First Day in Taipei

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Ximen Metro Station
Peace Park
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Peace Park
European style buildings at the artists’ park
Bookshop full of books I can’t read
Designer terrariums
Introduction to Cheburashka exhibition
Taipei Metro
Street fair games
Balloon shoot
Food tent
Korean style grilled squid

Hello Taipei

It was a really early start to go to Taipei, and I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare thanks to Janny who had arranged a taxi for me.

Going into the airport early in the morning always feels quite strange, but at least there were bright lanterns to greet me. I got through to the departure lounge and discovered a machine selling short duration data SIM cards for various destinations, including Taiwan. The price was a little over a pound a day for a week-long card, a bargain considering how useful online maps are when you’re in a new place.

Once in the air we were provided with this snack pack and a hot meal with rice. I was really surprised as it was only a short flight! By the time these had been given out, eaten and cleared away it was pretty much time to land!

I only had a small backpack, so I got out of the airport quite quickly and found a train to the city centre. The first thing that surprised me about the geography was all of the hills covered in thick forest – I hadn’t realised Taipei was quite so hilly. As we got into Taipei city centre the land flattened out a lot and I managed to get data on my phone, making getting to my hotel a lot easier.

My room wasn’t ready when I arrived, but I was able to drop off my backpack and just take a small bag out to explore a while. I was staying in a busy district famous for its night market, Ximen, so I decided to go out and find some lunch.

I didn’t go far from the hotel, but here was a lot of life in the streets, including street performers and lots of open fronted shops. After a bit of a wander I found a place where I was confident I could order lunch without too much language trouble! My favourite restaurants are often the ones with pictures when I’m abroad.

The noodles hit the spot, and there was a staff member who spoke a little English, which helped me!

I went back to the hotel and settled in a bit, and got my bearings. The hotel was really nice, though my room was tiny it had everything I needed and made good use of the small space. The sun was setting and I decided to go back out and look at the night market.

I didn’t know much about Taiwan at all before I left, and ended up reading about it a bit on Wikipedia before I arrived. The Japanese influences are easily seen in Ximen night market, as there are lots of shops dedicated to various Japanese youth subcultures, not to mention plenty of cute cartoon characters available in giant plush form.

There were lots of people out and about shopping, and to give myself a little task to accomplish I thought I’d look for a few souvenirs.

Much later on I went out to a Japanese restaurant for tea. There are lots of them in Taipei but I just chose one close by.

The currency in Taiwan is the dollar and there are about 40 to the pound. It didn’t make this order card any less scary looking with the prices though. You choose what you want on the menu and tick off the dishes on the order sheet. Mine was easy as I was having a set meal, partly because I couldn’t decide what to have. My meal included sashimi and tempura, which I always enjoy.

After a long day I was happy to go back to the hotel to sleep.

The burger and the seal

I had a lazy day, planning my trip to Taipei and doing a couple of little errands. When I finally ventured out for breakfast I discovered that the dumpling shop I’d been planning to go to was closed! A minor disaster.

After finishing my errands I found a shop selling hot baked sweet potatoes nearby, so got one of those and a bottle of juice and went back home to enjoy it.

Just as I was finished I got a message from Mei to tell my my seal was ready. This was something I really wanted to have made while I was in China. It’s a stamp carved in stone with your initials, and is used like.a signature on art works such as calligraphy and paintings. While I’m certainly no artist, so have done some Chinese calligraphy and thought it would be cool to have my own seal to stamp my work with if I made something I was proud of.

I was given a Chinese name by my first Chinese teacher, so I have always stuck with it. A few days ago Mei had found an antiques shop which did the seals and carved them, and got everything set up for me. All I had to do was pick it up.

I took the bus about 45 minutes across town to the shop and got there easily thanks to Du. As soon as I walked in the assistant knew me and handed me the seal, showing me the result of stamping it. It looks great! The writing style used on the seal is not the same as modern Chinese, it’s a Qin dynasty type which looks very different to the modern style. I was in the shop less than a minute, and took the bus back across town to meet Rob and Annie for tea. Annie treated us to a meal at a lovely Western restaurant. We had burgers, pasta, salad and fries, as well as some enormous chocolate milkshakes which were phenomenal.

The food really did taste Western, which isn’t necessarily always the way when you’re abroad. We all really enjoyed our food and took a slow walk home.

Gulangyu Two

I started a little late, but headed for the International Cruise Terminal by bus. It was lumchtime and everyone else had had the same idea – to go to Gulangyu island for the afternoon. After I got my ticket I went straight through the security check and sat in the waiting room on the other side, waiting for the ferry to arrive. The ferry to Gulangyu for tourists and non-locals takes around twenty minutes, plus time for boarding. I’m not sure how many people the ferries take at a time, but at an estimate it must be around a million. The crowds stack up immediately around the boarding gate and once the gate opens its a free for all with everyone rushing to get the best seats, dragging children in their wake. The best policy I’ve found so far is just to join in the scrum if you’ve any interest in where you sit, being alert and moving forwards into space wherever you can. If you can’t be bothered with the hassle, just wait until the crush subsides and be prepared to stand for your journey! This time. I ended up sitting in an inside cabin, which had screens on the walls showing the veiw. I’d prefer to be outside, but it all gets there so I wasn’t too fussed! There was even some blue sky when I got off on Gulangyu. I ditched the map again, and wandered vaguely away from the main drags. Following the greener paths I came across a grassy area on the edge of the island which was shaded by trees, and sat down to enjoy the quiet. There was hardly anyone around except one person reading a book. It was really relaxing to sit there and listen to the birds, and it’s probably the most quiet I’ve experienced since I arrived. After a while one of the many workers keeping the island tidy appeared with her brush to sweep up the leaf fall. I had seen a pottery on my previous visit which had wheels for visitors to try making a pot, and I knew it was somewhere in the commercial district. As I’d wanted to try it and was also getting pretty hungry, I headed in that direction via a coastal path, once again seeing lots of brides and grooms. The commercial district is very busy with open-fronted shops and stalls selling hot food, packaged tea and cakes, and souvenirs. It’s often really crowded and people thrust free samples of just about anything at you to get your business. My lunch choice, which had two free samples of cured meat dropped in it before I could even move away from the stand! I don’t know what these are made of, but they have a meatball texture and a slight meaty flavour. Very filling and with your choice of fresh chilli oil, ketchup or curry powder. A quieter corner of Longtou. This stand had a massive queue! I wasn’t sure if they were crepes, omelettes or pancakes but he was really drawing a crowd. Other people from the stand were waiting to take your order and payment to keep the place moving. This district is really fun, but after a while you do want to find some peace and quiet again! Happily, I found my pottery shop at just the right time! It wasn’t too busy, and between them the people working there helped me explain that I wanted to make a pot. The payment process was though a QR code link to a website to which you uploaded pictures of your creation, along with the delivery address, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I started by choosing the shape that I liked best, and then was given an apron and guided through the process of making the pot by an expert. He showed me how to shape the pot and kept everything from disaster – it was really fun to try! After the shaping was done he smoothed the surface and cut the pot from the wheel, ready for decorating. I almost didn’t want to put any marks on it as it was so pristine! In the end I settled for some flowers and wrote the place and date on the other side. Finally I was asked to choose a colour for the pot to be glazed. I picked up a ready made pot as well as they were so lovely. It’ll be a while before my pot makes it out of the kiln to Rob’s and then finally home, but I really enjoyed making it! I headed back towards the ferry terminal as it was nearly time to meet Rob for food. You can return to Xiamen island on the five-minute ferry that the locals can take which drops you by Zhongshan Road. I suppose it’s in everyone’s interest to get people off Gulangyu as quickly as possible as it comes under a lot of tourist pressure! I still had some time before meeting Rob, so I took a walk around the Zhongshan Road area.

Zhongshan Road is pretty fun, and you can avoid most of the salespeople if you want to by walking down the middle of the road as it’s pedestrianised. Again there is lots of tea, cured meat, cakes and souvenirs available, along with the pearl shops where people sit outside hacking open the shells with cleavers. The other noise is the sound of the silversmiths hammering away.

I turned off the main street to find some more street stalls selling all kinds of food, but mostly seafood. This was just as busy as the commercial district on Gulangyu.

I was meeting Rob for food so didn’t buy anything to eat, but I did get a cold mango green tea to tide me over.

Rob and I converged in the same spot in Lianqian after a bus-race which I lost, badly. Still, we headed off to find somewhere to eat.

There was an open plaza with a fairground and massive ship in it nearby. We ended up going to Qin Ai De, a make-your-own noodle soup place, as it required the least language! The fridges are stocked with veggies, meat and seafood, with blocks of dried noodles to choose. You take a big bowl and some tongs, grab what you want and fill up your bowl. This goes on a scale at the counter and you pay by weight.

You can choose the spice level (the only food adjective I’ve learned in Chinese so far aside from delicious) and you get offered other things like minced garlic, sesame seeds and chopped spring onions. You take your seat and the chef then adds stock and cooks your bowl. You get a beautiful bowl of soup! In retrospect we should have perhaps added a little spice, but the soy sauce on the table brightened up the flavours.

We headed to a bar next, and enjoyed a few drinks while watching the kareoke. There was a compere on for a while, who was talking to the audience, encouraging people to sing, and filling in any gaps himself. As the evening drew to a close, we were able to vote for the winner of a trophy and sash!

Xiamen Botanical Gardens

I met up with Rob for brunch and we went to a noodle place. Mine was the top one and Rob’s was the veggie one underneath. Pictures for foodies… The noodles were thick and a bit chewy – I couldn’t finish mine! Rob worked out the bus route on his phone and we manage to get to the right spot to go into the main entrance of the botanical gardens. Before we went in we visited this monument commemorating a battle in 1954. We couldn’t translate the inscriptions, though… It was all on a very grand scale but there weren’t many other people around. We managed to find the entrance to the gardens after a little bit of searching. The gardens are another highly rated tourist attraction with lots of As to their name. The entry fee was about £4 and we got a free postcard and a map. The place was enormous. Rob only had about 4 hours to spend in the gardens, but as neither of us had anything in particular we wanted to see, we decided to ditch the map and just wander. We quickly found ourselves surrounded by greenery, and came across a series of small ponds and streams, with stepping stones and bridges. There were lots of water lillies, and a few kids dipping nets in the water, despite the ‘no fishing’ signs. We continued further and went through a walkway carved into a series of massive boulders, squeezing through the gaps between them before we came out the other side. The paths all started leading upwards, and after a quite a bit of climbing we found a temple. The buildings are beautiful and lots of well-cared-for plants and bonsai trees are all around. There was another big character carved into the stone here, not as big as the one at Nanputuo, but still huge and painted with gold. The temple had its own enormous boulder on the edge of the hill, and a ladder of steps carved into it. Happily there was also a handrail to hold onto! We climbed up and got a nice veiw of the complex. We did think we might be trapped there forever as a family had ambitiously decided to go back down forwards and were running into some difficulties… Rob was keen to go down the ladder quite fast to show them how it was done – he found this easier than he expected! We left the temple and carried on up the hill, through a creaking bamboo forest. The sound of the leaves in the wind and the bamboo stalks creaking and knocking into themselves was very eerie! The bamboo was really tall here, easily as tall as a tree. Continuing up the path we found another temple. This one was still under construction, though the main buildings were compete. There was also a statue garden with a lot of charismatic figures captured in marble. After we had looked around for a while, we carried on further up and found… You guessed it… More temple. This one had a round central part where the god statues were, and was crisscrossed with hundreds of bright striped flags. The monks and the others working there were fixing up more of these flags, and also hanging lanterns and other decorations in preparation for the new year. One group were hanging a metre-diameter lantern high on the corner of the building, and greeted us happily as we went by. It was about time for Rob to head off, so we walked back towards the entrance to say goodbye. Once he had left, I went off a different way into the gardens, again going uphill. I went up through the vine garden and rainforest, where lots of couples were having their wedding portraits taken in the pretty surroundings. In the rainforest there were lots of ponds and streams as well, no doubt making for the perfect backdrop. These are another highly rated tourist attraction with lots of As to their name. After climbing through the rainforest I came out at the cacti and succulents garden, which was covered in shells and had a huge range of spiky things ranging from the giant to the tiny. There was also a huge mass of red flowers that were being eaten by some tiny green birds about the size of wrens, who darted about quickly from flower to flower performing their acrobatics. At the top of this garden there was a small cafe selling snacks and coconut water, so I treated myself to a sausage on a stick. If it’s not on a stick it’s not worth having. They also had a greenhouse full of more succulents and cacti, as well as tiny ones that appeared to be growing from seed. Coming out of the succulent garden I decided to head for an exit, and as I thought I was mostly up the hill already I opted to go for the exit that lead out through Nanputuo Temple, over the hill and down back towards the University. I followed the signposts back towards the Wulao gate, at the top of Wulao peak. I still had some climbing to do, and I finally got to the top to see the lovely view over the strait, which was clearer than the first time I’d climbed it from the temple side. Decending via the staircases on the other side was quicker than climbing, but still, it’s a lot of stairs. I was pleased to get back into the temple complex. As I got back to ground level someone was banging a sort of wooden gong and lots of monks seemed to be busying around going from place to place. Maybe it was time for tea, prayers or a class. After that long day’s walk it was time to find a bus and head home. The bus takes about 45 minutes and costs about 10p for a ride. You don’t get a ticket, you just pay in the box when you jump on. About halfway through the ride I spotted a shop advertising my favourite style of dumplings – steamed bread ones, so I jumped off and got some with the help of my translation app. I also treated myself to a bottle of Qoo, orange flavour. By the time I got home I was ready to eat.

Xiamen Day 4

I started the say by walking to the shopping centre near Rob’s apartment. When I met him we discovered they were writing New Year couplets and there were lots of people asking for them to be written. These are the red panels you see decorating the doors at New Year. A woman saw us standing there looking and explained in English it was free and encouraged us to get some.

Calligraphy writing

She then showed us the list of about 50 different greetings we could ask them to write for us. There are two pieces with seven characters for the sides, and one with four for the top. We had no idea what any of them said, so we just had to pick random numbers! They were done really quickly and we then had to manage the wet writing in the breeze. We found some railings and put them over to dry.

As we were doing that another woman ran over and said hello. Her young daughter was writing the couplets as well and she wanted us to have a set from her. We accepted and went over to watch her write them. She was really good, especially for someone so young! We had our photos taken with her, all holding the pieces and said thank you.

Once our papers were dry we went to a cafe and had western style lunch, including a durian pizza for Rob. Then we went to the cinema. We had no idea what was on and the posters didn’t really help, but we decided to go for an action film as that would probably require the least translation.

The cinema staff were really helpful and patient with us using our translation apps to buy tickets. We ended up seeing the third Maze Runner film in a VIP room. The ticket was about a fiver and bought you a leather recliner in a much smaller screen. The film was OK, and it was screened in English with Chinese subtitles. I think I’d like to see a Chinese film next.

After Rob left I went back home for a rest before catching the bus to meet Janny at the railway station. Again the station is enormous! You walk for miles and miles to get anywhere. She helped me at the ticket office and then we went to meet some of the others from the group for hotpot on Zhongshang Road.

Once we got through the traffic and got parked we walked to the restaurant. Who was waiting outside but Shirley – but I almost didn’t recognise her as she was wearing a face mask! She was running off to class but had waited to say hi to me.

We went to a hotpot restaurant. I’ve already visited a place like this with Yang, so I knew what hotpot was, but this place was bustling with diners and staff bringing trolleys of goodies back and forth. It was really noisy too, and Mei explained that in China if you hear a noisy restaurant, that’s how you know it’s a good one!

When you sit down, there’s a boiling pot of stock in the middle of the table, and you select things to put in and cook. This can be any foodstuff you can imagine.

The first thing to do is to go and make up your own dipping sauce. This is best constructed like a salad dressing with an oil, a vinegar and some other flavourings. You can get fresh herbs, ginger and garlic, and sauces like sesame, oyster and soy. Overall there were about twenty different components to choose from, and this is the major flavour in your meal, so choose well…

After that it’s back to the table. Everyone was putting things in to cook, and Fish took care to make sure my bowl was always full. In fact, sometimes it was hard to take anything out to eat as someone was always putting something back in!

Sue, Janny and Fish

The things cooked included… Thin rolls of beef which cooked in a minute, shrimp paste piped into the pot in globs by Sue, ‘magic’ noodles, which were torn and stretched in an acrobatic display by a staff member before being dropped in (a bit like pizza spinning but with more whippy swinging about), bundles of needle mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves, duck blood pudding, pak choi, slices of potato and wax gourd, and sleeve fish. I’d only tried about half of it before. The sleevefish is the prettiest, so it takes centre stage in my sauce dish below. All of these were frantically translated by Danny – she did a lot of translation work with her phone as well and half the time I didn’t even know the thing in English once she’d translated it!

Sleevefish. They look quite cute when they’re alive!

I really enjoyed seeing everyone again, and I’d recommend the hotpot experience. It’s so fun to cook things at the table and eat together. Everything you put in cooks in a minute or two and you can really take your time and enjoy the experience.

A few people drifted off as it was getting late, but a couple of us went to the bakery, which was really busy even at 10pm. Bread and cake were bought for the morning and then we went our separate ways. Janny gave me a lift home on the much clearer roads. We were both really full from the lovely hotpot!