Apr 18

Taiwan: Odds and ends

Just some random final observances.

Not a pretty city

One of the first things I noticed is that Taipei seems rundown. I didn’t notice a particular style of architecture and all the buildings seemed old. I emailed my dad about this, and he confirmed that a lot of “foreigners” feel the same way.

That being said, the parks and gardens were very nice, and Beitou was cute. And of course I have yet to see other parts of Taiwan, which I’ve heard are gorgeous.

Very warm people

While I didn’t think the city was pretty to look at, I found the people extremely warm. Every person I spoke to was kind, from the half a dozen older people who clamored to give me directions to the flower market, to the National Taiwan University student who gave me an incomprehensible tour, to the lady I asked about the chou dofu. People were also polite, but not super formal, hence, the warmth.

The language

I had a harder time than I expected understanding people. I think this was sometimes because they were speaking Taiwanese or another language to me. However, I feel like I handled it okay.

An awesome subway system

How awesome? It’s:

Easy to use. I found the maps and token system easy to understand, and I never once got lost on the trains (on foot is another story).

Clean. Like, really clean. No urine smell or garbage. They are also pretty strict about not eating or drinking on the subway or even the stations (later my uncle told me about he got chastised for chewing gum while waiting for a train). During one ride, I saw a girl with a large soda cup get escorted off by a guard. In the beginning of my trip, I popped a hard candy in my mouth, and while no one stared, I now know that was a no-no.

Safe. Or at least it seemed that way. The trains were enclosed or surrounded by high walls, which, I’m guessing, prevent refuse or, God forbid, people from going onto the tracks.

On time. At least in my experience. The trains came when the signs said they would, and I was never on one that inexplicably sat umoving on the tracks.

Relaxing. In at least one station, gentle, soothing music would play when the train was about to arrive.

Something else I noticed was how people treated the seats reserved for the elderly, people who were pregnant, and those with disabilities. While New Yorkers ignore those signs and give up their seats only on a case by case basis, Taipei-ers followed that rule to a tee. In the beginning of my trip, I totally took one of those seats, but later noticed how no one would, not even when all the other seats were taken and those were still empty. I soon followed suit.

Dirt cheap

Everything, especially the food, was so freaking cheap. I think I mentioned I’d often get two tea eggs from convenience stores for maybe 20 cents American. The most expensive meals I had — which were from CoCo Curry — were right around $10, which is considered cheap in NYC.

The verdict?

I loved Taipei and would visit again. I would even stay in the same hotel and revisit the same sights. But here are some things I would do differently:

Actually go to Shihsanhang Museum of Archaeology. Apparently it’s just a 30-minute bus ride from that hotel. D’oh!

Take a day trip to Jiufen. It was on my docket of things to do but I was too lazy.

Eat at Din Tai Fung. And make sure it’s open before I go.

Go to the Zhishan Garden at the National Palace Museum. Ditto re: open.

Actually make it to Yangmingshan National Park. Only take a cab or bus instead of try to walk.

Have beef noodle soup. Somehow I skipped this, maybe because it was kind of warm and humid while I was there, but maybe also because of the effort of finding a place that wasn’t a tourist trap.

Try chou dofu. Maybe.

Apr 18

Taiwan: Beitou

When I travel to new cities, I often like to visit the libraries. Seattle’s is really cool as is Madrid’s (at least from the outside). I had read online that the one in the Beitou section of Taipei was neat so I thought, Why not? and headed out there. It turned out to be kind of a bizarre little trip.

Getting there

It didn’t take long to get there from my hotel, only about 30 minutes. I ended up getting off a stop too early, but the walk wasn’t far and besides it was fun to see the little town.

While I was walking, I ran into this parade. It had these big — puppets? — that reminded me of the gigantes in Barcelona:

There was also music:

I have no idea what it was for. I asked a girl but didn’t understand her. I suspect it was for a “solar new year” that’s celebrated in South and Southeast Asian countries, but I’m not sure.

Beitou Library

The interesting thing about this library is its architecture. It’s designed to be “eco-friendly” and “energy-efficient.” Moreover:

  • The wood is from managed forests
  • The large windows allow for plenty of natural light and reduced artificial lighting
  • The ventilation decreases the need for fans and A/C
  • Part of the roof is covered with “photovoltaic cells” which convert sunlight into electricity and a thin layer of soil that provides thermal insulation
  • The library captures and stores rainwater to be used for their toilets

I used their toilets on my way in and on my back. The bathroom was very clean. They also had tons of outlets (no need for converters for American electronics) so I spent quite some time charging my phone and reading.

Hot springs

Beitou is most famous for its hot springs. I had no intention of trying them, but it was fun just to walk past the creeks and waterfalls steaming with heat. Even the air felt healthy. I felt like my skin and hair were getting a good dose of vitamins.

Wanting a destination, I headed toward the Beitou Museum. It was a schlep, or at least it felt that way because I kept thinking, Where the heck am I going? It wound up, up, up these hills, past all these hot spring resorts and hotels.

But I made it. The museum was underwhelming. It was in the style of a Japanese bathhouse so you had to take off your shoes, but that was the most interesting part. It seems what they’re more famous for is their traditional vegetarian kaiseki meals. I didn’t have one, but I did use the bathroom.

Liuhuanggu Sulfur Valley Geothermal Scenic Area

Now for the bizarre.

My original intention was to walk to the Yangmingshan National Park. According to Google Maps, it would take just 23 minutes. However, it was all on a highway and there were no signs. I was pretty nervous and ended up turning into this driveway and parking area, but that was a private residence. Oops! But the man was nice and said the park was just further up the road.

That’s when I ran into the Liuhuanggu Sulfur Valley Geothermal Scenic Area. It was so bizarre. Stinky, burbling sulfur pits and a bunch of older people sitting around with their feet and legs in a sulfur bath. I was like, What is happening right now?  

I was so weirded out (and paranoid about my phone running out) I neglected to take any pictures.

I wanted to go farther into the park but quickly realized this was not a good idea. There was no walking path, just more highway, and there were all these stray dogs around. There were two adorable puppies right near one of the sulfur pits, but then I noticed the parents. They kept barking. I took that as my cue to hightail it the fuck out of there.

Ketagalan Culture Center

My last stop before getting back on the subway was the Ketagalan Culture Center, which has four floors dedicated as a museum space on the indigenous people of Taiwan. What was nice was that a lot of the signage was in English (although I can’t remember anything that I read). Plus it was free.

Last entry! Odds and ends.

Apr 18

Taiwan: Gardens + parks

Taiwan is a subtropical island, which means lots of rain. That also means lots of lush gardens and parks.

Jian Guo Weekend Flower Market

I know, I know, not technically a garden or a park, but the Jian Guo Weekend Flower Market was kind of like an indoor garden (and it doesn’t fit anywhere else).

Of course I wasn’t there to buy anything but just to partake in the beautiful wares:

It was next to two other markets, jade and “artists.” Those were less interesting to me. I also used the bathroom at the market, and, since this was early on in my trip, was very surprised to find squat toilets. What is this mainland China?! At least they were free.

Da’An Forest Park

I enjoyed this park so much, I went twice. The highlights were seeing these kids practicing a cheerleading routine (seems to be a thing in Taipei) and hearing these crazy birds making weird ass noises.

There was also this large statue of what I’m guessing is the Goddess of Mercy.

Taipei Botanical Garden

I loved this garden too. It was so lush and peaceful. I encountered more weird animal noises. Frogs maybe?

And I got caught in a sudden rainstorm, which, like large groups of all-gender cheerleaders, seems to be a thing in Taipei. Luckily I had my umbrella so it was rather lovely standing under the shelter of a tree surrounded by the rain.

And the rest

I visited a few other parks, which I unfortunately can’t remember the names of. There was this small one:

I also visited Waishuangxi Park (but neglected to take any pictures) and the Treasure Hill Artist Village, which unfortunately was closed the day I went but still had a nice view.

Also randomly, I visited the Guandu Nature Park. This was on the day I tried to go to the Shihsanhang Museum of Archaeology. Emphasis on “tried.” It seemed to be only an hour away by subway from where I was. Only when I was almost there did I realize I would have to take another bus to get to the museum, which was almost an hour, and by then, it was about 90 minutes before closing.

I was so frustrated, I almost just turned around and went back to the hotel, but then decided I had to check out that area since I had schlepped out there. I found the little downtown area and, thankfully, a Starbucks. I got a yogurt drink, used the bathroom, and settled in to charge my phone and read.

When I was at 90%, I headed out to the park. It was cute and nice to be around nature and more weird animal noises.

Next: a semi-weird trip to Beitou.

Apr 18

Taiwan: Museums + culture

No trip of mine would be complete without plenty of museums and other cultural sites.

Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall

This was a bit of a disappointment. The hall itself was mostly empty, and the exhibit was snoresville and propaganda-ish. I just kept thinking about how corrupt the guy was, and the fact that he ruled with martial law and loved the Japanese so much despite the atrocities on the mainland.

The changing of the guard at least was interesting. They do it every hour on the hour, and I had just missed the two o’clock. However, I decided to wait and read. After all, when was the next time I’d be able to see it?

It was worth it although I did find myself thinking, God, hurry up. And the whole concept is bizarre if you think about it.

MOCA Taipei

I enjoyed my visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was just the right size and nice and low key.

The first exhibit was the work of photographer Steve McCurry, whose most famous photo is arguably “Afghan Girl.” At the front was the cool, sort of optical illusion.

This photo was another one of my favorites:

Tee hee.

The other exhibition was The Rebellion of the Moving Image, several short films. They were all very interesting. The one I stayed in the longest was Ten Thousand Waves, which played on multiple screens and had Maggie Cheung as Mazu, the goddess of fishermen. The images were so striking, I stayed for a long time trying to get good pictures.

National Palace Museum

I really loved this museum, although the sheer number of items was overwhelming.

Getting there from my hotel was very easy. I confirmed the bus number and fare with the hotel folks, who were also kind of enough to give me exact change. The bus stop was right outside the hotel, and happened to arrive minutes after I got there. The ride was supposed to take 45 minutes but it felt faster than that.

The museum wasn’t as crowded as I expected. There were some annoying tour groups, but there were also times when I was totally by myself.

At first I was determined to listen to all the audios, but there were just too many. The room I absorbed the most was about ceramics from Emperor Yongle’s time period. It was divided into sections depending on the type of glaze: sweet white (named so because of its resemblance to sugar), red, blue and white, and bamboo green.

Of course I saw the Jadeite Cabbage and Meat-Shaped Stone (so fitting that Taiwan’s most famous and beloved pieces of art are food). As with Din Tai Fung, I expected a long line or at least crowds. There was neither, and I was able to get close enough to take a couple of pictures.

Each was much smaller than I expected, but also far more intricate and detailed.

After I finished, I found out why the museum wasn’t crowded. The Zhishan Garden was closed that day. I was so bummed. I just assumed that if the museum was open, the adjacent garden would be open too (it’s closed on Mondays).

I made do by eating at one of the museum restaurants. I got a tiny bowl of rice noodle soup and a tofu “pudding” dessert with tapioca balls. I enjoyed both, and the whole thing cost only $5 American.

I made do by eating at one of the museum restaurants. I got a tiny bowl of rice noodle soup and a tofu “pudding” dessert with tapioca balls. I enjoyed both, and the whole thing cost only $5 American.

Longshan Temple

Taiwan is a very Buddhist country so there were tons of temples everywhere. One day I was close to one called Longshan so I decided to check it out.

It was PACKED with people singing and praying.

Turns out I was there on day that’s special for Buddhists: April 15, which is celebrated as the day the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Or at least I’m guessing that’s what was going on.

National Taiwan University

I went here at the request of my dad, since it’s his alma mater. While the campus wasn’t exactly pretty (it reminded me of ones in China, very plain and utilitarian) and probably very different from when my father went there, it was still interesting to visit a Taiwan college, check out student life, and spend some time in a place from my father’s youth.

They had a pretty extensive food hall with a large variety of Asian and, to a lesser extent, Western foods. There was a small museum about a Japanese anthropologist (maybe this guy?) who studied Taiwan aboriginal people and their culture. I mostly went to charge my phone, which the student who was minding the museum kindly let me. Then she offered to give me a little tour and explain the photos. She was so nice and cute, but I understood maybe five percent of what she was saying. I just smiled and nodded.

Next! Parks and gardens.

Apr 18

Taiwan: Eats

One of the things I was most excited about my trip was the yummy food, and Taipei definitely didn’t disappoint.

Tian Jin Flaky Scallion Pancakes

One of my first stops was Yongkang Street, home to tons of restaurants (including the world-famous Din Tai Fung). But the first thing I went for were the scallion pancakes, as recommended by a coworker.

The line wasn’t too long:

I actually didn’t mind waiting because I was overwhelmed with choices. By the time I reached the front, I still hadn’t decided so I asked one of the women cooking which she thought was best. She patiently gave me the rundown, and I ended up getting the one with egg, corn, and (get this) cheese.

It was really fucking good. And also super messy.

I also got some “butter” buns from the Sunmerry Bakery, and a mango ice bar and some instant coffee from a convenience store. I absolutely loved the wide variety of instant coffees in Taipei.

Huaxi and Guangzhou Street Night Markets

On my second day, I visited the Huaxi and Guangzhou night markets, which are basically right next to each other. In a nutshell? I didn’t love them.

While I appreciated them, I liked Yongkang Street better. I couldn’t tell what things were at the night markets, and while I knew I should have made like Anthony Bourdain and sat down at a ratty table and slurped up some unidentifiable noodles, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I did eat one thing though: a cream-filled “egg cake.”

It was light and tasty.

Kao Chin Xiao Long Bao

Another place I was really looking forward to was Din Tai Fung, the well-known xiao long bao chain. True, they have locations in the U.S. but only on the west coast. Plus I wanted the whole experience of eating at the original location on Yongkang Street, long line and all.

I waited until my birthday, which was near the end of my trip, and got there early. But it was closed! Not only that, all the locations in Taipei were closed that day. Why I don’t know. The apologetic girl told me but I didn’t understand.

I thought, Oh well, guess I’ll have some noodles for breakfast then, went around the corner, and ran into Kao Chi, which I had read online is basically the second best place in Taipei for xiao long bao. And since it was so early — just after 10 .a.m. — the place was almost empty.

I got the pork and they were really good. They seemed fattier than ones I’ve tried in the U.S., in a good way.

CoCo Curry House, Fried Chicken, Family Mart

To be honest, after a couple of days, looking for stuff to eat became a chore, mostly because of the language barrier (while I understand and speak Mandarin, I quickly learned I don’t understand or speak that well). So I got food to go from places where the staff were nice and didn’t mind my terrible Chinese.

My go-tos were CoCo Curry House, a fried chicken chain I can’t remember the name of, and my favorite convenience store, Family Mart. Several times, after a long day of traipsing around the city, I’d stop at CoCo Curry House or the fried chicken place (both in the mall where my hotel was) and get something to eat in my room. I’d shower, fire up Netflix, and pig out. It’s my vacation and I’ll be an introverted bum if I want to.

From Family Mart I’d get tea eggs for something ridiculous like 10 cents each as well as these surprisingly delicious “butter raisins” buns

In fact they were better than the butter buns I got at Sunmerry, but that might have just been that particular variety. Of course I still ate them.

Terrible smell mystery solved

While I loved going to the Family Mart near my hotel, I kept smelling something awful right outside it. I thought it was something like an open sewer. Then my last night, while I was waiting in line to buy more tea eggs and raisin butter buns, it finally hit me: it was chou dofu, or smelly tofu, a Taiwan specialty. I had noticed a guy with a tofu cart but hadn’t put two and two together until then.

I confirmed with the lady who was waiting in line in front of me. At first she looked at me like I was nuts, but then laughed when I said I was visiting from America and had never smelled it before. She reassured me it tasted good. I’m sure she was right, but I was too chicken to try it.

Next up: museums and culture.

Apr 18

Taiwan: The flight out + the hotel

I’m back and there’s so much to write about! But I might as well start at the beginning.

The flight

The flight was excruciatingly long although some things helped make it tolerable. There seemed to be more leg room, and the flight wasn’t too full. Just one other woman and me had a row to ourselves with no one in the middle, and because it was a center row, we both had aisle seats. Plus we were right near the front of the back half the plane.

There were also plenty of good movies. I watched I, Tonya (really good) and The Last Jedi (kind of dumb but entertaining). I started to watch the second Kingsmen movie but kept falling asleep.

Someone mentioned the food on EVA was “really good.” It was not. I mean, it was fine but definitely not “really good.” However, upon retrospect this might have been because I picked the Western-style meals, at least on the flight in.

I managed to sleep a little, but it was one of those wake-up-every-20-minutes sleeps. We landed about an hour late, but I didn’t feel much difference between 15 and 16 hours. The customs line also wasn’t too bad, but what no one tells you is that you have to fill out an “arrival card.” I saw everyone had one but just hoped for the best. Of course I had to have one. The customs agent, while not very warm, did let me come right back to her after I filled out the card.

I had checked my suitcase since it was free, and lo and behold, by the time I got to the baggage carousel, all our luggage was already set out on the floor. Lickety split! I managed to find an ATM, then the MRT. A nice employee helped me get a ticket to where I was going, and the train ride was relatively fast.

I sat across from a girl who was very alternative. Long curly-ish hair, dark dramatic makeup, giant hoop earring, tattoos. That was my first impression of people in Taipei, but almost everyone else I saw after that has been more conventional.

At my stop, I looked for the taxi stand. I don’t think I mentioned I was following the directions of a random individual who wrote a review of my hotel. There was a lady at the stand who asked me where I was going, hoping to share a cab. Quickly she assessed I didn’t speak Mandarin well, and switched to English. She helped me tell the driver where I was going.

I was a little worried because the lady said the hotel was in the next town over, and although it was a longish drive (about 15 minutes), the ride was less than $5. (The train ride was about the same.) Also, the driver was honest and kind enough to tell me it wasn’t necessary to tip taxis or restaurants. He did annoy me a little: because I didn’t know the word for “museum,” he was like, “Didn’t your parents speak to you in Mandarin?” I said, “If I didn’t know any Mandarin, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

The hotel

The hotel, the Park City Luzhou, was really nice. In fact I loved it and would stay there again. I saw some reviews saying the rooms were small, but mine was pretty big with a nice, large bed. Everything, including the bathroom, felt clean and new, and the shower had excellent water pressure. Plus there were tons of freebies:

  • Bottles of water every day
  • “3-1” instant coffee packs (instead of a coffee maker, there was a water heater, which I prefer)
  • WiFi that let me stream Netflix (some hotels block it or the WiFi isn’t fast enough)
  • A free gym which was clean, spacious, had tons of equipment, and never a lot of people
  • Breakfast every morning (it wasn’t super delicious but it was filling, gave me energy, and did I mention was free?)

The only freebie I didn’t partake in was the fruit. It didn’t look great and I put it in the fridge. (By the way, there was a fridge, which a lot of American hotels seem to have done away with.)

One downside was the area right outside wasn’t the nicest. It was quite congested with cars and a zillion motor scooters (a popular choice for transportation). The vicinity wasn’t pretty either (and I’d find I’d feel the same about most of the parts of Taipei that I saw), but it was convenient because there were lots of restaurants and convenience stores close by.

Speaking of which, I’d often stop in those convenience stores and stock up buns for breakfast (the “butter and raisins” quickly became my favorite), yogurts for a healthy belly, and dirt cheap tea eggs for whenever. My first day I bought a couple of weird sparkling vinegar juice drinks:

The verdict? Freaking delicious.

Next up: more eats and drinks!

Jan 18

My first time to Taiwan!

I’ve decided to go to Taiwan for my birthday. How I came to that decision was that:

  • I wanted to do something special
  • I’ve never done a solo international trip before
  • I wanted to go to Asia
  • I wanted to go to an Asian country I had never been to before

I originally thought I’d go to a domestic city like Chicago. However, the hotels there seemed expensive, and since I’m not familiar with the different areas, I felt unsure of where I would stay. Iceland crossed my mind, but again: hella pricey.

Then my brain wandered to Tokyo. It’s been more than 10 years since the last time I went. The advantage of that is I’d stay in the same ryokan from last time, which looked like had barely raised their prices. Plus I have a high school friend there. The flights also weren’t bad — less than a grand. Tokyo it was then! I booked the tickets.

Later though, the idea of Taiwan crept into my mind. It’s a place I’ve been wanting to go to, and although my parents grew up there and many of my friends have been there, I still had yet to go. Out of curiosity, I checked the flights: they were really cheap. Like less than $800 cheap. Like the same price as my flight to L.A. over Christmas. Plus it was on EVA Airlines, which I’ve heard is good. That sold it for me. I canceled my Tokyo tickets and booked a round trip to Taipei.

Then I looked at hotels and saw several for under $80 a night (about the same as the one in Tokyo). I booked this one, which got rated “wonderful,” for $72 a night. Downside is that it’s a little bit outside of Taipei. However, the metro is right downstairs and in the same building, which is a mall.

When I told my parents about my plans, they were surprised and delighted. They’re always nervous when I go to Europe because they think I’ll get pick-pocketed or caught in a terrorist attack (as though it doesn’t happen in the U.S. regularly). They think of Taiwan as safe and, because they grew up there, a second home.

Taiwan here I come!