Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Taiwan: The Good, The Gritty, and The Greasy

We came to Taiwan hungry, and left, still hungry.  While Taiwan is no more than a tiny scrap of land on the world atlas with mainly Chinese inhabitants, it overflows with culinary, topographical, and generational diversity that could take an eternity to explore.  It's gritty and it's lush, it's chaotic and it's pristine, it's bold and it's unassuming, all at the same time.  We were only there for four days, so we stuck to the northern area, visiting as many districts as we could - both metropolitan and rural.  The appeal of the busy night markets was irresistible, but so were the small winding mountainous roads that led off the beaten path.  We also were able to connect with family and enjoy a hearty, homecooked meal.  It had been ten years since I've returned, and this was Wes's first time.  Hopefully, it won't take another decade for us to come back.

Just wanted to take a moment to record our first memory together in my native land.  Twenty hours of travel took us to the sweaty tarmac of Taoyuan International Airport at 8:30 PM.  We got through customs and claimed our baggage through a whirlwind of colored Nikes and bobbling stuffed animals chained to backpacks, suitcases, and phone cases.  Then, it was time to figure out how to get to our hotel in Taipei.  I confidently walked up to customer service and asked in my somewhat Americanized accent how to get to our hotel.  This customer service man was very kind and assured us that he had a good way.  While Wes stood there helplessly (for once), the man made a phone call and then beckoned us to follow him.  We dragged our luggage behind us down an escalator and through more colored Nikes and were met by this middle-aged lady, who was wearing an outfit that would typically be associated with ill-suited hiking clothes in America.  She rapidly walked us out to a pick-up area and wordlessly ushered us into this black Mercedes, driven by a dude who talked and looked like he could have been one of my uncles.  Wes said later that he felt like we were part of some kind of spy movie, being handed off from agent to agent.  He was probably so confused... but honestly, so was I.  This was definitely the weirdest thing ever.  Then, our driver sped onto the freeway and after I had conversed with him for a while about Taiwan travel, he answered his cell phone and of course began to chat, holding the phone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other, zooming through about ten freeway exits.  We actually got to the hotel in one piece and ended up paying a fraction of what we thought this "luxurious" ride would cost.  Talk about our first culture shock!

Anyway, we were in for many more surprises.  Those wacky left turns in the taxis.  The lack of regard for pedestrians...until the last minute. Makeshift kitchens selling food anywhere, anytime.  All the shameless selfies we witnessed.  Swarms of motorcycles with entire families aboard.  The tinkling garbage truck song.  Men in business attire picking up daily cups of soy milk as Americans would at a Starbucks.  Starbucks being the hip hang-out spots for young people--not a single laptop in sight.  DIY hot pot stations at all of the 7-11's.  The four-story Din Tai Fung.  The twelve-story shopping mall.  A simple metal ladder that bridged two cliffs near the very top of an all-too-exhilarating hike.

Of course, we took thousands of pictures of everything (edibles and non-edibles alike), but here are just some of them.  I paired them to really bring out how dichotomous our experience was in this little big country.  At some point in time, we will get around to posting about each awesome day!

 Motorbikes in metropolitan Taipei
Motorboats docked in the Danshui District
Hole-in-the-wall offals, cooked and ready to be dipped in rice noodle soup, Taipei.
Upscale tea leaf fried rice, at a teahouse perched in the hills of Maokong, Wenshan District.
Street level view of the Taipei 101
Distant view of the Taipei 101 from the tea fields in Maokong.
Contemporary night market fare prepared by a teenager (Ning Xia Night Market)
Old-school shaved ice (all the fixings are under the ice!) prepared by an elderly lady in Ping Xi.
Walking in Taipei
Walking in Ping Xi, 45 minutes east of Taipei.
Chaos at the Shilin Night Market.
Tranquility at the Maokong tea fields.
The grand Chiang Kai Shek Memorial entrance in Taipei.
A humble shrine at the base of a mountain in Ping Xi.
Buns in plastic wrap, Taipei.
Rice in bamboo shell, Ping Xi.

Wide open space in Maokong.
Tight alleys in Jiu Fen.
Greasy fried goodness.
The closest thing to Pressed Juicery.
Quiet mornings, Ping Xi.
Lively nights, Dan Shui.
Ingredients for a small batch of minced pork rice on a sink counter literally in the street.
Mass-produced prepared foods at South Gate Market.
Such a commotion in Taipei.
Such stillness in the mountains.
Lanterns in the day, by a lonely temple. (Wenshan District)
Lanterns in the night, over a busy night market. (Jiufen District)
Kid at Danshui, enjoying the bubbles.
Another kid at Danshui, focused on the carnival games.
Sitting down to breakfast.
Dinner on our feet, almost every night.
Deserted rails in the rural areas.
Well-used Taipei Rapid Transit system.
People living here may have never gone to the city.
And here is the city.

Stuffed fish ball at Jiu Fen Old Street.
Fancy black truffle xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung.
Sausages galore at South Gate Market in Taipei.
Intricately prepared sausage with sticky rice bun, laced with garlic and pickled vegetables, at a small stand in Ping Xi.
New-school green tea soft serve (or "soft cream" as they call it) topped with a cookie shaped like the iconic Maokong cat.
Delicious run bing, ice cream and freshly shaved peanuts rolled into a thin "tortilla."
Young men in the military.
Elderly women as garbage collectors.
Dusky sky from an overlook in Jiu Fen.
Sunset by the water, in Danshui.
Stinky stuff.
Aromatic stuff.
Sad times. (hiking in the mountains resulting in a fall that cracked a lens filter)
Happy times. (Too bad it doesn't include the eye-enlargement and skin-whitening treatment. Guess that's a Japan thing.)


  1. love the photos, the way you presented it, and your writing!! can't wait for more details of your trip :]