island interlude (jayemsey x taiwan)
We interrupt our regular Singapore programming to bring you JAYEMSEY x Taiwan (alternative title was "Taiwan(t) It That Way," but I couldn’t stop laughing whenever I said it), the latest chapter in my adventures abroad and the very last chapter of 2016. I did absolutely nothing this trip but eat good street food and drink boba for ten days straight, and it was wonderful.
This break I opted not to go home for Christmas, so my good friend Conrad graciously invited me to spend it in Taiwan with his family. I'd never seen Taiwan before, I haven't seen any of my friends since I graduated (two. more. months!), and was feeling a little sad that this would be my first birthday + Christmas away from home, so I happily accepted.
Taiwan is actually quite small as countries go, only a little bigger than New Jersey (I've had a lot of fun playing with this app), but it's easy to forget that it's actually an island. We started our trip in Taipei, stopped in Kaohsiung and Hualien, and rang in the New Year back in Taipei.
(My friend Jess once said if she had a theme song to her life, it would be Hall & Oates' "You Make Me," and since then I've tried to think of what mine would be. I'm still not quite sure, but I've really liked Bastille's "Warmth" lately ever since they released Wild World)
I leave late morning on my birthday for the airport. The Singapore MRT goes straight to Changi International Airport, so it only costs $2 to get there, which is nice. But I still have a long day of travel ahead of me.
I have a short layover in Vietnam, so I board a plane to Hanoi. The woman next to me wears a crisp, collared shirt under a Louis Vuitton-patterned sweater and huge Chanel sunglasses for the entire duration of the flight. I feel tragically underdressed in Victoria's Secret leggings. We arrive in Vietnam around sunset. It looks strange but beautiful—a long stretch of dusty land cut into slices by shining ribbons of rivers, and clusters of short little red-tiled buildings surrounded by lush patches of green.
I am in the airport just long enough to do two things: to look for a thimble and to eat a bowl of pho. I've found that it's rather difficult to find thimbles in Asian countries. No one seems to know what they are, and they're difficult to explain. What do you even call them? Oddly, there's a long row of souvenir shops, all carrying the exact same things. The shop assistants are each absurdly polite and bow to me when I enter and then follow me around the shop, which is very nice but makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I don't find a thimble, either. Disappointed, I go off in search of pho.
I don't even care that it comes from a place called Big Bowl (my high school boyfriend always refused to go to any pho place that was "too clean" or had an American name) and has a bunch of cilantro in it, because it's delicious and "eat pho in Vietnam" is surely something to cross off my travel bucket list.
Fun fact, did you know that some people are actually genetically predisposed to hate cilantro? I only found this out recently, but people tend to have very polarizing opinions about this particular herb. I mentioned I disliked it, and my friend asked me, "Does it taste like soapy water to you?" I laughed and then thought about it. "It kind of does," I said. "That's weirdly specific and accurate." Apparently, some people have a gene that makes it taste the same way to all of them (disgusting). Now I'm really curious as to what other people taste in cilantro, because I think I can tell the difference between a taste I haven't acquired yet (beer, oysters) and something I fundamentally dislike.
After that, I hop on a plane to Taiwan! I arrive at the airport, where Conrad and his friend Sam from Canada greet me with a giant cutout of my face.
I have just traveled for ten hours and I want to go to sleep, but instead we go to Ximending, a little shopping district in the heart of Taipei. It's kind of quiet, with just a couple of tea shops and food carts open, but there are lights everywhere and people still walking around. It's not as cold as I expected, which is disappointing because living in Singapore I miss wearing warm and cozy things. We buy fresh mochi dipped in peanuts and I am introduced to the goodness that is wax apples.
Okay, so I'd never heard of these before, and apparently they're not even apples, but they're delicious. They're sort of light and crunchy and sweet-but-not-too-sweet, and they're probably in my top five favorite fruits along with blackberries and mangoes. I don't know where else you can get them, but I think they're Malaysian? A quick Google search tells me that the plant of origin is called syzygium samarangense, which I somehow doubt will be easily communicated to people in Southeast Asian countries.
Conrad insists that we go to Nakhla Shisha, a hookah bar, where we have a couple of drinks and smoke (I was terrified of this; did you know that an hour of hookah is worse for you than a whole pack of cigarettes?!). It's a quiet little place, with mandalas painted on the walls and delicate crystal chandeliers dangling from the ceiling.
The smoke tastes like cotton candy and is actually pretty cool, though it's clear from the first two minutes that I am not cut out to be a smoker.
We get back to the hotel and I finally sleep.
We wake up and get breakfast nearby. My friend Sasha told me that Taiwan is "the nicer, cleaner China," but it actually reminds me more of Hong Kong, in the sense that it's kind of a cross between China + New York. But whereas Hong Kong is China + Brooklyn, Taiwan is China + Manhattan.
On one side of the street are old brick buildings with colorful signs written in Chinese, fruit markets, and motorbikes parked in neat rows. And on other side are gleaming slate-colored marble buildings with large windows decorated with fresh Christmas wreaths.
After breakfast, we go to Taipei 101, which is a shining jewel of a building: the eighth-tallest skyscraper in the world and a landmark national symbol of modernity mixed with cultural tradition. It's absolutely crawling with tourists, which surprises me considering that it's Christmas Eve, so we decide not to go up to the top but instead head to the basement for boba and Din Tai Fung, to cater to my soup dumpling obsession. I haven't had Din Tai Fung soup dumplings yet, despite their popularity in LA and in Singapore, because I wanted to try the OG.
And holy moly they were beautiful. These soup dumplings were a work of art.
They did not disappoint. Now I want to go back to the States and attempt them again, to try to emulate the perfect folding and to try to fix the soup retention. Maybe I'll just give up the corporate life and become a soup dumpling chef. It sounds like a lucrative career.
Our second stop was Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, which is exactly what it sounds like. Sun Yat-Sen was the founder of Taiwan, and the hall is used for many cultural exhibitions to this day. We witnessed the changing of the guards, which I always find interesting (Denmark and Thailand were especially cool) because it's such a disciplined ritual, one that always remains very traditional despite surrounding modernization. The memorial is surrounded by Zhongshan Park, a very pretty, open square with gardens and fountains.
We have Christmas Eve dinner, although this is like no Christmas Eve dinner I've ever had. There are around 70 people in one room (the most my family ever had at Christmas was a chaotic 55), not just Conrad's family but also family friends, classmates, etc., and SO MUCH FOOD, including a prime rib station, mini desserts, and approximately 20 different kinds of wine. My kind of dinner.
Sam, being a good sport, plays a 21st-century Santa and arrives by hoverboard to give the kids gifts. And we meet Sandra, Conrad's childhood friend who graduated from Parsons and just recently moved back to Taiwan.
After dinner, Sam, Conrad, Sandra and I go clubbing. Or at least we attempt to go clubbing. The line is ridiculously long (we meet up with Randy for 0.3 seconds), because it's Christmas Eve (is clubbing on holidays a thing in Asia?!), and also apparently the club is being raided by police (#casual). So instead we go home and sleep, which is actually a bit of a relief, since I feel like I haven't had time to really rest on this trip yet.
Christmas morning is spent rather lazily. I Skype my entire family back home while they're eating dinner, all 30 or so of them. I haven't seen any of my family in a full five months, so I can tell they're all thrilled to see me, even just for a few seconds on video, which makes me happy. But I also can't wait to go home and see them in person.
We all go to the gym, because apparently working out is "a Yu family tradition" according to Conrad. I haven't actually exercised since Spartan, so instead of weightlifting, Sandra takes me through her Pilates routine. What I didn't know is that Sandra used to be a very serious ballet dancer and her workout is exhausting. I'm pretty sure it's more difficult than the weightlifting the guys are doing.
And later we go to the theater to see Rogue One. I've only ever seen Revenge of the Sith, so all of it was a bit out of context for me, but it was a good movie. If not a little unrealistic, even for an intergalactic war series. I'm just going to leave it at that because I highly doubt anyone wants to hear my uninformed Star Wars commentary.
We wake up early because Conrad wants to take us to this beef noodle soup place, Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodles. Apparently, their soup is award-winning. And from the first bite I can see why.
I've never had any other kind of beef noodle soup, but this is a star on its own. It got pretty mediocre review on Yelp for the locations in the States, but there has to be something missing from the American versions because this is amazing. The broth is super flavorful, the meat is tender, and the noodles are probably top five noodles I've ever had, steaming hot, thick, and chewy. I can already tell that this is going to be one of those foods that haunts me for the rest of my life, because I will never have anything comparable.
We go to the salon to get our hair washed, which apparently is a thing here. It's basically just a hair wash/head massage. It's quite nice. I feel sufficiently pampered.
And then it's off to the first stop on our tour: Sun Moon Lake! Taipei is in the northern part of Taiwan, so we have to drive around six hours to get to Sun Moon Lake, which is in the middle of the island, amidst a cluster of mountains. But it's worth it, because the resort we stay at, The Lalu, is gorgeous. Conrad's dad praises it as "very zen," and I honestly can't think of a more fitting description. The whole place gives off a day spa vibe, all soft white stone, reflective pools, scattered bonsai trees, and wood paneling.
You can see the entire stretch of the shimmering lake, which is some of the bluest water I've ever seen, rivaled only by Hawaii. Lush green mountains are haloed by white clouds. It's so breathtakingly picturesque, it's unreal.
We have dinner, the highlight of which is an odd but excellent pasta dish with cream cheese, scallops, and truffles. I can always tell when I'm having a fancy meal, because the portion sizes are tiny (#neverforget the ten pieces of pasta I had at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto with Conrad, Daniel, Saliq, and Ryan that I paid $15 for).
We go off in search of a nearby night market, but instead we stumble across this hip little bar kind of in the middle of nowhere. We drink Taiwan Beer (which is not terrible, considering that I dislike most alcohol, especially beer) and watch the lights across the water.
And then we retire to our room.
The room. The room is like mountain-ski-lodge-meets-Japanese-zen-garden, with wood floors, orchids by the sink, and a large black-stone fireplace. It's so perfect and serene-looking, I almost feel guilty sleeping in it because I feel like my presence upsets the chi.
The next morning we wake up and have breakfast, and go to the stunning infinity pool. Except that it's freezing, and I opt out after dipping my toe in. I am content just looking at it and admiring it from a distance.
We leave the resort and head down to the docks for a boat tour around the lake. There's a little market down there (I feel as though Asia is simply a large collection of markets, which is why I love it so much), nestled in between tall, colorful apartment buildings, but we don't get to see much because we have to catch the boat.
On the boat, we can fully appreciate the lake with a 360° view of it. It's even bluer up close, almost turquoise, and it literally sparkles as if it's studded with diamonds. I use up half my memory card just taking pictures of it from different angles. The backdrop is smoky mountains layered like a brush painting. I am convinced I am in a postcard.
The boat takes us across the lake to Xuanguan Pier, where we hike up some stone steps to a tiny little temple on a hill. It's meant to honor a prominent monk who spread Buddhism in India in the Tang Dynasty. But the real sight is the view. You can see everything from the top.
We hop back on the boat and head to a different point on the lake, to meet our van.
But once we hit land there's yet another outdoor market, this one full of clamoring people and the scent of roasted food in the air. So we take a quick break to just try every food in sight.
I try a tea-soaked "love note" cookie, fried sweet potato, scallion pancake-wrapped pork, and some kind of lemon tea that has something in it. I don't even know what it's called or what exactly it is. They looked like chia seeds, but they were encased in soft fruit-like flesh, like lychees.
After that, it's another long four-hour drive to Kaohsiung, which is alllll the way south. It's actually chilly here, and I'm happy that I get to finally wear my sweaters and things. After a full two seconds to change, we head to a nearby night market for dinner.
Honestly, I'm still a little full from lunch, or whatever our earlier outdoor market trip was (what even are meals here), but everything looks so good. And I wonder why I've gained ten pounds while living in Asia. My mom makes fun of me because I get really excited at night markets and end up eating everything.
But I can't help it. Asian markets are the coolest. There's always something interesting to make you stop, whether it's live seafood on a stick (yes, you read that right, unfortunately) or mountains of noodles or an assortment of colorful pastries. And they're so dynamic; the bright lights and vibrant colors make everything seem so awake and alive. Taiwan is famous for them.
We find a little tea cart, and the owner brews us tea right there to try. "The best flavor comes from the second cup," he tells us, pouring the tea until it flows over the cups and then refilling them.
And there was literally whole cart just for boba. Instead of putting it in a drink, it was spooned into a cup with some simple syrup and eaten like a dessert. It was magical. I think I only want to consume boba this way from now on.
And we found the soup dumplings! Din Tai Fung was delicious, but it didn't even come close to the ones we had at the night market. These had ginger or water chestnuts inside or something, because there was a slight crunch to the filling, and there was a generous amount of piping-hot, flavorful broth perfectly contained in each one, which is the hallmark of a really good soup dumpling. I think these were probably my favorite. I miss them already. Honestly, I don't know what I was doing with my life before I tried xiao long bao. It's like the perfect food. It's self-contained soup in edible vessels, really, what is there not to like?
After the night market, we buy a couple of Taiwan Beers from 7-11 and some face masks to unwind. I always think it’s funny that the first time I had ever been to a 7-11 was in 2005, in Denmark of all places, but I actually really like going to 7-11 in other countries, because the food they stock always reflects the local flavor. Taiwan has great 7-11s because they have everything from Shin ramen cups to squid balls to this really excellent bottled milk tea. The tea is something special. It comes in this fancy cylindrical bottle, and Sam and I make it our mission to try all the different flavors (the best ones are Earl Grey and matcha latte).
The next day we go to Taroko Park, which is a shopping mall + arcade + theme park + go-kart track all in one. We go racing for approximately three minutes before the rain starts and the track is deemed too slippery. So we have lunch, pack up, and head to our next destination: Hualien, which is on the eastern part of the island.
We wake up early and drive to Taroko Gorge in Taroko National Park, a massive gorge carved by the Liwu River.
I don't know what it is, but the water is impossibly blue, possibly from minerals? But it looks like the kind of thing you see in stock photos: a long stretch of quietly-flowing water dotted with rocks and decorated with patches of green.
We reach a cave where the walls of the gorge grow steeper; you can see lines where the water levels have changed and eroded over time. There’s one place where the water is actually pouring out of the rock, which is pretty cool, and some smaller pools where jewel-blue water has collected.
We end our day in a little arts market in the heart of Hualien. There's not much to see, but the interesting part is that it's housed in an abandoned school. This part of Taiwan is a sharp contrast from the ultra-modern Taipei, and here it looks a little more like the Asia I'm used to. A little bit grimier, but I like it all the same. I think there's a lot of beauty in the grit and the dirt of a city showing its roots. For lack of a better word, it lends character.
We wake up later this morning (the first time this trip!) and go for a seafood lunch. On the way back, our driver pulls over on the side of the road. At first we're confused, but then we turn around and see why: we're on a massive cliff overlooking the ocean. You can see a bunch of colorful fishing boats milling around the marina, and equally colorful storefronts right on the water. It's these little things that I like, the quiet, overlooked ones. There are entire lives going on all around us, but some of them always go unnoticed, in their own little world.
And then it's back to Taipei. Conrad and I go to the Shilin Night Market, which is apparently one of Taiwan's more famous ones, highly recommended by my coworker. Before I left, Eileen sent me a very comprehensive three-page Google doc of things to do in Taiwan and foods to try (planners will be planners, after all). "Night markets define 80% of your Taiwan experience, so you have to go to these," she wrote.
We're not even in the night market yet, when I spot one of my favorite things that I had at the Beijing night markets, sugar-crystallized fruit skewers. It's sweet and crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside. Amazing.
Unlike the other night markets, this one seems to be a permanent fixture with actual storefronts. There are a lot of Nike and Adidas shops and sportswear stores. It's laid out like a spine: one long road that has little alleyways diverging from it, each one filled with food carts and trinket shops.
Then there's an arcade section again. In addition to the BB gun balloon game, his one has darts and a fishing game, like the ones my sister and I used to play at the Obon Festival in San Diego. You have to catch as many fish as you can in a rice-paper net until it breaks. Other people fish for shrimp with little silver hooks. There's a tank with a couple of tiny little red-eared sliders, and I hope to god they're not part of the game because they're so cute.
I have a history of "rescuing" red-eared slider turtles, the really little ones the size of a half-dollar, because I always see them at Asian markets crammed into absurdly small tanks with 50 other turtles, and I feel guilty while I'm grocery shopping and end up taking them home. I've had six of them, and they've all died within a couple of months (Will and Elizabeth, Brad and Angelina, and Romeo/Juliet)(that last pair was an extremely poor naming choice on my part because Romeo died and then Juliet unfortunately died the next day), but I can't help but feel that they lived happier lives at least for a short time swimming around in their own tank in warm water and being fed once a day, rather than on display at an Asian market. I buy goldfish sometimes to keep them company, but the turtles always end up eating the goldfish, except for Will, who was scared of them.
Finally, Conrad drags me away from the turtles, and we walk a little bit more until the market closes.
It's New Year's Eve, so that means we go back to Chef Hung's and get beef noodles for breakfast, recharge for most of the day, and eat hot pot for dinner.
The three of us meet up with Sandra again, as well as some of Conrad's other friends (including a couple that lives in Singapore!), and we all go to back to ATT 4 FUN, which is where all the clubs are. We watch New Year's Eve fireworks at midnight at Taipei 101 (and by this I literally mean fireworks shooting out of the building) and then go to a club called Electro, where we dance until around 5 am.
It's the last day of the trip, so we go back to Ximending and are joined by Sandra and her cousins from Hawaii. "I don't like Ximending; it's like Times Square...very boring and touristy," she says. She stands us in the middle. "Okay, now just turn around in a circle, and you've pretty much seen everything." So we take the MRT to this other place (I don't even know what it's called) in the basement of a shopping mall, and wander around trying all of the free food samples we can find. I like the "sun cake," but I'm not quite sure what it is. It's this slightly-sweet kind of flaky, buttery, but also chewy pastry. Will have to find that in America.
After dinner, to round out the night, we go to karaoke at "Party World," which is really fun and also amusing because for all of the American songs, they have random videos playing in the background of models wandering around in empty fields. Very odd. And apparently Sandra and her family are related to Leehom, a famous Taiwanese pop star, so we find some of his songs, too, except that only Sandra and Conrad can read the lyrics because they're all in Mandarin.
Home to Singapore! I say "home," when really I'm only here for a month longer :(. But I've still got a couple of things to look forward to before then (I still have not tried chili crab); I have some trips coming up that I am very excited about. If you have aren't subscribed already, you can sign up in the box below to follow me around!
Special thanks to all of the people I met in Taiwan that made the trip so fun, and to Conrad and his family for graciously adopting me and Sam.
Thanks for reading!