Friday, December 26, 2014

Pingxi Railway Line

The Pingxi Railway Line is a fun day trip from Taipei. This 12 kilometer historic railroad connects a few traditional mining towns, and now has become a tourist destination, famous for sky lanterns and picturesque scenery.

It's fairly simple to reach the beginning of the line from Taipei. We took a 40-minute train ride from Taipei Main Station to Ruifang Station. At Ruifang, we bought a one-day pass for the Pingxi Line, which cost only $2 USD. The train runs by the hour, so you can get off at any one of the stops, and time your trip so that you come back to the station at an hourly interval.

We started our trip at a little town called Shifen. It's known for Shifen Old Street, as well as a nearby waterfall. Unfortunately, the waterfall is currently closed because its platform is being renovated. However, we managed to have fun wandering up and down Shifen Old Street. People are allowed to walk among the train tracks, and officials will blow the whistle to warn of the train's arrival.

There are many shops that sell paper sky lanterns. One fun activity to do is to buy a sky lantern (between 150 to 200 TWD, about $6-7 USD), and write your wishes on the paper. Then you light a fire underneath the lantern, and release it up into the sky.

I loved all the bright colors. All along the street, tourists were painting their wishes onto their sky lanterns, and then taking turns releasing them into the air. 

Right next to the train station at Shifen is a very nice suspension bridge over the river. We had about 15 minutes left before the train came so we walked across the bridge and enjoyed the nice views. Because we did not go to the waterfall, about a half an hour walk away, one hour was the perfect amount of time to spend in Shifen before hopping on the train again.

We then rode the train to the last stop on the line, Jingtong. Jingtong is a similar small mining town, and it also has an Old Street with traditional shops and restaurants. It is actually very small, and there was not too much to do there. One attraction, the historic Japanese-style train station, was actually under renovation. We did not have the best timing on this trip!

We relaxed at a nice viewing platform, decorated with these hanging wooden charms.

There is a very cute cafe called Farmers Coffee at this platform, and they sell various types of thick toast with spread as well as specialty lattes. I had to try their sea salt latte. The sea salt is blended into the foam, and somehow gives the latte an almost chocolatey taste. It was delicious!

We sat at the benches that overlooked the gorgeous valley below. The red bridge that transverses the valley is called Lover's Bridge.

Jingtong is actually not too far from Pingxi, the namesake of the line. We walked about half an hour back along the tracks to Pingxi. Unfortunately I forgot to take photos at Pingxi. It's a town with a similar atmosphere, though the Old Street at Pingxi is a bit bigger and there were more businesses than Shifen or Jingtong.

We unfortunately had to skip the last major destination on this train line, called Houtong. Houtong is "Cat Town," because it is known for all the stray cats wandering around the streets in a surreal, Murakami-like scene. We left the area around 5PM, and got to Taipei in time for dinner.

Pingxi Railway Line isn't a must-see destination if you are only in Taiwan for a few days, but I think it's worth a visit for a longer stay, especially if you want a glimpse of an older, more traditional lifestyle. There are also several mining and coal museums if you have an interest in that area.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bukchon Hanok Village


The Bukchon area is a must-see if you are in Seoul. This is a traditional Hanok residential neighborhood, very much still lived-in, with lovely architecture, winding alleyways, surrounded by boutique shops and cafes. It's near the Anguk MRT station, and within walking distance of the major palaces.

The streets surrounding the neighborhood, down below, are full of interesting shops. You can see that at several points, stairways lead upwards from the main street towards the residential area.

There was an interesting looking vintage second-hand shop, with clothing displays leading up to the store. I wish I had time to take a look; secondhand stores always hold such treasures if you are willing to do a little bit of digging. 

Each alleyway offered its own surprises; family-owned restaurants, cool cafes, hand-made gifts stores. 

Finally we climbed upwards towards the residential area, which has a 600-year-old history. There was a nice view from the top, where we could see the nearby neighborhoods and rooftops sprawled out before us, with mountains in the distance.

The Bukchon Village alleys had many signs that cautioned visitors to be respectful and quiet, as families still do live in the homes. Some of the houses, though, had been converted into cultural centers, handicraft workshops, tea houses, and guesthouses.

There is somewhat of a walking path through the neighborhood, and various tourist maps and signs will point out where you are. Depending on how fast you walk, and whether or not you stop, I'd say you could go through the entire route in thirty minutes to one hour.

Even on this cold and snowy day, there were plenty of people walking up and down the main alleys. This little girl was fascinated by the snow.


Overall, it was such a lovely walk, and a great way to spend an afternoon seeing a different perspective of Seoul, usually pictured as a throbbing metropolis.

Gwangjang Night Market

Gwangjang Market in Seoul offers a variety of traditional Korean street foods at night. Even on a cold evening, the covered arcade was bustling with both locals and tourists. There seems to be a few staple street foods on offer at Gwangjang.

One kind, which we did not try, is a type of big thick fried pancake, made with a flour or egg batter. It is filled with a variety of different foods like vegetables, meat, and seafood.

At Gwangjang, each shop has stools right on the street so people can sit, eat, and watch their food being cooked. There isn't as much grab-and-go as you'll find at a Taiwanese night market.

At an intersection within the market, the crowds were dense, and there were so many vendors placed together, creating a thick cloud of steam with their cooking. The whole place smelled delicious and was warmed up by the steam.

Some of the most popular vendors had all their seats filled, but so many places sell the same foods so you will have no trouble finding something to eat.

We found a slightly quieter and emptier part of the market, where a long line of vendors were all selling noodles and steamed Korean dumplings called mandu. We decided to go for some dumplings, which looked plump and fresh. The seats were heated, a nice touch on this wintry night.

There were two types of dumplings, meat and kimchi. One order of each was $5 USD, and the owner recommended that we split a plate of half of each kind of dumpling.

On the plate below, the rounded moon-like dumplings are pork, and the other kind is kimchi. They were really good! I especially liked the pork dumplings - thick and meaty.

We also decided to try a dish that sounds very strange but we saw lots of people eating - "sundae." It's a plate of various types of meats and offal, including pig stomach, liver, and intestines stuffed with glutinous rice. A big plate of this meat was $10 USD, and included some soup and side dishes.

It wasn't too bad! The meat had interesting textures. A whole plate of it would be too much for one person though, in my opinion.

There were also various traditional shops lining the arcade, though most of them appeared closed for the night. It was a fun night market experience, very different from the Taiwan night markets though. I would go back for the dumplings!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Noryangjin Fisheries Market

There is a huge fisheries market in Seoul called Noryangjin Wholesale Fisheries Market. In this enormous indoor space, hundreds of small vendors sell fresh fish and other seafood, and there are restaurants lining the sides of the market that can cook up the food you buy, on the spot. 

Noryangjin is open all year and apparently 24 hours a day. The market is fairly easy to get to. It's in the southern part of Seoul, at a subway station conveniently named Noryangjin. Once you exit the station, you cross an overpass bridge which leads you to the market. 

You can peek over the railing on the second floor and see an overwhelming array of fresh seafood being sold.

There are all sorts of shellfish and mollusks...

...huge crabs and lobsters...

Salmon, tuna, and all other sorts of fish, freshly caught from the ocean. 

I'm not sure what this below creature is - some sort of stingray?

There are aisles upon aisles of fish. Be sure not to wear nice shoes to this market, as the ground is wet and slippery, and vendors butcher fish right on the spot.

As you walk down the aisles, you can start scouting out your next meal. Vendors sell fresh whole fish, prepared fish, as well as sashimi. There was so much delicious looking sashimi. 

The prices were very reasonable. A platter of sashimi like the ones pictured below were between $10-15 USD.

The best part of the experience is that you can buy some fresh fish from the market and bring it to one of the restaurants at the side of the market. Usually the restaurants will charge a cooking fee and a "table" fee. The cooking fee depends on what you want cooked, and what type of cooking style you want (steamed, BBQ'd, soup). The table fee is between $3-5 USD per person. 

Unfortunately, we bought a huge platter of salmon head and fillet that no restaurant seemed to want to deal with. The portion was just too big! We thought we had gotten a great deal ($10 USD for four to five pounds of fresh salmon), but we were waved away by most of the restaurants.

We wandered desperately among the restaurants, until we came across a hole-in-the-wall place on the first floor. This restaurant was decidedly less fancy than the others, but the nice owner agreed to cook our enormous portion of salmon for only $10 USD, and there was no table fee either.  

While our fresh salmon was being grilled in the kitchen, we enjoyed some nice pickled side dishes - some sort of greens and a mushroom dish.

In a short amount of time, our massive plate of salmon arrived. The cook apologetically told us that the fish head was still cooking, but we were just so happy to see our food on the table.

The fish was terrific - fresh, flakey, and lightly charred from the grill. It really did not need any extra seasoning.

Then the best part of the meal, the fish head, arrived. The massive head was split in half. The meat near the head is actually the best part, tender and juicy. I definitely got my fill of omega-3s at this meal.

Though we tried valiantly, we could not finish the huge portion. There was an old Korean couple next to us who took interest in us as tourists. They showed us an interesting dish that they were eating. The table had a hotpot, and we saw them take a live octopus that they had bought from the market, and put it directly into the boiling broth.

It was a little terrifying to see the wriggling legs of the octopus as it sank into the hot soup. The Korean lady was very insistent that we try this traditional dish, so she promptly cut up some of the octopus leg for us to try. It was quite chewy, but otherwise not bad! Since they were so gracious to share part of their meal with us, we offered them some of our salmon fillets. 

This was one of the best and most memorable meals I had in Seoul. Next time I will know not to buy such a big and unwieldy portion of salmon if I want to have an easier time getting my food cooked.