one year in Taipei: bucket list revisited

shortly after moving here last summer, I assembled a list of 101 things to do in Taipei. so far I have been able to cross 40 items off of that list! I thought it would be fun to look back on the activities of the last year and share which were my favorites, which I would recommend skipping, and what things I'm most itching to try next.

[hopefully, compiling this post will get me motivated to go out and cross a few more things off my bucket list.]

my favorite Taipei adventures

Juifen day trip // magical old mining town strewn with red lanterns
Huashan 1914 Creative Park // exposed brick hipster paradise
Mt Qixing // the highest peak in Taipei
Elephant Mountain // my favorite hike with visitors
Guandu Temple // the most massive and elaborate temple complex around

the best things I haven't blogged yet

Dihua Old Street // there are 300 photos just chilling on my hard drive
Taipei 101 // seriously, I've been 5 times and never blogged about it
Jinguashi Waterfall // please reference the above photo
Cats & Cafe // the original cat cafe, full of fluffy friends

places that disappointed me

Jiantan Trail // I blame the hazy weather and lots of bugs
National Museum of History // the collection was sadly unimpressive compared to NPM
Tianmu Trail // too many steps and too many people for not enough views

not on my list but should be added

Dongmen // this neighborhood is too cute not to be documented
Taipei Expo Center // restaurants, shops, craft beer bars, and a weekend farmer's market
Zhongxiao Dunhua // another adorable neighborhood, great for shopping
Youbike // one of my favorite activities in Taipei
Houtong Cat Village // an old mining town full of stray cats

places I'd like to revisit

Taipei Zoo // it's huge and I still haven't seen all of it
Taipei Botanical Gardens // I always seem to miss when things are in bloom
Jilong Mountain // I'm thinking winter - my last visit was super sweaty and buggy
Tamsui // my only visit there was ten minutes to find a candy shop and leave

what I'm dying to see next

Pingxi Lantern Festival // do an image search and you'll see why - magical!
Fort Santo Domingo // the history of this place intrigues me
Teapot Mountain // I need to be in better shape for the scrambles but this WILL happen
Zhinan Temple // I've been curious about this mountain temple for years

ok. now let's go out and see some of these things! if you've been to Taipei, what other favorite activities would you add? have you done/seen anything on my list?

linking up for Wanderful Wednesday with: Lauren on Location, Snow in Tromso, What a Wonderful World, and The Sunny Side of This.


how to survive a month of travel

planning to travel for a solid month sounds like a fantastic adventure... but sometimes being on the road for that long can wear on you. I speak from experience: this summer I spent 28 consecutive days traveling. [and then an additional 10 days just 2 weeks later.]

while I admit this is a total first world problem - it is still a problem. being away from your home and your routine isn't easy. neither is living out of a suitcase, keeping track of where you are and where you're going next, monitoring your budget, and not letting your travel companions get on your nerves. how did I make it through a month of travel with my sanity, marriage, and friendships intact? it wasn't exactly a cake walk, but I have some advice on how we managed.

allow for rest after big travel days

if you can, build time into your itinerary to relax. your body needs time to recover after 12 hour flights or lack of sleep on an overnight train ride. and there's always that pesky jetlag. drink lots of water, find a nearby cafe to sit in while you read your guidebook and research activities for the next few days. if that feels like wasting your time, try a light activity that isn't physically taxing - like going to the beach or taking a bus tour around town.

when we arrived in Prague after 16 hours of travel - emotionally exhausted from changing our travel plans after the Istanbul bombing, physically exhausted from waking up at 5am and not being able to find real food at the airport [thanks, allergies!] - we did not want to do anything. so... we didn't. we took our first few days easy and stayed close to the neighborhood, and spent time catching up with our friends. after that we were refreshed and ready to tackle the city.

mix up your social setting

it doesn't matter how much you love your husband or your BFF - spending too much time together in close proximity can be a relationship challenge. [exhibit A above: husband frustrated with my photo perfectionism in Ephesus.] I have my own methods of coping with group travel as an introvert, but on this trip we actually changed up our travel companions a few times.

for the first two weeks, my husband and I traveled with one other friend through Turkey. this allowed her and I to go off and do things he wasn't interested in [like waking up at 4am to see the sunrise,] for them to eat foods I can't [like baklava,] and for he and I to have date nights alone. in Prague, Luke and I stayed with a family of friends for a week. we got to spend time with our adult friends and their kids, but also go off and explore on our own. to end our trip, just the two of us spent a few days together in Vienna. I love hanging out with my husband. but I definitely took an evening to spend alone in a bath with wine and a book.

you can still manage this if you are traveling with the same companions for your whole trip. are you with a group of friends? break off into pairs or go off on your own for a bit. you don't all have to do every single thing together. on vacation with your significant other? spend some couple time together, but be sure you each get the space you need. traveling solo? try joining a group tour to meet some other travelers and get some social interaction. [actually, this works well no matter who you are with!]

do something that feels like home

some people thrive on unpredictability. me, I like to have at least a little bit of routine. at home I have been journaling every morning. so I brought my notebook and pens and did my best to keep this up during our travels. it didn't happen every day, but it helped keep me happy. maybe for you this means bringing your running shoes and getting your miles in, getting a pedicure or going to the movies.

new tastes and experiences are some of the best things about travel. but after a while, you crave something familiar. for my husband and I - that usually means Mexican food or some other cuisine we can't get in Taiwan. while we definitely like to sample the local fare, Taiwan doesn't really have the ingredients or get flavors quite right on many of our favorite dishes. yes, I ate many bowls of pho in Vietnam. but I'm not going to pass up my chance at brisket with potato latkes and hollandaise [Singapore] Mexico City style tacos [Hong Kong] or a bacon cheeseburger on a gluten free bun [New Zealand.]

take your time to explore

part of this is in your planning. I know a lot of people think the more you see the better your trip is - but sometimes slowing down can make for a enjoyable experience too. during our three week trip through New Zealand we saw a LOT. and I loved all of it. but since we moved around every 2 or 3 days, it didn't feel like I got to really know any one location we visited.

in both Istanbul and Prague we had a full week to explore. we checked off the tourist "must-do" items in the first few days and then could actually get to know the city. we met up with local friends, took walking tours, and just wandered around. we didn't feel rushed to get everything in before we had to repack our bags and move on. jumping around from place to place can leave you exhausted, but traveling a little slower not only keeps you sane but lets you experience more of each place.

accept that you won't love everything

a month is a long time, whether you're traveling or not. everyone has good days and bad days. and some of those bad days will happen while you are traveling. life is unpredictable. flights get cancelled, museums and monuments are under construction, you eat the wrong thing and end up sick, tents break in windstorms or your rental car gets broken into. maybe you just don't love Shanghai the way you loved Singapore. this is all ok. not everything in life [and certainly not in travel] has to be a pinterest-perfect experience.

so much of what we read about travel [or see on instagram] is all about the travel highs. but I've been underwhelmed by top-rated temples in Bali, harassed when traveling solo in Hong Kong, and was miserable my entire brief stay in Seoul. sometimes it's hard to remember that everyone has disappointments while traveling - and in life - because we don't often share them.  I repeat: things will go wrong. but if you can accept this and learn to find humor in your misadventures, you'll be able to remember your experiences in a much better light.

are you ready to pack your bags and hit the road for a month? maybe not. but if you are lucky enough to do some long-term travel in the near future, I hope these tips will help you survive. [hint: they're also useful for short-term travel too.]

linking up for Wanderful Wednesday with: Lauren on Location, Snow in Tromso, What a Wonderful World, and The Sunny Side of This.

how to survive a month of travel: advice on making it through your trip with both your relationships and sanity intact.


trekking with Sapa Sisters

when my two friends and I started researching things to do in Vietnam, trekking through Sapa was high on our list. there are a lot of options out there. different lengths and difficulties of hikes, with or without homestay. and they all vary in price. but once we discovered the Sapa Sisters company and read their story, we knew that we couldn't book with anyone else.

life for women living in the tribes of this area is not easy. it is a male-centric culture where girls are discouraged from education, pressured to stay in abusive or unhappy marriages, and sometimes even sold into human trafficking. Sapa Sisters is a company owned and operated by all women from the H'mong tribe, and not only pays their guides fair wages but offers benefits like parental leave and health care. they have empowered these women to better their lives and enabled many of them to buy property, build homes, and save for their children's futures. you can read more about their company and guides on their website. [our guide, Zao, has one of the more incredible stories.]

this post is going to be lengthy. but for me, the experience was about more than just the actual trek.

we decided to do a 2 day journey with an overnight homestay. we arrived at the office and were introduced to Zao, who would be our guide. she explained that the longer trek option might be a bit slippery due to recent rains, but gave us the choice of which trail to take. my attitude for this adventure was that if we were here to trek then we would trek. so we took the long route.

our trail wrapped around and down the side of a valley. and it was definitely slippery. by the time we reached the bottom and had to walk through a knee-deep river, we were glad to just wash the mud away. we passed rice paddies and small wooden homes, crossed streams by hopping on rocks and detoured around grazing buffalo. eventually we came to a small village for lunch.

after we ate and chugged about 3 liters of water each, Zao asked again which way we wanted to take: the short path along the road, or the long way over the mountain? we chose the long route again. along our climb, we stopped to rest by sitting on the porch of a village house. suddenly Zao looked at us and said "I was born in this house. do you want to come inside?" we went in, not knowing what to expect.

the walls were wooden planks and the floor was hard-packed earth. we entered a large room and Zao pulled out some tiny plastic stools for us to rest on. she switched on a dim overhead light and turned on a small fan. in the corner was an old television, maybe from the 1960's. through the doorway to the next room we could see a cookfire dug into the floor, and corn was hanging from the rafters above to dry. a stray puppy from outside trotted towards us for a minute, then decided we weren't worth the effort and curled back up to sleep on the porch.

I don't know how else to explain what it was like to sit in that house with Zao: those were some of the most special and humbling five minutes of my life.

we continued on and arrived at our homestay for the evening. our host welcomed us with fresh cut fries covered in chunks of garlic and chili powder. we showered and met the other Sapa Sisters patrons who were staying the night with us - one French woman who was studying medicine in Saigon, and an American working for the Atlanta CDC. our host cooked us an incredible spread [complete with allergy-friendly dishes for me] and despite the howls from the cantankerous old cat that lived in the house, we all went to bed early. it might have had something to do with hiking 20 kilometers that day.

the next morning there was breakfast and another choice of trails: the short way, or up and over the mountain? we chose the mountain again. after climbing almost straight up for an hour, we were rewarded with the best views of our entire trek.

by the time we made it back down, we were starving, sweating, and exhausted. for a change: we chose the shorter route to get to our lunch. after a wild motorbike ride back to Sapa [during which my driver had to stop due to a buffalo crossing] we arrived at our hotel and said goodbye to Zao. a few hours and, thankfully,  a shower later we left Sapa and boarded the night train back to Hanoi.

so often when we travel, it feels like we are just passing though. I'd love to be a more conscious traveler who gives back directly to the people of the communities I visit. have you found any other companies like this around the world, or given back in another way on your travels? if you make your way to Vietnam I would highly, highly recommend an experience with the Sapa Sisters - and not just for the views.

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