I had a blast in Taiwan! The people? Oh my god, so friendly. The food? Oh my god, so delicious. The island? Oh my god, so beautiful. Sometimes, the universe really does send you where you need to go.
Here’s some stuff I will never forget:
Some Groovy Buildings
Taipei is a big ol’ city, but its skyline isn’t full of skyscrapers. What it doesn’t have in volume, though, it makes up for in style. Taipei 101 is a grand landmark, sticking up out of the middle of the tony Xinyi District like a giant, green glass syringe. Finished in 2004, Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world for a while, until 2010, when the Burj Khalifa in Dubai knocked it out of first place. It still has the world’s fastest elevator, though.
I must say, it is a little bit wooziating to ascend 89 floors to the observation deck in just a few seconds. There’s a sign that says pregnant women and people with blood pressure problems shouldn’t go up in the elevator, and now that I’ve taken the trip, I can see why. It pulls on you something fierce. But, you can’t see that warning sign until after you’ve paid your 450 Taiwanese Dollars and stood in line for an hour, so by then, you know…screw it, if we faint, we faint.
Now, remember, Taiwan is in the Pacific Ring of Fire, so it’s a hotbed of earthquake activity. Temblors awakened me in the middle of the night a couple times during my stay. There are usually three or four small earthquakes per day in Taiwan, and real shakers on a fairly regular basis.
Between the frequent earthquakes and yearly typhoons, the architects of Taipei 101 had to make sure their masterpiece wouldn’t fall down too easily. So, it’s got an incredibly stable foundation, and a massive, 728 ton steel pendulum, with the largest wind damper in the world, suspended from the 92nd to the 87th floor, to offset the sway from typhoon winds. They call it by its technical name: the “Super Big Wind Damper.” They have little miniature “Damper Baby” dolls in the gift shop, along with, for some reason, replicas of some famous jade cabbage that everyone gets very excited about.
There’s also, apparently, an issue with people not knowing that you’re not supposed to squat and pee on the floor in front of the toilet. The fact that they even needed to make this sign both disturbs and amuses me.
Speaking of buildings and earthquakes, there’s a very interesting memorial in central Taiwan, in the small town of Jiji. The big 1999 earthquake—the second deadliest and most destructive quake in Taiwan’s recorded history—was centered near Jiji.
Wuchang Temple in Jiji collapsed in on itself, in a very tidy, almost purposeful heap. Officials decided to rope it off and leave it that way, as a vivid reminder of the quake, and the nearly 3,000 people who perished in it. It’s something to see. It almost looks like it was built that way.
There’s not much else in Jiji, besides a stand selling bananas. Lots of bananas. The plethora of bananas in Jiji made me giggle, because I had been previously told that the word “jiji” is a Taiwanese slang term for penis. I know, I’m hopelessly juvenile, I can’t help it. They also say that someone who brags “blows air into a cow’s vagina,” and I’m still laughing about that one.
Some Stuff That’s Just Five Kinds of Wrong
What caught my eye about this sign at first, of course, was the hilarious ‘fro wigs on the babies. “Befroe,” indeed. That little guy in the darker wig is just not having it, is he? Then, after examining the arrows and labels, I realized, it’s not about the hair…it’s about the eyes, and that’s supposed to be the same baby in both shots. I don’t know exactly what kind of baby-improvement service they were advertising here, but I’m fairly sure it would get the CPS called on you in the States.
I love Taiwan’s open-air markets. The lanes near the numerous temples in every city are crowded with vendors selling everything a body could need, from food to clothes to medicines to car seat covers. You can also get your toenails scraped and cut, and your chin hairs tweezed, right there on the sidewalk for everyone to see, right there next to the lady selling roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts. I’m sorry…that’s just nasty. Maybe I’m a prude, but to me, some stuff should be taken behind closed doors, and hoof and tusk trimming is one of them.
Ever wanted to eat dinner out of a toilet bowl? Me neither, but I did it voluntarily. I’m sorry, but in my book, if there’s a restaurant called “Modern Toilet,” you go. And you order the curry. I had hoped they might have pot roast, but no. The dining room is done up like a big bathroom, with glass-topped bathtubs for tables and toilets for seats. Every entrée is served in a porcelain throne, and desserts come in a mini Asian squat toilet. Latrine cuisine, at its finest. And, yes, it tasted just like it looks.
You have to have experienced the thick, chewy air quality of China to understand why “New York Air Flavor Spring Summer Climax Shower Gel” is something you might be willing to pay 500 New Taiwanese Dollars (about $17 USD) for. At least, it was buy one get one free.
Some Stuff I Ate
Taiwan’s cuisine is the product of a lot of fusion of different things with Chinese food. Gratins were surprisingly popular, and there are more pastries and baked goods than you would expect.
My favorite bites include these crisp, fried green onion pancake thingies that you could get from street vendors, beef rolls that reminded me of Baja-style grilled burritos, but with Chinese flavors, the spicy beef soup with hand-cut noodles, and of course, the dumplings. They have these “soup dumplings” that look like regular steamed buns, but when you cut or bite into them, soup pours out. So good! Good thing I did a lot of walking, to burn it all off.
Oh, and whoever invented these single-serve drip coffee bags that clip onto the rim of the mug should be nominated for the Nobel Prize. Although, the coffee that comes inside is definitely not created equal, let me tell you. I can now vouch for Mr. Tom’s and a brand called “Blendy.” Good stuff, and excellent for travel.
Some Stuff I Cooked
I had the good fortune to take several days’ worth of one-on-one cooking classes with chef and food writer, Ivy Chen. What a wonderful, talented lady! Ivy’s is a well-known advocate for organic, sustainable food in Taiwan, and regularly publishes articles and cookbooks about Taiwanese cuisine. And, she teaches the occasional cooking class, if you’re lucky.
She took me with her to the market, and explained to me what all the weird things were I’d never seen before. That was worth the price of admission, right there. For example, meat floss. They take different kinds of meat—chicken, pork, fish, beef, you name it—desiccate it, and then spin it into “floss,” like cotton candy.
The finished product looks just like upholstery batting, but tastes savory and salty and melts right in your mouth. It’s the weirdest thing. You eat it plain, as a snack, or use it as a garnish on stews or rice dishes.
We bought some pork floss and used it to garnish a typical Taiwanese dish of braised pork and peanuts on rice.
She also took me with her to the Chinese pharmacy to buy spices.
She said you can get some spices in the market, but if you want really good quality spices, you have to go to the Chinese herbalist. They use spices in Chinese medicine, so the quality is superlative. Made sense to me.
Thanks to Ivy, I am now the proud wielder of some wicked wok skills. Wait until you try my—or, rather, Ivy’s—Taiwanese-style Kung Pao chicken. Guaranteed to knock your socks off.
She also showed me how to make Taiwan’s trademark sweet—the pineapple cake. Little shortcrust pastries with pineapple filling. Kind of like pineapple Newtons, but the pastry is richer and crumblier. They make the cakes out of other types of fruit, too, but pineapple is the classic.
There are pineapple cakes for sale everywhere; they even make Hello Kitty pineapple cakes. Ivy said they used to be traditional for weddings, but now they are just everywhere, like macadamias in Hawaii. We made some from scratch, from fresh pineapple. I can hardly believe these perfect little gems in the picture above (not the Hello Kitty ones, obviously) were made by my own two little, clumsy hands. I would offer to send y’all some, but I ate every last one. Not all at once, of course, but I was not sharing these.
I don’t know what category to put this in, but they have these big, plush animal cars for kids to ride/drive around on, and yes, they will let big kids ride them if it’s not busy. My steed was the tiger in the middle of the picture. They don’t go very fast, but they will tip over if you take a corner too tightly. Don’t ask how I know that. They should require protective headgear to ride these things.
So, Zàijiàn Taiwan, and Xièxiè for showing me such a good time! Save me a pineapple cake!