The Night Market – Taiwan Day 7

If you are looking for nightlife in Taipei, you should not go try and find the fanciest club or the greatest bar, but instead, you should head to one of the many night markets, and participate in what the locals like to do for fun, eat street food. It is a great tradition here, and the food that you find at these markets is not just good, but it might be some of the best food that you can find in the city.

I went to the Raohe St. Night Market, and the city sections off the street to traffic so vendors can set up their stalls and cook their food. You know you are in the right place because you can smell the aroma of good coming at you from a few blocks away, and as soon as you enter, your stomach just yearns to be filled with some of the things that it is smelling. That is except for the stinky tofu. It is a fermented tofu that is a delicacy of Taiwan, and when you get close to a booth that sells it, you know why it now has that name. I did not try any partly because of the smell, but partly because I am not a big fan of tofu, but that does not mean that I couldn’t find other regional delicacies there.

One of my favorites was a steamed peppered pork bun. Basically it was peppered pork that was rolled up in a dough and then baked on the wall inside of a round oven. They would pull them out hot, put them in a wrapper and sell them to you. I knew it would be good because of the queue of people that lined up to get one.

That was the best way to find out which type of food was the best. Besides smelling something that would grab your attention, there were always those lines of people. If it wasn’t for one of those lines, I would have missed another one of the better dishes that the market had to offer.

There was a desert that could only be found in the market, and it was fun to watch the guy make each individual one. Basically it would start off with a crepe, that he would first fill up with the shavings from a block of a peanut brittle. He would then add in three scoops of a pineapple ice cream, and then add a little cilantro before wrapping it all up in a small little burrito.

It was the perfect treat to end the night with, and it was one of the more memorable experiences from going to Taipei. It is a stop that has to be made while visiting here, or it would be like you never learned what the place and people were actually like. It is the heart of the city, and it doesn’t matter which one you go to, you’ll always find a pulse there.

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The Typhoon that Never Came – Taiwan Day 6

We were lucky on this trip to Taiwan. The whole time we were in Taipei, there were rumors rumbling around about a typhoon that was supposed to hit the island on Friday and Saturday. It was to bring with it heavy wind and rains, and most of our time looked like would be spent indoors as we tried to ride out the storm. It was to be a big one too. The first reports of the storm talked about it as being a category 5 typhoon. We even got an alert early on in the week to see if we wanted to change our plans to avoid the destruction that was soon to be unleashed on this tiny island in the Pacific Ocean.

But as the week progressed, the tale of the typhoon soon changed. The course it was going to take started to veer away from the island and took a more direct course towards Japan. The power behind it started to diminish as well and the typhoon turned into a category 3 storm. This did not mean that we were not supposed to get rain on the last days of our vacation, and we spent those days carrying around umbrellas in case we started to get hit with the downpour that was predicted to come.

But the rains never really came. Yes, we did get a few bursts of rain here and there, and we even got to use those umbrellas that we carried around with us all over the place, but for the most part, Taipei is used to the rain, and built its city accordingly. All of the streets have really wide sidewalks with at least half of the sidewalk covered with part of the building. It makes the city a great walking town, even in the rain. Yes, if you forget your umbrella, there are couple of moments you need to dash across the street so you do not get wet, but for the most part, if you play it right, you can stay pretty dry.

The city also knows that the rains can create some beautiful scenery. I have been to many other cities in the world that do not get this fact. They build their buildings and let the rain pound on the outside of them until they look like dirty representations of what their glory used to be. They could go out and clean those buildings or repaint them, but why do that? The rains are just going to come again and turn them into the dirty eyesore that they are destined to be. Taipei definitely takes this attitude as well, but they have also built some great parks with lots of trees and flowers that distract you from the ugliness of the buildings and give you a little reprieve from the bustle of the city.

One such location is Elephant Mountain, or as the locals know it, Xiangshan. It is the last stop on the red line of the subway and takes you out to the far reaches of the town. If you go there, you do need to walk through one of the more beautiful parks that the city has to offer, and find your way to the path that will take you up to one of the best viewing spots of the city. The hike is not that hard, but as soon as you hit the forest that covers the mountain, the humidity jumps up a couple of notches, and drenches you in sweat. It is also the perfect environment for mosquitoes, so if you do go, I would recommend bringing some bug spray with you because without it, you will be eaten alive. Or all of this might have been that we went to do this little hike when there was supposed to be a typhoon hitting the city of Taipei, and we were just getting the residual after effects of what it really could have been.

Despite these minor annoyances, the hike was worth it. The views were spectacular, and there is even a little platform that was built so people could see the perfect spot to watch the crazy fireworks that come whenever Tai Pei 101 decides to shoot them off. It is also really close to that building as well which would make for a great day if you start with the hike and finish with food and exploring that area of the city of Taipei.

Outside of the City – Taiwan Day 5

One of the nice things about Taiwan is that it is a small island, and it is not always focused on its biggest city, Taipei. In fact, the real heart of this country comes from getting outside of the city and connecting to the natural surroundings that can be found on the island. There are many beautiful hikes that are waiting to be explored, and there is a huge coastline with beaches, and other features that are worth your time. The best part of all of these features is that they are not that far away from the city. By bus, it only takes a little over an hour to get to Yehliu where you can explore a geopark there with many crazy rock structures.

The battering of the sea, and the unique geology of this place has created its own natural art gallery. Everywhere I turned I was able to see a new piece that would allow me to come up with my own interpretation of what it is. Some of them are a little more famous than others, such as the Fairy’s Shoe, and the Queen’s Head, but there are enough of them that did not have a sign telling me what other people have called them, so I was able to come up with my own names for those stone structures. These were also the ones that were not crowded with tourists, so it made it not as bad to stand there and look at them for awhile.

And yes, the tourists are here. Like any other natural structure in the world, people will flock to get their pictures with the sights. But once again, I was lucky. I went on a day that was promising to dump rain on the tiny island, and this kept many people indoors afraid of what would happen if they would out in the open when it started to rain. Luckily for me, it never rained. Instead, I was able to enjoy the sights with the cool ocean air blowing in, and I got the added bonus of being able to watch the waves crash into the shore, and watch as the slow chisel of time continued to create the sculptures.

There is also a path at this place that lead to the northern tip of the island and the lighthouse that is perched on the cliff there. For some reason, there were not many people on this path. It could have been that there was long stretch of stone steps that I needed to climb up in order to get to the top of the cliff, or it could have been that there just wasn’t that many people there to begin with, but either way, it was worth the hike. The views that were offered because of the extra effort were amazing, and it was nice to get away from what crowds were actually down by the rocks.

There were also some other structures that were a ways away from the other ones that nobody seemed to care about. They seemed to be ignored, but were some of the best ones out there, and only a couple of brave photographers made their way out to these structures to get the picture of them. The best part was, I do not think that any of them had been named yet. I could be wrong, but this one will always be called New Moon Rising in my mind. It is not important what the real name is because that is what it is now.

All in all, this little day trip from Taipei is worth the hike out, and if you are patient enough, and go on the right day that is a little overcast and threatens rain, you will be able to get a bunch of pictures that make it look like you had the whole beach to yourself. It helps to get you away from the crowds of the city for a little while, and find something new and interesting that is not one nature’s artistic eye can create.

And Then Came the Rain – Taiwan Day 4

Like all big cities of the world, Tai Pei is more a collection of small boroughs that come together to create one metropolitan area. Each little corner has its own distinct flavor and attractions, and people make their way to spot to see what they have to offer while never really leaving the loving embrace of the city. I wish I could say the same of Xinbeitou, but when I took the subway to this part of the Tai Pei, I felt as if I had traveled out of the city and found myself in a small mountain town on the island of Taiwan. It had more of a sense of community than other places I have seen here, and it gave off a slower vibe than the heart of the city.

There was probably two reasons for this feeling. The first was because of the rain. This little corner of Tai Pei is really a touristy part of the city, and I am sure on nice sunny days, I would be able to see people wander all over the paths that this place has to offer. But like all rain storms, more people found the shelter of indoor activities instead of braving the weather and coming out to this place.

The second reason is because of the hot springs that are located here. If you have never immersed yourself into these healing waters, you never have understood what it means to unwind and let the problems of the world disappear. There are public pools that can be found by taking a short hike up the hill from the subway station, and it houses three different pools with varying levels of heat to them. Unlike other natural hot springs, this one does not smell of rotten eggs, and the waters here are so relaxing.

Granted, being one of the few people that come from the western part of the world, I had many people stare at me, wondering what I was doing at this location, but it was the perfect outdoor activity to do on a rainy day. While I soak myself in the water, the cooling rain beat down on my head, and I was constantly in balance between the two varying ways that water can cleanse. It also helped with what would have been an overcrowded situation. I am sure if it was not rainy, there would have been more people at this location.

I am sorry that I was unable to get pictures from inside of the hot springs, but the place has a strict no picture policy that makes sense to me. People are going there to relax and they probably do not want to be a part of many people’s vacation photos, so in order to respect their privacy, nobody takes any pictures. If you do ever go, you need to make sure that you bring the right kind of swimsuit. This mean that the fabric has to be a swimsuit and not beach shorts. They checked my suit before I entered, and I did not have the right one. Luckily, they sell the right kind of suits at the place, and are willing to let you buy one after they yell at you a bit for not bringing the right swimsuit, but I am used to this. It seems to be something that happens to me on a regular basis while I live in Asia. I am always doing something wrong based on the customs out here, and they are quick to let me know this.

Even with these minor stresses, it was still the place that allowed me to breathe for a moment from this busy life that I live. It wasn’t only the hot springs that made the voyage worth it, but the small town feel, and the beautiful sights that were around every corner. This is a must do thing for anybody coming out to Tai Pei, and it doesn’t matter what the weather is like when you go. I would assume that the colder and wetter it is outside, the better the experience will be.

Sights from Street Level – Tai Pei Day 3

One of the dangers of being in Tai Pei during this time of year is the fact that at any time you might be caught in a rain storm. We have already been caught in a couple of them, and we have learned that it is important to always carry around an umbrella just in case one of these storms breaks out. But on the other hand, when it is beautiful outside, it is important to take full advantage of it an enjoy the weather while it lasts. This is what I did yesterday as I wandered the streets of the city, and saw some of the older sites that it has to offer.

Even though, Tai Pei is not as big of an international city as some of the other ones in east Asia such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, or Singapore, there are a lot of east Asian influences that have come to this city and shaped it into the way that it is right now. It has at various times been occupied by both the Chinese and the Japanese and at one time, I think that the Dutch controlled this little island. You can see this influence in the city’s architecture, culture, and food. There is also a mix of old building that blend in with the more modern skyscrapers to give this city a lot of character.

But it is the culture that really stands out when you walk through the older streets of the city. Many times on my walk, I came across temples and shrines that marked the older Taoist spiritual connection. Even though each one of these temples had a specific deity that was worshipped there, many shrines were set up to various entities that people could come to worship or give offerings to. The Lungsham temple was a great example of this. The main focus of the temple was meant to be for Guanyin, but many people came to pay their respects to some of the other shrines. The more popular ones were for the god of literature and the god of war, but by entering the place, you could feel the respect that was given by the people who came here to worship.

But even though there were many Taoist temples in the city, there were still many places where old Buddhist monuments still stood. They were not as prominent, but it showed that blend of eastern Asian cultures existed in this town.

It made for an interesting day of seeing the different corners that Tai Pei had to offer. It was refreshing to see the city was not all about shopping and eating, but also was about that spiritual connection that all of us search for to give our lives meaning. There were many times on this walk that gave me that slight respite that allowed me to feel that the connection I was making was not only about the culture that was here, but was a more personal experience that allowed me to slow down and understand the world better from my perspective. This is what a day of seeing the city from the perspective of the people brings.

And of course there was always a moment to find some food as well. You are also able to finding the blending of cultures here as well. We stopped at a sushi place in the heart of the shopping district during lunch. I’m not sure, but it looked like all of the signs were in Chinese even though this is a typical Japanese dish. We were also asked to talk in the limited Mandarin that we knew to order even though what we were ordering came from a different part of east Asia. It made me think that even though there is not a huge western influence in this little corner of the world, it is nice to know that they are still willing to blend cultures together to create a new one that is fun and delicious at the same time.

Tai Pei 101 – Taiwan Day 2

One of Tai Pei’s greatest landmarks is Tai Pei 101, the large skyscraper that looks over the city. It wasn’t always here, but it has become one of the most recognizable buildings ever since its completion in 2004. It is not only because of its unique architectural style, but also because it is the eighth tallest building in the world. It begs for anybody that comes to this town to come and visit it and see what it has to offer in the inside.

Of course when you get inside, you are only allowed access to three of the top floors where the observatory is, and the bottom six levels where the mall exists with its pricey shops and amazing food court. Many people who come here head straight up to the top level to overlook the city. It is a great way to get your orientation to the sprawling landscape, and look at the little neighborhoods that you might want to visit while you are out here. It is also a great place to watch the weather that comes rolling through this city next to the ocean. It apparently gets battered by mother nature quite a bit, which makes this place a bigger marvel because why would they create such a place if they knew that a huge storm might take it down at any time.

But that is what makes this an engineering landmark as well. When they designed the building, they installed a wind damper. I had no idea what this would be, but looking at it made me understand how something like this could make a building like this safe from typhoons and tsunamis. Basically it is a huge ball that is supported in the inside of the building by steal cables and a hydraulic system, so when wind does batter the building, this 660 metric ton weight will take the brunt of the force. They claim that by having this device at the top of the building, it makes it 40% safer against the forces of nature, and you won’t even feel the building sway during one of these storms.

How do I know about all of this you ask. Well, like all other places in Asia, whenever something needs to be explained, what better way to do it than create a couple of cute cartoon characters to explain it to the world. Cur the Damper Babies, a collection of strange characters that tell all about the wind damper in a video constantly playing and switching through different languages right behind the wind damper.

All of the excitement of being so high above the landscape can make anybody hungry, and the food court on the bottom level offers many options for meals that should satisfy any person. The most popular place is easily the dim sum restaurant, Din Tai Fung. During lunch, there is a two hour wait to even get a table in the restaurant, but you can always put your name in and go wandering around the rest of the mall while you wait.

It is worth the wait to because the food is amazing. The danger is that you will always want to order more than you need, but I would recommend getting a won ton, a dumpling or two, and some type of soup to supplement your meal. You will leave the place satisfied even though you had to build up an appetite while waiting for you food to appear.

Tai Pei 101 is the perfect start to an adventure out in this city, and I would recommend going there first to get a little taste of what this town has to offer.

Why I Travel – Taiwan Day 1

Do I think traveling is important? Do I think that if a person stays within the confines of their home and their community that their view of the world is limited and they really do not understand it even though they may claim that they do? Do I believe that it is important to feel uncomfortable in a new society in order to find out who I really am and what I really believe in?

Of course I do.

Many people have told me that I am lucky to be able to live the life that I have, but I live this life because it is the one that I chose to do. I love being able to take off from time to time to go to crazy places in the world and look at the weird way that they perceive humanity. I love the fact that when I go to these places and meet the people there, I meet more people like me. These people have the same hopes, the same dreams, the same fears, and the same preconceived notions of how the world should be run.

I have learned that the more we think we are different, the harder it is to realize that in actuality, we are all the same. Yes, our customs might be different, and we might look up to different gods, and follow different structures within our governments, but when you get down to the heart of it, we all are the same. There is only one way that you can realize this as a person, and that is to get on that big plane, and visit a place that you know is going to be dramatically different than the one you are from. If you really want to learn this, you should pick a place that scares you a bit. You might see some weird things as you wander around, but in the end, you will be a wiser person because of it.

This is my hope as I explore Taiwan on this break. The first day has only been a train ride to my apartment, and a quick dinner before bed, but it has already proved to me that this will be a weird and wonderful place to explore. I will share more of that experience in the days to come.