Monday, February 2, 2015

You Can Take a Girl out of Taiwan, but You Can't Take Taiwan out of a Girl

One month after returning, I'm finally getting around to writing about our two-week trip to Taiwan over our "winter" break, if only because I had so much swirling around in my head when we first returned that I needed time to sort it all out. Oh, and I took a ton of photos -- over 1000 -- that I still need to sort out.

Overall, it was a fabulous trip, though there were a few small miscalculations regarding how to get to and from various towns and how much time was required to do so. All of it was my fault because, unlike my husband, I don't plan trips to the last minute, so I considered our trip planned once we figured out where we wanted to go, when we were going, and where we were staying in each of our destinations (though, in my defense, most people we know here travel more like I do; some people don't even have an itinerary -- they just hop on a plane and see where they end up!).

Not having lived in Taiwan for over 30 years, I experienced a little bit of culture shock, of course. For example, I had forgotten that Chinese people don't believe in lines and can be pushy physically, so we were a little bewildered the first couple of days, when we would be standing in what we thought were lines, and crowds of people would push past us, literally shoving us aside. I also had forgotten how forward they can be -- I have never gotten so much of a stranger's life history in such a short period of time as I did in Taiwan, and vice versa. Everyone we spoke to wanted to know my life history, including when, where, and how I met and married my husband; how many children I have; and whether or not we planned on having more children. But it's part of the culture, and we just went with it. I did enjoy some of the exchanges I had with the local people and learning about their lives in Taiwan. One tea shop owner was very excited to tell me about her children living in the U.S. -- one of them is a doctor at Harvard, and the other is in Philadelphia.

Aside from being aware of, and adjusting myself to, those small cultural differences, however, I felt right at home and fit right in. We all did. In general, people were very friendly and helpful, and spoke much more English than we had expected. Even those from my parents' generation spoke great English! It also helped that my Chinese skills came right back, and I was able to converse fluently with people who didn't speak much English. And while Taiwan has changed a lot since I was there as a little girl and I didn't remember any places in particular, I recognized and was familiar with the names of various towns and cities, and remembered visiting those places with my parents decades ago.

Then there was the food -- we were all in heaven! Like my son said, there is no such thing as a bad meal in Taiwan. Everything we ate was amazing, and brought back so many memories for me. We mostly had "snack foods" (小吃) because that was what I remembered and missed the most, and I was eager to introduce my husband and son to the foods I grew up eating. We had stinky tofu, which was much tastier and more subtle in flavor than the American versions we've had; noodles galore, of course; braised pork, one of my favorite dishes; indescribably delicious homemade wonton soup (multiple times) with a recipe that's been passed down from generations ago; dumplings and baozi every chance we got; rou yuan (Taiwanese meatballs); traditional Taiwanese breakfast consisting of spring onion pancakes, mantou, and yoatiao, all washed down with hot soy or rice milk. You name it, we ate it. My son loved trying new foods and looked forward to eating for the first time in his life!

Our original plan was to travel around the entire perimeter of Taiwan and make a stop in central Taiwan, but two weeks proved to be insufficient for such a trip, so we cut it down to the northern half of Taiwan. We started out in Taipei, then to Hualien and Taroko Gorge in the northeastern coast of Taiwan, then to Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan, then to Lukang, a small town on the west coast of Taiwan, and then back to Taipei. Overall, it was very easy to get around: there are amazingly convenient and inexpensive long-distance train systems that run up and down the coasts, and the cities, especially Taipei, have subway systems that are easy to use and access. While in Taipei, we were able to get from downtown Taipei to the outskirts of the city within 20 minutes, and all for $2 or less. We were practically dizzy with the independence and freedom we had, being able to come and go anywhere at anytime that pleased us.

We completely fell in love with our first destination, Taipei. It was clean, green, and had a fantastic and inexpensive public transportation system. Most signs and announcements were in Chinese and grammatically correct English; some were even in Korean and Japanese. The food was amazing, as were its night markets. And there is so much to do and see in Taipei -- it has everything from temples to shopping to museums to beaches to mountains.

Hualien was probably our least favorite destination. The city itself has little to offer, and it was hard to get around. To be fair, it was rainy and dreary for the entire three days we were there, which dampened our experience -- I had flashbacks of being in Bangkok when we were refused by taxi after taxi one rainy evening. It was here that we were introduced to a tiny place that served only wonton soup -- great comfort food for those cold and rainy days. The recipe had been passed down for generations, and even past Taiwan presidents had frequented the place. While in Hualien, we took an eight-hour tour of the nearby Taroko National Park and the surroundings of Hualien. The most well-known landmark of the park is Taroko Gorge, known as one of the most beautiful canyons in the world. It is deeper than Grand Canyon, and is breathtaking even in the rain. Our tour guide was great -- a man probably in his 60s who was as spry as someone one-third of his age, spoke great English, and imparted a lot of interesting and fascinating information. It felt great to be outdoors in the mountains and exciting to be hiking on treacherous mountain paths in the rain.

From there, we went to Sun Moon Lake in the middle of Taiwan. Because of the rocky mountains, there is no direct way to get into the center of the island. We took a train back up towards Taipei to Taichung on the west coast, where my parents lived and where I lived with them for a few years. From there, we caught a bus to Sun Moon Lake. Sun Moon Lake is a tourist destination, but it was still beautiful. We bought all-day boat passes so we could explore the various parts around the lake as we wanted. We hiked along mountain trails and took in the scenery.

After Sun Moon Lake, we took a bus back to Taichung, and another bus to Lukang. The town turned out to be much more interesting than I had expected. We walked around town, and explored the temples and the old part of town, which was very quaint and charming. We found a shop that made and sold fresh mochi, got a box, and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

The next day, we took a bus to Changhua, where we were to catch a train to Taoyuan, which is outside of Taipei. We had to stay one night there because of my poor planning again -- I didn't book the hotels for the latter part of our trip until about two weeks before our trip, not realizing that we would be back in Taipei on New Year's day and weekend! So, of course, all the hotels were either booked or had increased their prices. While in Changhua, though, we explored the city a little, and visited the Great Buddha Statue and its grounds. It was an unexpected, pleasant surprise.

We spent one day in Taoyuan, doing not much of anything. There was a playground near where we were staying, so we spent most of the day there. It was very interesting to see that most of the young kids there were with their grandparents -- it was nice to see that grandparents in Taiwan are still very much a part of their grandchildren's lives (I myself lived with my maternal grandparents while growing up). My son befriended other local children and played with them. It was very cute to watch them trying to communicate -- the other kids would speak Chinese to my son while he spoke to them in English. Neither understood the other, but they somehow played together effortlessly. At one point, my son was making and flying paper airplanes -- something he's been into of late -- and a toddler who was curious about the planes came up to him to play, so my son showed him how to do it and gave him one of his paper planes. It made the toddler's day, and he was so excited to show it to his grandpa, who was with him.

Back in Taipei, we hooked up with one of my cousins and his wife, who also happened to be visiting the wife's family (parents, aunts, cousins) in Taiwan at the same time. Her family was generous in the hospitality extended to us, and included us in their plans. They picked us up in their vehicle, and took us to an amazing restaurant in Yangmingshan National Park. When we indicated that we might do some hiking there after lunch, they changed their plans to accompany us! Then they drove us back to the city and took us out to dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant. They even offered to shuttle us around the next day, which we declined because we didn't want to impose anymore. But we did agree to meet them for dinner again the next evening, which was our last evening in Taiwan. They took us to San Want Hotel, located in a fancy part of the city, for a sumptuous meal at the restaurant inside. There was sushi, pasta, smoked salmon, crab legs, lobster, tempura, several kinds of soup, cartons of Haagen Dazs ice cream, and more than I can remember. It was here that my son and husband tasted frog legs for the first time. They both loved it!

We also had a chance to soak in the hot springs outside of the city center of Taipei. We went to a public hot spring, so it was quite crowded. It certainly wasn't as peaceful and relaxing as the onsen experience we had in Japan.

Overall, this was probably one of the easiest trips we've taken in Asia -- the other being our trip to Japan -- because of how easily we were able to get around in general, my ability to speak Chinese, and how organized Taiwan is.

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