Taiwan – why we fell in love

  • People are really, really friendly

Many times we have been looking at The Book and people have asked us if we are lost and helped us, or just chatted to us when we crossed the road and given us great advice. Our Taipei host, Fiona, made us so welcome, checked our itinerary each night and advised us what to do, how to get around, even gave us a lift to the port when we were leaving.

  • Coffee is cheap and tasty

Chains and non chains of coffee vendor are everywhere and they are all really affordable and blooming great! We have now gotten to be coffee snobs, with a penchant for mandheling coffee. Drip coffee and single origin is very popular and isn’t just a new thing, coffee shops have been around since the 1950’s. 

  • Tea is expensive but worth it

We saw tea being grown, then tasted it, learning how to make a proper brew it wasn’t as intricate as a Japanese tea ceremony, but we could taste the difference in the teas and styles. We are now tea snobs as well.

  • Taiwan is compact and bijoux with excellent infrastructure.

It is simple to travel around due to its size but also because of helpful signage and announcements in English, and stations having good maps of the local area. There is also the Ezy card,  which acts as an Oyster card,  being able to be used on all transport in Taipei, but you can also use it all over the country, brilliant and saves you money.

    • Excellent food

    Taiwan is reputed to have the best Japanese restaurants outside of Japan which is some compliment as the Japanese are so particular about their food. The seafood we had at Aquatic Addiction was some of the freshest we have seen outside of Japan, and that experience was one of the highlights of our trip so far. We have also eaten middle eastern food and Indian curries, and seen Mexican and Greek restaurants. Sadly no Georgian restaurants have opened yet. Also, night markets – see below

    • Night markets

    The reason we first got interested in Taiwan was for the night markets, and they are amazing. All so different, some just for walking and snacking, some with cafes, restaurants, all with an amazing variety of foods.

    • Environmental Diversity 

    Whatever you want to see you can get it within a short train or bus ride. We have experienced clear beaches, sulphurous thermal spas, volcanos, stunning mountains, blue lakes, with opportunities for hiking, cycling, or scootering! Just travelling around you see a lush, green landscape full of wildlife which is unique to this small and perfectly formed beautiful isle . 

    • Taiwan beer, mango beer and Best whisky 2015.

    These are just a few of the great alcoholic drinks we have had here, it is not a drinking culture, we rarely saw anyone drinking, but did manage to try enough beers and whisky to convince ourselves we liked it.

    • South and North Asia mix.

    There is the Asian living life on the street, but with an efficient infrastructure which makes this country a fabulous mix of cultures. It is cheaper to eat out than cook, so you see kids having food on their own which would seem strange at home, but is perfectly normal here. There are are street stalls everywhere, each having their own speciality, which we often don’t know due to the language barrier, but we have still enjoyed delicious food all over the country. 

    • Cultural diversity

    In a marked difference to other countries we have recently visited there is a refreshing vitality about the people, their fashion and sense of self. They all have individual style and are happy to be different to the next person having dyed hair, tattoos, and diverse fashion sense! There is also a refreshing sense of equality here, women are just as likely to be in positions of power in business and not just meant for the home (our views are from advertising and reading). It is also clear there is more sexual equality here, gay pride and gay rights are the most progressive in Asia and we saw gay couples being openly affectionate.

    • Train station food court

    At home a train station food shop is to be avoided at all costs, here it is somewhere to go on a Saturday night for dinner. The one at Taipei main station is the best we saw, it had sections for beef noodle soup, Taiwanese and curry. There were also many  Japanese restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops, with queues outside the popular places.  

    • Love of animals

    You see many strollers here and don’t know if they contain babies or pets. The Taiwanese love their pets, especially dogs who are often carried down the street as if they were little china ornaments.

    • Respect for elderly

    You are likely to see youngsters accompanying their grandparents on a stroll,  especially at the weekend. It’s the Asian respect for the older generation which we are finding more and more appealing.

    In the interests of balance (you know, like the BBC) the only criticism of Taiwan is there are not enough rubbish bins. That is it. Everything else is just peachy.

    So I think we can safely say that this is one of the best countries we have visited, and we are planning on visiting again.

        8.12.16 Tainan to Chiayi

        A short train of less than an hour and we arrive in Chiayi. The hostel checks us in but as we’re in a dorm and its 9.30 we leave our bags and head straight out.

        Our destination is the National Palace Museum Southern Branch. In the gift shop of the Taipei branch were replica models of a rock shaped like pork which is a national treasure. We asked where it was and were told Chiayi, so here we are on a museum/food pilgrimage.

        A free shuttle bus to the High Speed Rail station and another 10 minute bus later and we’re staring across an artificial lake at an architectural marvel. The museum was opened in 2015 and has a curved bridge over the lake to a stunning steel and glass building which houses the museum.

        The huge glass atrium is light and airy and aircon cool. We ascend the curved marble steps as if we are going to a ball. An information on old stuff ball. 

        There is a film about Asia and one about the history of Chiayi then we’re onto Buddhist art which all museums seem to start with. There are beautiful copies of the sutras from the 1400s.

        There are exhibitions on Korean pottery and Japanese pottery which in my ignorance I can’t put into context.

        An exhibition on Asian textiles with some amazingly intricate costumes and including a film on how to wear a sari.

        Finally, before the exit is a history of tea which explains how the method of preparing tea has changed with historic examples of the equipment required.

        The whole museum is very engaging with information in English and unbiased appreciation of how other countries (Japan, Korea, India) have influenced the Asian arena which we have not seen before.

        We get to the exit and haven’t seen the pork shaped rock. We ask the attendants. They don’t understand our eloquent English or mimes of pork shaped rock so get over an English speaking colleague. “Meat?” she shouts at us and points behind the exit.

        I’m amazed. Its worth the trip.

        Back at Chiayi station we buy bus tickets to Alishan National Park for tomorrow. (Alison loves to be referred to as Alishan by the way so remember that in your texts and emails)

        We try the local delicacy of turkey rice which is topped by a fried egg. 

        In the hostel we are invited to the launch party of a new local restaurant which will sell savoury food in a waffle cone perched on a pineapple drink. The hostel owner translates the precedings to us and we see photos of the organic pineapple farm and the building where the restaurant will be. After the speeches the guests tuck into various flavours and we share a chilli pork one. It looks so colourful and tastes good.

        We chat to our dorm mates which include two Swiss girls, a Canadian/Hong  Kong bloke and a Chinese man who is cycling round the whole of Taiwan in 12 days on his foldable commuter bike. Chapeau!

        We crash first in the quietest, most considerate dorm we’ve stayed in.

        7.12.16 Tainan Odyssey

        Tell me, Muse, about the man of many turns, who many ways wandered when he had sacked Troys holy citadel.

        Today we planned a voyage through Tainan to the original Dutch port area of Anping. The first street in Taiwan is said to be here. Along the way were many distractions, threatening our course.

        First was chilled oolong tea. Refreshing, sweet and fruity.

        Further along the road we saw a girl perched on a bamboo stool on the pavement with a bowl of braised pork rice. We pulled up tiny stools and asked the stall holder for two bowls of this food which she explained was called Ro Zao Fan. It was melting and rich.

        When we paid, the stall holder gave us a gift of chilled hibiscus tea which was sweet and sour. Her husband fetched a bag of the dried flowers to show us. Such wonderful, kind people.

        We continued and stumbled upon Tainan market. Piles of really fresh fish were being cleaved into pieces or filleted. Sushi stalls next door shouted “hello” and looked very enticing but people had already been drawn in and there were no seats left. The meat, veg and fruit produce on all the stalls looked very good quality, the freshness was visible. Best of all were the friendly, smiley stall holders making us feel welcome. We were tempted to stay, admiring the produce and eating but the pull of our quest drew us away.

        We dropped down to the canalside and admired the garden designs. Old fishermen said “Niii Haaaooo” in a drawn out, relaxed fashion.

        Our next challenge was public exercise equipment which you see in residential parks all over China. We were delayed by them for some time until minutes later we managed to subdue our inner athletes and continue our stroll.

        By now the sun was high in the sky and fierce. We followed the exposed canal, grateful to the Gods that we had avoided the danger of cycling into it.

        We saw trolls in a park but quietly bypassed them.

        Alas, we cannot say the same of the modern sculpture garden where one shipmate was enticed by the ancient banyan tree, white bamboo and a mirrored walkway. Only the thought of food got her back on course.

        Has the sun affected our minds? We pass a tree growing out of a building.

        Finally, we pause for refreshment and taste the local fare. Local food gathered from land and sea, eaten by the locals for generations. Oyster omlet, shrimp rolls and fried oysters with ketchup.

        Praise Poseidon we reach our destination and stroll around the ancient streets admiring trinkets designed for tourists and packaged sweets worth many gold coins.

        Our adventure does not cease now though, for we must return back to our fourteenth floor abode. The hot sun has warmed the earth and with full bellies we hide in shade as we chart our course home. 

        After 100 metres we see a Creme Caramel shop. Our bellies are full but our legs are weary and the thought of rest overpowers us, so reluctantly we pull ashore and taste the soft sweet goo.

        With bellies so full we are in danger of capsizing we set off again but soon we see a MANGO creme caramel shop and cry out to Zeus –

        “Holy Zeus, why do you curse us so?” “We just desire the hard Asian mattress and slightly damp smelling aircon of our room but you keep delaying us!”

        The mango creme caramel is fruity, sweet, creamy, very wobbly and very good. To ensure product consistency we also share a lemon cheese cake. It is consistent.

        Zeus must hear our cries, for our voyage is mostly smooth sailing from here, as we roll our bellies homeward. The market is closed when we pass and most food stalls are closed.

        The heat has parched our throats, so nearly home, we pull ashore for one last stop of iced Heineken Green Tea. (Well, it had to be done)

        Does the adventure end here you ask? Do adventures ever really end?

        After dark we attempt to find a night market for supplies but our sea charts fail us and alas we are off course, so we settle for an eel restaurant. Sour eel soup and fried eel with noodles.

        The End.

        6.12.16 Kenting to Tainan

        We checked out and crossed the road to the bus stop. A taxi driver shouted at us but we smiled and pointed to the bus stop. In the hotel behind it, we bought two tickets to go to Kaohsiung train station and the lady explained we needed to wait for 20 minutes and pointed to a sofa. Al waited and I popped to 7/11 for bananas. The taxi driver shouted at me again and I smiled and said we had bus tickets. Half way down breakfast the taxi driver appears in the hotel lobby and chats to the lady who sold us the bus tickets. ‘Kaohsiung, Kaohsiung’ he shouts at us. ‘No money, no money’. I point to the bus timetable and look to the lady for help. She seems to say its fine so we show him the tickets and watch as money crosses the counter between them. Bags in the boot we head off. He shouts at us ‘bus three hour, taxi two’ and we smile. We pass another hotel and he stops in the road and shouts. It occurs to us that he’s going to fill the cab. 10 mins later and with five of us in the car we leave Kenting. 

        As all taxi drivers do the world over, when the meter isn’t on, he drives at full speed. Tap, tap, tap on the accelerator as we constantly lurch forward, heads bobbing back and forth, stomachs reeling as if we have been punched. He undertakes trucks using the cycle lane, switches lanes in heavy traffic at high speed, answers calls on his two phones (shouting, obviously) and constantly fiddles with his dashboard.

        I find him fascinating. He constantly touches the back of his head, smoothing his hair. He has a good luck charm hanging from his rear view mirror which has a bell on it. Sometimes as we speed round a bend he grabs it so it doesn’t ring, sometimes he will ring it himself. He sits upright in the drivers seat but with the back lowered. His seatbelt is across his lap but the diagonal chest strap is behind him against his chair. His default communication method is shouting. He checks his mobile every few minutes. He seems frantic.

        Later, after a fellow passenger has got out and paid we stop at a big junction. The driver pulls out a massive bundle of banknotes and with a level of OCD that I can only aspire to, carefully irons out all the creases of the banknotes with his long fingernails and meticulously folds each note precisely in half before adding it to the bundle alongside notes of the same value, facing the same direction. The car is rolling forward the whole time,  slowly inching across the white line, encroaching into the junction. I’m relieved when the light changes and he floors it.

        We arrive exactly two hours after we left but have aged more than two hours. I’d rather have taken the bus.

        We buy train tickets to Tainan and a random sushi selection and board the old but spacious carriage. I love the old Taiwan trains as you have so much room between seats.

        The journey is only 50 mins which now seems hardly any time to settle in and enjoy the scenery. 

        Our hotel is across from the station, a big, fourteen floor, curved building which is past its heyday, but is clean and we have an ensuite!

        In the afternoon we complete a twelve temple walking tour with a cake stop. The temples here are located within residential areas and busy, giving them a vibrant feel. They are also old, with dark wood interiors, faded murals and aged statues. Tainan was founded by the Dutch and used to be the capital of Taiwan and the temples give a real feel of history to the city. We have already seen a few temples on this trip and are sad to say that recently we are uninterested in sights that would have fascinated us three months ago but we really enjoy visiting the temples this afternoon.

        Tainan is also renowned amongst Taiwanese for its food. For tea we go to a recommended restaurant which serves many of the local delicacies. We try oyster omelette, milk fish stomach, tao zi noodles, sweet potato leaves, steamed rice cake, meat dumplings and shrimp rolls washed down with white gourd tea. It is not spicy or herby but sweet and delicate food with great fresh ingredients. 

        Stuffed, we walk home but unfortunately pass a cupcake shop and as its three months since we left, celebrate with cupcakes and a Guinness brownie.