Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Taipei, Hualien, & Taiwan's Food

I obviously saw more than just Kaohsiung and Tainan while in Taiwan.

A few highlights of my time in Hualien and Taipei:

A few hours on a very comfortable train from Tainan, I ended up on the east coast of Taiwan in the lovely little tourist city of Hualien.  I stayed there in what was quite possibly the nicest hostel ever (check out the Mini Voyage Hostel if you ever go!) and that was the highlight of the city itself.  Aside from a plethora of restaurants and shops and a lovely waterfront park, the city of Hualien doesn’t really have too much to offer.  The real highlight of the region lies a short bus ride north of the city…

Taroko National Park:
The number one tourist destination in Taiwan, Taroko National Park on the gorgeous east coast of the island draws visitors in with its large marble-walled gorge.  Stunning.  Great hiking trails lead to caves and waterfalls, and a small yet confronting cultural exhibition on the local aboriginal Taroko people rounded out the day with a little education.  Girls had to weave to be recognized as women.  Boys had to hunt and bring back the head of a human to be recognized as a man.  Yikes.  I like the idea of a Bar Mitzvah a lot better.

I had one day in Taroko and did a handful of trails, though I really would like to have had at least another day or two to see more of it.  I feel another trip coming on…

I had 3.5 days in Taipei which seems to be only a fraction of the time I should have allocated to explore this great city.  My interesting accommodation of a “cabin hotel” – a combination of a capsule hotel and a hostel – was centrally located so I was able to maximize my time exploring with less time on transport.  I visited various temples (of course), lots of markets, and even the city’s gaybourhood.  It was nice to see a whole row of gay bars and same-sex couples holding hands.  While homosexuality is accepted (or not accepted) to varying degrees across Asia, Taipei was definitely the first place I found to be properly gay-friendly.  I took an excursion out to Tamsui – the last stop on the metro line – to walk along the water and watch the (very cloudy) sunset.  I also explored the Huashan 1914 Creative Park - an old industrial area now home to restaurants, galleries, etc.  Just like the Pier 2 Art District in Kaohsiung, the creative park needs a bit more buzz and a few more fun tenants.  The Su Ho Memorial Paper Museum was interesting but could have used a little pizazz.  On the flip side, the Miniatures Museum of Taiwan was so exciting that it kept me inside for a lot longer than I was anticipating.  The museum is filled with tiny models of famous buildings, homes, and more, and the detail on each piece was so insanely great that I had to study each and every piece very carefully to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  Fantastic.

Taipei 101:
I headed out one morning to hike up Xiangshan – also known as Elephant Mountain.  Just a short walk from a metro station, it was amazing how this big nature reserve was right in the city.  From the top were glorious views of the whole city, but most notably of Taipei 101.  After heading down the mountain, I decided to head up what was once the world’s highest skyscraper in what is still the world’s fastest elevator.  The views from the top were great, though I prefer the views from the mountain as they actually include the unique looking tower.  The most interesting part was the display on the wind damper – a giant metal ball that is suspended from the highest part of the interior of the building.  The ball decreases the building’s sway during heavy winds or earthquakes.

National Palace Museum:
Communists aren’t exactly known for maintaining culture, so when the communists forced the nationalists out of mainland China and onto Taiwan, they took all of China’s art with them.  Like, seriously all of it.  Well, at least all of the good stuff.  And they put it all in the National Palace Museum.  There are paintings, statues, ceramics, calligraphy, bronze, lacquerware, jade, religious objects, books, furniture, weapons, all sorts of vessels, and more from every era in Chinese history.  Looking at those sort of antiquities usually makes me bored after a while, but this one kept my interest a lot longer than usual.  The only bad part of the museum:  all of the Chinese tour groups.  Maddening.

So much food:
Ok, Taiwan.  Obviously I was going to talk about the food.  Because I love food.  But, surprisingly, I had the hardest time eating in Taiwan of any country along my journey so far.  That is mainly because most people speak no English and most meals seem to contain pork.  Sigh.  I thought I’d go the easy route and just say that I was vegetarian, but you can’t do that in Taiwan because then restaurants will refuse to give you a whole list of other non-meat things too.  What?  Why?  It’s because people in Taiwan who become vegetarian do so for religious reasons, and those same religious reasons dictate a list of other items that you can’t eat.  Like spring onions.  Those are apparently a no-no for vegetarians.  Ahhhh!

But, I eventually found my groove thanks to help from friends and strangers that I met along the way.  And once I did, I was super pleased with the food that I ate.  Breakfast was often an omelette or this omelette-crepe combination thing that was delicious when dipped in soy sauce.  I ordered what turned about to be a “flaky scallion pancake” one morning without any help from anyone.  Yay!  Lunch was random food and dinner was often at one of the night markets but the list ended up being quite extensive.  I had chicken skewers, fried chicken, chicken curry, and the Taiwanese version of chicken shawarma.  I also had a crepe with chicken, corn, and cheese – though the cheese was more of a cream sauce than actual cheese.  I tried bamboo leaf dumplings which are basically rice and a few other things compressed into pyramid shapes and covered in bamboo leaves.  They are big and filling and heavy and I ordered way too much.  I tried beef with thick noodles in Hualien and some friends ordered Taiwan’s famous beef noodle soup for me in Taipei – just a few nights after they took me out for Sichuan cuisine which is very popular there.  Japanese food is also very popular due to Japan’s colonial legacy but I opted to save my Japanese dining for Japan.

What’s that smell?  It’s stinky tofu!  It’s prepared first by fermenting tofu, then allowing a child to vomit on it, storing it in a dirty gym sock for six months, and then finally cooking it up however you prefer – grilling, frying, steaming, or whatever.  At least I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s made.  You’ll smell its awful aroma at every night market.  I finally broke down and tried some in Taipei.  Never again.

My absolute favourite meal was at a chain called Ba Fang Yun Ji Dumpling.  They have locations all over Taiwan and I ate there… five times in ten days.  I ordered their garden vegetable dumplings, garden vegetable pot stickers, and noodles with orgasmic black sesame sauce.  Yummy!

Don’t forget dessert!  Super tall soft-serve ice cream cones are readily available everywhere, and I was polite enough to stop and get some each time I passed by a stand.  I also had some hollow doughnut-like things (it sort of looked like big bubble wrap but made from happiness instead of plastic), tea with ice cream in it (it somehow worked), pancakes with peanut, pancakes with sesame, and what I can only describe as the world’s most awkward dessert burrito which featured ice cream, peanut shavings, and basil.  Gross.  There were plenty of desserts featuring taro (purple sweet potato) and red bean (a sweet bean that is common in East Asia) and my favourites were the taro and red bean cakes.  I had a matcha (powdered green tea) cream cake one night too!  The absolute champion, however, was shaved ice.  I went to the famous Ice Monster where I ordered a tapioca milk tea shaved ice.  It wasn’t ice.  It was an iceberg.  It was big enough to feed at least half of the island.

Where there’s food, there are drinks too.  I had a lot of green tea and also tried soybean tea and sweet soybean milk.  Bubble tea, however, is Taiwan’s biggest contribution to the world of drinks.  Bubble tea comes in all flavours and has big tapioca balls or small tapioca balls or no tapioca balls but only a fool would order no tapioca balls unless they ordered the bubble tea with leaf jelly instead!  Leaf jelly is like cubes of tea-ish flavoured Jello in your tea and it’s great.

I didn’t really have any western meals with the exception of my obligatory terrible Mexican food in Taipei, a mediocre quesadilla from an American expat at the night market in Kaohsiung (but he was hot so I’ll overlook his lack of Mexican food skills), and a macaron ice cream sandwich at the Dream Mall in Kaohsiung.  It appears the Dream Mall was appropriately named.

Ok, this blog has gone on long enough.  It’s time to talk Tokyo.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Hualien and Taipei, follow this link:

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Kaohsiung, Tainan, & Taiwan's History

I’ve already introduced Taiwan, but I sort of left off most of the history part which I realized while typing this blog may make sense to go over… quickly.  The Ming Dynasty (China) sort of dabbled in Taiwan before Europeans arrived (as they always did) but the Ming didn’t really control the island. The island was first recorded by Europeans as Formosa – a named bestowed upon it by passing Portuguese sailors.  It was the Dutch, however, that first colonized Taiwan in the early 1600’s, though the Spanish tried really hard but failed to stop them.  Some dude named Koxinga – a Ming loyalist – defeated the Dutch a few decades later and Taiwan sorta kinda ruled itself for a while. I mean, the Ming sort of ruled it but they were really busy trying to stop the Qing Dynasty from taking everything of theirs so I can’t imagine too much attention was paid to Taiwan so the island was quasi-on its own… until the Qing Dynasty invaded and took over.  It appears nobody on Taiwan liked the Qing Dynasty, just like nobody on Taiwan likes the Chinese today.  China then lost a war with Japan and was forced to gift Taiwan to Japan in 1895 (Japan had been eyeing Taiwan for ages).  Taiwan tried to be independent at that point, but the Japanese were like “fat chance” and forcibly took control.  Taiwan wasn’t really happy with Japanese rule, but as I’ve already pointed out in my previous blog, the Japanese did do some good things for Taiwan.  Japan gave up its claim to Taiwan in 1945 after World War II and Taiwan entered a state of limbo not knowing what would happen to it.  When the Chinese government was kicked out of mainland China by communists, they set up their exiled government in Taiwan and have continued to rule Taiwan to this day.  Over the decades since then, a distinct Taiwanese identity has developed separating the island from China more and more as time goes by.

Got all that?  Ok.  Let’s move on to the first half of Taiwan.

A few highlights of my time in Kaohsiung and Tainan:

Based on my observations, I was the first ever white tourist to fly into Taiwan via Kaohsiung.  In fact, I saw only 4 other western people during my time in Kaohsiung.  I counted.  I saw 2 white guys at the night market, 1 white American guy working at the night market (an English teacher having a little fun making quesadillas for the locals), and an African-American lady walking up a hill to a fort.  We both smiled and nodded at each other with a look that can only be translated at “what the fuck are you doing here too?”  But I think more and more of us should be going there.  Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s second biggest city with nearly 3 million people and I found it an absolutely lovely place to visit.  Someone once told me that Kaohsiung is the Melbourne of Taiwan, but I think that’s incorrect.  It’s not quite there yet.  Instead, Kaohsiung to me is the Brisbane of Taiwan.  It’s liveable, it has some cool things, and it will probably keep getting better as time goes by, especially as the city works to tackle pollution that has plagued the city (and also been the source of its prosperity).

The highlight of Kaohsiung was the National Science & Technology Museum with its exhibit on the industrial history of Taiwan.  Most of the statistics were quite old – indicating that maybe Taiwan is past its heyday – but it was interesting nonetheless.  Did you know that Taiwan was once the footwear manufacturing capital of the world?  Did you know that Taiwan was once the tennis racket manufacturing capital of the world?  And, most recently, a 2011 statistic put Taiwan directly involved with the manufacturing of 90% of the world’s laptops.  Crazy.  Most of the other exhibitions had limited English signage but they seemed to be geared toward children anyway so I pretty much left after the industrial history hall.  Other museums I visited include the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts with its excellent rotating exhibitions of funky modern art, the Kaohsiung Museum of History which had very limited English but was still pretty interesting, and the Former British Consulate at Takow which informed me of the history of the British in Taiwan (they never colonized it, but they had a big presence for trade.)

Elsewhere in Kaohsiung:
A loop around the Lotus Pond was a great walk including stops at the Spring and Autumn Pavilions, the 24 metre statue of the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven, and the famous Dragon and Tiger Pagodas.  Once heavily polluted, the Love River has been cleaned up and green spaces have been installed along the river for residents to use recreationally – and for tourists like me to stroll along.  Cijin Beach was a short motorbike ferry away from the main city.  It was too cold to go into the water but I got to briefly explore the ruins of the old Cihou Fort nearby.  I ate well at the Ruifong Night Market, and the Pier 2 Arts District – while still in need of some more tenants to move in – had some really awesome sculptures, cute stores, and various delicious-looking restaurants.

Most importantly – and this is critical – Kaohsiung has not one, but two… Costco stores!  This city gets an A+ in my book.

I travelled slightly north from Kaohsiung to Tainan – a city of nearly 2 million people that was once the island’s capital.  Tainan was noticeably quieter than Kaohsiung but a very pleasant place to explore.  While my 2.5 day tour around Kaohsiung was done in a bit of a rush, 1.5 days in Tainan was sufficient for exploring the sights, though I wouldn’t have minded an extra day just to wander and explore some of the shopping streets.  I visited a Matsu Temple (Taoist) and a Confucius Temple, the famous Hayashi Department Store (originally opened during Japanese rule), as well as the Chihkan Towers – originally a Dutch fort that changed hands four times throughout history.

Anping is an area of Tainan that pretty much has similar things to what I found in the centre of Tainan.  I visited another Matsu Temple and the remnants of an old fort.  The Fort Zeelandia Museum inside the fort mainly focused on the Dutch era of the island.  The Former Tait & Co Merchant House – one of several merchant houses in the Anping area that were established by Western powers – had a splendid old “tree house” in the back.  The “tree house” wasn’t a house up in a tree but rather an old building that has been taken over by a wild-growing banyan tree.

National Museum of Taiwan History:
A short taxi ride outside of the centre of town was the National Museum of Taiwan History which went over – in great detail – every single moment in Taiwan’s history from prehistoric times to the present.  It was seriously a play-by-play.  After realizing that I’d need to pick and choose what I looked at if I had any hope of getting out of the museum by the following week, I quickly skimmed through and spent most of my time in the areas outlining the Japanese occupation and the modern area – though the latter was the one display that could definitely have been expanded on.

Night markets:
In both Kaohsiung and Tainan – and in Hualien and Taipei that will be featured in the next blog – I visited a plethora of night markets.  These markets are usually huge, usually packed (as was the case with the extremely crowded Ruifong Night Market in Kaohsiung), and always awesome.  The markets for me were centred on the food – and there is a lot of food – but I will discuss that in the next blog.  What I want to mention here is that the markets also have games for kids to play – sort of like a carnival – and they also sell things like clothes and backpacks and accessories and household goods and porn.  Yes, porn.  There will be a stall full of thousands of DVDs full of hardcore Taiwanese erotica right next to a stall featuring a game clearly designed for children.

+1 point Taiwan.  I love it.

I have one more installment on Taiwan.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Kaohsiung and Tainan, follow this link: