Friday, May 4, 2018
Our morning started at James’s happy place, the Changi Airport in Singapore. He has been dreaming about visiting this airport for at least 5 years and probably longer. We’re not quite sure why, but he has always had an obsession with visiting this airport (one of his hobbies is drawing airports and building them out of legos). Not only did he get his most wished-for airport, our plane took him to his second most wished for airport: Taipei, Taiwan.
We landed in Taipei a little before 5:00PM, and got to our apartment around 6:30 PM. At this point we dropped our stuff in our rooms, then headed out for the Ningxie Night Market, which was in walking distance of our apartment.
We passed by a bunch of stands of chicken wings and random duck parts on sticks. They looked quite delicious, but I didn’t get anything quite yet. We saw some scallion pancakes and got them for the boys, but before we knew what was happening, the stand owner stuffed them with an egg mixture that the boys didn’t care for. Jeremy and I spoiled our dinner a bit by eating them. John found some sausage and some watermelon that he liked, although the first sausage stand was advertising “large intestine stuffed with small intestine.” At that point, he wanted nothing to do with that stand, even though the other sausages looked quite tasty.
Next, we passed a beef stand and decided to get that. The stand owner used a blowtorch to finish them off, added some spices and salt, and we had a delicious treat. Next, we picked up some pearl milk tea for me and Jeremy, while the boys decided the lychee soda and the strawberry soda looked better.
We got some custard tarts from a nearby shop. The crusts were wonderful, although, as usual, the custard was a bit too eggy for us. On our walk back through the market, James wanted more beef, so we tried a second stand, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the first. By this time I was way too full for random duck parts, so I sadly passed it by. We can always come back.
When we got back to our apartment, we discovered there was no hot water. A few texts to the owner brought her over fairly quickly, even though I think she thought we were incompetent Americans who didn’t know how to use a faucet. Luckily she had the same problem and was able to figure out that the water heater needed a new battery. We were glad that problem was fixed quickly.
After our tiny hotel room in Singapore with a dripping AC, our 2 bedroom apartment in Taipei feels like luxury. We are also happy to have a washing machine to freshen up our clothes. No dryer, but we were able to rig up a clothes line since I always carry some white rope when we travel. Laundry for one person is easy to hang up in the bathroom, but laundry for four is a little more complicated. Our phone Google Translate app that translates Chinese characters into English was quite handy for this (often the translations are a bit off, e.g. a receipt for an Egg McMuffin in Chinese translated to either “meal pig section egg” or “meal cat section egg”). But, it was good enough to be able to set the washing machine cycle type, the water level, and figure out the start/stop buttons.
Saturday, May 5, 2018
We woke up late and didn’t leave the apartment until 9:30. The boys are getting a bit weary of Asian breakfasts, so they asked for McDonald’s. I’ll admit, it was a nice change. The odd things on the breakfast menu included hash brown sandwiches. Basically a hash brown inside 2 pieces of toast with cheese, mayo, and ketchup. Optionally add eggs and/or meat. I decided to try it and found it to be tasty. The really odd things were on the dinner menu: hamburgers or chicken with either a black or a red bun. Weird.
At this point, we decided to take a cab to the starting point of Lonely Planet’s Historic Walk, the Longshan Temple. When looking at timing, we had a choice of an 8 minute cab ride that cost $4 and got us door to door, or 30 minutes of walking and subway ride that cost $3. Easy choice. The temple was very beautiful and was a great example of local religious architecture.
My favorite part was in the gardens outside of the temple. There was a nice pond, filled with fish, frogs, and turtles, and had a nice dragon statue that reminded me a bit of Mushu in Mulan.
We saw a little market area, so we took a detour off our path. James saw these delicious-looking candies that were bright red, and coated in sugar like a gumdrop. We bought some, but one bite revealed an unexpected surprise. They tasted like potatoes with a sugar coating. Odd.
Next we visited Bopiliao Lane which had some restored Japanese houses from the Qing Dynasty era. The buildings were nice, and definitely had a Japanese feel to them, but the street felt very lonely and sterile. A bunch of locals were taking pictures of some art on a wall, so we decided to copy them even though we had no idea what the significance was.
The Red House was Taiwan’s first public market. Today, it has a coffee shop, hosts some cultural events, and while we were there it had something going on that was sponsored by the Huashan 1914 Creative Park. I enjoyed seeing the little pop up shops displaying high quality local creations.
At this point in the walk, John thought the city looked a bit like New York City, and he really liked all the billboards and gigantic TVs attached to the outside of the buildings. We decided to get some pearl milk tea, which was delicious, as it should be since it comes from Taiwan. The kids had been asking for some for a while, but we noticed that outside the busy food market area, there are very few trash cans in the city. We didn’t want to have to carry the used cups for a long distance, so we waited until we were sure we were sure we would be able to dispose of them.
We walked by Zhongshan Hall, then continued to the Land Bank Exhibition Center. This was half of a museum whose focus is evolution. There was a copy of a dinosaur skeleton, and lots of real animal fossils, including a sperm whale. Lots of diagrams next to the fossils explained evolutionary concepts. Another section focused on evolution of money and banking. I really liked a third section that took snapshots of various streets of Taipei and showed how the streets evolved. Our $1 tickets also gave us access to the National Taiwan Museum across the street. I wasn’t a fan of this one, but the kids seemed to really like it.
These museums put us in the 2/28 Peace Memorial Park, so we continued on to the memorial. While we were there, the fountains started up and some music started playing. It was really quite nice.
We also decided to go to the Memorial Museum. It was interesting to learn about the 1947 massacre, but most of the signs were in Chinese, so we didn’t learn as much as we hoped. There was enough English to give the boys a feel for what happened, but as an adult, I wish I could have read more of the information that was presented.
Not far from the museum, we found a playground and exercise park. The boys had tons of fun playing with all the equipment. They should install some stuff like this at home. I briefly tried out one of the machines, but almost ripped my skirt when I discovered the low resistance.
At this point, it was about 2:00, and we thought about getting lunch and looked for a dumpling house, but didn’t have any luck. No one was particularly hungry, so we continued on to the Presidential Office Building. It was quite impressive looking, and apparently you can get a tour if you sign up at least 3 days ahead. We didn’t do this, so we settled for a picture.
Next up was the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. There were a bunch of protestors by the front gate, which made photographs hard unless you photographed the gate from the back side. We continued to see various protest groups marching the streets. They seemed to mostly be on the path between the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and the Legislative Yuan (parliament buildings).
We passed by the National Theatre and Concert Hall.
When we arrived at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, we noted that the guards were wearing blue uniforms. Apparently the air force is taking their 3 month turn in guarding it since green is the army and white is the navy.
We took a quick peek at the museum under the memorial, but since the boys decided that they were super hungry and tired, we only spent about 5 minutes. On the way out, they spotted some popsicles, which we thought would tide them over until we found real food.
Everyone was tired, so we decided to find food on the walk back to the apartment. We couldn’t find the soup dumplings I was after, so the boys picked out a nice looking ramen house. Very tasty! And one person on staff spoke very good English, which is hard to come by in this city. Most of the shopkeepers know a few money words, but even then, it is hit and miss. Luckily, Jeremy can count and say please and thank you in Chinese. We can also pull out Google maps on our phones and point to the Chinese characters. With those two skills, we can get most things that we want. I am sure that if we knew more, I would be able to find my dumpling house, but without picture menus, or someone sitting at a table I can see, with the food that I want, it is hard to figure out what some of the restaurants are. The only time I see what I want is when it is nowhere close to meal time.
We arrived at the apartment and turned on some anime cartoons for the boys. It is amazing to see how long they can watch cartoons in a language they don’t understand. At 7:00, Jeremy talked me into going out to the night market again, but I was very resistive. We are all starting to get a bit tired from traveling.
Once I got up, I was glad we went. No one was particularly hungry, so John got some edamame, James got his beef cubes at our favorite stand. They were good, but not quite as good as the previous night. I admired the duck again, but wan’t hungry, so didn’t get any. James and I did get the lychee soda, which was quite good. As we were heading out, the boys also got the grilled corn on a cob with a Chinese BBQ sauce. Other things we noticed was how bad the “stinky tofu” smelled. Even worse was the “stinky tofu with duck blood curd.” Why? Why would you eat that?
Sunday, May 6, 2018
I was still feeling tired when I woke up at 6:30, so I stayed in bed another 2 hours, simply relaxing. After 4 weeks, the need to see as much as we can is fading, and the desire to do absolutely nothing is creeping in. We got another late breakfast, then wandered around our neighborhood a bit.
We decided to attend Friendship Presbyterian Church, which had an English service at 11:00. It was nice, had a lot of American accents, and we felt like we could have been anywhere in the United States that had a significant Asian population. The preaching was good, the music nice, and the kids even decided to try out the Sunday school and enjoyed it.
After the service, we wandered around the neighborhood a bit and found a dumpling house, although it still didn’t have my soup dumplings. The counter had English translations of the menu on the big board, but we had to write down the number of everything we wanted on a paper Chinese menu. Luckily everything was mostly in the same order on the board as on the paper, and we were able to figure it out. The dumplings were super tasty! John really liked the fried ones, James really liked the curry ones, and I loved all of them.
Having just been to Singapore, we’ve inevitably been comparing Taiwan and Singapore in our minds. Singapore is definitely a lot more modern and polished, and at first glance Taipei feels much less impressive in terms of sites and architecture. It is unfortunate that many of the Taipei buildings were built in the 60’s and 70’s, in all their concrete glory, as it makes the city feel a bit more drab. However, after being here for a few days, we are noticing that you can feel the heartbeat of Taipei much more than Singapore and are really enjoying that aspect of the city. There is a much stronger community feel that we didn’t notice as much in Singapore (to be fair, we’ve only been to either for a short time). The people are out and about, and aren’t just hiding in air conditioned malls or in their apartment complexes. The differences may be partly due to the weather – Taiwan is definitely warm, but it isn’t right next to the equator like Singapore. Prices are also more modest in Taiwan.
We wandered around a bit, then decided to catch a cab to the Taipei 101 building. It is shaped like 8 Chinese takeout boxes, stacked one on top of the next. Quite beautiful and awe inspiring from the base!
The observatory is a bit pricey, but since James and Jeremy were excited about it, we decided to go up. From 2004 until 2015, the elevator held the Guinness Book of World Record for the fastest elevator (about 37 mph). While in the elevator, they even have a bunch of stats that show you where you are in the building and how fast you are going.
I wasn’t expecting much, but the views were amazing! I ended up really enjoying it, even though observatories usually aren’t my thing. The architecture from the streets are not near as impressive as the architecture from above. We spent quite a while admiring the different views.
James favorite view was of the airport. The airport we flew into was further from the city, but there is a second airport that is almost in the middle of the city that mainly caters to local flights. James could have spent hours watching airplanes take off and land. I think he got a sense of what it might be like to be an air traffic controller, sitting in the tower.
The building is designed to resist wind and earthquakes. There is a gigantic pendulum that will reduce 40% of the vibrations. We watched an interesting video that showed how the pendulum actually moved during a major typhoon. It was a bit scary to think about.
The boys got some ice cream, then we decided to head over to the Botanic Gardens. The section on the various palm trees was my favorite.
The gardens were nice, but having recently seen the impressive Botanic Gardens in Sydney, then the even more impressive Botanic Gardens in Singapore, they were a bit disappointing. I wish we would have seen the Taipei ones first, then Sydney, then the grand finale in Singapore. The boys enjoyed looking at the fish and turtles in the ponds. We heard some frogs, but never did see them.
Everyone was tired, so we decided to wander back to the apartment. James got a pearl milk tea (they seem to have a place on every block here). I saw a bakery and we picked a few things to snack on. We had a lot of fun wandering by the restaurants. Everyone was fairly full by the time we got back, so we decided to just have a quiet evening and not go back out. There are a lot of night markets that would be interesting to see, but none of us have the energy to go out.
Monday, May 7, 2018
We had another slow start, but it seemed to do the trick and all of us ended the day with much more energy. Our morning started with a walk around the neighborhood. The south side of the main train station is much more interesting than the north side. A little bakery called to us and the kids picked out more of the layered cakes that they fell in love with in Singapore. I found something that turned out to be a cross between a croissant and a cannoli.
After enjoying our stroll, we took a cab over to the National Palace Museum. We started in the pottery section and I thought the boys were going to hate it, but ever since we went to the Longshan Temple, the boys have been semi-obsessed with finding “Mushu’s.” They were in luck, found 38 of them in the museum, and had a lot of fun studying all the pots and vases to find them. This has worked well for them in a lot of places. In Paris, they spent their time looking for “Remy the Rat.” In Istanbul and Greece it was cats. In Peru it was dogs.
James really enjoyed painting section. He studied the long scrolls of village scenes for quite a while, trying to find interesting images. I loved watching his eyes light up when he found something he liked. John was hoping for a larger weapon section, but was disappointed.
After the museum, we thought we might have enough time to go to the Yangmingshan National Park if we took a cab there and the bus back, so we decided to get lunch at a nice dim sum restaurant on the property of the museum. It wasn’t as good as the dim sum we had in Singapore, but I finally got my Shanghai soup dumplings that I had been after. Delicious!
We tried to hop in a cab, but when the first taxi driver saw our destination, he referred us to another driver, who spoke some halting English. Our driver conveyed that the park was a bit boring without a car and that we probably didn’t have enough time to do it properly by bus. We thought he might be trying to get a higher cab fare, which was likely true, but by the time we got to the visitor center, we agreed with him.
Our driver suggested that we continue on to the coast and he would show us one of the most amazing sights in Taiwan. We were skeptical, but decided to try it. A little after the visitor center, we made a stop at one of the hot springs inside the park and took a few pictures.
The road was pretty, but also quite curvy. James and I pulled out the bakery sack that I hadn’t disposed of and almost needed to make use of it. We got a bit of a breather when we saw a monkey on the side of the road and stopped to watch it. The road straightened out a bit as we approached the valleys. Beautiful!
On arrival, he pointed to the Yehliu Geopark entrance and told us we should spend at least 1-1.5 hours there. It looked interesting, and the entrance fee was quite low, so we went in. Amazing! This was definitely a highlight of our time in Taiwan and well worth the time spent to get there.
This park is mostly formed from sea erosion and features lots of mushroom-like rock formations with smooth bases and rough, airy tops. The oddest was the “Cute Princess” rock that looked more like Quasimodo at the time. When I study the picture now, I see her profile with a bun, but I definitely didn’t see that while there.
The kids loved looking at all the cracks and crevices along the shore.
But the unusual rock formations is really what the park is about.
We wandered a bit, then decided it was time to head back to Taipei. We walked over to a 7-Eleven to get some drinks. The store is everywhere! You can barely go a block without seeing one. On the way, James spotted some leopard sharks in a tank and asked if we could go into the pet store. Um, no. It was a restaurant! The only thing we could think of using it for was shark fin soup. James was quite distressed.
While getting drinks, we spotted our taxi driver nearby and were surprised that he hadn’t picked anyone else up during the time we were in the park. We thought about taking the bus back to Taipei, but when debating a 2+ hour, fairly inexpensive bus ride, vs. a 45 minute, not as expensive as you might think, taxi ride, we decided just to go with the taxi. Jeremy is quite tall, and bus seats are usually quite cramped for him. Plus, the kids just wanted to get back and relax.
We came back, relaxed, and the kids got some school work done. Around dinner time, we went back out to wander and picked up a few things from the bakery for dinner.
This country has been a very pleasant surprise. I confess, I was not expecting much ,and was not excited about visiting Taiwan, but as we get ready to leave, I find that it is definitely a place that I would enjoy coming back to explore in more detail.
Tomorrow we continue onto one of my favorite countries: Japan!