Taiwan Trip: Day 2

March 14th, 2010 § 0 comments

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.

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