Taiwan Trip Day 3: Bespoke Shirts, The Queen’s Head, and Naked with the Mafia

March 16th, 2010 § 3 comments § permalink

We spent today with Alex’s cousin, Ting-Shuen, and her husband Andy, and their friends who happened to be in town from Australia, Carl and Sandy. They very graciously agreed to take us around the northern coastline of Taiwan, and show us around a few things in Taipei as well.

One of the things on my to-do list was to have some custom shirts made (because, honestly, how often do you get the opportunity?), so we stopped by Andy’s tailor in Taipei where I got measured up and ordered three bespoke shirts for the price that you’d pay for one in the US. And that was with fancy fabric. They will be ready later in the week.

Our next stop was in Xindian, where we met up with Carl and Sandy and had some lunch at a neighborhood place where I was, naturally the only white dude in sight, and at least a head taller than everyone else. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to turning heads in restaurants. We had a round of dumplings and noodles, and then set off to the coastline to visit Yeliou, where there’s a park with what the guidebook calls “bizarre rock formations”; along the water’s edge there are about a hundred globes of igneous rock suspended on pillars of sedimentary rock, all hewn away gradually by the tide to create an otherworldly scene on the shore. The most famous of them is the Queen’s Head, so called because in profile it looks like, well, an Egyptian Queen. Supposedly, the Queen’s head will eventually fall over because the base of it will erode away, but apparently that’s been the word for at least a decade, so who knows. There was a line to take a picture in front of it, which we skipped.

On the way out of the rock formations, there’s a small market with snack food. We stopped for some barbecue squid:

Having exhausted all the photo opportunities in Yeliou, we jumped back in the car and drove off to a local town with one of the oldest market streets in the region, which has a shop famous for its duck, which of course we had to try, accompanied by plum juice, which is incredibly sweet, but pretty tasty.

On the way out of town, we stopped at a 200-year old temple. Although the temple is old, it’s been modernized as time has gone on with bright lights, an electronic marquee, and I’m pretty sure I saw some animatronics inside too.

Back in Taipei, we went to the nightmarket, full of stores selling clothing, food, and accessories. It opens at 6PM and apparently goes until at least 2AM. By the time we arrived at 7, it was already packed to the gills with people, deafeningly loud, full of flashing lights, vendors vying for attention and trade, and snack-cart operators selling pretty much every Taiwanese snack in existence:

We stopped regularly at snack vendors, and there was another game of “Make Guy Eat Strange Food”. This is how you play the game:

Host: Hey – try this!
Guy: What is it?
Host: It’s good – try it. I’ll tell you what it is afterwards.
Guy: Okay … <bite> … It’s pretty good; what is it?
Host: It’s duck tongue!
Guy: Hmm… <another bite> chewy, but tasty. <has another one>

Alas, I didn’t get any pictures of the duck tongues, but I have yet to turn down a single thing here.

By the time we left the nightmarket, we’d had some zongzi (meat surrounded by rice cooked in a bamboo leaf), soup, scallion pancakes, tomatoes stuffed with dates (amazing by the way), giant cups of tea, sausages, and of course duck’s tongue. I was pretty well stuffed by the end.

After the nightmarket, we drove to some hot springs back near Xindian. Hot springs are often open twenty four hours and are a particular Taiwanese experience. Most notably, there are no clothes allowed. Supposedly, there are some which require bathing suits, but those are for lame tourists. The baths themselves are outside, and after a shower, you can choose one of three temperature levels. I was only able to manage the middle level, and even then only for a few minutes. All the old Chinese men seemed to be hanging out in the scalding hot bath next door though, happily chatting while clouds of steam billowed around them.

Despite the preponderance of boy parts on view, the hot springs were relaxing and generally terrific. While we were sitting in one of the baths though, Carl pointed out some burly looking guys to me.

“See those guys over there with the big tattoos?”

I replied that I did.

“Mafia,” he said.

The tattoos are quite elaborate, covering a shoulder and uppear arm, and part of the chest, covering the heart. One of the mafiosos was evidently there with his kids, and another was boiling away in the hottest pool. So I can reasoanbly say that I’ve been naked with the Taiwanese mafia.

Taiwan Trip: Day 2

March 14th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Despite waking up for a short while at 4:30AM, we managed to sleep until about 7:00, when we got up, had some coffee and toast, and went out to visit the nearby market, which Alex has called ‘The Stinky Market’ since she was very tiny. The Stinky Market is a traditional Taiwanese market, with vendors that rotate daily and who sell more or less anything you could ever need: meat, fish, vegetables, live chickens, seafood, clothing, furnishings and everything between.
Also, being traditionally Taiwanese, the ceilings and signage hang about 18 inches lower than anything in the US, so I had to duck down to avoid obstacles every few yards. This, it turns out, is an ongoing issue for me everywhere I go; mostly, it means I have to avoid the odd overhead beam or cardboard advertisement, but I live in fear of bashing into a sprinkler head sticking out of the ceiling and flooding the place.
After the market, we walked along one of the main roads through the local business district, down to the Eslite Bookstore, where we found a Taipei guidebook (which are oddly hard to come by in the US), and had a look around the stationery and gift department, where I found a product that one could never, ever sell in the US:
By midday we were hungry so we set off back to the Far Eastern Tower to have a bite to eat in the basement food court, which outdoes any of its US equivalents; there are no Burger Kings or grim mall food here; the cuisine was top-notch. Alex and I made our way through a fair number of dumplings and a large bowl of wonton soup. Alex’s aunt took up upstairs to the 40th floor of the Far Eastern Tower, where she works, and showed us the view of Taipei from there, where we could see her apartment complex across the street, and Taipei 101 on the east side of the building.
It’s remarkable not only how enormous Taipei 101 is, but how enormous it is compared to pretty much anything else around it. The vast majority of residential buildings in Taipei are four or five stories high at most, and even most of the newest office towers are twenty or thirty stories tall. Taipei 101 is a behimoth that towers over everything else by at least a factor of two. Even living in New York where I’m used to seeing the Empire State Building, Taipei 101 just seems so much taller by virtue of its being so much bigger than everything else around it.
and then we headed off to Xindian, where most of the rest of Alex’s family lives, to pay them a visit. We were variously shown around each of their condos, starting with Alex’s eldest aunt for some tea and fruit, then her uncle, and finally her cousin and her husband’s house. By the end I was showing obvious signs of jetlag so we were driven home for a rest.
Dinner was at 6:00, at a local–and famous–Peking Duck house, where, somehow, the crowd for dinner was even bigger than last night, coming to some 18 people this time with the addition of some old family friends and more in-laws as well. Big group dinners are an elaborate affair, and there are some critical customs to explain. First, all the dishes are served family-style, and put on a Lazy Susan for easy access and to keep spillage down to a minimum. The dinner starts off slowly with small bowls of pickles and appetizers, and then the floodgates seem to open and dishes come thick and fast, with the main dish beingPeking Duck served three ways: roasted, served with wrappers and sauce; in a soup; and finally with beansprouts.
The other main custom to introduce here is the toasting ritual, which is taken very seriously. Dinner is usually served with liquor–often whisky–which you drink from a very small shot glass, perhaps an ounce of liquid at a time. One is not supposed to drink alone; you summon the attention of a companion and look them in the eye to toast them before drinking.
Now, at our table, the game of the evening was “Make Guy Eat and Drink Strange Chinese Things”. Luckily, I have an iron stomach and English drinking genes, so I was ready for this. I’d also been prepped beforehand about Kaoliang jiu, the infamous spirit made from sorghum, notorious for knocking unsuspecting foreigners on their unsuspecting arses. A bottle was brought to the table and shared out. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been eating for two days straight, or because I’m just a heavy drinker in general, but I’m pleased to report that 120-proof booze presented little challenge. Nor did it for Alex, either. Perhaps this isn’t actually something to be proud of. The toasting continued throughout the meal, with people walking between tables to toast each other. Alcohol is definitely a social lubricant regardless of language barriers.
So, with that established, the next step was naturally to try me with some local cuisine, including pig’s blood soup with intestines, and duck brains. I was too full to try the duck brains, but I must say that pig’s intestine soup was most excellent, if perhaps a little chewy.

Taiwan Trip Days 0 and 1

March 14th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Regardless of how you plan a trip to the Far East from New York, there’s no getting around the geographical fact that it it’s over 7,000 miles and takes an entire day to travel from one place to the other. The first leg of our trip by way of Delta Airlines, was a bit late leaving and arriving, and was sorely lacking in food of any sort, but dropped us at LAX with enough time, or so we thought, to grab something to eat before our 11PM flight to Taipei. A quick glance at the departures board by our arrival gate in Terminal 5 indicated “TBT”, which read rather like “TBD” or “TBA”, suggesting that our gate had yet to be assigned. Wrong: TBT, it turns out, is shorthand for “Tom Bradley Terminal”, the giant new structure from which all international flights depart. Alas, it wasn’t until after we’d sat down to eat something that we found out this crucial nugget of information, and had to abandon our table to transfer over. We’d heard that there was better food at the international terminal anyway, so it was with some dismay that we discovered that all the good food is, in fact, before the security line, after which one’s options are reduced to a decrepit sandwich or whatever microwaved fare that the Sam Adams Pub is serving up. Having no other option, we went for the latter, then boarded our China Airlines flight about a half hour later, which was all set to leave on time at 11PM. Unfortunately, a Qantas A380 suffered a blown tire and damaged landing gear directly behind us at the gate, and changing a tire on 1,235,000lbs of aeroplane is neither as simple nor as quick as breaking out a tire iron and a jack in your driveway and popping on a new Michelin, so we were stuck idling at the gate for two and a half hours before finally taking off.

We arrived in Taipei at about 9:00AM local time, apparently when few other international flights show up, so we breezed through immigration and customs, and met Alex’s uncle and cousin who drove us into town to Alex’s aunt’s condo. Alex’s aunt greeted us warmly and, after a much needed shower, gave us some hot tea and some fruit, which Taiwan is famous for, particularly ‘bellfruit’, which look a bit like apples but have a texture more like a pear and are much sweeter. After our snack we headed off into town with Alex’s aunt via the metro, and ran into what appears to be an NYU outpost that may or may not have anything to do with the actual NYU. We had a look around SOGO, a massive, modern department store with an extensive shoe department which is high on Alex’s to-do list later in the week, and ate lunch at Din Tai Fung where we ate what I imagine will be the first of many Xiaolongbao. I’m told that the dumplings at Din Tai Fung are unrivaled and I have no reason to doubt it; the preparation of the dumplings happens in full public view and it seems to be a precise craft involving rolling, filling and finally folding with 18 creases before steaming. We hopped on the train back to the condo for a rest before the evening’s family dinner at Red Bean Hall, which included both of Alex’s aunts, her uncle and his wife, son and daughter, two cousins and a set of in-laws. Thirteen people, all told, and between us we polished off a monumental quantity of fine cuisine, including another round of Xiaolongbao, and fried frog (which, it turns out, is delicious), and a bottle of fine scotch. Finally, we tottered off home, exhausted, but absolutely satisfied, and thrilled to be here.

There should be more pictures coming, but I’ve just realized that I foolishly left my camera’s cable at home, so I’ll have to track down a replacement here, which shouldn’t be too hard. I’ll post them to Flickr when I can.

Heading to Taiwan

March 11th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Tomorrow, Alex and I are heading off to Taipei to visit her family. I’ve never been to Taiwan before, I speak no Mandarin, an I’ve never met any of her mother’s family before (all of whom live in Taiwan). In short, this promises to be an adventure of epic proportions.

I’m going to try and post short daily updates here on what’s going on. There will also likely be photos over at my Flickr page, and a stream of consciousness and flotsam over at Twitter.

We’re flying out tomorrow at 5PM from JFK. Before that, I have to accomplish the following mundane tasks:

  • Get a haircut
  • Make local copies of the reading material I’ll need to complete a rather nasty homework assignment which is due two days after we return
  • Acquire some music to listen to on the aeroplane
  • Tidy up the apartment

Our time in Taiwan may likely be occupied by family-type obligations, but if you have been to Taipei, live in Taipei, or know anyone who has and have recommendations for us while we’re there, drop a comment, tweet a tweet, or send an email.