A Time for Taiwan
We were leaving Japan and heading towards Taiwan, our second country in the continent of Asia. At roughly the size of the state of Maryland, this country still boasts the 21st largest economy in the world. We were focusing our explorations of Taipei and on the scenic areas out by the Taroko Gorge, on the country’s east side. We were most excited to delve into their street food culture and do some hiking. It was sure to be an awesome time.
What We Did
Day 182 (1/20/17): Leaving for the airport early, we easily navigated the Japanese public transit system for the last time. We then boarded a four-hour flight bound or Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. The main airport is located outside of town, so we took an Uber for about an hour into the heart of the city. We were staying in the Ximending district known for its nightlife, street vendors, shopping, popular amongst young tourists and locals alike. After some communication tug of war, we ended up in our apartment and dropped our bags anxious to get something to eat for dinner. We headed into the middle of Ximending, and straight to a place I had read about called Prince Cheese Potato. We also stopped at Hot-Star Chicken and a few other vendors to stuff ourselves on the amazing street food this city had to offer. Giant chicken cutlets in-hand, we spent the next 20 minutes watching a magician/break dancer perform in the middle of the pedestrian streets. He did it all from juggling and dancing, to deep throating a balloon. It was quite amusing. Afterwards, we spent some more time wandering the market, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells that came with it. The boys then returned back to the apartment while Katie and I went in search of a cheap place to get our hair washed (which is apparently a thing to do here). We found an awesome place on the second floor of a building near our apartment and spent the next hour in utter bliss. Returning home relaxed and with fabulous hair, we spent the rest of the night watching movies and getting ready to explore more of Taipei.
Day 183 (1/21/17): Adam was charged with planning today’s activities. We started with a big breakfast at a local shop around the corner. We decided to stop when we discovered it was cheap and filled with local patrons, and it did not disappoint. Now stuffed we walked to the Bopiliao Ancient Street and played around in the children’s museum featuring exhibits about the area and the development of education in Taiwan (yes, it was kind of a random combination of topics) before heading to the Lungshan Temple of Manka. We spent some time wandering through the halls of the temple, observing the details of the structure, the hefty offering tables bursting with gifts and the local people in prayer. The smell of incense was everywhere. We left the temple and walked to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park. It is a massive complex dedicated to Chiang Kai-shek, the former president of the Republic of China who served during WWII and was a part of the Chinese Civil War. The park features a giant multi-arch entrance-way, gardens, ponds and a huge memorial hall flanked by the National Concert Hall and the National Theater. We walked up to the memorial hall (actually Katie and I ran in a very Rocky-esk moment), which reminded me a lot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. but with typical Taiwanese architectural style. Inside the hall, we watched the very elaborate and impressive changing of the guard, which was supervised by a Taiwanese version of Ice-Man from Top Gun. Then, we briefly toured the museum under the hall before finding a nice spot on one of the ponds to post up, eat lunch, and play some euchre. On our walk back to our apartment we walked through a local artists craft fair of sorts and ended up in Ximen’s Red House, the gay district of Taipei. We checked out some of the happy hour deals before returning to the apartment. We rested for a bit, then took public transit to Taipei’s most famous night market: the Shilin Night Market. We spent the next several hours swimming through the crowds of the market, exploring the shops selling clothing and electronics, marveling at the carnival games and of course, sampling the food. Adam and I split a fresh grilled steak served on a searing hot iron plate over egg noodles and smothered with a hearty black pepper sauce. The rich yolk from the egg cooking beneath the sauce added to the decadence of each bite. Katie opted for a bowl of braised pork noodles, which was one of the Taiwanese specialties, and had a satisfying bacon-like consistency and flavor. Justin, with his unending love of all things meat, chose a small sausage wrapped in another sausage (no joke – the big white sausage is sliced down the middle and acts as a bun for the smaller red sausage). We exited the basement for a bit more sight-seeing on the first floor when we passed a stall selling a cake that smelled so good we all stopped to take a look. It was a shop selling giant slices of Castella Cake and we happily waited in line to get a steaming hot chocolate piece that was the size of an encyclopedia. Finally full, we headed back to the apartment for the night.
Day 184 (1/22/17): Today we decided to take the subway out to the end of the line and travel to Maokong. Maokong is a small mountain village located in Wenshan District of Taipei. The bulk of the city’s tea used to come from the area and large number of tea shops pay homage to this history. To get to the village, you must take a gondola. The gondola stopped at the zoo, and an area with several temples before winding its way to the top. We skipped the zoo, but decided to make a stop to see the temples. We visited three temples and several shrines, all built into the side of the jungle covered mountain. Being almost alone up there, we got some awesome pics and wandered the circular path until ending up back at the gondola. We then hopped on for another quick trip up to Maokong. The top of the hill was full of vendors selling street food (the sausages looked AWESOME), and tea shop pedaling local delicacies. We opted out of tea once we saw the price tag at a few places (not really that expensive, but the cheap prices in Asia have spoiled us). However, we walked down the road to another temple where we ate our packed lunch and enjoyed the view anyways. Once finished, we took the gondola back down the hill, boarded a bus (once we got one to stop) and headed for the viewpoint atop Elephant Mountain. We had read it was supposed to have a great view of Taipei so we walked past the Taipei 101 building in all its glory on our way to the trail head. We fought the crowd and made our way to the top to get the perfect picture before returning back to the Ximending area. We stopped for dinner at a local place specializing in braised pork rice/noodles and soups, which nobody thought was that spectacular and headed out to the pedestrian streets of Ximending. We found a place selling mini custom pies and split a few of the cream-filled ones. After a little bit, Katie and Justin were feeling sleepy and headed back for the night while Adam and I spent another hour or so wandering around, sampling more street food (lord knows that boy had to get another corn dog) and exploring the shops and alleys. We found an awesome building where almost the entire first floor was full of watches and I watched my husband skipping around like a kid in a candy store showing me the ones he liked best and explaining to me the different between a fashion watch and a timepiece. Once our feet were sore, we too returned to the apartment for some shut eye.
Day 185 (1/23/17): We woke up early so that we could watch the Patriots/Steelers playoff game (it started a 7:40 a.m. here) on NFL Ticket. We weren’t invested in the outcome as both teams were pretty equally despised by our group, but we missed football so we decided to tune in for the game anyways. After it was over, we went to breakfast at this lovely local spot we had found a few days ago to fill our bellies before venturing out on a bike ride along Taipei’s riverfront. After painstakingly locating the U-bike station closest to the park entrance we were determined to do the entire trail (it was 36.5 miles in total). Well, after about a five miles we decided we were being overly ambitious. We were facing incredibly strong headwinds the entire time we pedaled, making our faces chap in the cold and our calves burn with effort. A little over 2.5 hours and roughly 9 miles later, we decided we had had enough and returned to Ximending. Craving a ton of food and feeling a bit tired of the typical Taiwanese fare, we stopped for an early dinner at an Italian place. The boys had a decent meal but Katie and I ended up with four cheese pizzas, where we are fairly sure the “fourth cheese” was actually honey. Only the unlimited fountain drinks and cheap price tag were enough to make us feel a little better about the place. On the way back we detoured by our favorite little pie vendor for a second helping of cream-filled pastries before returning to the apartment to shower and relax. Although we had every intention of going back out, our beds were too comfy and we ended up just falling asleep.
Day 186 (1/24/17): We set our alarms and woke up early to catch a 7:00 train for the east coast of the country. We were staying at the Taroko Lodge, and our host met us at the train station and took us back to our lodging. Wasting no time, we dropped our stuff off and climbed back in the van bound for the top of the mountain in Taroko National Park. We began our exploration of the park with a 40-minute hike to a waterfall and suspension bridge. After getting some nice shots, we strapped on our helmets and mounted our bikes in preparation for our 28 km (18 miles) downhill tour of the gorge. We stopped at 7-11 to get lunch and buy some snacks before continuing on ho a nearby temple, where we walked up to a giant gold Buddha set in front of the sharp cliffs of the mountain. Katie and Justin opted to do another short hiking trail while Adam and I continued down the mountain, stopping at a few shrines and lookout points along the way. We met back up with our Temporary Nomad pals by the Swallow Crossing and continued on. We took a minute to hike down to the water’s edge and marvel at the intense current and multicolored marble stones littering the sides of the river. We then made our way down the winding path if the mountain road until we reached the Temple of the Eternal Spring, which is set up higher in the mountain overlooking the gorge. We got our bikes to the trailhead (Katie and I pushing them, whilst simultaneously trying to keep our balance on the slick roads), and crossed the suspension bridge to the old stone steps. From there, we made a 15-minute steep climb up until we reached the temple. We were the only people up there. It was insanely cool looking over the gorge from the temple walls, each of us taking turns to ring the bell meant to bring peace to the souls of the mountains. We (carefully) left the temple and made our way out of the park and to the base of the mountain. We stopped at 7-11 again to get some supplies for the evening before returning to out lodge to chill out. We all needed a good rest, especially if we were to be ready for our other hike the next morning.
Day 187 (1/25/17): We got up early again and had a delicious breakfast of eggs, fruit, bread, jams, and tea on the front porch of the lodge. After finishing, our host drove us up the mountain to the trailhead of the Zhuilu Old Trail. We had to get permits to do the hike, as the Taiwanese government does not allow more than 50 people on the trail each day add required you provide your passport information and group size to ensure they can track everyone gets back safely. The hike itself was pretty difficult. It took us about an hour and forty-five minutes to reach the end of the 3.1 km trail. The trail itself is extremely steep after you cross the initial suspension bridge, with more stairs and sharp grades than I care to remember. You are going straight up almost the entire time. However, the view you get from the last third or half a kilometer is well worth it. You get the best view of Taroko Gorge possible, from an incredible height, all from a trail that run right along the edge of the mountain. Literally. You are holding onto a wire strung along the mountain as you walk; you are that close to the edge. Justin opted to skip the last part of the trail, as his fear of heights prevented him from going further. So Katie, Adam, and I reached the edge alone, and then took the trail back with Justin to the bridge. On the bridge we had a small lunch courtesy of a wonderful Taiwanese couple before we returned to the lodge to get our stuff. We then boarded a train back to Taipei. When we reached the main train station we all decided to splurge on Subway sandwiches for dinner, sick of noodles and rice for the moment. We then made our way to our hostel near the airport, and after some miscommunication, got checked-in and settled down. We watched the Martian and went to bed, ready for an early flight in the morning.
What We Learned
- Although it is not about Taiwan, one of the things I discovered when we arrived in Taiwan is how much I missed the Japanese toilets. Taiwanese toilets aren’t bad or anything, there is just something very disappointing about sitting on a cold seat again, with no hope of hearing the toilet play music…..
- Street food is Taipei is king. Every night market and street corner has vendors bursting with awesome and unusual street fair. Just during our first night in Ximending, wandering through their market we tried Prince Potato Cheese, which is essentially deep fried mashed potatoes stuffed with egg, ham, bacon, turkey, broccoli, corn, and pineapple and smothered in melted cheese sauce. We also tried Hot Star Chicken, which serves fried chicken cutlets the size of your face and sprinkled with the seasoning of your choice. Then, we ventured into the market sampling sausages, fish balls, butter cake, and more. During our night in Shilin, Taipei’s biggest, craziest, and most famous market we tried pepper steak with noodles, braised pork noodles, a sausage within a sausage and castella cake. We also passed several small vendors selling grilled mushrooms, fried meat and fish cakes, doughnuts, pork crackers, and much much more. There was something for every taste and style and we tried to get as much of it all as we possibly could.
- At the temples, you will see people softly speaking towards the temple altars in Mandarin and then tossing two wooden, crescent-moon shaped blocks with one flat side and one round side onto the ground. They then look at them, pick them up and either move on or do it again. What we discovered was that these blocks, called jiaobei or moon blocks, were being used to ask questions of the gods and receive answers. After purifying the blocks with incense, you ask your yes or no question and then toss the blocks. The round side is called the yin and the flat side is called the yang. If you get a yin and yang, the answer is ‘yes’. If you get two yins, the answer is ‘no’. If you get two yangs the gods are laughing at you because it is a question you already know the answer to. Katie and Justin both tried it out, hoping to get some guidance.
- While the view is good from elephant mountain, you get a better view of the whole city of Taipei from the Maokong gondola and the stops along it. Elephant Mountain is packed with people, all trying to get onto this one small viewing platform and snap their must-have picture. And, while it does give you a terrific view of the Taipei 101 building, you couldn’t get as good of a feel for how big the city really is as you could from higher up. Also, people call it a hike. It is not a hike, and this is coming from a novice hiker. It is a roughly 10-15 minute walk up a steep flight of stairs. So, if you think you are turned off by the word “hike”, I bet you can handle it, and if you’re an avid hiker, don’t expect much.
- Taiwanese people are so friendly! In Taipei, everyone was always polite and amicable, but once we got out into the country we were greeted very warmly by all we met. While hiking on the trail, everyone we met said “hello” or “good morning” or even “welcome to Taiwan” and gave us big smiles. We even met one very special couple on the bridge at the trailhead to the Zhuilu Old Trail. We were standing on the bridge admiring the view, seeing as we finished early and had some time to kill, when we were approached by a man offering us two wrapped items. He gave us a homemade rice ball stuffed with egg and red bean paste and a local baked potato. We sat on the bridge stuffing our faces, and when we went to thank these people for their kind gesture, they gave us two Soyjoy bars, a bottle of water, and a can of some drink meant to increase your ion levels. We snapped a couple pictures with them before we both went on our separate ways. So far, they are the friendliest people we have met.
- Getting a traditional Taiwanese hair wash was a definite highlight and something I wish we had back in the U.S. For just $7.50, a wonderful Taiwanese angel (maybe that’s just how I thought of her in my head during the process) will shampoo and condition your hair multiple times while providing you with a scalp and neck massage that will give you chills. And, thankfully, they take their time doing it. Afterwards, they sit you in a comfy salon chair, bring you tea, and do another massage of your shoulders while your hair dries a bit. They finish it all up with a hair-styling of your choice (Katie and I both chose blow outs and straight hair), making sure it is meticulously finished. And upon leaving, they gifted us with facial creams and said good-bye with smiles. We absolutely LOVED it. Every single second. The whole experience was absolutely wonderful and it provided husband and wives a nice hour long break from one another.
- The Shinlin Night Market was a place I am unlikely to forget anytime soon. You get the chaotic vibe of it as soon as you walk off the subway, with hordes of people making their way to the exits and waiting patiently by the dozens to cross the street to the entrance. Once the walk light comes on, the street becomes abuzz with activity as the swarm nears the market. Inside, the narrow alleyways are lined with shops pedaling genuine and not so genuine name brand clothes and electronic devices. There are also vendors set up in the middle of the alleyways causing large parts between the crowds, but as we found out, at the first sign of authority, those vendors and their carts vanish like smoke in the night breeze. The walk itself is not only a feast for the eyes, however. Just walking around the market is almost enough to get you a free meal between the samples of fresh fruit, tea, cakes, pork crackers, roasted meat, and juices. We eventually made our way to the basement “food court” which is bursting with food stalls, each of which has its own small seating area. The scene is one of constant motion and organized chaos with Taiwanese merchants constantly trying to herd you into their area, shoving menus at you as you pass by. We did one lap around first, taking it all in before making our selections, washing them all down with giant Taiwanese brews. We sat for a minute taking in the sights, the smells of stinky tofu and roasted meats washing over us. We then moved back upstairs and enjoyed watching people participating in the many dart games and fishing for shrimp with mini rods out of small tanks to be grilled up as a prize if caught. It was an unbeatable sensory overload that you cannot get anywhere else.
- I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the temples just off the second stop of the Maokong gondola. Although the first one was undergoing restoration and the construction of the third one appeared to be happening very slowly over time, we found ourselves almost totally alone up there. Not only did this serve for terrific pictures, but it gave you an overwhelming sense of calm that you simply cannot experience when visiting the crowded and more popular temples in the city. The third temple was especially impressive, with its central dome and great view. It was well worth the stop.
- Our trip to Taroko National Park was incredible. Cycling from the top of the park to the bottom was quite an adventure, and a ton of fun. At first, I was kind of nervous. The grade of the hills is steep and you get a lot of momentum going down the mountain. And with us cycling on public roads, we were forced to be careful of cars, busses, trucks, and scooters ad well as pedestrians. I spent a lot of the beginning on the brakes. But once I got more comfortable with it, it was quite a rush bombing down those mountains roads, admiring the views of the gorge. While cycling, we were able to stop at several shrines, and temples, and to do small hikes to waterfalls and other view-sites. The next days’ hike was equally as fun. Although the hike itself was trying, getting to walk on a trail that was a literal cliff edge and get that bird’s eye view of the gorge was amazing. It is sights like those that make me winder why there are people who never want to travel.