether it's a local shop or a market, you should feel happy with who you are buying from. If you feel they are trying to up the price or persuade you to add things you don't want, try somewhere different. You should be able to have English language software installed for you, at least the operating system. Unless you are very comfortable with computers, I would suggest that you have the shop install the operating system. That way any hardware problems should be sorted. Note though that it can take an extra day or so for the store to do this, so allow for this if your time is limited. Once you have the model of your dreams, the next step is agreeing a price. The markup on electronics is so slim, that I find haggling for price doesn't have much effect. What does seem to work though is asking for extras. For example see if you can extra RAM, a USB memory stick, a slightly bigger hard drive etc. No guarantees, but there is no harm in asking. Note though that this will not work at the chain outlets, where the marked price is the price. Computers are generally cheaper here than the west, but not dramatically so. It is possible to buy a second hand computer, but remember that you won't have a guarantee so no support. If something goes wrong, it might be a long costly experience to get it fixed. A quick note about other electronic devices. I think the advice above is generally applicable whether buying a computer, camera, iPod etc. The chain outlets and computer markets almost always have stores selling just about every device and accessory that you will need. And you can probably can make savings when buying things like SD cards for your camera, or batteries, cables etc. Don't forget to check your customs allowance though in case you get hit for tax when going home! Whatever you decide, happy shopping and happy computing! Checklist: Get a rough idea of what you want. Decide on your budget. Decide on where to buy. Do you like the salespeople? Agree a price and the specs (get a written quote for both). Check the guarantee. Show off your latest shiny gadget to your friends when you get home!