Thursday, April 30, 2015

Taiwan


Taiwan was one of my unexpected favorites on this trip. Born in Beijing, I was brought up with the notion that all roads lead to Beijing--it's the capital of China after all and one of the biggest cities in the world. Not getting into the political situation (Beijing wants Taiwan as a part of China whereas the Taiwanese people want to stay independent), the population of the city of Beijing comes close to the population of the entire country of Taiwan. Taiwan is small, my parents always told me (it's true), and there's not much to do. Anything you can do in Taiwan you can do in mainland China on a bigger, better scale, they said. 

However, the older I get and the more objectively I can see things, Taiwan has many things that China cannot offer. The bigger scale of things my parents grew up with can be overwhelming at times, and the sheer number of people crowding every single restaurant, store, and road puts me off to China every time I visit. My grandparents and extended family all live in Beijing, so it will always be my "lao jia" (old home) to me, but I was pleasantly surprised that almost anything I could do in Beijing I could do in Taiwan in a cleaner, less crowded, and more civilized environment. Taipei definitely caters to a younger and more western population--bubble tea shops dot every corner (heaven), coffee and cat cafes are common (coffee is scarce in mainland China), there are a sizable number of bars and western restaurants, public transit is newer and cleaner, and there are THREE Mujis there. If that's not the mark of a cool city, I don't know what is (New York has three and SF only has one, the only US locations). 

The food was more familiar and palatable than the soups and herbal teas of Hong Kong too. Some of my favorite foods were abundant and cheap here--beef noodle soup, xiao long bao, bao zi, dan dan mian, shaved ice (a new discovery) just scratch the surface. And of course, the bubble tea! So many choices that almost no one gets tapioca pearls, choosing between coconut jelly, custard, or dragonfruit instead. I must have had 3 bubble teas a day, a necessity in the tropical weather. 

We took the flight from Hong Kong midday and got to our Airbnb without much difficulty. By the time we put our bags down, it was almost 5 pm, so we hurried over to Elephant Mountain to try to catch the city light up at dusk. We arrived a little too late, however still got this view of Taipei 101 and the Taipei skyline. 
The best view of Taipei from Elephant Mountain
The hike was surprisingly steep and dimly lit, making it a breeding ground for mosquitoes and bugs. After coming down from the mountain, we had all been bitten and sucked dry. 
Sweaty and stung a million times

We then took a taxi to RaoHe street market, the "local" street market that is apparently more manageable than the famous Shilin night market. This one was already bustling and huge so I'm glad we didn't try out the bigger one. 
RaoHe Night Market
Octopus balls
Pork buns. People started lining up for them, so we got in line before we even saw what they were. 
Cooked in a clay oven
Tastes like home to a Beijing-er. I failed to see how they were so special, but they were good nonetheless. 
Squid
E bought this just so I could take a pic!

A new favorite--shaved ice! Frozen condensed milk shaved to powdery consistency topped with fresh fruit. Mango was the best. 
We liked it so much we got a second one--matcha with red bean was not as good

The next day, my birthday, we went to the original Din Tai Fung location to see what the fuss was about. Expecting an hour+ wait, we were again pleasantly surprised to be seated right away because got there relatively early. I'm glad to report the hype is worth it! Never had I had more tender, melt in your mouth xiao long bao (XLB lol). 
The original and famous Din Tai Fung (now with locations all over the world and coming to SF soon). Look at those hand crafted folds and mini-crab on the crab ones! 

The girls were nice enough to treat me for my bday lunch! 
Dan dan noodles and XLB, hands down best meal in Taipei
For our second lunch, we stopped by the well known Yong Kang Niu Rou Mian for Taipei's famous beef noodle soup. See those bubble teas? We bought them from a bubble tea shop that now occupies the space where E's father used to live! 

After lunch, we hired a taxi driver to take us to Jiu Fen, the "Santorini of Taiwan." In Chinese, Jiu Fen means 9 pieces. The name originated from when there used to be nine families who lived on the mountain facing the ocean. Whenever they needed to go into the city, they'd always take back "jiu fen" for the rest of the families on the mountain. Importantly, Jiufen also has a strong Japanese influence from when Japan used to occupy Taiwan. For more history, a quick google search took me here. I'd never heard of the place before, but it was the inspiration for Miyazaki's seaside town in "Spirited Away." Again, I was pleasantly surprised by its quaintness! 

Cover photo for our SE Asia honeymoon
The famous A Mei teahouse, the inspiration for the Grand Teahouse in Spirited Away
Trio in Jiu Fen
Apparently the steps of Old St were featured in a famous Japanese movie, which explains why it was crowded by Japanese tourists
The thing to do in Jiufen is to sip tea at one of the teahouses looking over the ocean
We did just that as we were treated to a beautiful dusk settling in over Jiu Fen. Our journey back proved an entertaining one as we met two Mormon guys that we were so busy talking to that we missed our bus stop to go back to Taipei! It had been over 30 min after where we were supposed to get off before we realized we were way past our stop. We looked up to see that we were a city and assumed it was Taipei. When R pulled out her phone to check, we were actually in Keelung, another city on the other coast of Taiwan! Thankfully, Taiwan is small and we ended up at a major train station that could take us all the way back to Taipei for the night. It was only an hour or two lost but a funny story to gain. 

The next day, R left us to meet up with her friend in another city and me and E decided to take it easy on our last day in Taipei. We walked the streets and set out to one of Taipei's famous cat cafes. 
My name takes on a whole new meaning here

One thing you should know about me: I'm deathly allergic to cats!

It depends on the cat, but I've been known to enter my friend's house and instantly start tearing and sneezing. If I touch a cat and then touch my face, I'm basically dead. If we're outside or if the cat has short hair, I'm usually fine, but it's the long haired breeds that send me into an allergen induced tear fest. It doesn't affect my daily life but it basically means I can't date somebody with a cat (been there done that) and that I have to take a Claritin if I know I'm going to be around them (which may be placebo). I'm much more of a dog person anyway (case in point).

However, E is the opposite of me. She's a major animal and cat lover (she adopted a stray off the streets of Baltimore last year) and she had to pick up nearly every cat we saw this trip--and I was glad to take a picture.

I was more than willing to come along with her to a cat cafe because I don't think there are any in the US so far (though would not be surprised if SF had one). I just made sure to take my Claritin beforehand.
The first time I've picked up a cat in years. This one's name was Di Di, or little brother. 
He can sense I don't like cats
E is more than willing to oblige
Obsessed with mangos in Asia
Our first salad in Asia
"Pang Pang," or the famous "Fatty" of the cafe awoke from his nap
Little brother and Fatty
Fatty falls asleep again

We spent probably two hours in the cat cafe and only left when I started to feel sneezy/itchy (it was Fatty). After a week of nonstop on the go, we definitely needed a cool, calm place to recharge with reliable Wifi. 

That night, we planned to go out to another rooftop bar at the W hotel in Taipei and meet up with one of E's high school friends. When we got there, we were disappointed that there was no view of Taipei 101 and that the drinks were ridiculously expensive, depleting my entire stock of Taiwan cash (I found myself running out of cash unnervingly often on this trip).
After our fail at the Woobar at the W Hotel, Taipei

Rather than spend another 500 NST on a drink (almost $20 USD), we decided just to walk along the street and chance it on another bar. After a mile or so, we stumbled on something better: Ice Monster!
Somebody told me there's an Ice Monster in SF...I hope they weren't lying. After a disappointing night out, I was more than happy to dunk my face in a mountain of mango shaved ice.....mhmm. As a side note, all three of us shared this one shaved ice. We saw couples and friends around us who were eating a bowl EACH. How do Asians eat so much and stay so skinny?!?
That's mango ice cream, yogurt, mango shaved ice, and real mango chunks in there

The next morning, with 60 NST (the equivalent of $2 USD) in my pocket, I made it back to the airport to fly out and meet my entire family in my hometown, Beijing. Older and wiser to the treasures of nearby Taiwan, I wouldn't hesitate to come back to get the best of China (cheap food and service) in a more familiar, western environment. 

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