I am very much overdue for an update on this blog and I am sorry to say this one will be rather brief. I just wanted to let you know about a few of the activities that have been keeping me away from my blog. I have been busy indeed!
As many of you know by now, I decided to continue living in Taipei, past my scholarship period of three months. I wanted to keep learning Chinese, as I felt I had come so far along in my learning. I was not quite ready to stop. I found work as an English teacher in order to fund my costs of living and my Chinese classes. I had trouble imagining myself as a teacher, but now I have become quite accustomed to leading a classroom full of students. I teach at a language center, so my students include high school students, parents and retirees. My students are all very kind and attentive, in fact, some have taken to feeding me special treats. A nice perk to the job!
I haven’t been all work lately; I’ve also had a lot of playtime around Taiwan and even outside of Taiwan. My brother visited me for ten days during the Christmas holidays, so we went attended concerts, visited scenic spots and ate at a host of restaurants around Taipei. On Christmas day, we took the train to the center of Taiwan, to visit the geological wonder of Taroko Gorge, near the central city of Hualien.
Promptly after my brother left, I set off for Bangkok with two Taiwanese friends to celebrate the New Year. Bangkok was the perfect getaway vacation. We indulged in two-hour long traditional Thai massages, shopped in labyrinth-like bazaars, and refreshed ourselves with fresh coconut juice drunk straight from the shell broken before our eyes. All of this was enjoyed in sunny, summer weather (I think temperatures ran in the 30 degrees Celsius). I also feasted on native Pad Thai and fresh seafood, like the renowned Curry Crab.
Now I am back in Taipei and I have returned to my work routine. I am also applying to graduate schools and until I am done with this endeavor, I will likely be too busy for anything else. However, I can never be just work, so I have been attending a class on traditional tea ceremony. I am also looking into applying to the Mandarin Training Center (at National Taiwan Normal University) and am researching cooking and yoga classes. I want to be able to reproduce traditional Taiwanese dishes for family and friends (and I hope to have you at my dinner table!) to enjoy the true tastes of this wonderful island.
On a final note, I will sporadically keep this block updated, so I welcome you to keep checking it out! I hope you had a HAPPY NEW YEAR! And best wishes to all for this upcoming year of 2010!!!
Through my Rotary activities, I have been able to come into contact with the Taipei Rotaract Club. Rotaract is a program of Rotary International, a worldwide association of service-minded business and professional leaders. Rotaract is an organization for young men and women ages 18 to 30 who believe they can make a difference. The Rotaract clubs are essentially the youth branches of Rotary clubs. It is with this club that I was able to travel to the north of Taiwan, in order to clean up beaches.
This time, I was invited to join their annual training camp, whose main purpose is to learn more about the club itself and get to know fellow members amidst great scenery and great food. Our destination would be Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan’s largest lake. It is known as one of Taiwan’s most beautiful locations. It is situated in the central of Taiwan, in Nantou county.
Early Saturday morning, 30 eager Rotaractors and guests boarded a chartered bus and headed south. Our first stop would be Jiji, Jiji was one of the worst hit towns during the 921 earthquake (it occurred on 9/21/1999). At Jiji, we saw the remains of the Wu Chang Temple, where residents bravely salvaged the statue of the deity, God of the North Pole after the earthquake had hit the town. Upon its rescue, they found that the beard of the statue had grown and deemed this a miracle. The collapsed remains of the temple serve as an attraction site, while the new temple if being built at its side. The statue is on display nearby and is a popular site of worship. After eating a traditional Chinese meal, which included chicken testicles, we headed further south.
Upon reaching Sun Moon Lake, we were quickly entranced by the beautiful scenery. Its crystalline, emerald green waters reflect the hills and mountains which rise on all sides. We all boarded a chartered boat and road around the lake, making stops at a traditional market town, and a couple of famous temple sites.
As evening approached, we left the river side to find a cozy and rustic bed and breakfast. As we were 30 guests, we fully occupied the entire B&B, which was skillfully run by a lovely, doting, grandmother-type women and her daughter. That night, we worked together to make dinner (although I had very little hand in the process) to enjoy a sumptuous and intensely filling barbecue. The weather was perfect for a barbecue, as we lounged around stuffing ourselves and enjoying each others’ company.
The next morning, we awoke early and had a traditional breakfast of “Zhou”, rice porridge, which can be topped with a variety of meats and vegetables. After breakfast, we had a Rotaract meeting. After the meeting we began our return trip back home. On the way, we stopped by the Puli Brewery Factory, also known as the Puli Brewery in the Puli Township. The Puli Brewery is famous in Taiwan for its production of excellent quality Shaohsing Wine. At the brewery, nearly every food product is made using the wine, including cake, crackers, ice cream and popsicles. Nearly every person walking around the brewery museum is toting one of these famous popsicles.
That evening, we made it back into Taipei, feeling fully accomplished and fully stuffed from all of the food we had eaten. It was a wonderfully fun and successful weekend!
Having visited the area surrounding Taipei as well as the north of Taipei and having been impressed on all of these trips, I jumped at the opportunity of joining my roommate and two of his friends on their trip to the very south of Taiwan. Our destination would be the city of Kaohsiung, the second largest city on the island, after Taipei. It is the island’s largest port and one of the world’s largest as well. We planned to stay for three days and three nights. I had heard that the mentality in the South was different than that of the north (a fact that seems to be international) and I braced myself to discover this new side of Taiwan, as my roommate heeded me with the words “Kaohsiung is lawless, it’s the south”.
On a late Thursday evening, we boarded a bus, which cost NTD 500 (15 dollars!) to head to Kaohsiung. The trip lasted approximately 4 hours and we arrived at 5 in the morning at the main train station. First order of business was to find a hotel for the weekend. After walking around the sleepy city for half an hour, we found a cheap hotel (which had actually been advertised to us by a promoter, which resembled more a random late night pedestrian). If I remember correctly the hotel cost us NTD 300 a night (about 10 dollars). Later on in the trip, through a conversation with a Kaohsiung local, I would come to find out that our hotel was a ‘love hotel’, where couples can check in by the hour, lodged right in the center of the red light district. A fact hardly obvious, as prostitution is illegal throughout Taiwan, therefore the only hint is found on street corners, as older folks sit on scooters in order to solicit customers. In fact, our hotel was great, it was clean, safe and the reception clerks were very friendly.
The south definitely has some differences compared to the north. Differences include: 1) the scooter regulations are not as strict and helmets are not as strictly enforced as in Taipei. In Taipei, you would NEVER see someone without a helmet, as you would be fined immediately, 2) people regularly speak Taiwanese versus Mandarin, although they can speak either one fluently, 3) in general, food and products are less expensive than in Taipei. Also, the city streets were wider, therefore in general the atmosphere felt less crowded and hectic, although we were visiting the city on a weekend where a Typhoon was expected, explaining the lack of crowds. Additionally, that particular weekend was the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, one of the four major holidays in Taiwan. Traditionally, people return home to spend time with their families, as well eat moon cake and moon watch. The most recent trend added to this festival is to barbecue, therefore we spotted families on the street sides, lighting their grills and cooking all sorts of vegetables and meats. My friends and I also joined in the festivities with new Taiwanese acquaintances and relaxed outside, eating grilled goods.
During the daytimes, we visited all sorts of great sights:
For being such a small island, Taiwan has an incredibly diverse population. About 15-20 percent (according to Wikipedia) of the population is composed of the aboriginal group known as the Hakkas. About two weekends ago, I had the opportunity to join the Rotary Club of Taipei on their Hakka Culture trip. We visited the Hakkas of Hsinchu County, a county about one hour southwest of Taipei city. The particular tribe living in this area is known as the Atayal tribe. Over the course of the years, most Hakka tribes have inhabited the mountainous regions of Taiwan; therefore I was able to spend the day in a beautiful nature area, surrounded by large, green peaks. In addition, Hakka food is very special and I had the opportunity to try all sorts of new delicacies. Throughout this trip, I was able to further acquaint myself with Rotarians and learn more about Taiwan, as we all traveled together on a comfortable travel bus.
Our first stop was at a known suspension bridge, spanning across a valley. We visited the bridge for about an hour, stopping for an ice cream break and simply enjoying the surrounding scenery.
After the bridge, we drove on to the Hakka town of Nei Wan, where we spend a couple of hours meandering through the busy streets, stopping by various stalls to observe specialty products and of course, try Hakka food specialties.
After spending the lunch hours in Nei Wan, we transferred to a smaller bus, as we would make our way up narrow roads, all the way atop a mountain, which housed the Lavender Cottage. The Lavender Cottage is a beautiful botanical garden, serving as a retreat for city dwellers wanting to escape the crowded cities. The Lavender Cottage has beautiful views, all sorts of plants, a restaurant, food stands, sitting areas and a really neat gift shop. We spent the afternoon lazily strolling about the gardens and trying some of the Cottages fun delicacies, including Lavender ice tea and Lavender ice cream (so good).
Having rested about 3 hours in the cottage, we descended back down the mountain and made our way on to Dashi in Taoyuan country, another county housing a Hakka population. We arrived to the riverside town around 6 pm, just in time for the night market. Once again, I was able to stroll down the streets and sample new flavors and foods (most stands have samples of foods, so you can try everything). I had to restrain myself at this point, as I was bracing myself for a large traditional Hakka meal right after.
The day was completed at the Dashi Garden Restaurant, a rather fancy Hakka restaurant. Dishes were served in the traditional Chinese style: large dishes placed on a lazy Susan at the center of the table. Food ranged from Basil tofu, dumplings soup to gingered pig intestines, which I tried and must admit, surprisingly liked. Dinner with the Rotarians was so enjoyable, as lively chatter and good stories went along with the amazing food.
After the restaurant, we began our trip back into Taipei city, and yes, Karaoke was sung all the way back. We made it back into Taipei around 9:30 that evening. This was a long day, considering the trip had begun at 7:30 that morning. However, my stomach was full, my eyes were satisfied and my soul was replenished.
During the week, my days are filled with various Chinese language opportunities, whether through my classes or through interactions with new Taiwanese acquaintances. On the weekends, my routine changes as I have consistently been able to step out of the classroom and even out of Taipei, to discovery new sides of Taiwan. This last weekend, I first made my way north to Sanjhih Beach to join the Rotary and Rotaract Club of district 3480 in a beach cleanup. Afterwards, I promptly rushed south to the little rural township of Shenkeng, known throughout the island as a top tofu producer.
Early Saturday morning, I met the Rotary and Rotaract clubs in downtown Taipei, where we hoped onto a bus and drove northward to the beach town of Sanjhih. After a jovial bus ride, we slipped into bright yellow jackets, grasped our sieving utensils and set out to make coastal Taiwan a little cleaner.
After three hours, I made my way back into Taipei, where I joined fellow students for our language school’s fieldtrip to Shenkeng. Shenkeng is known for its tofu gourmets; in fact it is proclaimed that the best tofu is made here, since the restaurants use a distinctive cooking method. This place has all different kinds of tofu, such as stinky tofu, dessert tofu, tofu ice cream, tofu cheese, tofu cake and dried tofu. On our field trip, we visited the old street, aligned with tofu vendors, as well as attended a tofu making workshop. If you do not make your own soy milk, but start with a batch, it takes about 30 minutes to turn the batch of milk into a succulent bloc of tofu, which can be eaten raw immediately (along with oyster-soy dipping sauce, yum!)
After this exciting weekend, I also had the special treat of seeing my first traditional Chinese opera. On Wednesday afternoon, I joined my Rotary host counselor’s wife, Christine, at the National Palace Museum, where we viewed a Kun-style Opera of the historic love story “Palace of Eternity”. Traditional Chinese Opera is very unlike our own Western opera’s, but it is fascinating. Live music, accompanies talented actors adorned in beautiful costumes and striking makeup. On an interesting note, it was explained in the program that Kun Opera “is known as the ‘mother of hundred plays’ and the ‘master of all dramas’. It was placed by UNESCO at the top of the 19 ‘Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity,’ confirming it as an art form worthy of reservation and appreciation.” The Opera is part of a free concert series offered every Wednesday at the Palace museum and it seeks to extend the museum’s collection to performance type art.
In my pre-departure research of Taiwan, I had come across several comments noting the general friendliness of the citizens. At the time, I thought it a generic comment meant to appeal to tourists, however, last weekend I experienced this friendly character firsthand. I had met two different native Taiwanese girls in the course of the week, during separate instances. Each offered to take me visit a different part of Taiwan, hence an empty weekend became action-packed. On Saturday, I had the opportunity to visit the north-western towns of Danshui and Bali with one group of friends. With the other friend, I visited the northern most coastal towns of Shihmen, Yeliu and Keelung on Sunday.
Danshui is a historic port town located right on the Danshui river and is known for its preserving relics of Taiwan’s colonial history. I, along with 6 new Taiwanese friends road the MRT to the city, we then took the ferry to the town right across the river, named Bali. Once in Bali, we road bikes along the beautiful riverside biking trail, to the colonial history museum. After biking around Bali for approximately 2 hours and visiting the small town, we returned to Danshui. In Danshui, we visited the downtown area and tried local specialties. The town becomes very crowded on the weekends, as Taipei city dwellers seek relaxation in this charming town. Our final stop was on top of a steep hill, where we ate the town’s famed specialty, A-gay. A-gay is a large noodle-filled cube of tofu that is served in a wonderfully spiced red sauce, well worth the tiring walk up the hill!
On Sunday, my new Taiwanese friend picked me up in the morning and we drove straight up north, making our first stop at the fishermen’s Warf. The Warf has well-known suspension bridge and the town is known for its native dish, rou zong, rice dumplings filled with eggs, seafood and mushrooms and steamed in bamboo leaves.
After this delicious morning snack, we headed to Shihmen (stone gate), which is known for the stone arch which stands by the coastal side of the highway. The view was breath taking. It must be noted that besides all of the interesting stops we made, one of the best parts of the trip is the drive itself. These towns are all connected by the North Coast Highway (Provincial Highway 2), which skirts along sandy beaches, rocky coastlines, steep hills and eye-catching rock formations.
After Shihmen, we drove on to Yeliu, which is known for the Yeliu Geological Park. The park has amazing rock formations, etched into all sorts of strange shapes. The park has a stone bridge, which leads to tip of a long, promontory. My friend and I walked to the very tip, about a 30 minute walk, to catch the view. Simply spectacular!
As evening approached, we headed towards Keelung, Taiwan’s second largest seaport and we made it just in time for its most lively attraction. Keelung is known for its night market (Miaokou Yeshi, or Temple Mouth Night Market). The market has hundreds of restaurants and food stalls, which serve up both native dishes and extremely fresh seafood (not kidding, most of it was still moving around as we ordered it). After my friend and I pretty much ate the night market, we returned full-bellied to Taipei city.
This was such an interesting and fun weekend. Not only was it my first visit outside of Taipei city, but it was a visit done amongst great company. Not to rub it in too much, the food is also amazing, I have yet to have eaten something I didn’t like!
Like your token good traveler, I thought it appropriate to go on an epic walking tour of historic Taipei; therefore early last Sunday, I set out towards the most visited spots in Taipei, not forgetting to bring along such necessary items as my lonely planet travel guide and an obnoxiously large map of the city. If you pull that last item out, you are guaranteed to be offered help with directions. Here are a few of the places I visited:
First stop was the Chiang Kai-shek memorial. The memorial is a large, white marble hall topped by an octagonal step-pitched twin-eave roof of gleaming blue gaze. Inside the memorial is a large statue of the leader, as well as an exhibition dedicated to his life:
The park also includes the nearly identical National concert hall and the National Theater; I am going to try to see a show at either one of the halls.
After touring strolling about the memorial, I headed towards the Wanhua district, one of the oldest areas in Taipei city. In fact, Wanhua was the first settlement in the city. Although the guide recommended visiting this area at night, the district was still booming with various vendors and customers looking for a bargain. I first visited the Longshan Temple (Dragon Mountain Temple), one of Taiwan’s oldest and most important temples. The temple was beautifully decorated, full of detailed columns and colorful murals, however it was extremely crowded, as hundreds of devotees prayed and placed food offerings in front of the statues of various deities.
Cultural note: It is the custom to take back the food offerings and eat them after they have been blessed by the gods. At first, I erroneously thought that people were steeling food devotees had left as offerings. I’m glad I asked my language tutor about this!
My next stop would be the Qingshan temple, but on the way, I made sure to walk through Huasi Street, which by night turns into the Huasi Night Market, also known by the more famed name, Snake Alley. Although during the day time, the street is fairly quiet, you could still see the snakes in their cages, which would make the dinner of patrons later in the evening. I plan on eventually taking a stroll down Snake alley later this fall and even perhaps trying snake meat (maybe). At first glance, Qingshan temple hardly resembles a place of worship, as it is awkwardly sandwiched in between two apartment buildings. Nonetheless this temple was a real treat! As it is less known, the temple is very quiet, but it still has countless architectural delights. It is four stories high and on the fourth story, you can walk out onto a terrace to observe a beautifully decorated roof. I preferred this temple to the Longshan temple with its more somber atmosphere and surprising beauty.
Finally, I visited the Qingshui temple further down the road, which was a lovely, quiet, open-air temple. At this point, I was becoming exhausted. Although it might not seem like a lot was covered, I had walked kilometers. I decided to end my tour at the Ximen metro stop to ride the MRT back home; however my return was delayed by another unexpected discovery. Ximen itself is a bustling area, full of large commercial clothing stores. It is also the location of the Red House Theater, a red-brick building, housing dozens of young up and coming designers and artists, selling their works. The area also has nice coffee shops and terraces, which I am mentally bookmarking as a place to visit on a sunny reading-sort of afternoon.
Well, here is one of my first tours of Taipei. I covered mainly the West/Southwest part, so I still have a lot of the city to visit.
Also worth noting, that same weekend I met the Rotaract Club of District 3480. I attended the bi-monthly meeting and the after-party, which was held at a delicious Islamic food restaurant. I highly recommend this little restaurant, which is discreetly placed in a back street of a busy commercial area. It is called Kunming Islamic Restaurant (if you ever make it out to Taipei, the address is No. 26 Lane 81 Fuhsing N. R. It has been around for years!). The wife does the cooking and the husband takes care of th guests, he’s a really pleasant personality. As we were a larger group, we were seated in our own little room, which resembled more a family dining room than a restaurant area. In addition, we collectively ordered dozens of platter and all shared in the delectable dishes, just like an at-home dinner. I am looking forward to volunteering and traveling with this Rotaract club, whose members were both welcoming and engaging.
Well I’m off! I am still loving this life in Taipei and I’ll keep you posted on my new adventures!