Ni Hao, Taiwan: Part Two

Continued from
Ni Hao, Taiwan: Part One

 Ni hao = “hello” in Mandarin Chinese, Taiwan’s most common dialect 

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It’s been a few weeks since I returned from my first trip to Taiwan, and the sights, sounds, tastes (and even a few smells) seem to be growing stronger rather than fading with time.

I’ve never been anywhere that was so complicated, visually assaulting, gentle, calm, puzzling and yet somehow familiar, sometimes all in a given day.

But just when I thought I had a handle on the situation, Taiwan would surprise me yet again.

 

It’s not like I hadn’t seen Taichung on my trip itinerary, it’s just that, well…I’d never heard of it.

Staring at it wide-eyed from the 28th-floor restaurant at the Hotel One, I sort of couldn’t believe it had just been there all this time. The third-largest city in Taiwan (after Taipei in the north and Kaohsiung in the southwest), it’s a sea of concrete with ribbons of parkland and a thriving art community. It’s also the birthplace of the Taiwanese suncake, a flaky, traditional, pork-fat-laden baked good given as gifts for milestone celebrations.

I’d love to explore the city further, and have only this to say: Everybody Taichung tonight.

 

 

The subways and trains in Taiwan are some of the most modern I’ve ever seen. In the Taipei metro, surfaces fairly gleam and trains glide in and out on a dime, their crowded cars full of snugly-sandwiched human beings. The high-speed rail is still a new concept here, slicing travel times across the country in half or more. Seats are padded, there’s plenty of leg room, and even the bathrooms are clean. Sliding in and out of tunnels, urban-rural-urban landscapes light the darkness with rushing rivers, apartment buildings, temples and fields of rice.

 

 

The silliest thing I ate in Taiwan: honey toast from the Dazzling Cafe. Yes, those are pink-and-white-striped marshmallows, and no, this isn’t the new layout for the Candyland game board. It’s a box of sugared (and disappointingly dry) white bread filled with cream, fruit, more bread and more cream. The splashy menu at both locations, laid end to end, would look a lot like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

This ridiculous breadbox dessert craze was first a hit in Japan, where it started as an homage to the artistry of Parisian treats. Waitresses wear white frilled aprons, and teenagers and twenty-somethings love this place, flocking to both Taipei locations for afternoon tea and a rousing session of photographing everything they eat. (Here are my own photos to add to that pile.)

 

 

Taiwan is an island, but on my trip I only made it to the coast once. In the far north, about a half-hour from Taipei, the Pacific Ocean looks different, dreamier, more eastern than the wide, tumultuous version I see here at home in L.A. From the shore, I kept scanning the horizon, hoping for an antique junk ship to drift into view. (Never did happen.)

 

 

The most glamorous place I stayed was the Fleur de Chine Hotel on Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County; this was the pulse-regulating view from my balcony.

One of Taiwan’s most popular spots for a getaway, Sun Moon Lake, the largest inland lake in East Asia, is half-blue, half-green, gauzy in the morning humidity and glassy and smooth by midday. I treated myself to a morning walk around only a piece of it, the paved path shaded by bamboo and soaring podocarpus trees, leading up to the spectacularly gilded Wen Wu Temple.

I could have happily stayed around here for days, sailing, wandering, or gazing at the lake from the swanky rooftop bar at the hotel.

 

 

And speaking of water: I, like many other Westerners, found the women’s bathroom situation in Taiwan just a scoche awkward. Since I generally have to pee about once an hour, I saw many, many bathrooms during my eight-day trip; about 1/3 of the time, only a squat toilet was available. Helpful signs sometimes prepare you for the delights within, but you should also know that toilet paper is often on a public roll outside the stalls — and woe be to the not-so-limber.

 

 

On a visit to the Hugo Assam Tea Farm in Nantou County, I saw absurdly skinny palm trees that put The Lorax to shame. Turns out these are actually betelnut trees, which bear a nut that many people in Taiwan use as a caffeine substitute. All across the country, little roadside stands offer mouth-staining betelnuts to weary drivers. Using flashing rainbow lights to grab attention at night, the stands are often little glass boxes that house scantily-clad young girls whose job it is to attract business.

And just when I imagined I’d thought of every job I don’t want…there you go.

 

 

In Taiwan, tea is even bigger business than betelnuts. Throw a stick, hit a teahouse — or a tea tasting. At Hugo Assam, I sampled four kinds of tea back to back and found that the highest-quality blends of green and assam were too bitter for my taste. My comfort zone was one of Taiwan’s most popular teas, called Emerald Black.

The Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House in Taichung is both gorgeous and (sometimes questionably) famous for inventing Taiwanese bubble milk tea in 1987; it’s still one of the few places in the country to use preservative-free tapioca pearls and hand-blend the cream and tea for each serving. 

Back in the States, where the drink is called boba tea and the tapioca is generally  full of preservatives, I’d been unimpressed with the drink’s cloying sweetness and gluey texture; however, I fell in love with Chun Shui Tang’s more elegant, lightly-sweet version. The enormous glass I’m sipping on here (from a traditionally wide straw) is the smallest size offered at the tea house, proving that Starbucks doesn’t have a lock on the Trenta concept.

As an aside: the term boba, signifying bubble milk tea with large tapioca pearls, actually means “big breasts” in Mandarin.

(You’re welcome.)

 

 

In rural Nantou County, these two beautifully-preserved older gentlemen were simply standing around by the roadside, watching the world drive by. They looked like models from a catalogue shoot for leisurewear, and trust me — I would have treasured that catalogue.

 

 

Across the street from where my beloved older gentlemen were standing, an impromptu game of baseball broke out amongst a group of local boys. The bat was just a big stick, the stiff-leather glove seemed brand new and their field was a weed-choked blacktop beside an ornate temple. The game was no less serious for its lack of fanfare, as many Taiwanese people are crazy about baseball. In November 2011, in fact, the country will play host to the Asia Series.

 

 

This little girl was hanging out with her grandfather in front of an elaborate Taoist temple in Tainan. I don’t know what I loved more: her world-weary, all-knowing expression, or her highly enviable yellow motorcycle. Ah, why choose?

 

 

In the Taipei flagship of the Eslite Bookstore chain, a modern and fabulous six-story monument to Taiwanese commerce and global reading material that’s open 24 hours, I, um…spied this awesome logo. Stuck to the window of a shop selling the unique work of Taiwanese designers, I found it simultaneously necessary and ironic in a country where almost every product is a knock-off of something else.

 

 

Night markets all over the country are magnets for young couples, who come out to enjoy (slightly) cooler after-dark temperatures and go shopping, play carnival and arcade games, and gorge themselves on street food amidst blazes of electricity that would surely confound the DarkSky Finder.

My pick for most adorable trend at night markets: Taiwanese boyfriends carrying their girlfriends’ purses for them.

 

 

At the increasingly famous Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant (sometimes called the El Bulli of Taiwan) in the verdant, northern mountains of XiZhi City, Buddhism informs the business model and the setting and architecture evoke the 50-odd years when Japan occupied the country. The multi-course meals here, quiet tea houses and meandering paths that criss-cross a rushing, rocky stream made this place one of my top two favorite day trips from Taipei.

 

 

My absolute favorite day trip from Taipei was a wander through the vintage romance of Jiufen, an early 20th-century mountain-top town that boomed amidst the gold rush in nearby Fu-Shan. Its dark, cobblestone warrens of pedestrian-only alleyways snake past food stalls and dozens of tiny shops to arrive at restaurants and tea houses with ocean views. Every right or left leads to a new adventure, and the gentle glow of paper lanterns makes everyone here look like they’re in love.

 

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My trip to Taiwan was sponsored by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau,
but all observations and opinions are my own.
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Things To Do
Taipei

Comments

  1. An ideal destination for travelers to visit Taiwan, known for its world famous tea houses, night market and budhist culture. Unforgettable trip and must recommend others to visit here.

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