34 Province Project: Taiwan 台湾

Taiwan is an island about 180 kilometers off the coast of mainland China. And that’s really all I can say about the place without somebody snorting peas up their nose, since I’ve already gotten brickbats for including it in this series as a “province” of China. This, too, is a political statement: the People’s Republic of China insists this is the case, and while the Republic of China says so too in its constitution, in practice the island has been quietly backpedaling away from the concept for a while.

This kind of thing bedevils all things Taiwanese, since you can’t even write about Taiwanese things without picking sides. Traditional characters like 台灣 lean “Green” (pro-independence), while simplified ones like 台湾 lean “Blue” (status quo), and even the romanization is different, with the pan-Greens opting for indigenous tongyong pinyin, the pan-Blues preferring China’s hanyu pinyin, and a lot of place names still using the older Wade-Giles system. And that’s just for Mandarin: the local dialect and its speakers are called Hoklo locally, Hokkien to the Singaporeans, Minnan if you’re a linguist, Banlam if you’re saying “Minnan” in the dialect itself, and Fujianese from a mainland point of view. Wah lau! For consistency I’m going to stick with Mandarin, simplified and hanyu pinyin, and use dialect names only when used in Singapore as well.

I had the occasion to visit Taiwan for about a week way back in 2007, checking out both some of the top draws (Alishan, Taipei) as well as a few places off the beaten track (Chiayi, Guanziling). Since both have been quite successful in combating COVID-19, there has been talk of Singapore and Taiwan opening up a travel bubble, but in the meantime there’s plenty of Taiwanese eats right here.

Taiwanese food is hugely popular in Singapore, exemplified first and foremost by bubble tea, such that top outlets sported long queues before last year’s lockdown. You know a dish has hit prime time when this concoction of milky tea with chewy tapioca balls, 珍珠奶茶 zhēnzhū nǎichá “pearl tea” to the Taiwanese and 波霸 bōbà “busty lady” in the US, has acquired its own Singaporean acronym, “BBT”. Taiwanese snacks like fried chicken have also long been ubiquitous, with global Taiwanese chain Shihlin Street Snacks originally hailing from Singapore, and Taiwanese Michelin-star dumpling maestros Din Tai Fung now sport no less than 24 (!) outlets across the island.

I started my Taiwanese tour with lunch at 5 Little Bears (五只小熊), an unassuming little eatery in the basement of busy Paya Lebar Square. The Japanese-style red akachochin lanterns gave a good hint of what was to come, since the oyster mee sua (蚵仔面线 kèzái miànxiàn) was the most Japanese thing I’ve eaten outside Japan: there was a powerful dashi-style seafood funk to the soup, with a few token oysters, some strands of black fungus and uniquely Taiwanese caramelized brown wheat mee sua noodles. The starchy soup, though, was much closer to Fujianese geng than anything you’d find in Japan. It was quite good, but a little monotonous and salty.

Our other main was minced pork rice (卤肉饭 lǔròufàn), a Taiwanese family favorite we make at home sometimes using a recipe from a Taiwanese friend. It’s not a terribly photogenic dish, but the pork was soft and flavorful, the zhacai (榨菜) pickles on the side livened it up nicely, and a tea egg and few sprigs of bok choy rounded it out. The kids had a couple of generously portioned bento sets (便当 biàndang), both word and concept being another Japanese loan that stuck around, plus an obligatory plate of crispy chicken to share. Total damage $28, and two thumbs up.

Second stop on my little island tour was Feng Food (丰台湾味 Fēng Táiwān wèi) in the cavernous basement maze of another shopping mall, this time Northpoint City, where you may be lost forever if you don’t leave a trail of breadcrumbs marking your way out. Done up like a country village with bamboo and straw decorations, they’ve expanded to cover the space of two regular restaurants and were doing a roaring trade for Sunday lunch. My son’s Marinated Pork Chop with Egg Fried Rice (豬排蛋炒飯) was exactly what it says on the tin, reminding me quite a bit of Din Tai Fung’s equally excellent version, only much more generously sized. I tested their “famous” Tainan Danzai Noodles (台南担仔面), but I’m sorry to say I’m not entirely sure what the fuss is about: the topping was a small pile of chopped pork belly with a single shrimp and a chewy tea egg, the soup was a mild variant of Singaporean prawn noodles, and the special imported guān miào (关庙) sun-dried chewy noodles I’d paid a buck extra for tasted very much like Shanxi’s “knife-shaved” daoshaomian. Taiwanese beef noodles still retain the noodle crown for me.

To wash it all down, the only option was bubble tea. Singapore is spoiled for choice, with half a dozen Taiwanese chains staking their claims on the island, but after extensive research consisting of reading this blog article, I ended up at the Paya Lebar PLQ outlet of Chicha San Chen (吃茶三千), hailing from bubble tea epicenter Taichung and now franchised across Asia. The name means “Eat Tea Three Thousand”, which for the record makes no sense in Chinese either. Every high-end BBT retailer has a schtick, and Chicha’s is that each cup of tea is made from actual tea leaves brewed to order, hence the chunky percolators at the register and the clinical lab-coated vibe. I went with a Dong Ding Oolong Fresh Milk Tea (冻顶乌龙鲜奶茶) with added Country King Pearls (国王珍珠), Dong Ding (Frozen Peak) being a Taiwanese variety of oolong tea, plus what the English menu insipidly calls Fruit Tea, which really doesn’t do justice to the majesty of the Chinese name, “Treasure Island Classic Fruit Tea” (宝岛经典水果茶). Were they worth $5 a cup? Somewhat to my surprise, probably. The Dong Ding oolong had a deep, roasted flavor my wife likened to Japanese hōjicha, with soft chewy pearls, while the Fruit Tea was indeed a Treasure Island of apple, lime, passionfruit and tiny pineapple slivers, marinated in surprisingly light Phoenix Eyebrow black tea (凤眉红茶) that as far as I can tell exists solely at Chicha.

Round 2, sponsored by ComfortDelgro Taxis in a bizarre campaign to encourage hailing cabs off the street, was their plain old Bubble Milk Tea (国王珍珠奶茶), basically the same as drink #1 but with regular black tea instead of oolong, and Osmanthus Oolong Tea with Mango (水仙桂花), where the marketing department probably correctly concluded that nobody would order a “Narcissus Osmanthus” in English. The Bubble Milk Tea was, indeed, classic and very tasty indeed, while the Mango-Oolong-Narcissus thing was a bit too much and lacked the excitement of any actual Fruit.

I ordered all four drinks with 0% added sugar, but the fruit and the milk respectively were sweet enough that this tasted just fine. All in all, probably the best BBT I’ve had to date, and fruit teas in particular warrant further exploration.

If Taiwanese food is your thing, there’s plenty more to explore in Singapore, with Taiwanese style breakfasts like pork floss omelettes at True Breakfast in Cuppage Plaza and three cups chicken at Lai Lai Taiwan Casual at City Square. But over twenty more provinces await, so my Long March continues.

<<< Jiangsu

Tall Taiwan Tales: Wikimaniacs in Taipei

The next morning we repeated most of our route in reverse: bus to Chiayi, BRT to the THSR station, and then aboard the bullet train again — this time all the way to Taipei Main Station. We’d grabbed some quick convenience store snacks for lunch when Z realized that we had a bottle of oolong tea and half a bottle of Kaoliang, the local 53-degree firewater, and the combination tasted good enough that by the time we arrived in Taiwan it was all gone and we were, as they say in Finland, slightly tilting to the starboard.

We commandeered a taxi and set off to Taipei 101, perhaps no longer the world’s tallest building (Burj Dubai having passed it a few weeks prior), but at least the tallest completed one. I have to say, though, that it’s pretty anticlimactic. Being in an earthquake zone and all, Taipei’s skyline is generally so lowrise that the tower has no points of reference and, while certainly “tall”, doesn’t give much of a feeling of being “the tallest in the world”. We did the tourist thing and headed up on the elevator, which was genuinely impressive — at 1,000 meters per minute, or a total ride time of 40 seconds, the operator girl was hard pressed to complete her spiel in Chinese, English and Japanese — but once up there, Taipei was just a hazy mess fading off into random mountains. Sunsets up there are supposed to be nice, and in better weather it might have been worthwhile to fork out an extra NT$100 to check out the outdoor observation deck, but as it was, it was just a slightly disappointing thing ticked off the to-do list.

Taipei 101 Every wikigeek's wet dream, Wikipe-tan Shilin river and the Grand Hotel

Z headed off to the airport and I headed off to the notional reason I was in Taiwan in the first place, the Wikimania 2007 conference. I’d been to hacker conferences before, and I’d been to academic conferences, but this was my first Wiki conference and it was a strange combination of both (lots of geeks, lots of impenetrably technical presentations) plus hippy-ideological messianic Communist-Christian revival (“Have you accepted Jimbo into your heart? All praise the wiki!”). It was all good fun though, with some fascinating presentations (Joichi Ito, Jack Herrick), a dozen Wikitravellers showing up for the Eat-Together at Shilin Night Market, free speech ”and” free beer at the Wikimania Party, and life-sized cartoon cutouts of every geek’s dream come true, Wikipe-tan. And, of course, Wikitravel head honcho Evan and I got to announce Wikitravel Press and even got a mention in the China Times for our pains. Spiffy-keen.

Food court at Shilin Night Market Taiwanese beef noodles at Shilin Night Market

On the last day, I left the conference at around 3:30, figuring that three hours would be plenty of time to get to the airport. Lug bag to Jiantan MRT, hop down one stop to Yuenshan MRT, spot the incoming airport bus dropping off pax by the side of the road… but where, oh where, was the stop for going to the airport? After running around in circles and murdering my severely overworked deodorant, I collared an incoming bus driver, who told me there is no stop and that I’d have to head to Taipei Main Stn. D’oh!  I grabbed a taxi; the cabbie of course spoke no English, but pointing at my (Japanese) Chiyu no Arukikata Taiwan’s diagram of buses around Main Stn saved the day and he dropped me off at the bus terminal, which should have had buses to the airport… but didn’t? The Kuo-Kuang desk pointed me over to the competition, Airbus, who had a bus leaving in 25 min. Seeing no choice, I bought a seat (surprisingly cheap at NT$90) and settled down for a wait.

Even by low Taiwanese standards the bus was a total wreck: stuffing was squirting out of those seats that weren’t falling off, half the windows were shattered and the bus set off with a groaning motor that made me seriously doubt it would make it all the way to the airport. The bus sailed off past another bus terminal with a huge sign — Kuo-Kuang to Taoyuan Airport — and I realized that the cabbie had dropped me off at the ”West” terminal, not the ”East” terminal, and this was a “stop at every betel nut stand” local service. It was 35 min before we’d puttered out to the expressway, and with a bit of a slowdown there too (the bus couldn’t do more than 30 km/h or so uphill), an hour had elapsed before we pulled off the expressway and into Taoyuan… the city, not the airport. Endless traffic lights, endless stops, grannies helping kids disembark, 5 km to go and 15 min until checkin closed… after a miniature eternity, we reached the airport and did a couple of scenic loops through the cargo area before the day’s solitary stroke of luck: we first pulled in at Terminal 1, not 2.  I ran off into the Departures hall and made it to the by now deserted counter at Row 7A at 17:44 — under minute before the 40 minute (17:45) cutoff. Phew.

Exit immigration took its own sweet time and I had to pretty much head straight to the gate to be herded onto the plane. Takeoff was on time, and with Jori Hulkkonen on the iPod and a gorgeous haze-diffracted sunset over Taipei I could finally relax. Well, almost. I gathered a little good karma on the plane by helping out two young Vietnamese monks with their immigration forms, using our sole common language — Mandarin. (Pointing with fingers was generally rather more effective.) For dinner, I’d planned to use up my last NT$250 on chicken rice, but Jetstar wouldn’t take my coins — so the monks attempted to pay for me! I found a S$2 note and rescued myself, but they then upped the ante by handing over one of their 7-Ups and refusing to take it back.

Monks: “Mei guanxi! Mei guanxi!

Me: “Bu dui a, you guanxi! Wo bu keyi!

Monks: “Mei guanxi! Bu keqi!

Me: “Aa… xiexie…

I sipped my sickly sweet carbonated nectar and ruminated on the impermanence of worldly things. This was the end of another adventure: up next, a sliver over 12 hours in Singapore, and tomorrow off to India again.

Tall Taiwan Tales: Wallowing in Mud in Guanzihling

After breakfast we took a rather less spectacular if twice as fast, twice as comfortable and comparatively half-priced bus back to Chiayi, passing through countless tea plantations and road construction sites. Once there, we hauled our bags through the sweltering streets (oh, how I missed the cool weather already) to the little local bus terminal which had buses to Guanzihling, our next destination, with just enough time to grab a final turkey rice and some bubble/pearl/boba tea — milky tea with chewy tapioca balls, a Taiwanese invention that was a huge Asia-wide boom a while back and is even starting to make headway in the Americas.

The bus eventually did show up, and having been pre-baked in the sun it was hot as a sauna inside. Being a local service, it took over an hour to crawl through suburban Chiayi, past the indistinguishable neighboring town of Baihe, just a little way back up the mountain, through a twisty valley, and into a parking lot which turned out to be the line’s terminus. Our hotel wasn’t in sight, the solitary map plonked on the parking lot was useless, there was no signage in any language, the people at the hotel didn’t appear to be capable of explaining where on earth they were and I didn’t have the Chinese characters of the hotel’s name anywhere. Arrgh. Stretching our combined Mandarin skills to the max, we managed to convey to the bus driver that we wanted to go to “Toong Mao”, and he waved us uphill — where, after a 5-minute trodge, we did find our hotel. Not much English (or Japanese) was spoken there either, but they did manage to get us checked in and we crashed into our first bed in four nights that didn’t feel like it had the sheets nailed to plywood. Unlike at Alishan, where our room had scenic views of the parking lot, the Toong Mao is built atop a hill and has great views down into the valley where “old” Guanzihling lies, a steep 300-step staircase away.

Hot spring source Guanzihling valley seen from Toong Mao Resort

Guanziling has an unusual claim to fame: it’s one of only three places on earth (the others being Kagoshima in Kyushu, Japan and Vulcano in Sicily, Italy) that features muddy hot springs, meaning that the hot spring water coming out the ground is already premixed with fine grey silt as it comes out. Not too exciting if you’re a guy, perhaps, but Z — whose delicate skin doesn’t always share our mutual conviction that a perpetually hot and humid tropical climate is greatest thing since sliced bread — was very keen on trying it out.

So here’s how you do it. Strip to your swimsuit, take a shower, put on a shower cap to protect your hair, maybe even goggles if you’re hardcore, and then start slathering on the mud, great big buckets of which are provided. Cover every inch of your body with gray goop — the Toong Mao resort even provides sex-segregated spaces if you want to take that literally and dispose of the swimsuit — then take a seat and wait for a few minutes until it starts to dry and the surface takes on a light gray sheen. Then go sit in a warm pool of the stuff, rinse it off, and repeat as often as you’d like. Regrettably (if unsurprisingly), no cameras are allowed, but here’s a blog by somebody whose resort did allow it:

4travel.jp/traveler/eijiiigle/album/10053442/

And does it work? I can’t voucher for the male of the species, but for the ladies, the answer is an unqualified “yes”. I have no idea why or how that mud works — it’s really, really, really fine, so maybe it’s actually sinking into your pores and clogging them up? — but it certainly feels mm-mm-smooth.

Dinner at a nearby restaurant was simple but excellent: amazing river shrimp deep-fried whole, cold bamboo shoots in sesame oil, tofu with bean sauce and a complimentary dish of steamed mountain veggies. The day’s “you know you’ve been in Asia too long” moment came when Z said “oh look, protein”, plucked out a stiff inch-long caterpillar from her veggies, deposited it on the side of the plate and continued eating. And so did I.

Up next: Taipei

Tall Taiwan Tales: Mountains of Mist at Alishan

The next morning, we woke up bright and early so we could catch the reason we’d come to Chiayi in the first place, namely the Alishan Forest Railway. The name doesn’t sound like much, and indeed, it was built by the Japanese for the rather un-noble purpose of stripping their island colony of its prized giant cypresses. (Obscure trivia: the massive torii gate of Tokyo’s famous Meiji Jingu Shrine is built from Taiwanese cypress, because none large enough could be found in Japan.) Today, though, it’s considered one of the engineering marvels of the world: in 3.5 hours, narrow-gauge engines putter and wheeze their way up from 30m to 2450m, with countless tunnels, bridges and scary dropoffs along the way.

Train pulling into Alishan station Alishan Forestry Railway track near Jhushan

On weekdays, there’s only one afternoon train a day, but on weekends (like this Sunday) they put on an extra morning train and today it was packed — it was standing room only even at Chiayi, and somewhat to our surprise more people just kept piling in at each stop. (We thanked our lucky stars for having the foresight to book ahead; not an easy task, as bookings are only accepted in Taiwan, but fortunately Z’s Taiwanese colleague had arranged it for us.) The initial stretch through rice paddies and people’s backyards, often at little more than walking pace (at 3.5 hours for 71 km, the average speed works to around 20 km/h), wasn’t too exciting, but soon enough the climb started. While coastal Taiwan sweltered in tropical heat, with banana trees and pineapple orchards, as we went uphill the vegetation started to change: less palm trees, more bamboo forests, more cypresses (still with the occasional creeper vine!). The toy train’s pitiful air-con had been stretched to its limits earlier, but the air started to cool down despite the ever-increasing masses.

At Fencihu, most passengers got off and we picked up the famous Fencihu biendang (a uniquely Taiwanese Mandarin import of bentou, Japanese word for lunch box), and it was tasty indeed. Suddenly the train felt very quiet, the previously bright blue sky had clouded over, and by the time we reached Shermuh station, the penultimate stop, there were wisps of mist flitting among the cedars. We reached our terminus, Alishan, at noon and the first drops of rain fell at the same time.

Staircase in the cedar forest Tree Spirit Pagoda in the swirling mists

Alishan (“Mount Ali”) isn’t the highest mountain in Taipei or even particularly close — that honor goes to Yushan, a ridge down and over 1 km higher — but it’s Taiwan’s top tourist spot and it was soon obvious why. We headed out for a walk in the woods, and the alternating drizzle and swirling mist made it all seem scarily hallucinatory: the Tree Spirit Pagoda, rising out of the mist like the monolith of 2001 and surrounded by gigantic 2000-year-old red cypresses tens of meters tall, was downright awe-inspiring. But as we pottered around, the rain started to increase, with accompanying cracks of thunder, and we took refuge in the amazing Jhaoshen temple, whose second story hides an altar so golden it hurts the eyes to look at it and an eerie dark room with countless Buddhas in niches, each lit by a single LED.

Golden altar at Jhoushen temple Miniature Buddhas at Shoujhen Temple

The rain didn’t let up, but the lightning moved further away, so we sloshed back to the hotel and warmed our bones (the temperature had fallen from Chiayi’s 35 C to just 10 C) with some pretty tasty hotpot, a firm favorite in these parts. We set our alarms for 3:30 AM, in time to catch the sunrise… but at 3:30, the pitter-patter of rain continued, so we decided to sleep in.

Once roused, it was a beautiful sunny morning without a cloud in the sky, yet the pitter-patter continued — there was a pipe leaking onto our roof. D’oh. In the sunshine, yesterday’s eerie scenery had become unrecognizable, with the ghosts gone and lofty Swiss-style mountain peaks and stately trees in their place. By noon, though, the clouds had rolled back and will-o’-wisps were again flitting through the forest, which was wrapped in impossibly dense blankets of moss due to the constant moisture. (As Z discovered the hard way, drying your laundry in Alishan isn’t very easy.) This time, we hotfooted out before the downpour started, and sampled some stinky tofu for lunch. I, for one, think the English translation is misguided and they should use the literal meaning of the character 臭 instead, namely “shitty”. While I have, to the best of my knowledge, never consumed feces, I have no doubt that the aftertaste would be exactly the same as that of stinky tofu. Bleargh.

Just before dawn on Jhushan Misty dawn at Jhushan

The next morning, we did manage to get up at 3:30 AM, and in slightly less frigid conditions than I’d expected we made our way by the special sunrise train service to Jhushan to share a romantic mountaintop sunset with approximately 1000 other Taiwanese, one of whom was equipped with a megaphone and was kind enough to provided running commentary in Chinese at very loud volumes, non-stop, laced with plugs for his brand of plum candy. Alas, we didn’t get the famous “sun rising over sea of clouds” effect, but it was a clear morning with a few wisps of fog in the valley below, so it was pretty cool. (And we didn’t buy any candied plums.)

Up next: Guanzihling

Tall Taiwan Tales: Fast Trains, Ugly Towns and Turkey Rice

The plane landed into a hazy dusk and rolled up to Taipei Taoyuan Airport Terminal 1, a building sufficiently old and moldy that Chiang Kai-Shek’s ghost was probably happy to get his name off the thing. After a lenghty wait at immigration that caused us to just miss our bus, we chowed down on the first of many bowls of beef noodles to come (damn, this stuff is good) and hopped on the next bus to the day’s first destination — Taiwan High Speed Rail‘s Taoyuan station.

THSR Taoyuan station Taiwan High Speed 700T train pulling into Taoyuan station

The station is a space-age structure of glass and steel, set squarely in the middle of nothing much at all, 15 min away from the airport. Luckily enough, THSR had just doubled the number of trains per hour one day before we arrived, and getting seats for the next one was no problem at all. I’ve ridden a fair few high-speed trains in my time (Shinkansen, KTX, Thalys, TGV, ICE, Shanghai Maglev…) and I can without hesitation say that the THSR 700T is the slickest-looking train I’ve ever been on. It’s huge, airy, whisper-quiet and so smooth that (especially at night) you need to look up at the speed gauge to remember that, yes, you are hurtling on an elevated track at 300 km/h through the Taiwanese countryside.

We arrived at THSR Chiayi station just over an hour later, and hopped on the remarkably anti-climactic Chiayi “Bus Rapid Transit”, which seems to mean old, clapped out buses running on perfectly ordinary road at perfectly ordinary speeds, the only sign of modernity being an LED displays crudely hacked above the entrance with epoxy squirting out the seams. We hopped off at Chiayi Rear Station (as they termed the entrance on the “wrong” side of the tracks), crossed a footbridge, forded our way through an army of taxi touts, dumped out bags in the first tolerable motel we came across (NT$600/night, or slightly under US$20) and set off to explore a bit.

299 km/h in the THS700T Chiayi by night

I’ll give a handy hint to any prospective Taiwan travellers: if you want a positive first impression of the island, don’t spend your first night in Chiayi. At the risk of understatement, Chiayi is not an attractive city, especially in the heat of summer, when the Bangkok-y stench of untreated sewage wafts up from the open sewers, old guys sit around in their underpants scratching their balls at betel nut stands and cockroaches skitter in the shadows. Zhongshan Rd, Chiayi’s main drag, is a hotch-potch assemblage of ugly lowrise houses with the most ludicrous attempt at a pedestrian walkway I’ve ever seen — every shop has built its own, so they’re all at wildly varying heights. I pity the drunk and the disabled in this town. (And everybody else, for that matter.)

On the admittedly limited upside, Chiayi is full of shops selling the local speciality, turkey rice. The name is accurate: you get a bowl of rice (Japanese-style short-grain), a few shreds of steamed turkey, a spoonful of translucent, garlicky gravy and a token half-slice of pickle that tries to brighten it up and fails. It doesn’t taste half-bad though, it’s just a little… boring. Nightlife in Chiayi follows much the same pattern: try as we might, we couldn’t find any place that would sell us beer without subjecting us to karaoke at the same time, so we had to settle for a mango ice and call it a night.

Up next: Alishan