Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Danshui, A Historic Seaport

During our five days in Taiwan we made one other excursion outside of Taipei to the town of Danshui, 淡水, (sometimes spelled Tamsui). We reached our destination fairly easily, as it is located at the end of one of the main subway lines, less than an hour from central Taipei. Danshui, located by the ocean, is a historical port that was settled by the Spanish and then subsequently the Dutch in the 1600s. 

Danshui, like Jiufen, has a famous "old street" with shops selling traditional foods and street food vendors. One food item that appeared over and over again was grilled squid - large whole pieces of squid with the tentacles and body intact. I didn't end up trying the squid, but I did try the famous iron egg.

Iron eggs are stewed for a long time in a mixture of spices and what tastes like soy sauce. Because of this method of cooking, they shrink in size and have a very chewy texture. They also turn really dark. Lots of shops sell these eggs in vacuum-sealed packages, as in the photo below. I was really tempted to buy a package to bring back to Singapore - the eggs are really good, despite their strange appearance!

I've noticed that a lot of Asian foods are dark or black (seaweed, black chicken, forbidden rice, etc), but you don't really see darker foods as part of the common Western palette. I wonder why this cultural difference exists. 

The shops are located near the oceanfront. There is a large green area between the buildings and the bay where people can walk around or sit and admire the view. Unfortunately the skies were a bit cloudy and gray the afternoon we visited. Right across the water sits a mountain, in a district known as Bali (different from the island in Indonesia!). Ferries go across the water to take travelers to Bali.  

One major attraction of Danshui is the Hongmao Castle, or Fort San Domingo, constructed by the Dutch several centuries ago. It later served as the British consulate. We trekked up a hill to reach the Fort. The photo below is not of the fort itself, but a brick building right next to the fort. I believe it used to be the residence of British officials while the consulate still operated.

From the top of the hill you get a lovely view of the sunset. The fort provides such a great vantage point of the water - no wonder the Dutch decided to build it here. 

Later as we walked through the streets to get back to the subway station I noticed this line of motorbikes on the side of the street. Motorbikes are so common in Taiwan and many people use them as a primary mode of travel. I've seen couples riding together on a bike, as well as parents and children. Motorbike drivers are quite skillful at weaving in between buses and cars. 

What's really amazing is that Taiwan is so safe, people do not bother to chain up the bikes or helmets. If you leave your motorbike parked by the road, you can almost be certain that it will be right where you left it when you come back. This security was definitely missing in New Haven - if a student leaves a bicycle chained by the sidewalk overnight, the next day the wheels will be missing. 

This safety and trust is another reason why Taiwan seems magical!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Jiufen: A Magical Seaside Village

Jiufen (九份) is an old mining town just outside of Taipei. It's famous for its beautiful scenic views of the mountains and the ocean, the narrow cobbled streets surrounded by traditional teahouses and shops, and an almost Japanese feel in its peaceful and zen-like quality. In fact, the famous movie Spirited Away was modeled after this town. 

It's an easy day trip from Taipei. We boarded an outbound train from the Taipei main station to Ruifang District, about a 40-minute trip. Once we reached Ruifang train station, we took a bus for about 20 minutes to get to Jiufen. Believe me, the trip was worth it for the view from the bus ride alone! We rode up winding mountain roads, getting breath-taking views of the coast and the ocean. 

Soon we arrived at the main town of Jiufen, surrounded by a large temple and a lovely mountain peak, partially shrouded in the clouds. The day was bright and beautiful, and there was a cool breeze. In fact, Taiwan weather as a whole has been a cool and welcome relief from the intense humidity of Singapore.

The views are gorgeous from all sides. It is amazing that this type of natural beauty is so easily accessible from the capital of Taiwan. You definitely cannot find this environment in Singapore, regardless of how much effort the government puts into preserving nature and inserting gardens and parks into the city.

The famous "Old Street" winds through much of the town. It appears to be the main destination for many visitors, and is fringed with souvenir shops, teahouses, and lots of food! In the photo below you can see the narrow crooked streets, with the traditional architecture of the shop fronts. It did remind me a bit of Japanese building styles. 

Even on a weekday afternoon there were lots of people going up and down the street. The street stretched on for maybe half a mile, crammed full of things to see and eat. Unfortunately I didn't get good photos of the food, but there were interesting finds such as fried mushrooms, fish balls, and various fruit shakes. 

The end of the old street approached a more residential area, where houses and roads rested in narrow alleys built onto the side of the mountain. Here the number of visitors lessened and the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful. I found a roof near the pathway and sat on it for a little bit, admiring the mountain scene in the setting afternoon sun. 

I wound up walking back through the streets to get to the bus stop, but I didn't mind since there was so much to see that I missed the first time around. The part of the street in the photo below had a slightly different feel; the architecture seemed more European and the shops sold trendy clothes and tea rather than souvenirs and street food.  

We took a bus back to Taipei just as the sun was shining its last rays upon the coast. I'm glad such pristine landscapes can still exist alongside human societies. It was a beautiful misty scene, and a perfect ending to a magical afternoon. 

Taipei Nights

I'm back from spending five days in Taiwan. The trip was amazing and there was so much to see and do that I'll have to recount it over several posts. This first post describes Taipei, the capital city, and the vibrant night culture.

I found Taipei to be a bustling and culturally unique city. It retains much of its older traditions and ways of life while still offering most conveniences of modern life. The subway system crisscrosses the city and allows for ease of transport, and main thoroughfares are filled with lines of motorbikes, taxis, and cars. However, you can find little alleyways right off the main streets, filled with street vendors, and people's homes.

This photo is a view of the city from 26th floors up: alive with lights! I like this view because it contains a more human scale than the perspective from a major skyscraper like Taipei 101.
A big part of Taiwanese culture is the night market. At night, several blocks of streets in a neighborhood will fill up with all sorts of vendors. You can find all sorts of food, from stinky tofu and soy braised meats to milk tea and fried chicken cutlets. There are also little shops selling clothes and little trinkets. Sometimes you will also stumble across massage parlors and kiddie arcades - something for everyone! The areas are pedestrian friendly, with large crowds of people roaming about, though occasionally people will move aside for the stray motorbike or delivery truck.

This is the Shilin Night Market, one of the most famous and "touristy" night markets. 
There are several night markets in Taipei. We ended up going to Shilin, the major touristy one, Shida, and Raohe. What I really like about these markets is that though they are somewhat of a tourist attraction, there are also plenty of locals that hang out there, shopping and eating. I'm not sure when the markets start up (probably around sunset or early evening), but usually things don't start dying down until midnight.

One of the lesser crowded alleys in Shilin. You can see the major crowds up ahead. 
At these night markets, most items are really cheap. In fact, Taiwan as a whole is very affordable compared to Singapore. Many of the food items are less than $1, and you can get a filling meal for $3-4.

There are always lots of fried goodies at night markets! This photo is actually not of a night market but of a street market in a nearby town, but there are similar foods available at all the night markets - fried meats, sausages, fish balls, etc. I even saw fried milk once! Most of the foods are conveniently portioned and packaged to be eaten on the go - no need for napkins or utensil.s
I really like this type of street food. It is called a red bean bun (a little misleading since the filling does not have to be red bean). Basically it is two pieces of dough that tastes like waffle batter, encasing a sweet or savory filling. Your options are usually red bean, cheese, peanut butter, or sometimes salted and dried radish. 

At the Shilin Market, this vendor sells pan fried pork buns - one of the great street foods you can find in Taiwan. Juicy minced pork is wrapped inside a chewy dough bun, which is then fried to a crispy texture.
This is Shida Market, the first one I went to on the night we arrived in Taipei. It is a trendier night market and caters towards a younger demographic with fashionable clothing stores. Apparently it used to be larger and take over several streets, but residents in the neighborhood complained of the noise and now it is a shadow of its former self. 
We went to a night market almost every evening - there was just so much to see and eat. The crowds sometimes do get overwhelming and there are long lines for the most popular vendors. However, people are really friendly and vendors tend to be helpful. Most people know a least a passing amount of English or will direct you to someone who is more fluent. I was able to get by very easily on my conversational level of Chinese. Additionally, the markets are quite safe, and I felt extremely comfortable the whole time, though it is always better to be on guard while traveling.

Besides night markets, there are also upscale malls and shopping districts which maintain a lively presence.

This is a fancy mall right beneath Taipei 101, the tallest skyscraper in Taiwan (and was tallest building in the world for a number of years). 
Of course, there are also bars and clubs for those looking for nightlife, but my sense is that there is not so much of a drinking and partying culture in Taipei. Rules around alcohol are loose (legal age is 18, no laws regarding open containers in public). I didn't see too many bars on my walks around the city, and after midnight all public transportation stops. The streets became empty and very quiet, in a peaceful but almost eerie way - definitely different from New York!