Posts Tagged ‘Taiwan’
For 2 years prior to leaving on this trip, I worked at an awesome design studio called NOON in San Francisco. A few years back, a guy named Allen joined our little family as a freelancer for a few months before returning to Taiwan to do his required military service (he is a Taiwan citizen). Allen and I also went to art school together at CCA, but he was a semester ahead of me, so I didn’t really get to know him until we were coworkers.
Lunchtime (and food in general) is a really big deal at NOON, so I was sure to call Allen as soon as we got to Taiwan, because I knew he would know where the really good food was. We didn’t end up getting together until our last weekend in Taiwan, but we definitely made up for lost time!
Allen lives in Taichung, the third largest city in Taiwan after Taipei and Kaohsiung. It’s in western Taiwan, an area we hadn’t traveled to at all, so we boarded a train to Taichung and got there just in time to hit the night markets with Allen.
Now, before we get into all the crazy stuff we ate, let me explain the night markets in Taiwan: they are amazing! It’s literally fun for the whole family, and vendors sell everything from false eyelashes to cheap t-shirts with bad Engrish grammar. But the best part of the night market is the food. Typically, you go from stall to stall trying out all the strange and exotic treats on display; it is not unusual to eat about 10 different snacks in one trip.
In Taipei, the night markets are a little too crowded for our tastes, with wall-to-wall people pushing you through narrow alleys crowded with vendor stalls. So Jeremy and I hadn’t really done the whole “eat-10-different-snacks” thing at the night markets. But with Allen as our guide in Taichung, we finally cut loose! Yes, folks, we ate the infamous stinky tofu!
And it was good! It definitely is not as pungent tasting as it is smelling…and the nice, thick layer of cold pao cai (pickled vegetables) on top adds a nice temperature and texture difference to the deep fried stink. We also ate duck neck and intestines (also REALLY flavorful; the vendor chops the various parts up into little bite-sized bits so you don’t FEEL like you’re eating a duck’s neck):
We also tried octopus balls (like meatballs, but made out of fish and octopus—not actual octopus balls), a soup with blood and rice cakes, something called mian xian (a thick noodle soup), eggets, delicious popcorn chicken, boba tea with soy milk, and an oyster omelet.
I kept thinking how proud the NOONers would be of us, given all the scary stuff we ate (and also how I wished they could join us)!
The next day, we headed to one of Taiwan’s big tourist attractions, Sun Moon Lake. Allen brought his nice friend Mo along for the ride, and we had a great time chatting with them on our way up to the lake.
Sun Moon Lake isn’t actually that great; it is super commercial and the gorgeous lake scenery is a bit scarred by the development that has gone on around the shore, but it was a beautiful day and we were only there for a few hours, so the commercialism didn’t bother us too much. We took a short cruise around the lake and then drove to a nearby Confucius temple, which was really stunning, both inside and out.
We headed back to Taichung and ate some more…this time, we had mango bao bing (fresh mango and sweetened condensed milk over shaved ice) and duck wings. Afterwards, Allen wanted to take us shrimp fishing. We really had no idea what this meant, and quite frankly, we thought it sounded kind of boring, but we had a couple of hours to kill before we headed back to Taipei on the train, so we figured what the heck…when in Taichung…
It turned out to be surprisingly fun! Basically, you shrimp fish at a restaurant that has a giant kiddie pool in the middle, surrounded by tables. You pay by the hour and upon entry, you are handed a rod, a net, and a hunk of cow liver. You slice up the liver and attach it to your hook…and then you wait until a shrimp bites. And these guys are HUGE, like the size of your hand. Every hour or so, this guy comes out of the back with a bucket of shrimp and throws it in the water, hopefully near your hook.
Between the four of us, we only ended up catching 3 shrimp in our alloted hour, but luckily you can buy more shrimp by the kilo. There is a broiler right next to the pool, so you bring your catch over there and roast your shrimp up with some salt. Mo goes shrimp fishing 2 or 3 times a week, so knew what he was doing and took charge when cooking our haul. In a few minutes, we ere feasting on our freshly-caught (and bought) shrimp!
We had an awesome 24 hours in Taichung…Allen and Mo took really good care of us and totally pulled the Taiwanese custom of paying for everything behind our back. Allen and Mo, please let us know if you are ever in San Francisco! Hopefully we can return the favor!
Note: We have a special treat for you today! Kara wrote this awesome guest post about the 3-day trip we took to Taroko Gorge. Thanks to K for lending us her voice…and thanks again to K & P for coming out! It means so much to us to share this adventure with you. We love you!!!
If only we could do it all again! Patrick and I would eagerly join Hope and Jeremy on the other side of the globe again to share in a little slice of their adventure. (And I would do it just for the sight of Hope’s hands waving in the air as she ran out to meet us after our cab dropped us off from the airport.) We spent a sparkling 10 days with the Menghermanns in Taiwan, and can wholeheartedly second that: Taiwan is awesome. We discovered new things to impress us and enjoy every day—even stopping in 7-11 to use an ATM was an adventure! (Which makes me empathize with Hope…it’s difficult to write a blog post on one subject when really, there is so much to share!)
In the midst of our Taipei sightseeing and day trips to hot springs and teahouses, the four of us took a three-day jaunt to Taroko Gorge, one of the island’s biggest tourist draws. An 2.5-hour express train south from Taipei Main Station brought us in around noon to Hualien, gateway town to the Gorge. We totally scored with our hotel: the (un-inspiringly named, but inspiringly decorated) No. 6 Homestay (http://hs101.com.tw/index.php). It’s owned and run by a supercute husband and wife team and their sporty retriever, Kuchi (see photo of Kuchi here, complete with polo shirt and adorable buckteeth).
Our homestay family picked us up from the train station (Hope told them to look for the four wai guo ren’s standing in front of the Visitor Info Center! Ed. note: Actually, I said: “I am really tall and I’m with 3 wai guo ren’s. You can’t miss us.”), took our breakfast orders for the next morning, and held onto our bags because our rooms weren’t ready and we were eager to get our hike on. A little back ’splaining: Taiwanese and Chinese, the main tourist population in Taiwan, really like their tour groups and massive buses (Ed. note: I found out later that people from the mainland are actually required to travel Taiwan in tour groups. Guess the Taiwanese are a little worried about Chinese people running around their country no-holds-barred). So there was a lot of pressure to take a tour bus of the Gorge. Really?! Being bull-headed, do-it-on-our-own Americans, we took a cab the 30 minutes into Taroko National Park and our driver dropped us off at the Shakadang trailhead [insert your Chaka Khan reference here].
After shakadangin’ an easy, very pretty 3-hour hike along a river, we caught the slow public bus back to Hualien from the park’s visitor center. We’re crediting Patrick with the next brilliant idea: next door to the Hualien train station, we rented two red peppy scooters for NT$400 (approx. US$12) per 24 hours. Awesome! We were able to zip over to a night market area and feast on what ended up being some of the most memorable XLBs of our trip. (According to Hope’s reading, these were Taiwan-style, with a thicker, spongey dumpling exterior, as opposed to the Shanghai-style XLBs we’d been eating in Taipei. They were so good that we felt the need to dine on them BOTH nights in Hualien!) And the next morning, we scooted off happily on our own time schedule to hit some of the main sites and trails in gorge-ous Taroko.
Our drive into the park was thrillingly beautiful…the roads are narrow and curvy and we had the best of both worlds, pulling off often to snap photos and yet zooming around those smelly tour buses.
The park’s landscape consists of mountains, gorges, rivers, and waterfalls….all great to soak up from a bike.
At one stop, we climbed up to a Buddhist temple and Japanese pagoda.
And on the moderate Baiyang waterfall trail, we hiked through several long dark tunnels (perfect for practicing our “Muhahaha’s” and witch cackles!), crossed a suspension bridge…
…and, following the example of some generous tourists who passed us their rain ponchos, we took off our shoes to wade into a watery tunnel with a waterfall coming right out of the ceiling!
Our third and final day in Hualien, we scooted to Liyu Lake where we made a valiant attempt to chew Taiwanese beetlenut (verrrry bitter, if we could have stuck with it, it’s supposed to product a nicotine-like buzz), and hiked up a mountain trail for great views.
Our trail method: the person in the front carried the Spider Stick (to knock down any stray webs across the trail), which after a slithery sighting turned into a Snake Stick, and then needed to be exchanged for an even larger branch once we encountered a largish gray monkey.
Hands down, our favorite thing about Taiwan is the people. Taiwanese people are friendly, accommodating, enthusiastic, and even the “aggressive” helpfulness is endearing. The four of us made quite a scene wherever we went because there aren’t many Caucasian travelers. Taiwan isn’t particularly affordable, especially compared to its southeast neighbors. And it’s difficult to get around if you don’t speak Chinese. (Incredible props to Hopie for navigating and guiding all four of us in and out of restaurants, shops, and public trans!) We were a sight: an extra-ordinarily tall Chinese Hope (”Sheee’s so taall!”), an even taller Jeremy, a Patrick with his shaved head, and a short curly-haired Kara. We received many stares, quite a few points and giggles, and even a few peace signs. Though remember who you’re dealing with….We go to Burning Man and dress up in costumes like it’s our jobs. So there isn’t any shame in our game. Which helps in random, awesome instances like when sweet older ladies approached our lunch table, passing out information on a political candidate. Patrick could barely get out, “I only speak English” before our table was swarmed and we were shaking hands and taking pictures with a famous Taiwanese Senator whose face we’d seen plastered on billboards.
Last week, my best friend Kara and her husband Patrick flew from New Jersey to come see us. I can’t tell you how exciting it was not only to see some familiar faces, but to be able to share this amazing travel experience with people that we love. This year-long journey is obviously a huge event in our lives, and sharing it with people who have known you for almost your whole life not only deepens our experience of the trip, but it deepens our friendship as well.
We did a lot of wandering around Taipei, and a three-day trip to Taroko Gorge (more on both of those later), but we also enjoyed a great day-trip to Jiufen. Patrick picked the spot, which was really cool because I don’t think Jeremy and I would have gone there otherwise…and it was a really cool experience! We had also planned on going to nearby Jinguashi, but kinda ran out of time in our languid wanderings. Oh well, next time!
You have to take a bus from the train station in Ruifang to get to Jiufen; it motors you up this a crazy-steep mountainside with beautiful views of the ocean. When we got off the bus in Jiufen, there was a huge commotion at a nearby temple…turns out it was some local god’s birthday and they were having a huge celebration in honor of the event.
The giant dancing heads were amusing, especially when they started doing this N-Sync era hip-hop style choreography (I’m not joking), and we plugged our ears in an effort to stop the firecrackers going off about 10 feet away from us from rupturing our eardrums. But the biggest WTF moment of the day happened when we saw a bunch of guys hitting themselves in the forehead with knives and bleeding all over their own faces. If you want to see a photo of this, click here…I won’t force those of you who are squeamish about blood to look at it.
After the excitement of the temple, we headed for the excitement of Jiufen’s Jishan Old Street, a long, narrow lane filled with snack vendors, knick-knack shops, and tea houses…and the smell of vendors frying up stinky tofu. Kara was totally appalled by the aroma…which is funny, we barely even notice it anymore! I haven’t mentioned stinky tofu on this blog yet, but it is a Taiwanese specialty snack, sold at night markets around the country. The smell is truly odoriffic; I think Kara described as smelling like “vomit after you drank orange juice.” It’s hard to imagine eating it, but one couple was chomping away on a cube of it, with their eyes watering over from the pungency.
Eventually, we made our way to the Jiufen teahouse, an absolutely gorgeous little place that fires water over hot coals and teaches you how to pour tea in the traditional Chinese way. They taught us all about warming the cups and pouring the tea from this pot to that vessel before it finally ends up in your cup.
We ended the marvelous day by heading to Jinshan on the bus and soaking in some hot springs there. We had a hot spring in mind but changed our plans when the man at the bus station suggested we check out Old Jinshan Hot Springs (http://www.warmspring.com.tw/)…once again, the aggressive Taiwanese helpfulness works to our favor!
It was an awesome day made even more fun by the excellent company. Here’s to good friends and travel! Two great tastes that taste great together!
A few weekends ago, Jeremy and I took our first big overnight trip in Taiwan to Alishan National Scenic Area. Independent travel is not a big thing in Taiwan—probably because there aren’t that many Western travelers here, and Chinese people like the ease of a tour group. So, I was a little intimidated by all the stuff we had to figure out in order to get to Alishan: where to stay, how to get there, how to book the tickets, etc. Luckily, the tourist information center at Taipei Main Station will help you with all of this…seriously, the girls there went above and beyond (remember what I said about the aggressively helpful people here?): finding a cheap hotel for us, calling to make reservations, booking our train tickets and even walking us over to the counter to pick them up. They were amazing! We couldn’t have done it without them.
Alishan is located in central Taiwan on the west coast, about 250 km south from Taipei. We took the high-speed train down to Chiayi (gateway to Alishan), which took 3.5 hours and cost NT$600 each (approx. US$18). It was incredibly comfortable, clean, and spacious, and once again, we thought: damn it’s civilized here!
There are several “must-do’s” in Alishan, and the first is to take the narrow-gauge railway (one of 3 narrow-gauge mountain railways in the world or something like that?). Tickets are NT$399 (approx. US$12) one way, and it’s a good idea to book them in advance, as they often sell out and you’ll end up standing the entire 3.5 hour ride to Alishan (which can’t be fun).
It’s funny that it took the same amount of time to get from Taipei to Chiayi as it did to get from Chiayi to Alishan, even though the latter’s distance has to be about 1/10 of the former’s. Second realization: technology is a good thing. The ride, however slow, was totally worth it, as it was incredibly scenic, passing through cloud-shrouded cedar forests and mountainsides.
When we finally arrived in Alishan, it was around 5:30pm, and already quite cold: about 12°C (54°F, though it felt much colder due to the humidity). We quickly warmed ourselves with a meal of wild boar hot pot, a specialty (along with wild deer) of this region. Despite the fact that it was only about 7:30PM when we finished, we headed straight back to the hotel to bed…the other “must-do” in Alishan is to take the 4:30AM train to Chu Shan to watch the sunrise over Taiwan’s tallest mountain, Yu Shan (almost 4000m tall). I sort of doubted our mental stability over this decision, but it turned out to be awesome. Not only is the sunrise gorgeous, but the whole “cloud ocean” phenomenon here is breathtaking. Apparently we are super lucky to have actually seen the sunrise; Jeremy’s Chinese teacher has gone twice and not seen the sunrise due to cloudy skies. I would be pretty upset if I got up at 4AM TWICE and didn’t get to see the sunrise.
There are tons of people at Chu Shan…much more than you would expect with a 4AM wake-up call, but the crowds are not annoying; in fact, it was cute—everyone was eagerly awaiting the sunrise and they even started applauding when it finally happened. Also, some people buy these polarizing glasses so they can stare directly at the sun when it finally appears over the mountains. It’s awesome.
Since it was still ridiculously early, we took a walk through the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, which has many beautiful HUGE ancient cedar, fir, and oak trees.
There are also some nice temples nestled amongst the giant tree forests; outside of Shouchen Temple we tried something we were calling “wild boar toffee”: they were these super-thin sheets of boar meat rolled with sesame, sugar, and nuts, and fired to a crisp. While “wild boar toffee” may not be the best marketing on our part, we promise, they were really good!
Later on in the day, we took the train back to a town called Fenqihu, a town about halfway between Alishan and Chiayi. We were glad that we only had to sit on the train for an hour, because on the way back, the diesel engine is in front of the train, spewing it’s stinky emissions straight into the passenger cars. P.U.!
Our plan was to hike from Fenqihu to Rueili, along the 10km Fen-Rui Historic Trail. We made sure to stop and grab the famous Fenqihu lunchbox, consisting of a pork cutlet and carious pickled veggies over rice. I’m not sure why the Fenqihu lunchbox is so famous…don’t get me wrong, it was really, really good and the perfect thing to bring on a hike, but most lunchboxes we’ve encountered contain the same things!
The trail navigates you through some incredible bamboo forests…I felt like we were in the middle of the movie Hero.
When we finally made it out on the Rueili side, there was a big crowd of people from one of the tour buses hanging out by the trail head. Some kids in the group saw Jeremy, the foreigner (wai guo ren), and immediately started asking him questions in English they must have learned from their schoolbooks: Do you have any brothers and sisters? How old are you? Do you like Taiwan? The little boy on the right side of Jeremy even pulled out his camera and started taking pictures of the wai guo ren!
They were very enthusiastic and they had the cutest questions. Here’s one conversation we had with the little girl on the left side of Jeremy:
Little Girl (speaking Chinese): In English, why do you say “noodles” instead of “noodle”?
Hope (also speaking Chinese): Because one strand is a noodle, and a whole bowl of them together is called “noodles.”
LG: Then why do you say “rice” and not “rices”?
Hope: That’s a really good question!
LG: Ask him (pointing at Jeremy, as if he made up the language).
And another conversation we had with the little boy who took a photo of Jeremy:
Little Boy: Ask him if he has a girlfriend.
Hope: Um, he’s my husband!
LB (amazed): REALLY?!?
H: Yes, really.
LB: How come you can speak Chinese?
H: Because my parents are Chinese.
LB: So you were born here?
H: No, I was born in the US.
LB: Then why is your hair black?
The little frowning boy on the left side of the photo was not as outgoing as his counterparts…he was so nervous around us that he would interrupt the conversation by blurting out the most random questions, like “HAVE YOU BEEN TO CARREFOUR?!?” (Carrefour is like Target/Safeway). It was kind of adorable.
After much more raucous questioning, we finally tore ourselves away and headed down the hill to Rueili, passing a mountainous landscape full of tea fields.
Even though we had had a very long day, we weren’t going to miss out on one of Rueili’s most famous attractions: fireflies! The owner of our hotel guided a group of us over to a dark path bordered by a steep hillside, and the mountain came alive with hundreds of flickering little sparkles. I obviously could not get a photo of this, but suffice to say it was magical. Growing up in New Jersey, we used to catch fireflies in little jars and it totally made me feel like a kid again seeing these magical little creatures come alive.
We HIGHLY recommend checking out Alishan if you’re ever in Taiwan. We absolutely loved it! From the incredible bamboo forests to the sparkling fireflies to the amazing tea plantations, much of Alishan felt like a little piece of magic, right in the middle of Taiwan.
Before arriving in Taiwan, I had no idea that the country was full of serious hikers. I guess I thought—like my own family—that the only hobby people from Taiwan really took seriously was eating. But it totally makes sense, this little island is blessed with a rugged coastline and a seriously mountainous interior (with several 3000m mountains!) and there are oodles of hiking trails to explore, many within day-trip distance of Taipei.
A few weekends back, Jeremy and I took a day trip out to the east coast of Taipei in order to hike the Cao Ling Historical Trail (căo líng gŭ dào), a 10km road (interestingly, most of the hiking trails we have encountered are actually stone-paved roads, unlike the dirt trails we have in the States) originally built in the early 1800s to provide transport from the ocean to Taipei. We started the hike in Dali and hiked to Fulong, though you could easily do it the other way around.
The train ride out there is quite beautiful…you pass through the longest tunnel in all of Asia before traveling along the rugged coastline towards Dali. This is the first time we have seen the ocean in Taiwan…weird to think that just on the other side of that blue expanse sits California (yup, Taiwan is bordered on the east side by the Pacific).
The trailhead begins right next to beautiful and elaborate Tiengong Temple (where, apparently, you can stay the night).
Early on in our hike, we acquired a four-legged friend, who stayed by our side pretty much the entire time, despite our best attempts to convince him that we weren’t going to give him any food. We even told him in two different languages!
The views of the coast were stunning as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains.
Cao Ling Historical Trail is most famous for two stone tablets that sit along the road. Both tablets were carved by an unfortunate traveler who got caught on the trail during one of Taiwan’s famous typhoons. Along the way, he carved the Chinese character for “tiger” (虎) into a rock (in Chinese mythology, the tiger is thought to control the winds), and the Tiger Tablet is now the trail’s most famous landmark.
A little while later, there is another enormous carved boulder reading, “Boldly quell the violent mists.” Poor guy, we had great weather while we were hiking, but even then it was still quite windy. I can only imagine what it must be like with a typhoon slamming into the side of the mountain!
Once you reach Fulong, you can head to the beach…there is a paid-entry area (I think it was NT$40 each, or about US$1.10), or you can walk a little further into town and access the beach for free (though the paid area is cleaner). Since we weren’t planning on hanging out at the beach for long, we just walked along the free area, but I can imagine that on a nice weekend this beach would be quite nice.
There is another really elaborate temple (I think it is Taoist? Apparently if the altar contains some fierce-looking bearded guys, then it is Taoist) on the far end of the beach in Fulong.
Taiwanese people may be serious about hiking, but there is another thing they take even more seriously (no it’s not food): hot springs! The country is full of them, and after Taiwan, I am not sure if I can face another hike if there is not a hot springs waiting for me at the end of it! From Fulong, we hopped on the train to Jiaoshi (about half an hour train ride south) to check out their public hot springs.
Jiaoshi’s public hot springs are segregated into men and women-only sections since no clothing is allowed. Entry is NT$80 each (about US$2.50), and women must wear shower caps (kind of bummer since it gets pretty hot in there).
This is actually Beitou Hot Springs (in northern Taipei), not Jiaoshi, but I thought you might like to see what a Taiwanese hot spring looks like. You can’t take photos inside Jiaoshi hot springs since everyone is, you know, naked.
A few things you should know before visiting Taiwan’s hot springs: first of all, they really put the “hot” in “hot springs.” If you dare to enter the hottest pool, be warned that the water will be scalding! You can tell by the myriad of lobster-colored Chinese men sitting around the springs.
Secondly, Taiwanese people have these funny exercises that they do in the hot springs (I think they are trying to promote blood circulation). You’ll often see these old Chinese guys doing pelvic thrusts or gyrating madly around the pools while slapping their own asses or beating themselves on the chest. It’s pretty amusing, to say the least.
Jiaoshi is also known for it’s cōng yóu bĭng (spring onion pancake). The most famous place is next door to the Jiaoshi post office; there will be a huge line out the door. Their version is deep-fried until the dough is puffy and glutinous, and you brush on your choice of three different sauces (soy, chili, and something else that tasted good) before they topped off with an egg. I don’t have a photo of this because I ate it too fast. YUM!!!
Cao Ling Historical Trail was a great outing and we recommend it if you’re ever out this way. It’s super close to Taipei (about an hour on the train) and a beautiful way to spend a nice day in Taiwan.