Monday 9 April 2018

Taiwan - Spring 2018

Nobody spits on the street 
Wednesday, 4 April

We have a world map on the wall in our international school in Beijing and every now and then we get a government inspection to check that we are following all of the rules.  We pass with flying colours every year bar this one map that they have grave issues with - it shows Taiwan as a separate country...

Within the first day of arriving in Taiwan we started comparing it to Mainland China.  The sound of the middle aged man hawking up his guts and cars honking their horn 20 times to encourage the old lady to cross the road faster definitely seem to be one thing that separates the two nations.  The love of tiny ratty dogs and stinky tofu; however, is something that keeps them very much the same.  In fact, on the dog front, Taiwan may be even worse as I challenge you to walk down a Taipei street without seeing a little dog being pushed in a pram or carried in a back pack.  I can't help but realise how ridiculous that sounds whilst I type it but they actually do have, I assume, baby buggies specially made for dogs here!  What they don't have are streets covered in the tiny, worm like, ratty dog turds...

We spent a full day walking around the popular areas visiting Peace Park, the Botanical Gardens and Longshan Temple.  Our day was essentially walking for an hour, sit down to eat, walk for another hour, sit down somewhere else to eat.  Sometimes even eating whilst walking and then sitting down somewhere... to eat.  Taiwan is certainly a foodies heaven.  Little cafe style restaurants line every street and I can't walk past something I haven't seen before without buying it; much to the annoyance of Becky who constantly found herself losing me as I had followed my nose somewhere down a side street.  Taiwan's National Dish of Beef Noodle Soup was found in one of these small restaurants and was slurped up in an instant.  I very well could have queued for an hour at a famous Beef Noodle joint but I figured that any restaurant that specialises in making beef noodles are going to make pretty damn good beef noodles - it's Taiwan!


The biggest thing I was looking forward to in Taiwan were the incredibly famous and abundant Night Markets.  Just in Taipei there are over 50 night markets that each have their own pull with individual stalls specialising in something.  Like Spain have their tapas, Taiwan has "XiaoChi (小吃)" which translates to "small eat".  I have spent every evening so far munching my way through a different Night Market; it is literally my idea of heaven.  Our first Night Market was ShiLin which is Taipei's largest.  Deep fried needle mushrooms on a stick and crispy baby soft shell crabs were may favourites there.  The best Night Market so far; however, was FengJia in TaiChung which felt much more local.  I had a delicious sticky grilled Taiwanese sausage that was stuffed inside another grilled white sticky rice sausage which I thought was a genius idea. A meta sausage! My favourite night market snack would have to be the oyster omelet though.  The combination of textures and flavours are perfect and clearly a fan favourite.  The one thing that's missing from these awesome night markets is a decent place to buy a beer.  Spain's tapas sole purpose is to accompany your alcohol and all of Taiwan's 小吃 would sit perfectly next to a cold beer.  We spent at least an hour hunting down a pint at FengJia Night Market until we eventually found a stall with two proper pub style beer taps.  Glorious! What came out of those beer taps? Tea... tea!? Not even long island ice tea.  Plain, old, regular tea. Oh the disappointment!

Other than food, probably the best thing we bought was an "Easy Card" for the Metro.  Not only was it easy to get around Taipei but we get to use it in Kaosiung too!  After a full day of Taipei we woke up early the next day and got on a train to visit Taroko Gorge.  With lush greenery, mountain cliff views and easy access paths we very happily spent the day here.  The help desk told us everything that we needed to know at the start; what sites to visit in our time frame; which buses to catch and even where to eat lunch.  After a day of rambling we slept on the train ride back and felt that we had a very successful day.  It's an early start to do it all from Taipei but it was very easy and we didn't feel rushed.  Being back in Taipei also meant that we could have a lush foot massage after a day of hiking. Winner!

The following day we went to the station and bought all the train tickets required for our trip.  That is a single to Taichung, a single from Taichung to KaoSiung and finally a single from KaoSiung all the way back to Taipei.  In total, on the fast train which is substantially quicker, it cost us just under £75 each.  TaiChung has a few draws but mainly for being the birth place of the incredibly tasty bubble tea.  If you have not heard of bubble tea it is a sweat milky tea with giant tapioca balls that you slurp up through an extra thick straw.  Living in China I have drunk many bubble teas but I did not expect it to be so different here.  Every corner in TaiChung has a bubble tea store but we decided to take the store with the queue.  This particular store has several outlets and it's the brown sugar bubble tea that will change your world.  Bubble tea aside, TaiChung itself is worth the visit as it is the nearest city to the popular Sun Moon Lake and even better it is home to the largest night market in Taiwan - FangJia Night Market!  Though this was where we spent an hour trying to find beer and ended up finding tea; a pint of delicious papaya milk almost filled the void.  We decided to do a bike ride on the "Houfeng Bikeway" that I had read about and we thought it was a brilliant afternoon activity.  We rented bikes for cheap and cycled over 20km on bike only paths through parks and gardens stopping at points of interest indicated on our little map provided by the old man that hired his bikes to us.

We took a public bus (paid for on our easy card!) to Sun Moon Lake for another bike ride (above) but all in all felt that it was a little underwhelming.  It is a big lake and we had a nice day out but I arrived thinking that it would be a highlight of the trip but so many other things outshone.  The most unexpected highlight of TaiChung was probably the little Rainbow Village we visited on the way to the fast train train station before heading to KaoSiung.  The story behind the Rainbow Grandpa and why he decided to start painting these houses is so sweet and he was even there with paint on his hands after his morning paint session.  Sun Moon Lake was nice and all, but I'd make Rainbow Grandpa my priority!  Him and a slurp of brown sugar bubble tea.


Sunday, 8 April

We're using the fast train which is a little more money but so convenient! From the top of Taiwan (Taipei) to the bottom (Kaohsiung) takes 90 minutes! This made it totally possible to see a good range of Taiwan in our short time.  Kaohsiung instantly feels more relaxed with a less busy city like culture.  People are sitting out on the street eating shaved ice desserts as the sun sets and the general hum of the city is of chatter and laughter over car engines and horns.  We arrived late afternoon and after checking in we walked to the port and took a ferry (again using our Easy Card!) over to Cijin Island to spend the evening.  It is such an easy excursion and whilst there you just hire a bike and roam around.  Or in our case hire the horribly bright love buggy with heart shape backrests because that was the one you got the best deal on you totally love your girlfriend that much.  We explored for a couple of hours driving to the important sites and seeking out the best places to eat.  We settled for a seafood feast at a busy looking restaurant where you pick your seafood from the iced up tables outside and tell them how you want it cooked.  Being able to speak a little Chinese definitely came in use here! 

With a belly stuffed full of fish and clams we were waddling towards the beach when we came across a dessert I had read about online - the ice cream spring roll (locally called Run Bing).  Ice cream wrapped in a pancake like wrap doesn't sound that interesting.  Add shavings of peanut brittle to the mix starts to make it sound a little more exciting.  Throw in a few sprigs of fresh coriander and you have gone from "a little exciting" to "what's wrong with you!?".  So that's ice cream (we had the choice of peanut, taro and vanilla flavours), peanut brittle shavings from the biggest block of peanut brittle I have ever seen and coriander leaves wrapped up in a thin pancake.  I was dubious but my god it tastes extraordinary!  It's not like Chili-Chocolate where people just agree that they taste good together in fear of being dubbed a food dunce; the coriander is genuinely what makes this dessert. It's sweet and creamy but with the most amazing, fresh, aromatic layer to it. 

Kaohsiung is just a very beautiful city.  We both agreed that we could happily live there.  We spent the best part of our day at Fo Guang Shan Temple which was an Easy Card coach ride away.  Like most travellers in Asia I feel pretty templed out but there were a few new offerings here.  It kind of has a Buddhist temple theme park feel to it.  Though if you go expecting theme park you will leave very disappointed!  We found ourselves watching a not so exhilarating Buddhist cartoon in 4D. Lots of taking your shoes off to enter rooms, walking around for a minute or two looking mildly interested in things before putting your shoes back on and doing it all over again in a different room.  The worlds tallest sitting Buddha took a good photo...  Like I said, if this was my first temple I would have probably been blown away.  We walked around Lotus Lake for the sunset and ate at the Rui Feng Night Market desperately trying to find one last ice cream burrito with no luck.

Like Japan, Taiwan has a very impressive food selection when it comes to trains.  A full meal conveniently packed to take on the train with you will set you back a couple of quid and it is like taking a delicious home cooked packed lunch.  Slightly different to your Ginsters pasty and a bag of cheese and onion crisps back in the UK.  90 minutes later we were back in a cold and strangely miserable looking Taipei.  Arriving in Taipei from Kaohsiung felt like returning from a lovely summers holiday.  
If I were ever to open a restaurant I would attach myself to a fish market or a butcher.  Fresh produce guaranteed every day and the specials board will be whatever fish/cut was going cheap at the end of the day.  Taiwan fish market has taken this idea one step further and opened an entire food court!  Addiction Aquatic Development is a genius idea and I just had to check it out.  The place has a wonderful buzz about it in the evening and after gawking at all the different stalls and beautiful seafood we settled for a sushi spot.  I loved it and would happily come back to try a different restaurant.

We did very well on the food front in our final days in Taiwan.  If Taiwan chose to have a second National Dish it would undoubtedly be braised pork over rice (lu rou fan).  Fatty belly pork cooked with whole boiled eggs is Taiwanese comfort food and we found a small place with a fast moving queue outside.  Being able to read Chinese came in use here as a small sheet of paper and a pen was thrusted into our hands and we were to tick the dishes we wanted.  No pictures, just Chinese writing.  A friendly local standing behind us spoke English and confirmed with us that we actually ticked what we wanted.  He also confirmed that without a doubt this was the place to eat Lu Rou Fan in Taipei. It was called "Tian Tian Li (天添利)" on HangZhong street and it truly did serve the best bowl of delicious melt in the mouth braised pork over rice.  Sweet, savoury and fatty it is certainly not something that you should eat every day but if I lived here it would be unbelievably difficult not to!  I washed this down with possible the most unusual juice I have ever imagined.  Taiwan like to juice a vegetable that just the name itself tells you it's absolutely not a good idea.  There is no masking the flavour of a bitter gourd but I had to do as the locals do!  Turns out that Taiwan prides itself in its farming and the bitter gourd with its surprisingly sugary, sweet flesh is one of their success stories.  Another food experience we had was shrimp fishing.  I had done this once before in Singapore but it was nice to introduce it to Becky.  We caught 9 in total and had them simply grilled with salt on site.  

Our last days in Taiwan were spent ticking off any final touristy spots like the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and the impressive ceiling in the Formosa Boulevard Metro Station.  It has been a great week and fascinating to compare with mainland China.  Chatting to our masseuse we learnt the word "qinqie (亲切)" which she used to describe the Taiwanese.  Qinqie means caring and perfectly describes them.  Every Taiwanese person we had the pleasure of talking to did genuinely seem interested in what we had to say.  One night, 4 of us were drinking beers in a local bar and a young lady came and told us that the old gentleman sitting on the other table insisted he bought our drinks for us.  We tried to politely decline but he came over and just seemed so pleased to host us in his country.  He kept saying in mandarin "thank you for coming to Taiwan".  You just help yourself to beers in the fridge in this particular restaurant and the waiters count the number of empty bottles you have to calculate your bill and this lovely old man insisted that he took our bottles and put them on his table.  I feel like our time in Taiwan can be summed up in that one bar.  Time to look up some international schools in Taiwan...