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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Tuesday, 16 May 2017

luodong night market: fun regional cuisine

Luodong Night Market in Yilan County (羅東夜市, 宜蘭縣).

Our Taiwan itinerary was basically a loop around the country - the idea was to start from Taipei and make our way down the east coast to the south, then head back up again through the west and center before finally returning to where we began.

I'm going to leave the Taipei posts for later, so let's get to the (literally) loopy part of the journey!

For some reason, I decided to kick things off with Luodong. I can't remember exactly how this came about, but I suspect that I read some glowing reviews about the local night market there, my stomach said "yes!" and that was that.

And the Luodong night market really is the main attraction, as far as I'm concerned. We wandered around town during the day, and honestly, we didn't get up to much. It is when night falls that it gets truly exciting.

The first thing I ate at the market was something simple and straightforward, a piece of grilled mackerel. A sprinkling of salt and a squeeze of lemon is all it needs - the excellent quality of the fish rings through bright and clear.

Grilled mackerel from the Yifang Seafood Stall (宜芳海物燒烤店鯖魚).

Simon, on the other hand, got this thing, whatever it is, I can't remember... but it looks like a pizza cone.

I think this is some kind of pizza cone (義式捲筒披薩)?

Then he made an astute choice with this Shanghai-style cold-tossed hand-torn chicken salad. I was a bit skeptical because the stall wasn't one of the more crowded ones, but it actually turned out to be delicious. With mixed vegetables, pulled chicken, crunchy peanuts, and a tangy dressing to pull it all together, this salad is big on texture and flavour. It's probably also one of the healthier options you can get at the market, if that matters.

Shanghainese cold shredded chicken salad (涼拌手撕雞). 60 NTD for a small portion, 100 NTD for large.

By the way, there is a park just next to the market! It's called the Luodong Zhongshan Park, and the lights and fountain features are quite pretty at night.

Luodong Zhongshan Park (羅東中山公園).

But let's get back to the food, because we're getting to the more interesting stuff...

I think we got these pork-wrapped spring onion rolls after seeing an impressive queue at the stall. Usually, a long line turns me off and I can't be bothered... but hey, we're on holiday, we're in Luodong precisely for the food, and they look freakin' awesome. Like many other stalls selling spring onion snacks, this one also proudly proclaims the use of the famously voluptuous and fragrant spring onions from the nearby Sanshing, a small rural town that has its own spring onion festival and spring onion museum.

Pork-wrapped green onion rolls on a stick (三星蔥肉串), 35 NTD.

The thinly-sliced grilled pork that's brushed with a sweet, savoury sauce and topped with sesame seeds, the aromatic spring onions bursting with juices encased within... yeah, these babies were worth the wait.

Another shot of the pork and spring onion skewer.

Then I had a brief dessert interruption... though frankly I wasn't so much tempted by something sweet than amused by the name of this stall: "Flat-Chested Maiden's Crispy Egg Cakes". That's one way to make a sale! Anyway, these are best eaten warm - they're soft and tender inside, with a slight crunch to the exterior. But like most of the egg cakes I tried in Taiwan, they weren't as eggy as I prefer; I think I'm just spoilt by the homemade ones my family makes, where we don't hold back on the eggs!

Crispy egg cakes from the Flat-Chested Maiden stall (平胸妹脆皮雞蛋糕), 30 NTD for a small portion, 50 NTD for large.

I was keen to try the specialty foods known to this region, and the mysteriously named dragon phoenix roll certainly fits the bill. It's basically a sausage with ingredients such as pork, fish paste, cabbage and carrot neatly wrapped up in pig's caul fat.

Dragon phoenix leg (龍鳳腿), 20 NTD per stick.

Pork fritters are also well-known here. Strips of pork are seasoned, dipped in batter, and deep fried. The stall I got these from also offered another specialty called gaozha, I wish I tried that too, I don't know why I didn't - apparently they're deep-fried creamy meat cubes that melt in your mouth, so intriguing! They sell some kind of century egg salad as well.

Pork fritters (卜肉) from the Xiaochun (小春) stall, which also sells little deep-fried meat cakes (糕渣). 60/100 NTD small/large.

Last but not least, one of the local specialties that I really wanted to experience at the Luodong night market is the angelica mutton soup.

Yangpuzi, a popular angelica mutton soup stall at Luodong night market (羊舖子當歸羊肉湯).

Cooked with angelica root, which is said to have restorative medicinal qualities, this Chinese herbal soup features tender mutton in an aromatic broth. With a taste that feels nourishing yet light, this soup is like a lovely warm hug on a cool autumn evening. It made me happy.

Angelica mutton soup (當歸羊肉湯), 65 NTD per bowl. Delicious!

Eventually, our night market wanderings also led us to the Luodong Fude Temple, a random find for us.

Luodong Fude Temple (羅東福德廟).

The lanterns looked bright and festive - a fittingly vibrant end to our time in Luodong, which was short but sweet - or should I say, short but savoury, with little surprises here and there, plus lots of satisfaction!

Lanterns at the Luodong Fude Temple.

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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

a day in tamsui

A stroll down Tamsui Old Street (淡水老街).

Our trip to Taiwan was a last-minute decision, and as such, at times I felt under-prepared in terms of figuring out places to visit and things to see. However, thanks to the internet and helpful accommodation hosts, it turned out that we never had a bored moment!

This brings us to the subject of today's post. Our first few days in Taipei, our hosts suggested that we could make a day trip to Tamsui (otherwise spelled as Danshui) if we were looking for something to do. So we did - and we had a very nice time!

Small deep-fried crabs and raw king oyster mushrooms.

Tamsui is a seaside town, and I've got to say, the seafood stalls here do a fabulous job of showing off the local goods.

Oodles of fresh seafood in Tamsui.

I was really tempted to get these giant deep-fried squid on sticks, but Simon wasn't interested, the squid were seriously huge, and I knew they would compromise my ability to try other foods if I had one whole portion to myself, so I kept walking. It was quite a wistful situation.

Massive deep-fried squid on sticks (花枝燒) in Tamsui.

We did, however, get deep-fried mushrooms instead! Featuring the voluptuous flesh of king oyster mushrooms, these were so delightfully crunchy and juicy.

Deep fried king oyster mushrooms (炸杏鮑菇/鹽酥菇) in Tamsui.

We enjoyed those so much, we decided to buy more at the next mushroom stall we came across. So within minutes, we'd devoured two batches of deep-fried mushrooms. This second lot looks a bit different, as you can see. I think it was a mixed selection of mushroom varieties. The batter is not as crispy, but the tasty toppings help make up for it.

More deep fried mushrooms from another stall!

I also tried a Tamsui specialty food called Ah-Gei. A sauced-up, glistening piece of fried tofu, sealed with fish paste and stuffed with glass noodles. It's a combination of savoury, sweet and spicy.

Ah-Gei (阿給), a unique and famous Tamsui specialty snack.

I then became intrigued by these goose eggs baked in tea leaves, and I bought one for 40 NTD. It's hard to tell from this picture, but the eggs are big! I'd say almost three times the size of a chicken egg? Anyway, the goose egg I received had a pleasant tea-infused flavour, and it was very filling.

Goose eggs baked in tea leaves (茶焗鵝蛋)!

In the picture above, you can see there is more brown stuff next to the tea eggs. These hedgehog-like things are actually a type of fig, turned inside out and dried. The seedy part of the fruit forms a gel when combined with water... and becomes what we know as aiyu jelly!

And you should definitely try aiyu jelly if you go to Taiwan, where it is easily available throughout the country. Typically served with honey and lemon or lime as a beverage-dessert, this stuff is wonderfully refreshing.

Aiyu jelly (愛玉冰) - a popular Taiwanese dessert/beverage - the jelly is made from a type of fig!

Aside from assorted food items, we also stumbled upon this temple as we were walking around.

Qingshui Temple in Tamsui (淡水清水巖).

And we had a lovely saunter down by the water, too.

It's lovely walking down the waterfront of Tamsui.

The vibe here is peaceful and relaxing. Look at these super adorable doglets, one of them totally ready for an afternoon nap.

Lazy dogs days in Tamsui.

As we wandered back to the shopping area again, we saw this cute Hello Kitty shop that sells all sorts of Hello Kitty treats. The baked Hello Kitty dolls out the front caught my attention immediately - they're sort of like little sponge cakes with custard filling. You can also get Hello Kitty pineapple cakes, etc. The items are all very nicely presented for gift-giving. We didn't purchase anything, but they were certainly attractive!

Hello Kitty cakes (Hello Kitty 人形燒).

I did, however, purchase a pineapple bun from a shop called Bolo King for 30 NTD. By the way, a pineapple bun (also known as a bolo bun or polo bun) doesn't actually contain any pineapple, the name derives from the pineapple-like appearance of the bread. Bolo King has a specialty called the "ice-fire pineapple bun". Basically, they slot a firm, cold slice of butter into the middle of the piping hot bun, and then you eat it right away to experience this gratifying, contrasting "ice-fire" sensation.

The "Ice-Fire Pineapple Bun" (冰火菠蘿包) from Bolo King in Tamsui.

I also finally got a seafood snack! There was a stall selling seafood sausages - okay, they're pork-based, but with the added goodness of seafood ingredients such as flying fish roe (飛魚卵香腸), squid (墨魚香腸), sakura shrimp (櫻花蝦香腸), and bluefin tuna (黑鮪魚香腸), respectively. There is also an "iron egg" flavour (鐵蛋香腸) - iron eggs are eggs (from chicken, pigeon or quail) that have been repeatedly cooked in a spiced soy sauce broth and air-dried, a unique delicacy that originated from the Tamsui district.

I opted for a combination stick. Unfortunately, this did not include all five varieties, but oh well. The top piece is the one with flying fish roe, which imparts a crunchy texture. The middle piece is infused with squid ink, and has scrumptious bits of squid in it. The bottom piece with savoury dark flecks is the iron egg one! It was a fun selection, definitely very interesting and enjoyable to eat.

Seafood sausage (海鮮香腸) on a stick, in the flavours of flying fish roe, squid ink, and iron egg.

It takes less than an hour to go from Taipei to Tamsui via the MRT, making it an easy-breezy visit. Even though it doesn't seem like we did much, we somehow ended up spending a leisurely six hours in Tamsui just walking around and grazing on various snacks. So if that sounds like your kind of thing, this is an accessible day trip that's worth adding to your itinerary!

A beautiful Tamsui waterfront sunset.

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Thursday, 4 May 2017

10 things about Taiwan - fun stuff and observations!

Bitch, I'm fabulous.

Hey, everyone!

So I'm finally embarking on the final installment of my 2014 Asia trip blog post series - on Taiwan! If anyone's still reading my blog, I know you were probably thinking I was never going to get around to it. Well, I'm an excellent procrastinator, but apparently I am also committed to finishing what I start. So here we go!

I thought for this travel series, it would be fun to do a general introductory post about the country. There are so many fun and interesting aspects about Taiwan that I keep noticing again and again. So without further ado, here's my list of 10 things that I noticed while we were travelling in Taiwan...

1) The juxtaposition of old and new. I found this contrast quite fascinating. Decrepit buildings next to modern skyscrapers, and other similar scenes. This is quite a common sight in many countries around the world anyway, especially in Asia, but for me, it somehow seemed particularly pronounced in Taiwan.

The contrast of old vs. new.

2) Yes, Taiwan really is heaven for bubble tea aficionados. Bubble tea shops are everywhere, and Simon would indulge pretty much everyday. I found the bubble tea here to generally be of splendid quality - many of the bubble tea shops use fresh ingredients rather than artificial colours and flavours. Delicious and wholesome, what's not to love?

Delectable fruit-filled bubble tea in Taiwan - I think this one is passionfruit and apple.

3) Dumplings by the piece. Have you ever wished that you could order one of every flavour when you go to a dumpling restaurant - by the piece, not the plate? Well, in Taiwan, many dumpling shops allow you to do just that! You just have to put the appropriate number next to each of your desired items in the order form provided. Each dumpling usually cost us around 5 NTD. It's such a fantastic, consumer-friendly system that works well for solo and couple diners who want to try a variety of exciting flavours (kimchi, curry, and sauerkraut dumplings, anyone?), I wish more dumpling joints around the world would adopt this method.

A scrumptious selection of dumplings.

4) Betel nut beauties. They're not as ubiquitous as they once were, but scantily-clad lasses selling betel nuts from flashy neon-lit shops still exist. Not so much in the major cities, due to government intervention based on concerns that they are unfavourable to the country's image and reputation, but they're still around in smaller towns, at least from my observations. The first time I saw them was in Luzhu - there was a spectacular string of brothel-like glass kiosks on one stretch of a street that we were strolling down, and I have to confess that at first, I wasn't sure if they were the famed betel nut beauties or if they were, perhaps, sex workers. Then I saw them preparing betel nuts, and the mystery was solved!

A betel nut beauty in Luodong, selling her wares to a truck driver.

5) Deep-fried foods. The Taiwanese love their deep-fried snacks, and they do it well. You won't ever have to walk far before you come across a stall selling some deep-fried treats such as deep-fried seafood, deep-fried mushrooms, deep-fried tofu... even deep-fried milk! Yeah, Taiwan can be a dangerous place for people who are trying to watch their weight.

Deep-fried milk on a stick, a custardy treat!

6) Truly convenient convenience stores. Convenient store chains like 7-Eleven go above and beyond in Taiwan. Some 7-Elevens have restrooms, isn't that great? It has definitely come in handy a couple of times as the best option to visit when I needed to go. I get the vibe that they don't mind you using the toilets even if you don't buy anything, but I am very grateful for this service so I will typically purchase something small like a packet of chewing gum as a token of appreciation. Aside from that, some 7-Elevens also have dining areas. You can add hot water to instant noodle bowls, or microwave frozen meals, and eat it then and there! Moreover, you can get foods like oden, onigiri, and tea eggs at 7-Elevens. I believe other chains, such as FamilyMart, also provide similar products and services. Nice!

7-Elevens in Taiwan are truly convenient convenience stores.

7) The little soup dumplings I know as xiaolongbao (小龍包) in Australia is usually called tangbao (湯包) in Taiwan. I think the Din Tai Fung restaurant chain does still refer to little soup dumplings as xiaolongbao, but most places call them tangbao. Outside of Din Tai Fung, if you ask for xiaolongbao, you'll probably get little pork buns, rather than little dumplings. I got caught by this difference once or twice! I can read Chinese characters, so I'd see a sign for xiaolongbao, get all excited and buy some, only to be left bewildered with what I received. Once I figured out the twist, though, I confidently got my tangbao at every available opportunity!

I've always known this type of soup dumpling as xiaolongbao, but in Taiwan, they're called tangbao.

8) There are some very nice, chilled-out cat cafes in Taiwan. I think cat cafes can be hit and miss - personally, I prefer a cat cafe that feels relaxed and not too commercialized: Sure, you're running a business, but you gotta remember, cats are cats, and you gotta create a space that is comfortable for them. If your cats are not happy, as a cat-lover, I can tell, and I'm not gonna be happy, either. What I'm getting at is, the cat cafes I visited in Taiwan have my tick of approval. Admittedly, I only visited two, and both were in the more laid-back city of Tainan, so my sample size is lacking, but whatever. Anyway, I didn't know at the time, but the first cat cafe in the world originated in Taiwan, so perhaps they've had more time to figure out what works and what doesn't. The other factors may be that Taiwan isn't very touristy compared to some other countries, and there are plenty of cat cafes to go around. As a result, cat cafes here are less of a novelty, and less likely to get overloaded with visitors. So that's my thoughtful hypothesis on cat cafe culture in Taiwan, and you're welcome.

Relax, it's just a cat cafe.

9) Eating out is a way of life. It is not unusual for Taiwanese students to stay in cheap and basic apartment rooms with no kitchen facilities, and eat out everyday for their meals. The popular night markets can get incredibly busy - on more than one occasion, Simon and I would just give up and go somewhere else because the crowds and the queues were just ridiculous. Don't let that put you off, though - we had many satisfying experiences, too, and sometimes, lining up for something special can be worth it!

Night markets can get pretty packed!

10) Dogs are in prams, dogs are on motorcycles, dogs go everywhere in Taiwan. Their owners dote on them and take them along wherever they go. In Australia, people take their dogs for walks. In Taiwan, people integrate their dogs into everyday life. Running an errand? Bring your dog. Grabbing a bite to eat? Bring your dog. Weekend outing? Bring your dog. And boy, are the dogs adorable. Small dogs are prevalent, probably because they don't take up too much space in apartments and are easily portable, but some people go for medium to large dogs, too. We've even seen a dude zoom around on a scooter with two big dogs - it was both impressive and hilarious, I wish I got a picture of that trio!

Doggies on a motorbike! Their owner was just a few steps away, purchasing food from a street stall.

... Alright, I know I said 10 things, but I feel like I have more to say! So here are a few notes related to money stuff in Taiwan. I don't have fun photos to accompany these points, but it's all about the information, right?

Buses in Taiwan don't provide change. We just drop our fare into a box upon entry, and that's it. So here's a hot tip - if you need to break a note so you have the right money for your bus fare, you can nicely ask a betel nut seller if they can break a note. Otherwise, convenience stores are probably also a good source for small change. People here are generally happy to help.

There is a distinctive verbal clarity to transactions in Taiwan. For example, when I pay for my items, the store person will typically say something like, "received $x from you, and here's $y change." When I think about it, this attentive practice probably reduces the likelihood for careless errors quite significantly.

There appears to be no tipping culture whatsoever in Taiwan. Sometimes I'm not particularly fussed about getting my few NTD in change, so I'll be all "eh, keep the change", but it's like a totally foreign concept to them and my words don't even seem to register. No one has ever kept the change!

Receipts are a big thing in Taiwan. If you go to a place that issues receipts, they will insist on giving you the receipt. At times, I've walked off with my item right after I pay, and they would urgently call me back - "hey, your receipt!" Apparently there is a thing called a receipt lottery in Taiwan - you gain a free entry to a government-run lottery with every eligible receipt, so I'm guessing that accounts for why receipts are so important here!

Okay. I think I'm done talking, and now, over to you. Have you been to Taiwan? And if so, what are the interesting things that you've personally observed?

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