We arrive in Taroko on Good Friday, in the rain, after a pain-free train journey from Taipei and a scenic ride up the winding vertiginous road that leads to our hotel. Continue reading
Who would turn down a week in Shanghai, staying in a suite in Le Meridien in the centre of town, with free cocktails in the Club Lounge every night? And almost all paid for by the company…the only snag, as accompanying spouse, is that you have to fend for yourself during the working day. And in Shanghai’s heatwave – each day registering between 38-40 C – that’s quite daunting. Especially when half way through you get food poisoning, rendering each expedition a major feat of planning.
Following my own guideline number one for a successful ownsome trip – go somewhere where you have a chum – here we were lucky to have Louise’s dear friend and neighbour from Clapton, Jess Lehmann, in Shanghai on a WPP scholarship and working for Ogilvy. Firmly ensconced in the French Concession, Jess has become an expert on Shanghai eateries and tips on how to make the most of it. Like having
an after-work foot, neck and shoulder massage, which is de rigeur in Shanghai I learn. Or knowing which of the Acrobat shows we should go to; we went to Circusworld, (no animals, honest). It was truly spectacular but its staging clunky and low budget. And pretty unsafe, not many safety nets or wires in evidence, and seven motorbikes in a wall of death is pushing it! But the spontaneous joy of all the children was uplifting just as the noise in the theatre was unceasing.
Having had a grand reunion on the first night and a delicious meal (probably the best of the trip – but there will be a separate food blog so no more on food here), suitably primed and raring to go, on the first morning I foolishly set out to walk to the Bund, the famous promenade where all the finest merchant buildings of the early 1900s are found. Shanghai was a freeport and it attracted traders from all over Europe,
and after the Russian Revolution there was an influx of rich Franco-Russian aristocrats and Jews; and again during the Second World War. Sadly all my efforts to see the synagogues and the Jewish museum were thwarted by lack of time, high walls and heat.
Sticking to guideline number two, have a clear plan, I had my Lonely Planet neighbourhood walks guide, so resolutely set out to follow the North Bund route, melting all the way despite the breeze, which turned my brolly inside-out (Chinese always shield themselves form the sun with a brolly, as I did, until I found a stall which sold straw hats and a fan!). A fine iced coffee in Victors, the art nouveau bar at the Peace Hotel set me to rights.
Rather deterred by this experience, I thought, aha, guideline number three now – take a tour! The afternoon therefore found me on a bus tour, with only me, the guide and a driver in a posh car. Despite some good ‘sights’, I soon discovered that in Shanghai the sole
purpose of a tour is to take you to places where you will be parted from your cash…so the Jade Buddha Temple (jade effigies); Confucian temple (tea, although the tea ceremony thrown in was delightful and I wavered and bought some fine ginseng oolong, chrysanthemum and jasmine teas,
where the flowers unfold – interestingly all teas can be topped up at least 7 times so they are good value!); silk factory (silk quilts and clothes); pearl factory (pearls) and so on!
In between all this hard-sell, we managed to take in various points of interest; the French concession, the house where the first Communist Party Congress took place in 1921, and some streets in the old town, where the little stalls were preparing their snakes, bull frogs and all sorts of other indescribables for their fate. Most of these houses still have no running water or lavatories, and you can see slop buckets being carried to and fro or left out to dry, as I saw the following day on another old town wander. There are in fact very few old alleys left intact, but on our superb sidecar tour (a joint activity, and highly recommended!) Sammy from San Diego took us inside some of the shared tenements, where the tiling is pure early 20 century, there are communal washing and cooking facilities, and intricate
carving and old furniture is gathering dust and decaying quietly. Soon all these will go the way of the rest – knocked down for mega apartment blocks.
Rather jaded (haha) by this commercialism, I decided to spend the next couple of mornings wandering about by myself. Due to the heat, almost all of the normally crowded places like the YuYuan Gardens were practically deserted,
so I enjoyed ambling around, taking in the serene Chenxiangge nunnery; winding streets; food markets; the Bubbling Lanes; the house where Mao stayed when he first came to Shanghai in 1924 (fascinating photos); the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect Market
(not for the faint-hearted, although these are all destined for pets, including cicadas,
they are kept in very confined spaces; one hesitates to wonder what happens when they get past their sell-by date).
Talking of pets, dogs really are a fashion accessory here – not uncommon to see dogs with little shoes on, and men in particular mince around with tiny lap dogs on long leads – Chihuahuas, schnauzers, all shorn of body hair. Nothing can beat the pink-eared poodle that whizzed by me in her mistress’s motorcycle basket though.
In the afternoons, more gentle local walks down the E Nanjing Rd, round the People’s Square, past the Park Hotel, watching young and old playing cards and Go, gambling furiously (illegal in China), taking in a strange exhibition celebrating 10 years of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Talking of Art, also visited the area known as M50, a hub of Shanghai art galleries. Apart from it being broiling and impossible to get a taxi back, it was a disappointing expedition. I know Chinese art is big ticket these days but, with one exception, Yang Xiaojian, I found it tacky in the extreme.
So how easy is this to do by yourself? Well, it’s fine if you have a concierge or friend who can write down all your destinations on various pieces of paper (don’t muddle them up though, as I did at one point!); then the taxi driver takes you to where you think you are going. Often it bears no resemblance to where you believe you are headed, so quite a lot of ingenuity is involved to locate yourself as you are unceremoniously dumped on a busy pavement, somewhere…
Then there’s the safety issue: having been told Bali was perfectly safe and was then promptly victim to an attempted mugging, I was slightly wary. But here there are so many people, it’s a safety in numbers feeling. The only time I felt slightly on guard was when I went off piste in the old town, pursuing exciting food stalls, and found myself in a down-at-heel area, surrounded by labourers and unsmiling bare-chested men, no women in sight. So I upped the pace and headed off in what I hoped was the right direction (it was!).
At the weekend, Ross became free, so as well as our side-car tour, we visited the Shanghai Museum, tastefully arranged with riches galore – bronzes, porcelain and intricately carved jade. Not as much as in Taiwan – but then, as the Chinese will tell you, Chiang Kai-Shek stole the best
pieces! We also enjoyed an early morning trip to Zongshan Park to see the elderlies doing Tai Chi, despite the fact the place was a building site, so we decamped to the much more tranquil Jing’an Sculpture Park.
It made me think about modern China, seeing so many old people enjoying Tai Chi, in contrast to the large numbers of mainly young people at the completely renovated Jing’an Temple – it was only rebuilt in the past 10 years, and in the Cultural Revolution was converted into a plastic factory before being burned down in 1972 – who were enjoying throwing coins into the vast cauldron, rather as you would at a slot machine.
Consider that in 2007 40% of Chinese people were under 40 years old; and 20% under 15 years of age; therefore half the country has grown up NOT KNOWING Mao (and the percentages will be higher now). Then remember that most middle-aged parents will not have been in a car or had access to a private phone until well into their 30s. Look around you in the heaving streets (Shanghai has 24 million inhabitants and is the largest city in China) and all you see is people glued to their tablets and androids; every sight you go to, click, clunk, whizz – the sound of camera phones (one woman I saw in the Shanghai museum was taking snaps of every single porcelain exhibit!) taking photos and selfies, fingers posed in the ubiquitous V sign. Jess tells me that digital companies are having to re-strategise how to make money from mobile technology as no one phones or sends texts anymore. Fascinating stuff.
And now suddenly Buddhism and Confucius are back in fashion, having ‘disappeared’ during the height of the Revolution. It must be very confusing. Cynics say that adherence to these old customs can be expedient for business – certainly the monks were pocketing their red envelopes with alacrity at the cleansing ceremony we witnessed in the temple. I don’t think that’s what is meant however!
Take the one-child policy, largely misconceived in the West (it appears more damage was done at a local level by over-zealous implementers than the policy actually set out) as there were always exceptions – for instance for the 54 minorities; now if two single children marry they are allowed to have more than one child.
There is, no doubt, a major concern about the aging population and the in-balance of men and women.
Add to this the modern Chinese phenomenon of the Superwoman – she does not want to marry and have children, but wants to have a mega career and be super-rich and successful. It’s a big problem for the government, along with the Four Es, as Jeffrey Wasserstrom puts it: China has four main challenges – economy, environment, energy and endemic corruption and, in many ways, they are linked.
There is little doubt that on the surface China is booming, consumer goods are everywhere – no self-respecting Chinese middle class girl would buy a fake Louis Vuitton – and surfing the net is an addiction. However, there are restrictions on what you can access as I found when trying to write this blog – even with the hotel VPN which allowed us access to google and twitter,
wordpress crashed every single time. Yet there is a concern over the level of creativity compared to the other Asian tiger, India. While naturally entrepreneurial, recent history has rendered the Chinese very good at following orders and beavering away, but less so at taking the initiative. So which of these two will win out in the end remains to be seen.
Experts say that China is – successfully it would appear – managing the expectations of the young by carefully balancing their economic aspirations with a modicum of control. For that reason it is unlikely that you will see a Chinese Spring or another Tiananmen Square in the near future.
The next blogs will describe our outing to Tongli Water Town and all the food we ate.
Food glorious food! Singaporeans come to Taiwan just to eat, and having spent a week there, I understand why! And it’s not only visitors who love to eat – it’s the locals too – every day there were hundreds of Taiwanese queuing for afternoon tea in our hotel, renowned for its tea-time spread, not tea as we know it by the way; and the breakfast buffet mirrored that. Delicate, slim, bejewelled and perfectly-groomed business ladies, piled their plates high course after course. One morning this tiny woman put away 6 slices of papaya, a mound of deep fried fish, a pile of beef and green vegetables, then topped it all with some french pancakes, swathed in syrup…A kinder person than I said perhaps that was her meal for the day!
How to cram so much taste into a blog is a challenge, so here goes….
First stop was Din Tai Fung’s original Taipei restaurant which has set the benchmark for all its outposts including in Singapore. We were welcomed by a gorgeous girl, who advised on our (poor), choices, steering us to the favourites, Xiaolongbao, or pork dumplings. Despite the formica table tops and the 1950s original decor, we had a fine feast. A great welcome to Taipei.
The next-door restaurant, Kaochi, recommended by the hotel, was much less good, despite the benefit of numbers, expert local advice and fluent Mandarin, as we went with Ross’s team from Novartis. It was the only time in Taipei that we had poor service, with rather un-charming waiting staff and indifferent food – the big seafood stew/steam boat was insipid and the deep fried prawns decidedly soggy. The drunken chicken, a local specialty, was cold and rather disgusting. Oh well…
Another recommendation by the hotel was far more successful: rather exhausted by a long day out, we asked for a local seafood restaurant and were directed round the corner (next to the Welcome hotel if anyone tries to find it) to a family restaurant where we had a fragrantly flavoured steamed pomfret with a squid, and a mushroom and basil stir-fry – the squid was crispy and smoky and the mushrooms dried and pungent. We noticed, as the other customers left, they all had ‘carry-outs’ – and not left-overs. Inquiry revealed this restaurant specialised in selling bags of dried anchovies, which I found on sale later in Chiufen. Another local delicacy, obviously.
But venturing out on our own, whether to Tamshui where, although we didn’t eat (having had an indifferent self-service lunch at the Ju Ming museum), we came and saw the locals enjoying a grand day out.
The local specialities are the century eggs, seen here, and some rather disgusting looking snails, being bought by the cup.
The Taiwanese have a very sweet tooth, and here we found a stall selling a wide variety of nougat in all sorts of hues. It felt like a feast day, but I guess Sunday is always like this, crowded streets and families all enjoying themselves.
Taiwan is of course renowned for its Night Markets and street food. One rainy evening we ventured out by MRT, Taiwan’s super-efficient metro system, to visit Shihlin, the most famous night market of all. Our colleagues were surprised we were going there to EAT; they had gone simply for a post-prandial shop, but as shopping is generally low on my agenda (although I did come away with a US$5 Longchamp rip-off, which is almost perfect), it was the food we were most interested in.
Bowled over by the garish amounts of junk on display – shop upon shop of cheap clothing, shoes and bags – we finally found the food stalls. Untrue to say it was a tantalising array as we were nauseated by the most terrible smell, which we worried was of fat rancid from over-use, so were stuck (after one misadventure, a greasy deep-fried egg in batter thing that Ross ate) to BBQ squid and pork, and a safer-looking pork bun. we later found out that the smell was stinky tofu ‘tasted better than it smells’. Ha!
And of course, as in any Chinese food market there are what I call the unmentionables, which we always steer clear of. If you dont recognise it, dont eat it.
Another favourite place for local delicacies is the Chiufen ‘old’ street market; to some extent this is a tourist area, served by hundreds of buses containing visitors from the PRC,
but like the Taiwanese, they love buying the sweetmeats that are made here, especially the pineapple cake. I bought some oolong tea at a fraction of the price I saw later at the airport
Specialities here included yam, taro and sweet potato dumplings with red bean sauce (not for me as I don’t have a sweet tooth) and row upon row of raw pork buns which people buy to take home. I was hungry but could not find anything I recognised so missed lunch!
I know its unadventurous, but do remember I was a vegetarian for a long time and remain squeamish, especially in Chinese cultures where organic and animal-friendly rearing are unknown phrases. Shark fin is ubiquitous here, as are tanks full of the most enormous groupers, lobsters, crabs and even octopus.
So from the cheap to the the lavish – a banquet at Taipei 101. The second tallest building in the world – and the tallest before the Burj al Arab – we simply had to go. The only way to avoid the massive queues to get to the top is to have meal, admittedly at NT$ 1960, excluding wine, not the cheapest, but US$50 for a 9 course feast is not that bad frankly, and all in a art deco dining room, resplendent with Wedgwood and Noritake chinaware, chandeliers and an 86th floor view.
Annoyingly the menu came on an iPad which even the waitress, complete with mask – always a bit off-putting as not only could we not read the menu but we couldn’t understand a word she said – could not work, so we took the easy option and plumped for the set menu.
It may not have been exactly what I would have chosen, but it was all good and worth every penny for the ambiance.
But perhaps the highlights of our trip were dining with Ross’s colleagues – not only for the camaraderie, but also for their expertise. On the last evening to celebrate the end of the job, we were taken to Taipei’s ‘in’ place, Ding Wang Spicy Hotpot.
Here you can have a shared seafood/veg broth and a meat one, spicy, robustly flavoured with duck’s blood – and yes I did try that (rather like liver in fact); you then choose your added ingredients, ranging from tofu and bean curd, to scallops, abalone, calamari, crab and fish balls, slices of meat and so on, finishing off with some fresh veg at the end.
The principle is the same as for fondue. It was delicious, although I do prefer the more fragrant Cambodian variety – lemon grass, fresh herbs, mint and lime leaves as predominant flavours in oriental cooking.
The last breakfast was just round the corner, Ku Hang, up some stairs and typically Taiwanese. Great bowls of sweet soya bean milk (rather like baby rice, so not very nice!) and a salty bean curd porridge, with crispy soya bean (better), but best were the delicious home-made crispy rolls, some with onions, some halved with fried eggs plopped in the middle, and egg pancakes.
Normally queues snake out the door but today (we were good and early) we only had to queue for a few minutes.
A fine end to a gastronomic journey.
Being accompanying spouse this week meant I had a lot of time on my hands. Undaunted by my previous solo forays, I booked a couple of tours to while away the time in between reading and cataloguing my mother’s letters (by the way we have reached 1957, and I am born to much excitement after 11 years of marriage).
I hit gold on the first outing, and had W all to myself. W, who in the temple as we were looking at our Zodiac signs – being 55, I was a pig, asked, ‘Am I 46 or 58?’ ‘Oh 46,’said I gallantly. ‘Heh heh,’ he chortles ‘ 58, dye my hair yesterday’. Such a character, and 12th generation Taiwanese.
Sitting beside him in the front seat I was privileged to learn much about Taiwan, its people and its politics. How the KMT, despite winning the last election (by a slim margin) is very disliked – the President only has 13% popularity rating – and they only got in because many businessmen with interests in China told their workers to vote KMT, whose mantra is ‘One China’. The fiercely independent original Taiwanese do not want to become a province of China – this is after all how they feel the world considers them, as they are not recognised in the UN.
The current trouble with the Philippines has exacerbated this sense of isolation – Aquino is treating them as an unimportant scion of the greater power, hence the Taiwanese aggression: ‘We should fight them, we have armies and weapons’, says W. After the war many – doctors and teachers especially – went to Japan rather than live under the KMT yoke.
As part of this One China campaign, the government opened up travel to Taiwan two years ago – every day 6000 Chinese come in by plane. The Taiwanese fear this is another means of the PRC trying to control their economy.
Apart from the Chinese en masse having few manners – as I had noticed already, see Taiwan part 1 – some of the tour operators have also upset the locals by not paying their bills, so it’s a cash only basis now! Another great injustice, in Taiwanese eyes, is the $30,000 per month paid to Chinese students to study here. This does seem outrageous, as Taiwanese students get nothing
Our objective was Sanhsia, home to an old Ming dynasty Taoist temple, made from elaborately carved stone and camphor wood, and one of the last remaining ‘old’ streets in Taiwan, now cleaned up and kitted out for tourists, but uncharacteristically tastefully so. W told me a lovely story about an Afro-American woman, who worked in a restaurant in the US, and who had a regular Taiwanese customer, to whom she always gave extra large servings. Eventually he asked her why she did this. ‘Oh, when I visited Taiwan and all the temples I was thrilled to find it is the only place in the world where the Gods are Black.’ ‘And it’s true’, exclaimed W ‘they are Black, but only because all the incense has made them so!’
Next stop a porcelain factory and showroom, where I meet the artists who decorate the vases with elaborate designs, including in gold imported from Germany, and learn about the various firings that result in the high quality ware that is on display. Inspired by the National Palace museum exhibits, I am thrilled to find some modern day celadon ware and buy a teapot and matching cups.
The factory charmingly has a workshop for folk to come and paint their own designs on china, and I meet an engaging 80 year-old who is sticking gold and diamante sequins on to her intricately painted peacock vase.
My second tour to the Chiufen Gold Mining Village was interesting in other ways. This time, ironically, I was part of a Chinese tour, although Danny also spoke English and gave briefings for my benefit. Five ladies, two from Singapore, three from PRC and a gay guy: but I worked out that these were more up-market visitors than the normal busloads we meet, as there were no flags or megaphones, and they also spoke a little English.
Our route took us to more wretched rock formations, where I was photographed by some ladies from Tamshui, who told me I was ‘beautiful’ – well, that made up for the ‘attraction’, and a couple of uninteresting stops, until we wound up to the old gold-mining village, which boasts a mile-long ‘old’ street, not unlike the Shilin Night Market we had visited the night before, complete with food stalls – contents ranging from disgusting innards to delicious-looking pastries, and other local delicacies, purveyors of leather and clothes, and a more up-market variety of shop selling oolong tea and nicely wrapped sweetmeats.
Yet again, besieged by hundreds of visitors and many, many tour buses navigating the winding U bends in an alarming manner, horns blaring at poor unsuspecting walkers like me!
In between my tours, I went to the gym which was full of elderly gentlemen exercising, including one old boy who beat his chest in order to emit loud belches! Perhaps it was him I witnessed the next day hawking and spitting in the pool, or perhaps he was the one practicing his putting poolside!
One thing is certain – and I asked all the chaps in our group, the Taiwanese women are among the most beautiful in the Far East. Many of them are tall and willowy, with long legs, often clad only in the shortest of skirts or hot pants. Paleness is a sign of great beauty here, so many of them have milky-white complexions and are beautifully coiffed and made-up. Sorry, no photos!
In between my adventures I deigned to go out with Ross – to the Shilin Night Market, Taipei 101 and to various eateries, all to be revealed in next blog, for foodies!
People seem to love it here – whether it’s due to the charming people or delicious food I am not sure. Interestingly I was told that, like China, where there are still one-child restrictions, some professional families in Taiwan CHOOSE not to have children as they are so career minded. Not unlike the new breed of Superwoman in Singapore, who choose to remain single. I must investigate all of this further – for another time.
Arriving in Taipei in a drizzle only added to its aura of greyness. Even when the sun shines (and it hasn’t much so far) it appears slightly dingy and down-at-heel. Many of the houses and apartments are tiled, once white, now grimy and dirty. But the people are wonderfully friendly, welcoming and smiling, even if they dont speak much English. As a Taiwanese colleague says, ‘in Taiwan, its not about what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside’. A big contrast with Singapore’s perfunctory and controlled politeness and pristine buildings.
Had to pack an awful lot into the weekend. Up early (not early enough as it transpired!) to visit the National Palace Museum, which contains treasures from China which were transported around the mainland by various rulers from the Ming and Qing dynasties to prevent them falling into enemy hands; then back to Nanjing to escape the Japanese invasions, before finally being sent to Taiwan in 1948 for safekeeping from the advancing communists. But the invaders from the mainland are back in force, to see what Taiwan has ‘plundered’ from their heritage and also, we were told, to see ‘how the other half live’. It was almost impossible to see the exquisite ancient jade, porcelain and intricate ivory carving for the hordes of tour groups, each led by a flag-waving Führer, complete with megaphone linked to all members of his/her respective groups. What a cacophony of sound, what pushing and shoving, what trampled toes, what lack of apology! WAH!
And this was the pattern for the whole weekend: whether in the Holiday Jade and Flower Markets – this time Taiwanese enjoying their two favourite hobbies – collecting jade and buying plants;
or visiting the hot springs via the crowded yet cool MRT, emerging into the baking hot and steamy Xin Beitou suburb, where the best show in town was the 100th birthday celebrations of a local man, complete with dragon dancing,
kung fu demos and and speeches (we didn’t hang around for those as we were expiring from heat and lack of food).
Another strange crowd phenomenon in Taipei is the daily queue at the Sheraton for ‘afternoon tea’. Hundreds – yes hundreds – of people snake through the main hotel lobby (this is the busiest hotel I have ever stayed in, throngs of people, like a railway station) in order to partake of the daily buffet tea; a real aspirational activity here.
Not as strange as the Japanese businessmen’s whisky drinking ceremony we witnessed the other night: bottles of Chivas Regal lined up, waiter pours over ice, then adds distilled water with the finesse of a Japanese geisha, and gives it all a swizzle. Stranger still was the abrupt end to the evening when all the men bowed and departed, leaving untouched whisky on table! Vat a vikid vaste as my Czech grandma would have said. I digress..
And on Sunday, yet more crowds as we went with 50 other tour buses (90% of tourists in Taiwan come from the PRC) to visit the Yehliu Geopark, a collection of unusual but not scintillating rock formations regarded as a great national monument by the PRC tourists. We arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm and it was a sea of umbrellas as afar as the eye could see;
nothing deters the mainland tourist! or us Brits for that matter…
The ‘attractions’ are individually named after prosaic everyday objects – BBQ chicken drumstick; fairy shoe; ice cream rock; candle rock; pineapple rock and so on.
So it was with relief that we were transported to the Ju Ming Museum by our tour guide – supposedly English-speaking but only on the subject of tennis, as he was a pro when he wasn’t driving us. Our tour therefore had a magical mystery element as the booking confirmation was all in Chinese and we had to deduce where we were going by consulting the map. Just as we arrived somewhere we would be told where we were!
‘Two and half hours’, he gesticulated, showing us a watch. Dismayed as it seemed a long time, we were soon delighted and absorbed by this homage to Taiwan’s foremost artist whose pieces de resistance, you might say, are life-size figures cast in bronze from a polystyrene sculpture, mainly military in form – armies in battalions, fighter pilots and navies
(to celebrate Taiwan’s escape from Communism perhaps?) but also reflecting Tai Chi, what he calls the ‘Living World’ plus some marvellous sandstone sculptures, metal installations, from figures to a vast ship complete with navy in attendance. His collage paintings reminded me of Louise’s work for the London College of Fashion. How she would have loved it. How I wish she could…
The best thing was that it was almost empty, completely devoid of tour buses, probably because it was up a very steep and windy road.
From there to the northern tip of Taiwan and a windy wander round to the Fugui Point lighthouse, where I was surprised to find wild lilies growing.
And then to my great surprise and delight, we visited Tamsui, where I had in fact wanted to go on the weekend but had been over-ruled! Easily reachable by MRT, it was in fact simpler to be driven there, and we very much enjoyed visiting the ancient Portuguese Santo Domingo Fort, which changed hands variously along with Taiwanese fortunes, between Dutch, Japanese and British; and the handsome nineteenth-century British consulate, complete with original furniture.
But best of all we loved promenading together with most of Taipei taking their Sunday sea-side outing, watching the food being served fast and furious, the families enjoying ice creams, the proud dog-owners with their handbag pooches (very ‘in’ at the moment) and even larger varieties such as this extraordinary beast – is it a lion we wondered? Everybody laughing, good humoured, but bustling!
You may have noticed, no mention of the culinary delights (and very yummy food here!) – that deserves a blog all on its own, and will come at the end of our stay!