Thursday, July 29, 2010

Venturing into the Mob's Territory

Sightly sidetracked, but now I'm back to Taiwan.

I realised I completely missed out a destination on our 2nd day - Feng Jia Night Market/Shopping District, located in Tai Chung. Tai Chung is the home of the Taiwanese mafia (thus the name of this post ;)). However, disappointingly, we saw no evidence of black suited, black shades-wearing guys strolling the streets. 

Feng Jia market is a huge sprawling place with various clusters of shops housed within low level buildings, as well as make-shift street stalls that started appearing on the roads later in the evening. It reminds me of the Ikebukuro shopping district in Japan, with its eclectic range of shops and the general layout (though I don't recall seeing street stalls there). It also looks like the Mong Kok shopping district in Hong Kong. hah. Come to think of it, there wasn't anything really memorable about this market, though I could have bought alot of clothes and stuff, I didn't because they weren't very much cheaper than the blogshops I frequent in Singapore. Francis commented that it is remarkably easy to be an entrepreneur in Taiwan - there are plenty of shops/makeshift stalls opened by students or graduates in Taiwan, but there are just as many shops that folded because of the intense competition.

Although we didn't shopped much, we did buy the very famous 'Koi' Grass Jelly Milk Tea from this market. Koi has 6 branches in Singapore, and though I haven't had a chance to sample the Singapore ones, this branch in Taiwan was very generous with their pearls (chewy tapioca balls), and the grass jelly, mixed with milk tea was a match made in heaven! Instant love. Plus there's no queue at all (especially when you've witnessed the long queues in Singapore, you'd be gloating at those poor souls)!

Another item we bought was the 'cong you bing' (Green onion pancake) from a popular and famous stall in this market recommended by Francis. If I have to give a rating, I'd say it's an EM2 lah. Could be because we ate it late that night (unable to eat it right after buying as we were having dinner shortly after), so the pancake was cold. I guess my rating doesn't really count then.

I have to mention the hotel we stayed that night. Remember this hotel name: Freshfields Resort and Conference (also in Taichung). 5 star hotel with exclusive hot spring bathtub in its suites and a couple of huge outdoor hot spring baths in the hotel grounds. This is probably one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in throughout my travels. Although when on backpacking trips, I'd stay in low budget hostels or service apartments, however I've also stayed my fair share of hotels during business trips, package tours and free and easy tours. So if you were to stay in Taichung, be sure to stay in this hotel.

My pictures of the room doesn't really do justice to its elegance and loveliness.

The best hotel bathroom ever.

The black screen in front of the window can be raised to see the view outside. However, as the window is not tinted, the hotel restaurant patrons below can see you as well if they were to look up. Francis had taken care to issue this warning to us before we entered our rooms.

 It was pure bliss soaking in this hot spring bathtub
For some strange reason unbeknownst to myself, I woke up at 5am the next day and took the opportunity to snap pictures of sunrise at the hotel window. Went promptly back to sleep soon after. ;P

Some last shots of the hotel lobby and its veranda.

It may be the mob's territory, but hey, it's lovely all the same!

Friday, July 23, 2010

A little late, but better late than never, right?

I know, I know, I must be one of the last people on earth to know this.

Those in the know (like Some Pink Flowers and Ms Pat Law, who blogged about it 2++months ago and also back in Oct) are probably scoffing at me now, for knowing about this exciting project so late. Oh well. Better late than never, right?

1) For US$25 (plus $3 international shipping), sign up on their website and receive a moleskine sketchbook measuring 5.5" by 8.5" (It costs about S$26 here, but we've got to cover the organisers' hard work and costs don't we?)

2) Choose a theme (or let them choose a random one for you), fill up that sketchbook with your drawings, doodles, paintings, pop-ups, whatever, so long as you don't "stick ties, random plastic things, art materials that could smudge, glitter, and any hazardous materials" (the organisers' mandate!). 

3) Send your completed sketchbook back to the organisers and your book (they don't pick and choose, all are equal) goes on a tour where they will be exhibited at galleries and museums in various cities in the U.S.! During the exhibitions, people get to check out your sketchbook (as in, literally, like a library book) for their viewing pleasure.  After the tour, all sketchbooks will enter into the permanent collection of The Brooklyn Art Library, where they will be barcoded and available for the public viewing. How cool is that?

4) Important dates! Sign up by Oct. 31st, 2010; Postmark book by January 15th, 2011 and Tour starts March, 2011.

5) THE Most important point of all - this is open to anyone, from anywhere in the world. Which is why I've signed up and also because of Some Pink Flowers' enthusiastic encouragement. Thanks! :-)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A leisurely day in the countryside II

Neiwan is a destination that most packaged itineraries do not cover, for some reason (perhaps it's too out of the way?). Neiwan has a Hakka community, and is located in Hsin Chu town. I am a Hakka myself, and my heart leapt at the thought that maybe, just maybe, we could buy the family's favourite Hakka fermented vegetables from this place. This vegetable is used by the Hakkas to add flavour in a yummy pork dish (also my mum's specialty dish) for which the English translation fails me. In pin yin, it's called 'mei cai kou rou'. The fact that this vegetable is the tastiest coming from the Hakka communities in China, and that we only ever get a few bunches of it when my grandmother's friend visits China, makes these vegetables very precious indeed.

Here are the sights.

Neiwan's mascots (seen at the entrance)

Honeycomb with real bees. The vendor is strangely not tending to his/her store.

A local riding her 'three wheel drive'

Doesn't this Boston Terrier look super smug? And very amusing looking? 
I just love taking pictures of dogs in Taiwan ;)

This is just too cute

Nice store front

Our lunch venue, the Neiwan Cinema

A spiderman sculpture above a Gremlin sculpture in the courtyard - how 1980s!

Lunch in an old cinema - how quaint, right? The restaurant served pretty decent Hakka food. As usual it was a 8-10 course lunch which no one could finish. Unfortunately the course did not include the mei cai kou rou dish that I was raving about earlier. I could not remember well what we ate (forgot to take pictures, my bad), but I distinctly remembered the delicious mua chee (steamed pastry that is to be served with chopped peanuts in this case). The texture is deliciously soft, gooey (in a good way!) and melt-in-your-mouth. I like!While we lunched, the screen in front was screening a Chinese film old enough that my parents knew of it. Anyway, we were busy chomping away, not paying much attention to the movie.

Here are pictures of the interior of the cinema cum restaurant.

The shelf displayed a number of Teresa Teng's records.

After lunch, we were given free time to explore the rest of the village. We thanked our lucky stars that we found the fermented vegetables sold in many of the stores. ;)

Slimmest ever bananas

 A huge cross road that leads to a suspension bridge across a river

The suspension bridge from a distance

The bridge - people with vertigo, don't step on this!

 View from the suspension bridge - some local kids were playing by the river.

No sooner after we got back to the shops, we encountered a little ice cream shop with the most scrumptious flavours and we bought this.

Pineapple, mango sorbet (I can't remember what's the 3rd flavour)

More dogs sighted.

I think this is a poodle?

Hachiko (akita breed)! I love how its tail curls so fluffily.
We were practically stalking this couple, trying to get a good shot. This was the best I've gotten.

No idea what breed this is - a mongrel then?

Last item we ate here. Mango dessert! Yum! And now you know why people generally gain weight coming back from Taiwan.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A leisurely day in the countryside I

Second night's hotel was at a deluxe hotel in Keelung, can't remember the name though. We had a superb view of the Keelung Harbour.  The hotel had an rooftop, indoor pool with the same view, and after my swim, I enjoyed the excellent night view. Here's the view from our room in the day.

There's a temple in the hilltop in front of the hotel.
I noticed that the Taiwanese loved building temples on hilltops. I guess this give the places of worship a sense of 'higher being' (gao gao zai shang) in every sense of the word.

Today's itinerary was rather relaxed, too relaxed for a package tour actually. There were only 2 destinations - a tomato farm and Neiwan old village. I was quite surprised by how relaxed the itinerary was. We knew from the start what destinations we would go during the booking of this package, but the tour guide had the flexibility to rearrange the chronology of visiting each destinations according to weather conditions or other factors.

Most of us have had the experience of tour packages and were probably used to the jammed packed itineraries that most tour packages encompass such that visitors visit as many of the tourist destinations as possible in an almost mechanic, touch-and-go assembly line process. In fact, the whole tour package process has become so run-of-the-mill and rushed, it's taken the pleasure and thrill out of travelling. In my opinion, travelling isn't just about snapping pictures of yourself in a scenic place. It's also about understanding the country's culture and way of life; exploring its interesting nooks and crannies by walking and even getting lost. I also think using the country's public transport system and sampling the its cusine are some ways to immerse yourself in the experience of travelling. I could never understand how some tourists could visit a country with dramatically different cusine and could still order Macdonald's (so is the big Mac any different from your country's, Mr/Ms "pseudo-traveller"?) in that country without giving thought to sampling that country's food. 

This tour hasn't actually broken out of the mound of usual package tour regimes, but it did come across as refreshingly different due to the relaxed pace of the itinerary and also due to the fresh insights of Taiwan we gained from Francis. During the bus journeys, he would pepper his commentaries of each destination with other discussions on his country's history, politics, the Taiwanese lifestyle and societal characteristics and observations. He was never boring, and did manage to enliven his discussions with a joke or two thrown in. I'd say the trip was dramatically better because of his excellent oratorical skills. I never thought I'd say this, but I think I learnt far more about Taiwan than my previous F&F backpacking trip back in 2004. 

Anyway, I digress. So as I was saying, we stopped by at a tomato farm for tomato picking. Unfortunately, this farm doesn't grow local tomatoes, but international ones (Japanese, Dutch, European) and they weren't sweet at all. I seriously cannot figure out why they chose to grow these exotic sounding tomatoes (Dutch beefsteak, Dutch T-bone, Dutch kiwi, Japanese golden) which aren't any sweet, over their local produce, which tastes far superior to their international counterparts. At the farm, I deliberately asked the farmhand if they sold local produce. As a matter of fact, they have, though not grown by them, and I sampled some. They were indeed as sweet as I expected. Hmmm IMO, I think these people have been bought over by the Dutch.

Here're some of the variety of tomatoes grown at the farm. They look far better than they taste. ~Disappointment~

All in all, I'd give this farm a miss if I could. Wish I had some way of giving feedback to the farm about their tomatoes' lack of sweetness, which I believe, could be easily rectified by planting the right seeds. 

Since it was such a leisurely day, I'd take my time describing this day too. ;) Will post about Neiwan next.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A series of scenic eye candy III

I'm not sure if you're aware, but this is the last of "a series of scenic eye candy" posts that make up the first day in Taiwan. Yes, you read me right, parts I to III are scenes shot on the first day in Taiwan. 5.5 more days to go, just bear with me ok?

The last scenic destination of this first day is a must-go if you're anywhere near Taipei. It's the Yehliu Geological Park, about an hour away by bus from Taipei. I'm very much an ocean-loving person and the sight of the cool blue waters, clear skies and geological marvels of mother nature puts me in the most wonderful mood.

Mother Nature sure had grand ideas when she made this place. She wanted a Queen to rule her rocky land and she even gifted the queen with fairy slipper (s) (Just one, actually). Yet she made lots of potholes to give this place character and had powerful waves gradually shape this land into something geologically different every million years or so.

 Water logged "Potholes"

"Mushroom" rocks

Good job, Mother Nature, fashioning this pretty fairy slipper. Any chance of making the other side?

The Queen's Head

Another angle of the Queen's Head

Francis explained that ever since the Taiwan's president opened Taiwan to Chinese tourists in 2008, the visitor numbers from China had skyrocketed. With this onslaught of tourists, although economically, Taiwan had benefited a great deal, geologically, the Yehliu rocks had undergone a faster transformation than it ever would under Mother Nature's gentler 'hands'. A case in point, the Queen's Head rock had to be cordoned off as it was discovered that the graceful neck of the Queen had become slimmer with each passing year. 

While we were strolling in the park, we witnessed some over-eager Chinese tourists stepping on some of the rock formations to take pictures, and had to be warned by a park warden with a whistle. Yes, the park wardens were a new fixture in the park since the opening of Taiwan. You'd think there were infinitely more wondrous and beautiful scenic spots in China than Yehliu, but apparently the Mainlanders seem to harbour some curiosity about Taiwan.

We did not get the opportunity to take pictures with the Queen due to the snaking queue. Oh well. Doesn't matter. At least we managed to catch a glimpse of her before she loses her head due to her shrinking neck. I found out that there were a number of other formations like the "sea candles", "bee hive", "ginger" rocks in the park, but we did not see/notice. I can only say, huge throngs of humans jostling about can be a distraction. Sigh.

This park reminds me of Port Campbell National Park in Australia, overlooking the 12 apostles. It may not be as majestic or as famous, but there's a quiet beauty and charm here. Just slightly marred by the throngs of humans getting all touchy and feely with her, but nevertheless still very beautiful.

No wonder this couple chose to have their wedding photos taken here.

The weather was pretty hot, and the poor bride almost fell backward while balancing herself on the tree branch.

Here's my parting shot. Have a good weekend!


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