Taiwan wasn’t on our initial ZINK Year itinerary, but once we decided we should wait on the Philippines and realized how cheap flights were to Taipei, we found ourselves on a Scoot airlines flight over the East China Sea.
Within a few hours of being in Taiwan, it was clear we’d stumbled upon an undiscovered 75%-off sale: everything was significantly cheaper than Japan (of equal or greater quality) and there were practically no tourists. We began doing what one does in such a scenario, consuming voraciously: daily bubble teas for $1 each; platters of delicately folded dumplings filled with hot soup and pork meatballs for $2; mysterious night market concoctions like “large intestine filled with small intestine” for $1.50; giant bowls of beef noodle soup for $3; fried gyoza from a street vendor for $1; a volleyball-sized mango shaved ice with fresh fruit for $4 (pictured right); beef pho for $3/bowl; black sesame milkshakes for $1, etc. A few days of nonstop consumption + compounded exhaustion from 21 days of hardcore touring in Japan + a dingy hostel = a mini mental breakdown for me and a 103-degree fever for Patten. A day or two of marital drama ensued and then we were back to our hungry old selves, ready to take on more sites and more food. Some highlights:
Din Tai Fung
Just about every blog and book recommended that we visit the first, Michelin-starred Din Tai Fung. Now a global chain (with outposts everywhere in Asia and a few in LA), the original outpost was just a two-minute walk from our AirBnb apartment in Taipei, right next to the Dongmen MRT.
Even at odd hours, you’ll wait about 30 minutes for a seat. The host gives you a clipboard, pencil, and order sheet while you wait; you salivate at the picture menu pasted on the window, then jot down whatever looks best. When your number is called, you are whisked to the second or third floor, where an English-speaking waitress escorts you to a table and reviews your order sheet. She asks where you are from, how long you’ll be in Taiwan, what you plan to do while there – then she winks at Patten, comments on your plans, winks at Patten again, and pours you hot tea.
Soon, your food arrives via other servers: a plate of sautéed spinach, bubbling hot & sour soup (some of the best we’ve had), spicy-oil soaked wontons, and the famous xiaolongbao, steaming soup dumplings placed before you by a guy, whose sole responsibility seems to be delivering bao from the downstairs kitchen, where 20 men in sterile uniforms assemble and steam the buns. All of the food is good, excellent really, but you come for these dumplings. Famed for their 18 made-to-order folds, the bao should take a quick bath in your ginger/soy/vinegar sauce before you fit it in your mouth, where upon piercing the skin, it’ll explode with hot soup and a pork meatball surprise. It’s quite a special experience.
National Palace Museum
We’d read the National Palace Museum was the “best place to see Chinese art in the world.” Originally located in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the museum’s name (and its contents) were shipped to Taiwan in 1933 for fear the Japanese would destroy China’s most valuable national treasures during its occupation of the city. Once the art arrived in Taiwan, it never quite made it back to the mainland. Clearly this museum was a must-see, but we weren’t exactly looking forward to a Louvre-like maze of pottery and amulets.
The museum owns nearly 700,000 artifacts, but luckily only displays a fraction of them, which means you can actually digest what you see; the curator’s well-written English descriptions (a rarity in Japan) also help add captivating context to the art. Before we knew it, we’d been wandering around for a few hours — oohing and ahhing at tiny teacups and intricate china patterns — and were excited enough by what we saw to wait in a 15-minute line to see the “jade carvings and miniatures.” These were absolutely the highlight of the museum: a piece of jade carved into a head of lettuce, a tiny walnut shell whittled into a detailed ship (that you had to view through a magnifying glass), lattice-cut ivory shaped into intertwined spheres – work that took generations to create and seems humanly impossible. The Chinese must have invented the 3D printer 1000 years ago…
Taipei’s Coffee culture: Cappuccinos and milk teas
Is Taipei Asia’s answer to Portland? Hmmm… I haven’t been to Portland in 10 years, so that’s hard to say. But what we did discover was a city obsessed with quality coffee, served at a slew of hipster cafes with names like Bunny Listens to the Music, Yaboo Cafe, and flat white. While just about everything is cheaper in Taiwan, coffee is not: a creamy capp with froth art will cost you the equivalent of $6 USD. This does come with the invitation to loiter in the café for a few hours and use their wifi and toilet (of the Western variety).
Most of these cafes also serve good food and even better milk teas – a pot of tea mixed with fresh milk (not the powdered stuff used in bubble teas) and a shot of flavoring – hazelnut is the best. I want a hazelnut milk tea every day for the rest of my life.
What a wonderful subway! The MRT is new, clean, cheap (65 cents a ride), never too crowded, always on time. There’s not a lot more to say here other than… this makes us true believers in public transit. We also loved the eco-friendly tokens you’d use to enter/exit vs. printed-on-paper tickets.
Huashan Culture Park
Taipei is hip, but humble: one big reason we loved the city. It’s bursting with creative energy, but the people don’t give off the hipper-than-though artist vibe. Huashan Culture Park is the hub of this humble hip, a former factory complex now filled with various exhibits – some commercial (Nat Geo was there with a 125th anniversary show), some academic (a display of young architects who’d used plastic models to re-imagine the city of the future), some promotional (the tea region in Taiwan set up a temporary tea house, where you could taste their fancy teas for free and the tourism office of Matsu — an island off the coast of Taiwan — was sponsoring a tango concert). The crowd was mixed in age and style, from gauged-ear teenagers to stroller-toting moms – all types of people appreciating different forms of art. It felt real and natural; and like the locals, we couldn’t stop ourselves from milling around for several hours.
Taipei temples: Xingtian and Longshan
Visiting a temple in Japan is a rather passive experience – worshipers douse themselves in a little water, throw some money into the alter, and bow a few times. In Taiwan, a temple visit is a very active affair. We visited two of the city’s big temples: Each was packed with people delivering platters of fruit and bubble teas to their deity of choice, setting up ornate flower displays, burning incense sticks, chanting as they prayed…. The temples were buzzing with activity. We needed a guide to explain the importance of what was happening around us. Regardless, it was beautiful to watch.
Thank you to every guidebook writer who put Taroko on the top of their must-see lists and my aunt Jenny who raved about it even before we decided to go to Taiwan – “It’s like Ogden Canyon except made of marble.” Without such endorsements, I don’t know if we would have made the three-hour train trek across the country from Taipei to Hualien – on Thanksgiving – but we did, and we’re incredibly thankful for that decision.
We decided to hire a private guide (Pei – highlighted next) to take us through the park. For $65 USD, we were picked up from our hotel, driven to the national park, and led to all the top views and walking paths. The park is truly breathtaking: Think limestone walls that look twice the height of Half Dome, covered in jungle-like foliage – their river beds rushing with aquamarine water, over and around gigantic marble boulders: some white, some a marbled tan/pink. Equally impressive are the tunnels carved into the canyon walls. The fact that 450 people died building these roads and tunnels seems less surprising when inside the park: this is sheer drop-off central (Dad — you would have loved it!) and falling rocks are a daily occurrence. Of course I wasn’t nervous as we walked with hardhats through Swallow’s Grotto, where only yesterday a few tourists “were injured by a few rocks.”
We made it through the park unscathed with so many pictures that just don’t seem to capture how truly amazing this place was in person. Taroko is one of many reasons to put Taiwan on the top of your travel list.
We met Pei (pronounced “pay”) when she picked us up for our tour of Taroko. She led us to all the insider spots in the park, including a temple on the mountain that she used to visit as a child. It was here where she asked if we had our train booked for Sunday.
“No, not yet,” we said. “Is that okay?”
“It gets very busy on the weekends, but we’ll figure this out,” Pei said with a smile.
We soon learned that all trains had been booked for weeks, that no buses run between Hualien and Taipei, and that driving would be “way too dangerous.” Just the night before, we’d booked non-refundable flights to Thailand for Sunday night. We needed to get back.
Pei called a friend of hers that worked at our hotel (Hualien i-inn — awesome place) and told her our situation. We later learned that this friend spent several hours refreshing the train’s web page until two tickets opened up. It’s doubtful we would have gotten back to Taipei without Pei’s (or our hotel’s) help.
On our way home from our tour, Pei pulled over on the highway. “You like lemon drinks?” Before we could even answer, she was across the street inside a small shop. Thirty seconds later she was back in the car with three drinks, one for each of us. “I could drink one of these every day.” Yum. So could we. We were immediate believers in the amazingness of this super tart frozen lemonade and moreso in Pei: not only could she secure sold-out train tix, she was a foodie.
Next, she offered to take us to Hualien’s night market to taste some local specialties: triangles of barbequed blood sausage and beef-and-pepper coffin cake, essentially French toast filled with beef stew.
“Are there any dumplings here?” we asked.
“For dumplings, we’re going into town.” With that, we were back in her car.
After pointing out her home, which is above a souvenir/sweets shop her mother owns, we made our way down the street to Ye Hsiang Shi Dian for what Pei called “the best soup dumplings in Hualien.” She was clearly not alone in her assessment: the walls were plastered with pictures of celebrity visitors including the Taiwanese prime minister and Ang Lee, who we learned was from Taiwan. Unlike the soup-filled dumplings at Din Tai Fung, these dumplings soak in broth – similar to what we’d call wonton soup. The subtle pork-and-green-onion flavor was wonderful and so was the $2-per-bowl price tag. We could do this nightly. After tasting various mochi, candied fruit, and aboriginal wine in her mother’s shop, we hopped in a cab home.
The next night I got a text: “Hi, Emily. It’s Pei. How’s everything? I have something for you, will bring to your hotel later. Will you be there or still out?”
An hour later, she was at our hotel with armloads of goodies: black bean dessert soup, a cream-colored custard, and two types of Buddha-head fruit: soft green modular-things that split open with a little tug — inside you suck out sweet pear-textured fruit. The “pineapple” Buddha head was our favorite — a little tangier and firmer than the original. Pei also gave me two heating pads for my back, which was still aching after my slip down Misen mountain in Miyajima. We ate and laughed and discussed food at length.
Before she left, she asked what we were having for breakfast in the morning. “I think you must try something new,” she said, tilting her head up thoughtfully. Right when she seemed ready to give us instructions on how to get to another breakfast place, she offered: “I’ll bring breakfast to you.” We told her she shouldn’t, that she’d already been too kind, but she hurried off. “I’ll be here at 8 am.”
She arrived at 8 am with bags of food: hot noodle soup, a beef sandwich served in a flattened sesame bun, pork and pickled vegetable filled pastries, and two types of breakfast drinks: traditional warm soymilk and hot tea mixed with soymilk. This was the best breakfast we’d had in Taiwan – our only complaint was that we had to say goodbye to Pei, who escorted us to the train station and demanded to pull my luggage.
We liked Taiwan a lot before we arrived in Hualien; we loved the country after we met Pei, who according to stories we’ve heard from friends and travelers along the way, is representative of many Taiwanese: extremely generous, witty, and thoughtful.
Pei – thank you for everything, mostly for teaching us a valuable lesson in kindness, which we’ll try to “Pei back” to others on the road and to future visitors to the US. You made an indelible mark.