Taiwan: The Delicious Heart of Asia

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Okay, I loved Taiwan, the country that self proclaims itself as ‘The Heart of Asia.’
Over Chuseok Holiday in South Korea, my friends, Autumn, Noel and I went to Taiwan for a full week. We ate our way around Taipei, and made a quick stop to Taichung.

Things I never expected (as a result of living in Korea for a while):

  1. Everyone spoke English… even where you wouldn’t expect them to
  2. Openly gay couples and transitioning people… in Asia.
    Did you know Taiwan recently legalized same sex marriage? That makes it the only country in Asia.
  3. Taipei to feel like Vancouver or Portland. Craft beer and coffee, umbrella constantly in hand.
  4. The stinky stank of stinky tofu
  5. The beauty of bubble tea (you can choose the amount of sugar and ice!)
  6. Pineapple cake.
  7. How accessible the country is with Google Maps
  8. The h u m i d i t y. The audacity.
  9. Our final weekend to be a public holiday, making booking v difficult – –
  10. The influence of South Korea and Korean products
  11. The city of Taipei is separated by districts, making it feel like The Hunger Games
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The three of us, two Americans from each coast and a token Canadian, landed in Taipei quite late and hopped on a fancy bus to our hostel in the Shilin District.
We found our hostel, which was disguised really well for safety reasons and settled into bed. It was full of travelers, of which we only really made friends with the Koreans and the random other English teachers that happened to be on vacation from Korea. Small Asian world.

In the morning we set off on our first day in Taiwan.
We dawned shorts and sunnies and avoided the direct sunshine as it happens to be 1 million times hotter when it’s humid af.
We made our way through street looking for the Starbucks Google Maps was telling me was nearby, in pursuit of caffeine. Of cooouurse the baristas spoke English amazingly well and drew cute little cartoons of each of us.

[I like to support local businesses when I can, but I living in Asia, Starbucks has become my favourite coffee establishment. Their business model, of which we discussed at length, promises to make customers to feel at home, no matter where they are in the world. They also always have soy milk… which is nice when you have a dairy allergy and you don’t just have to get an Americano.
I am #basic and it’s really okay with me.]

It was our first day, so we decided to walk and get the lay of the land.
The three of us had things we wanted to do, but no set plan on how to execute them. This allowed us the freedom to get lost, but also meant we spent a lot of time in transit going back and forth from place to place.

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I love Banyan trees. I saw them in movies, in Vietnam and now Taiwan! They are epiphytes, meaning they grow on other trees, until they outcompete and kill their hosts. Older trees have aerial prop roots like this one.

We saw the Grand Hotel from the street below and had to go see it.
It was even more beautiful on the inside. The hotel was established in May 1952 and the main building was completed on October 10, 1973. When it was built, Taiwan didn’t have any 5 star hotels for foreign dignitaries to stay in. The nerve. They built The Grand Hotel as a result.
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The sign said we could only stand on the first step.
The flowers are orchids. A giant vase of fresh orchids… $$$$$
And it’s all painted in red! Red is the colour of luck and prosperity in Chinese culture.

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The prettiest streets, with fishies and trees on the manholes, and cute pictures of people holding hands.


Buses and Trains

High Quality
Bus drivers drive slowly and are mindful of the precious cargo they have on board.

Vancouverites, you have no idea how good we have it.
I will die inside a Korean bus.

In Taiwan, the buses are spacious and clean. You can also jump on from the back, unlike Korea. The thing that blew our minds were the quality of the seats for the elderly or people with disabilities. If I sat in one of those, I’d fall asleep until the driver kicked me off.

Convenient
You only needed to pick up an EasyCard from one of the many convenience stores, and you’re good to go. Places to load them were located in every train station. Here’s the website for further info. Another cool thing is that the buses had their own lane in the centre of some of the bigger streets. This made the drive smoother, faster, and safer when getting off.

Trains
The local MRT, the slow train and the high speed rail were all great services. We paid less to not reserve seats on the HSR and we easily scored seats together.
One thing to note is NOT TO EAT OR DRINK ON THE TRAINS. If you do, you will be told, in English (cause, again, everyone speaks English) not to.

We brought drinks on the MRT and made a note not to sip them, but you know how you do it mindlessly? I was feeling sick so Autumn was finding me a cough drop and before she could pull it out of her bag, the woman next to us told us not to eat on the train. We were chapped because it was a cough droplady. But perhaps she watched us sippin away when we thought we hadn’t been.
Hmmph.

Fujin Street

Thanks Rebekah, for recommending Fujin Street to us.
It felt like a tropical Vancouver street. Hipster cafes hidden behind beautiful trees and condo style housing. We went to one called Restaurant Pinecone and had eggs on toast and coffee. And yes, the server spoke perfect English, despite saying he didn’t.

Here’s a great list of cafes to check out if you find yourself on Fujin Street.

Ride a bike in Taiwan

Finding and renting a bike is pretty easy if you have a credit card and a EasyCard.
Taiwan has a program called YouBike that includes hundreds of bike stations all around the country, that even foreigners can use, with a foreign credit card.

Click here to read more and find the stations.

We wanted to ride a bike along the river, but there was one small problem.
Autumn didn’t know how to ride a bike…

Autumn being brave and accommodating decided that she’d try learning so that we could bike together.
We quickly learned that the expression ‘it’s like riding a bike’ isn’t a helpful way to teach someone to ride a bike.

Luckily she didn’t need much help, and the path was straight and relatively wide (she had only one speed and direction 😉 )
She nearly ran over a lady and definitely yelled at her when she was about to walk into her path, but she did it!
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We celebrated with beer, a flight of craft beer. We also had coconut milk cabbage and some leafy greens with pork. Deeeeelish.

I’ve never seen Pale Ale or Stout described in Chinese characters before. How ignorant of me to assume hops and malts are only enjoyed by a Western palate.
(Side note: I was in Costco the other day and they were sampling a Japanese beer that won an international beer competition. Go Japan!)

Shilin Night Market

When I decided to move to Korea, I became more interested in what was happening over here in the Northeastern corner of the world (on an Atlantic centred map).
Before I left, I visited the Richmond Night Market to immerse myself in Asian culture and prepare myself for a Korean life.

I was ignorant.. I was told the night market was a Taiwanese thing, not a Korean thing, which was disappointing to hear but made me very excited for Taipei.

Shilin Night Market, the largest and most famous night market, didn’t disappoint.
Although we had to dodge almost every single shop/booth owner’s attempts to grab our attention, we found some pretty memorable street grub.

It’s also where we had to dodge the smell of stinky tofu.. which some people can eat, and some people can’t. The smell comes from the tofu being fermented for a long time, just like kimchi.
I mistakenly ate it and didn’t mind it, but since I smelled it first I don’t think I can ever do it again.

My personal favourite night market foods were the hot buns filled with vegetables or meat, and the king oyster mushrooms grilled and seasoned right in front of me. We also tried the flat chicken, sweet potato balls, ice cream peanut wrap, ice cream bubble waffle thingies, and squid balls over the course of our trip. There was also good beer and ice cream, which you’ll see later.

Maokong Mountain and Teahouses

The next day we agreed to go to Maokong Mountain to escape the city and check out a Taiwanese teahouse. We took the MRT outside of the city and got on a cable car. The cable car took about 15 minutes and drifted over the Taipei zoo and robust forest.

We ate the peanut ice cream roll here. It’s ice cream and peanuts in a wrap and you can add cilantro/coriander, but I chose not to. I should’ve, but sometimes cilantro tastes like the devil’s herb and sometimes it doesn’t. I didn’t wanna take my chances.

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It rained on and off while we were there but we didn’t mind.
Spot Taipei 101!

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So greeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen!
I found a teahouse online while we were on the cable car that seemed to have good reviews, so we trekked in search of it. Turned out it was sketchy to us but good for the locals. The guy working there was really shaky and sweaty, so we figured he was trippin on something strong.

We enjoyed Chrysanthemum tea and waited for the rain to pass.
The local folks next to us were playing cards for what appeared to be hours.

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While we were there, Taiwan was celebrating their Moon Festival.
I loved the moon cakes but Autumn and Noel didn’t. The only celebrating we could see for the holiday was the small barbecues people were having in front of their stores and in parks. When I looked up Moon Festival related events, one website explained that barbecues are the only common traditional these days but they are by no historically traditional. We didn’t get ourselves invited to a barbecue, sadly.

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Moon cakes, and a Taiwanese snack

The National Palace Museum

We finished the day at the National Palace Museum. We only had an hour and a half until closing, so we each chose one thing we wanted to see.
Autumn chose jade, I chose paintings and Noel chose furniture.
The current painting collection features oversized “Renowned Mountains and Great Rivers.” They were incredible portrayals of Chinese landscapes and culture, and some of them took years to complete.

The National Palace Museum is interesting because afters years of political unrest between China and Taiwan, as well as colonization by Japan, art that came from the Forbidden City made its way to Taiwan and has never been “given back”. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia and why the museum doesn’t go to Mainland China:
“Due to fears that the artifacts may be impounded and be claimed by China due to the controversial political status of Taiwan, the museum does not conduct exhibitions in mainland China. Since the museum’s 1965 establishment in Taipei, the National Palace Museum has only made five large overseas exhibitions in countries which have passed laws to prevent judicial seizure of the treasures. The past five overseas events were to the United States in 1996, France in 1998, Germany in 2003, Austria in 2008 and Japan in 2014.”

We had had a long day and were struggling with the massive crowds of people that were very unaware of personal bubbles.  I tried my best at acting mature and wearing my high-class-extra-wise-and-critical-artsy-fartsy museum hat.
I learned a lot about Jade and appreciated that there are two types. Canada and New Zealand happen to contain large natural stores of them, hence the tacky maple leaf necklaces in souvenir shops but the always cool pounamu necklaces from NZ.

The one thing we found hilarious was this random ass jadeite cabbage sculpture. There was a massive projector that filled a room to show the detail of it and there was a massive crowd around the real thing. Like the Mona Lisa, it had a huge reputation but it was tiny in real life. Smaller than my hand, tiny. What you can’t see unless you look closely is a grasshopper sitting on top of the cabbage.

We saw the cabbage everywhere we went in Taiwan in the souvenir shops. It was a postcard, a keychain, a model etc., etc.

It just looks like a kimchi cabbage with a bug on top, but I can appreciate the fine detail done by hand and the perfect use of colour.

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Here’s Noel standing on the entry to the beautiful museum. You can see the silhouette of a large crowd in the background due to a jazz concert going on.

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Lost and Found

I’m clumsy and forgetful on a good day, but especially when I’m tired… And I was beyond tired. I was usually the one navigating so my phone was always out, and I always looked behind me to see if I left anything behind before I alight a bus or train.

You like that word? It’s British. I learned it recently.

We were starving after such a long day, and we decided to head to the night market again. On the way, I realized I had no idea where my phone was. We were stopped outside a Colombia Sportswear when I dug around my bag and discovered it was missing.
A man working at the store noticed we were standing out there near their shoe rack, and asked if he could help us. I told him slowly that I lost my phone, by no means expecting him to care or speak English. But he did. 
He got out his phone, asked me where we got off, what colour the bus was, what time we got off, where I was sitting etc. etc. His English was limited, but he was able to communicate well, and I thought he was going to just file a police report.
But no.
He said he was going to get his motor bike and go find the phone.
He took his work shirt off, told his friend what was happening and said “wait one moment,”  and took off after the bus. Yes, HE TOOK OFF AFTER THE BUS WE GOT OFF FORTY MINUTES AGO.

Meanwhile, due purely to lack of food and energy, I was chiiiiiiilled out. Like real chill.

My phone case held my  BC drivers license, my Korean visa card, all my credit cards and a bit of money. Basically I’d be stuck in Taiwan or at the airport in Korea and in trouble for a while if I didn’t find my phone!!!
I didn’t know it was possible, but I was calm instead of hangry, crying and panicking.

Twenty minutes later he called his coworker from INSIDE THE BUS and told us he couldn’t find it anywhere and he was sorry.

Disappointed, he told us to walk towards the police station (conveniently across from our hostel) and he’ll meet us there.
We still hadn’t eaten and we sauntered back slowly. He was already at the police station and I saw him walk out of the building with his hands in the air shouting “Here! here!”

It was at the police station! Everything was in it!

You can just imagine how happy I was.
I think after we alighted the bus, I stopped and sorted through my shoulder bag and put everything down on the sidewalk, including my phone and umbrella. I remembered to pick up my umbrella but not my phone underneath it and was distracted cause I was holding everyone up (and tired and hungry and there was a full moon so I was admiring it, classic).

When he left us he said “Welcome to Taiwan” and walked back to work.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. What. Taiwan!!! Thank you.

When I travel I usually bring a Canadian souvenir in case I meet someone special and I need to say thank you. A magnet, a lollipop, a keychain etc. This time I had a bag of maple toffees and a keychain, and I left both of them for Troy at work the next day.

How many more lucky breaks do I get in life?
Have I used them all up?

I’ve noticed that Asian countries in general are far more honest than North American ones. My dad left his backpack with a camera and iPad on a bus in Korea and got it back. Autumn left her Raybans at a DVD Room and got them back.

Taipei 101

This bamboo inspired building can be seen from everywhere in Taipei. It’s massive. You can find it in Xinyi district and it’s obviously a point of interest for anyone visiting Taiwan. Taipei 101 was the tallest in the world from 2004 until 2010, before the Burj Khalifa was built in Dubai. The building was given the highest award possible for leadership in energy and environmental design, making it the greenest building in the world. It also has a really interesting way to keep it from falling in an earthquake. In the centre of the building, there’s a massive pendulum that is meant to reduce the amplitude of mechanical vibrations, and actually swings to counter the weight of the building. During a typhoon once, it swung a whole meter!! We went to see the ball, called the tuned mass damper, and it is also massive.

fullsizeoutput_1eda.jpegWe sat up there and people watched for quite some time. We were facing away from the windows lolol. Weirdos.
We sat song long enough that some people came and asked to take a picture with us. It happened a couple of times.
taipei101view (1 of 1)10/10 would do again.

Then we craved the ocean and went to find it in the opposite direction. The bike station didn’t work for us and the sun was going down so we settled with walking along the brackish water river bank, decked with mangroves.
(Please look up how cool and important mangroves are when you get the chance, or click here)

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Just Autumn, dancing at twilight

It was a lovely walk back along the river but got a little sketchy getting to the next train station. We were never sure if Google maps was serious or trying to kill us.
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Alright, ready for it?

It’s beef noodle soup time.

Okay, if you know me, you know I try my hardest to fuel my body with plants and alternatives to meat.
I fully understand and preach about the horrendous effects of raising livestock on our planet and how unsustainable it is.
You can even read this article I wrote about it and actually find a sustainable way for you to change your diet…
… What I’m trying to say here is that I wouldn’t choose to eat beef and brag about it without it being worth it.

Taiwan is famous for beef noodle soup, and there we were in Taipei, at one of the most highly rated hole-in-the-wall beef noodle restaurants in town.

It did not disappoint.

We called an Uber and got dropped off in front of this line up of people.
We were the only foreigners, and we knew with certainty that we were in the right place.

fullsizeoutput_1ee0.jpegThe beef was soft and flavourful and the noodles were freshhhhh. The flavours were amazing. I will never again have beef noodle soup because nothing will beat the one I had that night.

Autumn suggested we go there the next night but it felt like a sin to me.
You can’t experience foodie nirvana, twice.

Also we had to go pretty far away to find it. Taipei is very big.

Taichung

One thing we wanted to see was the Rainbow Village, located in another city in the middle of the little country of Taiwan.
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We took the slow train to Taichung from Taipei Main Station, and got to Taichung in the late afternoon. We only had one night there before we planned to head to Kenting the next day, meaning we only had that day to see the Rainbow Village.

When we arrived at our lovely hostel , the woman at the desk couldn’t find my name on the list. Turns out the three of us got our dates messed up. We were booked for the day before, meaning that we were also supposed to stay in Kenting that night.
The hostel owner was kind enough to let us stay without paying an extra night, but that meant that the 8 hour trek one way to Kenting would leave us with no time to see anything. Kenting is the place everyone recommends seeing, and is considered the Hawaii of Asia. We agonized over our options for a couple hours and decided to cancel our trip to Kenting, the one place we all wanted to see.
It just wasn’t feasible with the little time we had left and the time it would take to get there. We tried renting a car but Taiwan is strict about international licenses, unlike South East Asian countries.

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The hostel’s decor was mint

 

Rainbow Village

It was dusk by the time we waited for a bus to the Rainbow Village, and of course I lead us onto a bus going the wrong direction. We stayed on course to the village even though there was a high chance we couldn’t see anything at night. We couldn’t have come all that way and not at least try and see it.
As you can guess, morales were quite low at that point…

But, good news, the village was beautiful at night!
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Here’s the story of the village and the ‘Rainbow Grandpa’ who saved it with his paintings. Read it, read it, read it!

It was very worth it. Our spirits were lifted after having some success after a long day of decision making.
We saw geckos and large cockroaches and bats there, which I thought were cool. Maybe not the cockroach..
A bus eventually picked us up, as we were basically in the middle of nowhere, and we headed back into town.

We found ice cream. Not just any ice cream. The BEST ice cream ever.
The store that sold the ice cream was called Miyahara Eye Clinic and it sold everything delicious. Cookies, cheesecake, pineapple cake, chocolate and ice cream. It’s worth clicking on that link!
It looked like something from Harry Potter inside.


miyahara3 (1 of 1)We finished the night with beer and snacks of all kinds from a corner store, and planned our next steps, since we had no idea what we were gonna do for the next two and a half days.

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Back to Taipei/ Beach Day

We decided to head back to Taipei for the last two nights. The rest becomes a bit of a blur.
We headed to the sea to make up for our lack of salt water in Kenting. We went to a place called Qianshuiwan Coast Park on the Northern most tip of the country. It was rainy and cloudy but it was beautiful.

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After walking around a little bit, we sat on a patio and drank Corona’s and enjoyed the view. Had there been surf rentals I would’ve been surfing.

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We went to this amazing place called Le Coq for dinner, which I HIGHLY recommend!
It was so hipster and fun.
A bride in a red wedding dress, as is the Chinese custom, took photos with her husband and we sat and watched them. It was the perfect #ootd photo opp place and we had amazing drinks.
I ordered a black coffee, as was recommended to us by someone in our hostel in Taichung (except he referred to the restaurant as ‘The Chicken’).
It was a shot of espresso, a bit of milk, and a full on chocolate ice cream bar to pour it all over.
I thought I was getting an Americano.
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It wasn’t just extra honey, it was divine.

After nomming and laughing way too hard at this dog that sat like a human, we made our way back to our hotel. We couldn’t find a hostel cause of our last minute mistake.

The hotel was sketchy. We walked in and couldn’t find a sign or lobby and I personally thought we were tricked. But turned out the hotel was on the 11th and 12th floor…
Hmmm….

In the morning we had a Taiwanese breakfast, and I tried congee, and accidentally tried stinky tofu like I mentioned above.

At least this was our view!
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Autumn and I had one more night but Noel was leaving that day.

We dropped off our bags at our new sketchy hostel near Taipei Main Station and went hunting for coffee made with Taiwanese beans.
I took us to a place called All Day Coffee Roasters near Fujin Street. They didn’t serve Taiwanese grown and roasted beans, but they did serve single origin beans from all over world, that they roasted in-house.

They gave us free cold brew samples just because, so you can just imagine how caffeinated we were.

We waited out some PNW style rain on some comfy couches (they told me I couldn’t put my feet on…) and later said goodbye to Noel.

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I also saw this woman’s rain bucket hat… and I want one.


I thought I’d leave you with this weird photo of a subway commercial.
I don’t think there are more perverts in Asia, but perhaps there are more getting caught with their phones in washrooms.

In Korea and Japan, it’s illegal to have a phone that doesn’t have a click sound when you take pictures, because too many men were getting caught taking photos up women’s skirts.
Mine makes a click every time I take a Snapchat..
We saw the same type of warnings (“…it’s a punishable crime…“) in Taiwan.

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“Anti-spy camera detection in restrooms” so us ladies can pee with peace of mind…. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I will always remember this trip for its food! Taiwanese cuisine is diverse and abundant and we certainly ate our fill.

I’ll always crave bubble tea, and always regret not getting to try taro balls. Luckily I’m proactive and made my own tapioca balls in Korea, and plan to go to Meet Fresh in Vancouver (please join me).

Our trip to Taiwan was a good one and I am so thankful for another opportunity to see a new culture and understand my place in this big world better. 


If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below!

Next gift of an adventure: Sri Lanka~~

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