Monthly Archives: August 2014

Tea, snails, and a night market

We began our next day with a short stop at Florida Bakery, which despite the name didn’t seem American at all. After some breakfast, we took the MRT to Daan area to visit Wisteria Tea House. On our way, we walked through Daan Forest Park, a large and beautiful park with a pond in the middle where herons, egrets, and birds I couldn’t identify congregated. We also saw our first Taiwanese squirrels, which are darker in color and have a slightly different head shape than their US counterparts.

Wisteria Tea House was built in the 1920s and was once home to a Japanese governor during the occupation. It’s named for the four very old wisteria vines growing just outside, and walking in felt like stepping into another world. Their tea list was excellent, and we sat on tatami and drank Baozhong and Da Hong Pao, accompanied by dried starfruit and some of the best mochi I’ve had. We left reluctantly, and then it started pouring rain.

Wisteria Tea House

Wisteria Tea House

Seattle rain has nothing on Taiwanese rain. It’s like you’re getting buckets dumped on you. We had been planning on taking a gondola to Mao Kong, a tea area that is mostly outdoors and has great views, but we decided to visit Taipei 101 to wait out the rain instead. We caught a bus, got off one stop too late, and ran through the rain into the first entrance we found – a fancy Hyatt hotel.

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You can see the rain bouncing off the edge of the awning over this doorway.

Eventually we found a way to get from the Hyatt to Taipei 101 without getting soaked again. Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world from 2004-2010, and while there’s an observatory on the top, the rest of it is filled with stores for all the fanciest designer brand names you’ve ever heard of and a few that you haven’t. One store was full of huge coral that people could buy for display, and we were disturbed that something that takes so long to grow would be harvested and sold. We figured the rain would obscure a view from the top, so we wandered around a little and made reservations at Din Tai Feng on the bottom floor.

Din Tai Feng is an upscale chain restaurant that started in Taipei, known for its excellent xiao long bao (soup dumplings). There are two of them in the Seattle area, and we wanted to see how they compared to the original. We tried the original and crab xiao long bao as well as a noodle dish and some garlic green beans. Honestly, while the dumplings were good, I thought the ones at the Seattle location were a little better, and the atmosphere there is definitely more upscale.

Crab xiao long bao

Crab xiao long bao

As we’d suspected, a thunderstorm had closed the Mao Kong gondola that afternoon, so we took the MRT to Beitou instead, as we’d heard their library had won accolades for its architecture. While walking towards the library, we encountered a playground full of what looked like toy exercise equipment.

Playground elliptical machine!

Playground elliptical machine!

Continuing on our walk, it soon became evident that Beitou is famous for its hot springs. There was a steaming stream running next to the sidewalk, and we went past the hot spring which had, unfortunately, just closed. The area was weirdly eerie at dusk just after the rain. At one point we wandered down some stairs which ended abruptly at a drop off in an area teeming with giant snails.

Giant snails getting it on.

Giant snails getting it on.

Unfortunately, Chris felt some stinging bites and found some tiny ants on his legs, so we escaped to the library where he discovered that Taiwan is home to fire ants and started feeling some mild paranoia around Taiwanese insects.

The library was beautiful and had a large outdoor deck and little seats hidden between the shelves. Of course, most of the books were in Mandarin and we couldn’t read more than a few words.

The Beitou library

The Beitou library

Inside the library

Hiding between shelves

Hiding between shelves

On the library deck

On the library deck

On our way back to Nathan and Yushan’s place, we stopped at Shilin night market, which is the largest in Taipei. It was definitely big – multiple blocks dissected by alleys full of shops and people. I ate some fried crabs, shells and all. It was a good end to a busy day.

Whole fried crabs with garlic. Yum!

Whole fried crabs with garlic. Yum!

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These fruit stands were everywhere, especially at night markets.

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Shilin night market street

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Auspicious Fungus

Chris was feeling a little nauseous on our second day (maybe from the night market food?) so we took it easy in the morning. In the afternoon we took our first trip on the MRT and went to the National Palace Museum. The MRT is a light rail train that uses a card for payment, similar to many in the US. What’s especially nice is that you can use the EasyCard for the MRT, buses, and at quite a few chain stores in most major cities in Taiwan, plus some tour buses in remote locations. Often, you get a 10% discount if you use your EasyCard.

The National Palace Museum was huge and full of tourists from mainland China, but we enjoyed exploring. We saw the bell of Zhou (Zong Zhou Zhong) and cauldron of the Duke of Mao (Mao Gong Ding) that were used for ceremonial purposes and contain some of the longest ancient Chinese inscriptions. They’re one of the major sources historians have used to study the evolution of character design.

There’s a teahouse on the top floor of the museum that has food and drinks and a great view, despite being a little spendy for Taiwan. It was a good place to sit down and rest and give Chris a break.

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We saw a beautiful carved jade Bok Choy with a grasshopper on it, similar to others we’d see later in the trip. It must be a common design. I’ve seen one in Seattle’s Asian Art museum as well, but the one in the National Palace Museum is definitely very high quality.

We were amused by a statue of an auspicious deer covered in spirit fungus. There were a few things that looked kind of lumpy, and the English translations claimed this was a coating of spirit fungus. This is apparently a kind of mushroom called Lingzhi that has been used in Chinese medicine for a long time, but I’m not sure why it’s depicted as covering things in statues and artifacts. You can buy a black fungus drink at 7-11, but I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet. I’d add a picture, but my phone seems to have lost most of them 🙁 I’m still trying various things to see if I can get them back, but for now I’ll have to use the ones Chris took.

We went out for Japanese food with Nathan and Yushan that evening, and it didn’t disappoint. You can get a rice bowl with a good amount of sashimi on top with tea and miso soup included for about $7 USD. Luckily, one good night’s sleep later, Chris was feeling much better and our trip was back up to speed.

 

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First day in Taiwan – Taipei

After a 12-hour plane trip where we slept and watched a weird and interesting movie, we landed at Taoyuan Airport. Unfortunately, since we landed at 5:20 am, the counters for buying Taiwanese SIM cards for phones weren’t yet open, and it turned out Google maps was wrong about when the buses started running towards our friend Nathan’s place. Ultimately, we got on the airport’s free wifi to e-mail Nathan about the delay, figured out how to buy a ticket and caught the 8 am bus.

The ride from Taoyuan Airport to Taipei City took about 45 minutes and wound between tiny villages nestled in tropical green hills. There were a few tall apartment buildings with fields of crops just outside. The roads were well marked, and we soon learned to recognize the characters for “Exit.” I don’t think scooters are allowed on the highways, because they’re absolutely everywhere else.

We met Nathan and went back to the apartment he and Yushan share, which is small but cute and well laid out. There’s also an air conditioning unit in each of the 3 rooms, which is wonderful, as it’s very hot and humid (84 degrees when we landed at 5:20 am). After some rest and planning, we all went out in search of lunch, which ended up being Teppanyaki. For 560NT total (about $18), Chris and I each got rice, tea, and 3 plates of food grilled fresh in front of us – fish, shrimp, garlic, pork, and veggies.

tappanyaki

This is the first of 3 plates.

 

Nathan helped us find a place to get SIM cards so that we can use our phones without international fees. It’s really helpful to have a little bit of Mandarin, though once you use it people tend to start speaking as if you understand everything they’re saying. We seem to have communicated that we each need 14 days of service, with internet and some minutes for calling friends locally. Hopefully we managed to communicate that, anyway – we’ll see if everything works the whole time. It ended up costing $850 NT each ($28) for the SIM cards and service, which is a little spendy because the closest package that met our needs actually goes for 30 days. It was a little tricky getting the internet working, and we had to go back to the FarEastOne store later to get them to fix the settings, but I think it’s fine now.

There are tea shops everywhere here, but the quality varies a lot. We looked up some reviews and stopped in at MingShan Tea Store to taste some ShanLinXi and LiShan. We had some great language practice with one of the employees, who took a picture with us and drew us a map to show us what restaurants and foods he recommended in the area. We bought a bit of delicious ShanLinXi at a much better price than we’ve seen at home.

After some tea, we continued exploring and ended up in an underground book mall near ZhongShan Station. There were so many bookstores, and many of the books only cost 75NT (about $2.50)! Too bad we packed so light this trip, as it was quite tempting to buy some.

chrisbooks

After wandering through a park full of mosaic tiled animals and small robot statues, we ended up at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is closed on Mondays. It was attached to a great cafe, though. We got a little more than we bargained for when ordering ice cream resulted in a bowl full of shaved ice, fruit, ice cream and some sort of jelly dessert. Yum.

icecream

We met up with Nathan again and went to a nearby night market for a light dinner of squidballs, clam stuffed with cheesy stuff, spicy chicken, and papaya salad. It was fascinating to watch the making of the squid balls – there’s a pan with round depressions where they pour the ingredients, then flip each one over with chopsticks after awhile. It looks like they’re making aebleskivers. Night market snacks run from about $1-3 USD.

Overall, Taipei seems very exciting – there are tiny businesses everywhere, and lots of people stay out on the street at night. Food is delicious and inexpensive, and we’re able to communicate a little bit. We’ll see how hard it is to figure out travel to other cities, but we can certainly buy food and understand prices just fine.

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