Posts Tagged ‘Western 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!
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.