Monday, October 27, 2014

First days in Taipei

Bob and I are in Taipei, Taiwan, for nearly two weeks (Bob has a 5 day-long conference, ISMIR, and we are staying for an additional week). We arrived on Saturday after two long flights and one long (5 + hours) lay-over in Dubai. Bob's conference takes place in the HUGE Grand Hotel.

Truly, this hotel is giant. It sits on the side of a very lush, steep hill. In fact, most of this large city is covered in lush vegetation. It reminds me a lot of Hawai'i: very green, lots of steep hills, dramatic mountains, quite warm (even in late October it's in the high 20s C/80s F), and very, very humid (it's 75% humidity today). In fact, both Bob and I need to buy some clothes while we're here as we don't have enough shorts/skirts with us, and there is no way I am going to wear jeans in this weather!

We arrived on Saturday early evening. After nearly 20 hours of traveling, we were both quite tired, so after getting settled into our apartment, we headed to the Shilin Night Market for a bite to eat. The night market (one of many night markets in Taipei) is directly across from where we're staying, which is quite convenient. We managed to stay awake until 22:00, which helped us get into the schedule.

After waking up early on Sunday, we headed out to do a bit of exploring and to acquaint ourselves with the city. We are staying in the Shilin district, the northern part of Taipei. We headed a bit south to visit the Confucius Temple. Constructed in the late 1920s, the temple is dedicated to the Chinese philosopher.

 The temple and surrounding buildings are beautiful. The craftsmanship is amazing; the dragons, flowers, and other figures are so detailed and brightly colored.

 Right across from the Confucius Temple is the Buddhist Bao'an Temple. A Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Award recipient, this temple is also beautiful. Though founded in 1760, the current temple was renovated in 1995-2002.

Many people were leaving offerings at the temple. In addition to offerings of flowers and prayers, people also left sweets, cakes, and a plate of tofu, pork, and an egg. A stick of incense was speared into the tofu.

The sites and the city are great, but truth be told, the best part of the trip so far has been the food. Prior to arriving in Taipei, Bob and I had already had a fantastic introduction to Taiwanese food via Din Tai Fung in Los Angeles. In fact, Din Tai Fung is on the list of places we MUST go when we fly to LA to visit family (it's up there with BCD Tofu House in Korea Town, half-price sushi in Burbank, and Mexican food everywhere). In Taipei, we start our day off with breakfast from 7/11 (similar to the breakfasts we had in Japan): cartons of coffee (the coffee drinks here are sold cold, sweet, and milky, which is perfect for the hot weather) and onigiri (rice triangles filled with a variety of savory items like pork, duck, or fish, all wrapped in seaweed).

There is plenty of opportunity for snacking here. Aside from the convenience shops like 7/11, there are many stalls selling fresh fruits, smoothies, and other healthy things. We happened upon a farmer's market while walking, and Bob's 8th sense (his pomelo sense; Bob's 6th sense is for coffee, 7th is for stamps) instantly found a pomelo stand. These were the largest pomelos I've every seen! The one we bought weighed 2 kg/4.4 lb. After struggling for 5 minutes to peel it (we normally peel pomelos with a knife, but we didn't have one on us), Bob and I dug in to this king of citruses.

For lunch we stumbled across a fantastic local spot. We spent the first 10 minutes trying to match the Chinese characters to words we know (soup dumplings, pork, beef) until Bob smartly asked for an English menu. We ordered: Chinese beef burrito (their name, not ours); corn and pork wontons; steamed soup dumplings with pork; and spicy beef noodle soup. Oh my gods, this was good! In fact, when Bob asked me what the best part of the day was, I responded without hesitation that lunch was the best part of the day.

In the evening, we met with Bob's Austrian colleague and friend Arthur. We walked around our local Shilin Night Market, where we tried a variety of food: different kinds of steamed dumplings, grilled mushrooms, an interesting drink make from bitter melon gourd, and many other things. We also tried the pictured pork-wrapped scallions. Everything is quite cheap (the scallion thing was only 20 Taiwanese dollars, or $0.66), and most things are sold in small quantities, which I love. It means I can gets lots of different things!

For dessert we had a Taiwanese specialty: snow ice. Said to have been invented in the Shilin Night Market, snow ice is basically shaved ice cream. You get the texture of Hawai'ian shave ice but with the flavor and mouth-feel of creamy ice cream. It's heaven. Bob and I shared this lychee-flavored snow ice. There were many other flavors available, so I plan on trying a new one every night!

This trip is off to a great start.