27 July 2008

Travel: Taipei - Drinks

I had heard that the Taiwanese enjoyed their beer. So, I wanted to find out. I had read in an article that the Taiwanese beerhouse was what a pub is to the British, but the descriptions in the article sounded more like a German, Hofbrau House environment: rowdy, communal tables, inexpensive beer. Before the night market on Saturday, I headed to the Jurassic Beerhouse, a Taipei institution that had previously been know as the Indian Beerhouse, as in American Indian (or Red Indian, as known in Taiwan). The place is massive - apparently it can seat 1,000 people on four floors. I went to the crowded second floor (the only one open at 7pm) for a beer and a quick bite (beerhouses normally serve the types of snacks you would find at night markets). The place was bizarre! I was seated at a table under the ribcage of a dinosaur. In fact, the entire room sat under a canopy of dinosaur skeletons (thus, the Jurassic name). This was mixed with an American Indian motif, with pictures of Indian chiefs and artifacts adorning the walls, and the kegs. Mini-kegs, actually. These little wooden barrels were placed tableside, and you would just refill from the little spout. And on the sides of each one was a picture (carving) of an Indian chief. Even the waitresses wore aprons with Indian pictures, and some were in fringe boots. Just like in the Wild, Wild West.

I was the only single in the place (in fact, most tables were 6 to 8 people), so I opted for a bottle of the local beer, "Gold Medal Taiwan Beer - Distinctive Flavor Lager Beer." No kidding. Actually, it was pretty tasty, and a nice refresher after a day of walking in the city. I also had a quick snack - fried frog legs. These were very tasty! They're not much different in taste than chicken. And they were big! Lots more meat than chicken feet.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Jolly, a micro-brewery just down the street from my hotel. (Hooters was near my hotel, and I did go in once during my trip, just so I could say I have been to the two Asian locations of the chain - there and in Singapore.)

But, before I got to Jolly, however, I took one last tour of the city. The sky was a gloomy gray as I wandered through Daan Forest Park and around the NTNU area, which included a visit to an art store where I was accosted by the meanest sounding, fluffiest and lovey-dovey poodle I had seen in years. My real goal for this last tour, however, was a bowl of bitter tea. My guidebook included a special entry describing "kucha", a bitter tea which has a cool (yin) essence (rather than a hot essence - yang), meaning it is good for warm weather. I don't fully comprehend the heating/cooling food concept over here, but I do like bitter drinks. And, if it is in the guidebook, you know I am fixated. So much so that I walked back and forth through the rain (which of course meant it wasn't particularly warm at the time) until I found what I believe to be the House of Bitter Tea, an open air teahouse on the corner of two busy streets. How could I know for sure, however? The teahouse was adorned in Taiwanese characters, and the employees spoke no English. But, it was at the intersection of the streets mentioned in the guidebook.

Thank goodness the menu had pictures. I just pointed to the bowl of bitter tea (matching it with the picture in the guidebook). And I got a bitter tea. It is dark brown and cloudy, served with little pellets that I found out were essentially sugar pills to offset the bitterness of the drink. But, it was very good, and it was fun to experience a restaurant that seemed authentically local.

Back to Jolly: as opposed to Jurassic, it is a smaller, well-appointed space serving a number of its own brews. So, after checking out of the hotel, I had a flight before my flight out. It was just before 2pm, so the lunch crowd was gone and the restaurant was just closing up for the afternoon (it re-opens for dinner). I had the place all to myself, and I got a nice overview of the restaurant and its brews from the bartender, and even a taste of the Scotch Ale on the house. My flight consisted of a Pilsener, IPA, Weizen, and Stout. I can attest that - at least in this one place in Taipei - the Taiwanese know what they are doing on the microbrewery front. With a soft rain falling outside, I couldn't think of a better way to end my trip. I was off to the HSR and then an evening flight back to Singapore.

Travel: Taipei - Maokong Gondola

The Muzha Line terminates at the Taipei Zoo Station, and it is a short walk to the Maokong Gondola, a cable car which takes you a full four kilometres into the mountains in an L-shaped route that takes 30 minutes. Each car seats up to six people, and after a queue that stretched up three flights (by escalator, thankfully) but was surprisingly quick, I boarded with a Taiwanese family. I faced backwards, giving me a great vantage point of Taipei as dusk settled on the city. It is an impressive sight from there, looking back north to the valley that is home to the capital. And the views got better as dusk turned to full darkness, with the city alight. Taipei 101 was particularly eye-catching, with its colored lights (they alternate by night – this Sunday, the main color was purple) outlining the building towering over the skyline. (My camera battery died during the ride, so I include only two pictures here.)

The mountains overlooking the valley are home to acres of tea plantations, and the mountainsides are dotted with teahouses. These are one of the main attractions for gondola riders, and I was looking forward to relaxing with a view of Taipei below. I had pored through my guidebook to try to find the best spot.

Throughout this trip, however, I found my guidebook to be only mildly helpful. It provided English names for most of the places (or Taiwanese, written in Roman characters), but all the signs at the places themselves were in Taiwanese (and Taiwanese characters). As loyal readers know, I am to a fault obsessive about trying the suggestions found in guidebooks. This meant that I just had to find the places in the book, even though I passed a dozen or so that looked just fine. The idea was to find a location high enough on the mountain to get a great view of the city. After trying a couple of places with fantastic vistas, I gave up looking for the exact ones mentioned in my book (I may very well have found them and not known). Anyway, it was a pleasant evening, sitting looking back towards Taipei, enjoying the cool weather and mountain breezes. I could have stayed for hours. Eventually, I headed back for my half hour trip back down in the cable car, this time sharing it (in silence) with two young Taiwanese couples.

It was early enough that I thought I could find another night market. I had located the Shida Market on the map, near the National Taiwan Normal University, and I thought I could walk from the MRT station. Well, I walked and I walked, and only after about an hour did I find it. By that time, it was past 10 (on a Sunday), and many of the stalls had shut down. So, I ended up in a MOS Burger, a Japanese fast food chain (found in Singapore, as well) that serves all kinds of sandwiches. Its burgers are a mix of In-N-Out and Tommy’s burgers, for your Southern California burger aficionados. Although not technically a local place, I was hungry and this was familiar. It would be a fine way to end my night.

But, I was in for one last experience. As I sat there alone eating my chicken sandwich (they talked me into trying the special), I noticed the music. Mind you, this is mid-May. And “Away in a Manger” is playing. I thought , surely not. Maybe it is a well-known tune in Japan. Or Taiwan. A song that shares its tune with the Christmas carol. So, I kept on eating, not thinking much more of it. Until “O Little Town of Bethlehem” came on. I laughed – Christmas in May in Taiwan! At a Japanese fast food restaurant. It was time to go back to my hotel.

Travel: Taipei, Part 5

I had an ambitious schedule for the rest of my day. The HSR arrives (and departs) from Taipei Main Station, which was a good starting point, and I headed back to Longshan Temple. The sun was shining on a hot day, and the temple was packed. The worshippers were of every age, lighting incense sticks, praying, chanting, and tossing crescent-shaped wooden pieces on the floor. In this activity, the worshipper (silently) requests something and throws the pieces on the floor. The pieces are flat on one side and rounded on the other, and the result (two flat sides up, two rounded sides up, or one of each) tells whether or not the request will be granted. The temple, like so many Buddhist temples, is quite ornate. It is dominated by red and gold, with detail carvings and paintings covering every pillar, wall and ceiling. With the hum of activity, it was quite the stimulant for the senses.

In comparison is the Shandao Temple, located in a commercial district within sight of Taipei 101 (and again, right next to an MRT stop, this one conveniently named, Shandao Temple). This temple sits in the first floor of a nine-storey structure built by Japanese Buddhists in 1933, during the colonial period. Its main room is a large, clean, very modern-feeling space. With its rows of folding chairs in two sections, it felt like a large community center room, set up for a graduation. Except for the three large Buddha statues at the front. The temple hosted only a single worshipper at the time, and the atmosphere was one of eerie solitude, as drastic a contrast as one could get from Longshan Temple.

It was time to head to more secular points of interest, so I headed north to the National Palace and Museum. The Palace houses the largest collection of Chinese artifacts in history. When the KMT fled mainland China for Taiwan, they were able to take much of the artistic treasures of the nation with them. After several years of transporting the collection around the island, they gave it a permanent home in the Palace. The collection is huge, however (600,000 artifacts, books, and documents), and only a small portion can be displayed at any given time. The rest is housed in tunnels cut into the mountain behind the Palace, which, as one of the guidebooks noted, will protect it in the event of a Chinese invasion.

I am a fan of history, but I found the Palace – like most national museums – overwhelming. It is a place that demands a careful and deliberate series of visits over several days, if you really want to get the full effect. Instead, I tried to do it in two hours. On top of that, it was National Museum Day, which meant admission was free (good), which meant the place was packed (bad). I tried to hit the highlights, but I was beat, and I ended up flying through rooms, noting this bowl or that painting, eager to get back on the bus that would take me back to the MRT. I did manage to take a stroll through the traditional Chinese garden on the grounds, but the crowds and my own fatigue were getting to me, and it was time to head out.

The bus stop at the MRT station is home to many food stalls and small restaurants, and I found a couple more selling my favorite flatbread (it was here that I tried the fried version and the one called China Pizza). And this was good – I needed the sustenance for my next journey, one that called for two transfers and a ride to the end of one of the MRT lines. I was going to catch the cable car to the tea plantations at the foot of the valley that is home to Taipei.

07 July 2008

Travel: Taipei - High Speed Rail

The next day began with a ride on Taiwan’s High Speed Rail. The line runs from Taipei all the way down the island to Kaoshiung, the country’s second largest city, 330 kilometres away from Taipei. The entire trip takes a little more than two hours, with 6 stops between the two cities. I went about halfway, to the fourth stop, Taichung Station. The train covers the 155 kilometres in 90 minutes.

The train looks impressive. Its orange and white livery and sleek profile suggest speed, and that is what you get. I rode in standard class on the way out. Its 3-by-3 configuration is comfortable, although I imagine it can get a bit cramped when the car is full (I rode on a Sunday, so the train was only about half filled). A window seat offers a good vantage point for views of the surrounding landscape, once the train clears its second stop. To tell the truth, there isn’t much to see, other than small towns here and there and flat countryside.

But, what is striking is the speed. At one point, I looked up at the scrolling digital display to see “The current speed is 298 km/hr”. Wow! We were flying, but the ride was a smooth as any train I had ridden and certainly better than what seems to be increasingly bumpy air travel. The Taichung Station is a big, modern building, with ample waiting areas and food outlets, so the 30 minute wait for my return train was pleasant. And I sat in business class on the way back. This is much more comfortable – a darker, calming color scheme and quieter acoustics, with a two-by-two configuration and complimentary drinks and snacks. For a little extra fare, it was well worth it.

Riding the rails is my favorite way to travel. Trains usually arrive in the heart of the city, as opposed to airports located 30 to 60 kilometres away (I actually took HSR to the airport stop the next day – two stops from the main rail station and about 35 kilometres from downtown). You ride in comfort and avoid the hassles of airports and security lines and multi-hour pre-flight waits. I got to the train station at 8.45, and we were off at 9.00. Plus, it just seems so civilized.

Travel: Taipei - Night Markets

I intended to seek out some of Taipei’s temples during the weekend, and I decided to start with Longshan Temple, which dated to 1738. It is just off of an MRT stop (named, conveniently, Longshan Temple). When I arrived, my sense of direction failed me, and I ended up spending the dying moments of the day wandering around, looking for the temple (it ended up being in the one direction I hadn't actually looked). This was fine, however, as I got to see a little bit of the local neighborhood. And little did I know that the area transformed into a night market as the sun set. I stumbled upon dozens of street vendors setting up their food stalls, and I was brave enough to taste some of the goodies (on the meat front, I stayed exclusively with chicken, asking for help from the locals; some of what I saw would have taken real guts – pun intended – to stomach). My favorite dish was a Taiwanese version of flatbread, a doughy pancake with vegetables and spices, cooked with an egg and brushed with soy and chilli sauce. You fold it over and eat it like an Asian tortilla. I later found other vendors making the same thing – one deep-fried his, another called it China Pizza. It is my new favorite. And it probably has 2000 calories a serving.

After sampling the food, I realized the temple was right beside the night market, so I made a quick visit. It was buzzing with activity, but the light was fading for some good photos, so I decided to save a longer visit for the next day. I was off in search of another Taiwanese favorite – the beer hall. More on that later.

After a quick break at the hotel, I headed out to try another night market, the large Shilin Market, housed in a huge building in the northern part of the city. It is like a carnival – games of skill/chance, trinket and knick-knack shops, and lots of food stalls. You name it, they were cooking it – all kinds of seafood, massive sausages, a Taiwanese-version of blood pudding, and stews that looked like they contained every part of the unfortunate creatures that served as the base. And the place was packed. Not only inside, but also around the area. It looked like it would go all night.

Again, I stayed safe, having beef and onions, cooked teppanyaki-style on the grill top right in front of me. It was quite tasty, but the cool part was that it continued to cook as I ate it - the meat and veggies were served on a piece of foil right on the grill-top. I guess it gives the diner the choice of how exactly he wants his meat cooked - it just depends on how long he takes to eat it.

I did take an interest in the other foods being served, but my curiosity was limited to questions about ingredients and the snapping of photos. I was too full, and I just wasn't going to make the leap in some cases.

By the time I had finished eating and playing shooting games (I won a deck of cards by shooting 8 out of 10 balloons in a clearly fixed game), it was late, and I was tired. So, back on the MRT and off to the hotel.