Tuesday, 13 June 2017

pingtung food and sights

Pingtung Night Market (屏東夜市 / 屏東民族夜市).

After a great time in Hualien, our next destination was Pingtung, which is not a place that you'd typically find on the itinerary of foreign tourists to Taiwan, but for some reason or other - I'll explain it in a moment - I included it in our route. The train ride from Hualien to Pingtung had some pretty picturesque moments. Here's a photo I took during the trip!

A shot of the scenery from Hualien to Pingtung, taken from the train window.

So I think my original idea was to make Pingtung city a jumping-off point for a side trip to the Purple Butterfly Valley in the Maolin National Scenic Area, and we actually arrived at just the right season to see the glorious migration of those purple butterflies, too - but we ran short on time and energy, so we decided to just take it easy in Pingtung.

With our original plans shelved, what was there to do instead? Well, the cool thing about Taiwan is that there seems to be night markets wherever you go. And in fact, the Pingtung market is actually open day and night - that's our food and entertainment sorted!

Luzhen dumpling shop (陸貞湯包).

Alright, this was our first stop at the Pingtung night market... Luzhen dumpling shop. We just can't seem to stay away from dumplings in Taiwan. Who can blame us, when they're everywhere and they taste so good?

We tried their soup dumplings, which were decent enough.

Soup dumplings (湯包), 50 NTD.

But it was their pan-fried fennel frond dumplings that really surprised and delighted us. The zingy aromatic fennel fronds made for a fabulous dumpling filling.

Pan-fried fennel frond dumplings, or fennel frond potstickers (茴香鍋貼), 65 NTD.

We also tried the toon or toona pancake with egg, an intriguing snack that features the young leaves from the Chinese toon tree (toona sinensis). The herbaceous garlicky-onion flavour of the toon leaves worked well in this savoury pancake-omelette; it was certainly something new for us!

Chinese toon pancake or toon omelette (香椿抓餅), 30 NTD. Add 10 NTD for extra egg.

We also stumbled upon this stall selling "geng", a type of soup that is usually thickened with starch. They also sell fried rice and noodles, which you can mix in with your "geng" for a substantial meal.

Wangchao soup shop (王朝香菇肉焿旗魚焿).

I went for the swordfish fishball soup. My initial concerns about the gluey appearance and texture of the "geng" were washed away upon tucking in - it was surprisingly nice and smooth and went down like a treat. The handmade fishballs were delightfully bouncy, and the drizzle of black vinegar really completed the dish.

Swordfish fish ball soup (旗魚羹), 40 NTD for a small bowl, 60 NTD for a large bowl.

Simon had the meat and mushroom soup, which was also marvellous. I was definitely sneaking in a sip here and there...

Mushroom and meat soup (香菇肉羹), 40 NTD for small, 60 NTD for large.

When I saw this stall, I felt compelled to eat there. The big sign brightly advertises their handmade noodles and fishball soup. Smaller signs hanging just underneath speak of side dishes such as seaweed salad and pork liver salad.

Yong's handmade noodle shop (永記手工麵店).

I wanted to share a couple of things here with Simon, but he wasn't interested. So he loitered around while I sat down and ordered a fishball soup for myself. Why, yes, in case you haven't noticed, I have a thing for fishballs, and the ones here were solidly rustic and flavoursome. I do kind of regret not also getting the handmade noodles, as I think that is their signature dish, but hey, a girl can only eat so much. It's all Simon's fault for not being cooperative.

Another fishball soup (魚丸湯), 25 NTD.

Ready for something sweet? I thought this shop had a cute name: "Bakery Daddy".

Bakery Daddy (麵包老爹).

And their Swiss roll is scrumptious!

Swiss roll (瑞士卷).

It's fair to say that our time in Pingtung was dominated by food, because let's face it, if you don't venture out of the city, there isn't a whole lot to do. But we did stumble upon some sights...

For example, while we were sauntering about, we stopped to admire this temple for a while.

Sea Goddess Temple / Cifeng Temple (慈鳳宮).

And as always, cats kept us amused.

Ginger cat.

But I think our favourite moment was our discovery of this very old-school video games arcade. It was like going back in time - this is the kind of arcade that was around when I was a kid! And best of all, every single person in the picture is a middle-aged man. You're never too old to play at a video games arcade and this is the important lesson we took away here. Decades from now, I hope Simon and I will still be having fun like kids and teenagers!

Old-school video game arcade in Pingtung (屏東金台灣電子遊戲場).

In summary, Pingtung isn't the typical tourist stop, and there is hardly any English to be seen, heard, or spoken here - I kept telling Simon how lucky he was to have me to act as his personal translator and interpreter. But the food is just as good as anywhere else in Taiwan, so if you do drop by, you'll be well-fed, and you might encounter other pleasing surprises along the way, too.

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Wednesday, 31 May 2017

delicious hualien eats and pretty sanzhan village

A betel nut shop in Hualien (花蓮).

In my previous post, I told of our time at Taroko Gorge, which is a huge attraction in Taiwan, and I'm sure it is the main reason why many tourists include Hualien city in their itinerary. However, Hualien is not just a convenient base that one can use as a jumping-off point to visit Taroko - it is also an excellent destination in its own right.

After all, where else would you get egg-bomb spring onion pancakes?

Laopai egg-bomb spring onion pancake stall in Hualien (花蓮老牌炸蛋蔥油餅).

This is basically a deep-fried spring onion pancake roll with a half-cooked egg encased within. Bite into it and the creamy, gooey orange yolk bursts into action, so eat with care! You can also request for a fully-cooked egg if you wish, but I don't think that would be as awesome. This egg-bomb spring onion pancake costs 30 NTD, very affordable. You can get just a plain spring onion pancake without the egg for 20 NTD - but again, I don't think that would be as awesome. The spring onion isn't actually that prominent here, so the star of the show is really the egg.

So here's what the pancake looks like before the egg explosion... sorry, no post-explosion pics! It can get a bit messy, and I was too busy trying not to get egg all over myself!

Egg-bomb spring onion pancake (炸蛋蔥油餅), a fun, dramatic snack.

Another popular shop here is Gongzheng Baozi. Here, you can get a variety of things, including buns, dumplings, soup, noodles, soy milk, and tea, all for nice cheap prices. And it's open 24 hours so you can get your fix any time!

Gongzhengbaozi shop in Hualien (花蓮公正包子).

I think it was here that I first discovered that xiaolongbao in Taiwan typically refers to a special type of mini pork bun, and not the soup dumplings that I was accustomed to. I was disappointed at first, but these buns are actually not bad! The Taiwanese xiaolongbao bun has a thinner skin than your usual pork bun, so the meat-to-dough ratio is splendid.

Taiwanese xiaolongbao (小籠包) - these are like mini pork buns, not soup dumplings.

A shop I really liked in Hualien is this wonton shop, called Yexiang Bianshi. Apparently it has been in business for more than 70 years at this point.

Yexiangbianshi wonton shop in Hualien (花蓮液香扁食店).

My goodness, I adored the wonton soup here. Look how silky and perfect their wontons are! Along with the scrumptious broth, they went down like a dream. I think it cost something like 65 NTD per bowl.

Wonton soup (扁食湯 / 雲吞/ 餛飩湯).

We also lined up for the famous oyster omelette from Haipu. I enjoyed seeing them cook the oyster omelettes while we were waiting in line - it's done in a large, flat pan, and it's quite entertaining to watch!

Haipu Oyster Omelette Shop in Hualien (花蓮海埔蚵仔煎).

As it turns out, though, I don't think the Taiwanese oyster omelette is my thing... the liberal use of starch in the recipe makes for a glutinous quality that I wasn't particularly fond of. The sauce was also quite sweet. After tasting this, I have to say I prefer the Malaysian oyster omelette, which is more eggy and savoury. But clearly, there are many people who are big fans of the Taiwanese style, and the Haipu shop is extremely reputable, so if you're in the area, it's probably a good idea to try it for yourself!

Haipu oyster omelette (海埔蚵仔煎), around 50 NTD per serve.

We also sampled coffin bread, or coffin toast, or coffin sandwich, at the night market in Hualien. Similar to a bread bowl, this involves toasted or fried bread with a variety of enticing fillings such as hot pepper beef, smoked honey chicken, satay pork, and pumpkin seafood.

Jiangjia coffin bread stall in Hualien (蔣家花蓮創意官財板).

You can see how coffin toast got its name - the fillings are placed in the hollowed-out centre of a thick slice of bread, and then covered again on top with a cut-out piece of bread, so it resembles a coffin with a lid. An interesting snack to try if you get the opportunity!

Coffin toast (官財板).

We also stumbled upon a fabulous gelato shop in Hualien called Houshan Gelato. Made with fresh natural ingredients, the gelati here is seriously delectable. The selection is dominated by fruit flavours, and they're so so good. A bit pricey by Taiwanese standards at 60 NTD for one scoop and 100 NTD for two scoops, but it's quality stuff.

Delicious gelati in a waffle cone from Houshan gelato shop in Hualien (花蓮後山手工冰淇淋).

Additionally, here's a picture of a dog on a scooter, a classic scene in Taiwan. This doglet is so sweet and timid! We wanted to pat it, but it looked so scared and worried... and then it completely lit up with relief and happiness when the owner came back! Awwwww.

Little scooter dog!

Speaking of scooters, as mentioned in my Taroko Gorge blog post, we hired one for our stay in Hualien. It cost us 400 NTD per day, and fuel was about 150 NTD over the course of three days.

So we checked out the well-known Qixingtan beach, which is held in high regard for its pebble beach and blue waters.

Qixingtan beach (七星潭).

And I guess it is quite attractive, but to be honest, Simon and I were sort of like okay, it's a beach, now what do we do? So we ventured to the other direction, and there was some kind of a fish market going on. I've always been partial to fish markets, there's something about them that feels raw and right to me.

Qixingtan fish market (七星潭魚市場).

This kitty cat was probably the highlight of our trip to Qixingtan, haha! We were patting it outside someone's shop house like the crazy cat weirdos we are. This amused the locals and led to casual conversation related to the cat.

A nice cat near the fish market at Qixingtan.

On our way back to the main city area, we took a different route and discovered the Zuocang Cemetery. I took a photo as I thought it was quite a charming cemetery.

Hualien Zuocang Cemetery (花蓮市佐倉公墓).

There was also a cheerful statue of the Chinese Earth God, smiling beatifically as he ruled over his land.

Tudigong, Lord of the Soil and the Ground (土地公).

On another day, we headed off to Sanzhan (sometimes spelled Sanjhan and also known as Pratan), a little aboriginal village that was recommended to us by our enthusiastic Airbnb host, who showed us the pictures he took on his phone and the place looked pretty so we thought, why not?

We took the Hai'an Road route there and gosh, it's gorgeous. Such a great ride.

Beautiful views from Hualien City's Hai'an Road (花蓮海岸路).

Yep, the journey there alone was already making my heart sing.

Seaside views along Hai'an Road.

And then we got to Sanzhan village, and we probably should have done more research, because we weren't quite sure what we could do. If we'd looked it up more, we would have found out about river tracing here. We could have followed the water into a more secluded spot, taken a dip in a pool, and ventured into a river valley in the Taroko National Park!

Sanzhan River (三棧溪) - the teal waters are truly captivating.

As it is, we just wandered around randomly, and admired the views. With exquisite blue-green waters and a mountainous backdrop, this village sure is pleasing to the eyes.

Sanzhan village views (三棧村).

We got to the main village area, and found a shop where we could grab some breakfast!

I saw that they did blood cube soup, which isn't usually my thing, but that day, for some reason, it sounded fantastically appealing to me. An unusual craving for me, and I'm really glad I ordered it! The broth was generous with spring onions, and the pork blood curds were so smooth, the taste so subtle, it was almost like having tofu. This is simple, satisfying, rustic comfort food. I felt utterly nourished.

 Pig's blood soup (豬血湯) at Sanzhan village.

After our breakfast, we walked around some more, and met quite a few cats in the village, much to our sheer delight.

Cats at Sanzhan village.

Doesn't this cool cat look like it has superpowers? I mean, it looks like it could be a badass character from Dragon Ball Z or Rurouni Kenshin, or something.

A cool calico or tortoiseshell cat in Sanzhan village.

So even though we didn't do all the things we could've done at Sanzhan, we ended up having a lovely time there. Funny how things work out!

In conclusion, I'll just say that there is so much to explore in Hualien County, especially if you have your own transport. With a vibrant food scene in the city area, and beautiful scenery in the countryside, it definitely gets a thumbs-up from me!

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Tuesday, 23 May 2017

day trip to taroko gorge

A day at Taroko Gorge (太魯閣峽谷), Taroko National Park (太魯閣國家公園).

After Luodong, the next stop on our Taiwan itinerary is Hualien. One of the major attractions here is, of course, Taroko Gorge at Taroko National Park. We made this a priority, and after a good night's sleep in Hualien city, we got up nice and early, and scooted over to Taroko first thing in the morning!

There are quite a few options for exploring Taroko Gorge. You can go with a tour, you can get a driver to chauffeur you around for the day, you can take a hop-on hop-off shuttle bus. Or you can procure your own transport, which is what we did! We hired a scooter and away we went...

It took us less than an hour to get to Taroko National Park, and entry is free, which is awesome. We kicked things off with the Shakadang trail - an easy choice, as it's very close to the park entrance. It was a pleasant trail, and the rocky overhangs were cool, though also a little bit worrying, given that the park also warns about falling rocks. It is not uncommon to see people wearing safety helmets when they explore the gorge!

I think this is the Shakadang trail (砂卡礑步道). Check out those overhanging rock formations!

I can't remember which section of the park it was where I took this picture. But the mountain views here sure are pretty.

Bright green and misty mountains.

And minutes after I captured that photo, I found another opportunity to put my camera to work when I spied this cute little skink! It's a baby five-striped blue-tailed skink (otherwise known as an elegant five-lined skink). Apparently they're adorable and striking as younglings, then sort of go drab as they grow into adults. I wish I could say we saw heaps more wildlife at Taroko, but that didn't happen... I suppose we just didn't venture deep enough into the park to see them. I'm glad to have met this cutie, at least.

A baby five-striped blue-tailed skink, also known as an elegant five-lined skink (麗紋石龍子).

A bit further along, we were treated to the clean aquamarine waters of Liwu River rushing through a deep and narrow section of the gorge. This is the Swallow Grotto trail, named as such due to the abundance of swallows nesting in the marble cliff faces.

Gorgeous blue Liwu River (立霧溪) at Taroko Gorge. I think this is from the Swallow Grotto Trail (燕子口步道).

After that we stopped at Tianxiang Village for food. Shockingly, I do not have any pictures of our lunch on my camera. I guess it probably wasn't anything special.

We continued on with our sightseeing... here's the gateway to Xiangde Temple and Tianfeng Pagoda. We were getting a bit short on time, so we didn't do the Xiangde Temple trail, and only admired these structures from afar.

Xiangde Temple (祥德寺) and Tianfeng Pagoda (天峰塔).

At this point we turned back towards where we started, picking up more trails as we went along.

A green and leafy trail.

If I recall correctly, this is part of the scenic Lushui trail.

A lovely walk through the forest.

I really enjoyed the trek - it's a gentle walk that includes both forest and cliff terrain, very rewarding for not too much effort!

Lushui trail (綠水步道) at Taroko Gorge.

There are some good views of the river here, and I believe we also saw the rare Taroko oak tree (quercus tarokoensis), which is endemic to Taiwan.

Views of Liwu River (立霧溪). I think that's a Taroko oak tree (太魯閣櫟) at the forefront of the picture.

I can't remember if this was part of a trail or just a spot we stopped temporarily on our way back, but look at how gorgeous it is! Or should I say, gorge-ous? Haha.

Gorge-ous views at Taroko Gorge.

Ditto these magnificent mountain views.

Beautiful mysterious misty mountains.

As daylight dwindled, we were almost back to where we started, near the park entrance, but of course, we had one more important stop: the Changchun Shrine, also known as the Eternal Spring Shrine. The trifecta of shrine, mountain and waterfall makes for a charmingly photogenic location, definitely one that attracts hordes of tourists. You can easily admire this view and take pictures from afar, but there is also the Changchun Trail if you would like a more up close and personal experience.

The Eternal Spring Shrine or Changchun Shrine (長春祠) at Taroko Gorge.

And we also noticed this - a mountain temple? - perched at a higher elevation. Intriguing!

Another memorial or temple high up on the mountain in Taroko Gorge.

We ended up spending a full day at Taroko Gorge - we were there for about 8 hours in total, from morning till sunset, and it was a day well spent. If you have time to spare and you're strongly into nature and hiking, you might even consider allocating two days here - the Taroko National Park is actually seriously huge (look it up on the map!), and what I've covered in this post is but a tiny percentage of what it has to offer. So, go forth and be intrepid... and tell me all about it!

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