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:

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