Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Delectable Taipei

the tourists
During the All Soul's Day holiday in Manila, the three of us decided to head out to Taiwan.

Its not easy to travel with a lawyer and a banker since both are very, very busy. If I didn't ask what the plans were, we wouldn't have any place to stay and probably spend time looking for a travel agent. Thank God for the web! I was able to research and short list possible sites combining what these two busy bees want - basically, spend more time outdoors.

For the tours, it was a toss up between the customized itinerary offered by a local guide from Tours by Locals.com or book the  package tours offered at Viator. The latter, by the way, is the best-value site for booking trips but a warning though - it's a hit and miss with the tour guide. Our guide for the city tour may be a bit burned out because he barked "I'm here everyday, why don't you walk down to see the shrine and I will wait for you here."

125th birth anniversary of
Chiang Kai Shek on October 31
Anyway, I ended up booking with Viator. We had two half-day tours on the first day - a city and a night tour- and two out-of-town. Another warning: all the tours include a stop in a handicraft or food shop or both.

For first timers like moi, its good to get your bearings by joining a half-day city tour. The tour started at Zhangshou district's Presidential Building, then stop at a traditional Taiwanese temple, the massive Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall to see the changing of the guards (note: the guards do not blink for an hour, I kid you not),  a handicraft center, the Ming Dynasty architecture at the Martyr's Shrine and the last stop  was at the National Palace. We should have skipped the handicrafts center and spent more time in the museum. If I heard the guide correctly, in the 1930s, Chang Kai Shek transferred 3,000 crates out of China or over 600,000 pieces of anicent Chinese artifacts and artworks belonging to the Imperial family.

The night tour started with a Mongolian barbecue dinner (yes, i know - why on earth eat Mongolian in Taipei?). After dinner, we drove to the western side of Taipe to visit the Lung Shan budhist temple. It was packed with locals praying and burning incense sticks.

Snake Alley 
I guess the Taiwanese love to eat because there are 14 night markets in Taipei!!!  From the temple, we walked next door to Hwashi famous for its snake alley. Meaning, snakes - the meat and the blood, including other whatnots are sold in this special market. None of us were adventurous enough to try ordering snake or turtles and even alligators but we ate everything else outside snake alley.

To cap the tour, we headed to Taipei 101, the second tallest building in Asia.

At Yehliu Geopark 
The next day we booked a half-day North Coast tour which took us to Keelung City and the famous Yehliu Geopark to see the rock formations. Another warning: do not go on Sundays, lots of  tourists and also locals.

Taipei averages about a hundred earthquakes per year. Well, we didn't feel the 6.5 magnitude earthquake that hit Keelung at 11:38 that day. I guess we were on the road. Our guide said that Taiwan is located at the intersection of the Eurasian and Philippine Sea plates and thus, seismicity is extremely active.

Must visit Shin YehJ apanese buffet
Back in Taipei, we decided to venture on our own. First stop was the highly recommended Japanese buffet  in Shin Yeh which was only two blocks from our hotel. The restaurant is listed as one of the five places to eat in the Miele Guide 2009/2010. The fare is unlimited!! There are separate food stations - from the makis and shushis, the noodle station, cold appetizers with gigantic oysters and shrimps, the tepanyaki grill, the prime rib and roast pork, pizza (yes, pizza!), hot dishes and dessert. I especially liked the drink station which served fresh juices (kiwi and guava were my staple), beer, calpis (uncarbonated soft drink, tastes like Pocari Sweat), coffee and even home-made ice cream. Another warning: favorite of locals too, go early.

local fare at Shinlin night market
After lunch, we decided to check out Beitou which is 20-min via MRT and dip in its natural hot spring. Some of the main bath houses are still in the Japanese style with tatami mats. A short historic note: Taiwan was ceded to the Empire of Japan by the Qin Empire after the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895. Anyway, the best hot spring is located in Wailu where the waters are odorless and colorless. In Beitou, there are two kinds - the clouded almost white with strong sulfur odor and the green color.

After Beitou, we stopped at Shinlin night market, the biggest in Taipei. Must try are: oyster omelette, grilled scallop, the sausages, the gigantic chicken, fried pao.

Taroko Gorge 
The next day we were up early for the Taroko Gorge Tour in Hualein touted as Asia's 7th wonder. It's a 25min flight from Taipei. Its a must-see! If I were to do this again, I'd stay 2-3 days and do the trails like the .Old Jhilu Road in the Swallow Cave area.

We were able to do Shakadang Trail, the Gorge, Eternal Spring Shrine, Swallow Caves,  the Tunnel of the Nine Turns (left photo), Tienshiang Lodge and the Chi Hsing beach at the back of the airport.

The last fourth day was some shopping and  to taste the celebrated xialong bao (steamed pork dumplings) of Din Tai Fung. Three people recommended this - Dedet, Cyrenee and Rae, not to mention the german couple with us. So we trooped to the original branch at 194 Xinyi Road, A bit pricey but I enjoyed the crab roe and truffle and the double boiled chicken soup.

I might go back next year and do the Taroko Gorge Marathon and stay longer for the trails!