Monday, 31 July 2017

jiji line: a journey into old taiwan

Checheng (車埕) on a misty morning - our first stop on our Jiji line day trip (集集線一日遊).

One of the things that really stood out in Taiwan was the hospitality we experienced here. In Puli (埔里), our guesthouse is run by a husband-and-wife team. The husband has a day job aside from the guesthouse business, and he would drop us off at convenient spots on his way to work in the early mornings, to help give us a kick-start to our sight-seeing!

In fact, it is thanks to him that we even discovered the magic of the Jiji railway line (集集線) at all. After a day at Sun Moon Lake, we had another day free to do whatever we wanted, and he enthusiastically suggested that we should check out the little towns and villages along the Jiji line. "You'll get to see the Taiwan of 40 years ago," he said.

Not sure where this picture was taken... possibly either Yuanquan (源泉), Zhuoshui (濁水) or Longquan (龍泉).

As you may know, I am a nostalgic person at heart, and have a soft spot for the old-school stuff, so that totally sold me. I can say that I'm so happy we took his advice - our adventures exploring the gorgeous little rural townships along the Jiji line was one of the best bits of our Taiwan trip!

Also, during one of our train rides, we met two friendly Indonesian guys, who were picking betel nuts for a living. We had a nice chat with them, and shared a giggle about how scantily clad the betel nut beauties can be in Taiwan!

A couple of cats hanging out at Jiji Station (集集車站).

I have to admit that some of the places we visited kind of just blurred together for me. It takes some random luck, I think - I'm sure every town has their interesting aspects, but you don't always find them unless you know where to go!

A household/hardware shop in Shuili Township (水里鄉).

One place I do remember very well, however, is Ershui. We spent the most time there, and I certainly took more photos there than anywhere else that day.

Ershui Township (二水鄉) in Changhua County (彰化縣).

Here, you see charming little shops that really do look like they probably haven't changed much in several decades. I can't help but wonder if this old man has been running this business since he was a young chap. Imagine!

A traditional Chinese medicine shop in Ershui Township (二水鄉).

The look and feel of the architecture here totally brings me back to my childhood.

A sweet blue shop/house in Ershui.

Completely by accident, we stumbled upon this fabulously quaint residential area with the cutest, tiniest houses ever. Look how they're only a little bit taller than Simon! It was pure delight. If I didn't already adore Ershui before, I was definitely totally in love at this point.

The most adorable tiny houses in Ershui.

Then, after a few more twist and turns...

A cool alleyway.

We found this century-old soy sauce factory, which our guesthouse host had told us about. I was very pleased that we managed to track it down!

The old San Yi-Quan soy sauce shop (三義泉和德醬油店) in Ershui.

This soy sauce business has been running for at least three generations, and they still use the traditional method of fermenting the soy sauce in earthen vats under the warmth of the sun in the middle of their courtyard. This brewing process can take up to six months to complete. They only open one vat each month, and each vat yields about twenty bottles of soy sauce, so this is precious commodity. I would have loved to purchase a bottle while we were there, but alas, they didn't seem to be open that day. I was glad that we got a glimpse of their operations, at least!

Brewing/fermenting soy sauce the traditional way.

After our stroll around town, we stopped by a restaurant to grab some lunch.

We actually ate at the little shop on the side with the blue and white covers (阿明火燒麵隔壁的店).

The menu had items such as tofu soup for as cheap as 10 NTD, and the most expensive thing was still only 40 NTD for a century egg tofu dish.

The menu had cheap and cheerful fare.

Simon had the minced pork rice, which was not bad at all.

Minced pork rice (肉燥饭), 25 NTD.

And I was happy with my short rice noodle soup.

Short and thick rice noodles in a soup (米苔目), 25 NTD.

Without a question, our Jiji line expedition surpassed my expectations, and I couldn't have thought of a better way to spend a day - kudos to our guesthouse host for this wonderful recommendation! The charms of bygone eras are evident on this great little railway route - I truly felt like I'd gone back in time during this journey. So if you're ever in central Taiwan, seriously consider checking out the Jiji railway line and its stops - truly, there are hidden gems lying within worth uncovering.

Traversing the streets of Ershui.

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

a stay in puli; a day trip to sun moon lake

Views of Sun Moon Lake (日月潭).

After traversing the east coast and southwest coast of Taiwan, it was time to head to central Taiwan. The main draw there is the famous Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County, of course, and we decided to stay in the nearby Puli Township as a base for our sightseeing.

Dumplings from an unknown shop in Puli, Nantou ( 埔里鎮,南投縣).

We spent two days and three nights here, and we would spend our days outside of Puli - the first day visiting Sun Moon Lake, which I'll get to in a moment, and the second day exploring the Jiji Railway Line, a wonderfully charming escapade that I look forward to sharing with you in my next post.

Our nights are spent in Puli, and every night, without fail, we would get bubble tea from Mr. Wish. The drinks are delectable, and the staff there are so friendly. I don't think they get foreigners at their shop very often, as they seemed quite enthusiastic about Simon's presence.

We loved getting drinks from the Mr. Wish bubble tea shop in Puli.

It goes without saying that we visited the night market in Puli. It is here that we got a glimpse of a totally unexpected scene in these backwaters of Taiwan.

You get charming sights, such as children playing the magnetic rubber duck fishing game. Cute, tame, and innocent so far, right?

Innocent fun and games at Puli night market (埔里夜市).

And then... we couldn't believe our eyes when we saw this. I can only describe it as some kind of strange, medieval cruelty.

So, you know those claw machines where you put in a coin and try to grab a toy and drop it down a chute? Well, this is similar, but instead of a claw, players control a disk, which they use to try to scoop up an actual live fish from the water in the claustrophobic tank and plonk into the chute, thereby winning themselves a prize. The poor tormented fish are clearly distressed and I feel so bad for them - this is next level insane and disturbing stuff.

Last I heard, the Taiwanese media found out about this fishy arcade game and have reported it on the news with an appropriately disapproving tone. I can't find any further updates in regards to whether it has since been shut down or not, but you'd hope so! Or if they could covert the setup so that it uses fake toy fish instead, that would turn it from a horrible game to an agreeable one.

Catching live fish arcade game (撈活魚遊戲機).

But I do want to say that while this is an awful thing, it doesn't define Puli. There are many nice things about this town, and other than this crazy atrocity, the rest of the night market was perfectly pleasant, and we did our usual thing of walking around and purchasing whatever took our fancy.

A stall selling deep-fried mushrooms and tofu.

I've mentioned before that the Taiwanese love their deep-fried food, and here's another example of how they're very adept in this arena. That's a graceful little cluster of deep-fried mushrooms!

I think these are deep-fried golden oyster mushrooms / pleurotus citrinopileatus (珊瑚菇).

The deep-fried tofu is also fantastic. These are appetizing snacks for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, that's for sure!

Delicious deep-fried tofu.

And for the main course, sizzling noodles with steak and egg on a hot plate. So hearty, so satisfying.

Sizzling steak and egg and noodles.

For dessert, I stopped by this stall that sells douhua (soft tofu in sweet syrup) and tangyuan (glutinous rice balls in sweet syrup). It also offers aiyu jelly, tapioca pearls, red bean soup, and green bean soup.

Dessert stall. Yeah!

I opted for the sweet potato tangyuan, and it was really lovely. The tangyuan had a bouncy chewy texture and sweet gentle flavour. I liked it a lot.

A simple yet exquisite cold dessert of sweet potato tangyuan (冰地瓜湯圓) with beans, 35 NTD.

For one of the nights, we did the rare thing of venturing outside of the night market for dinner. We stumbled upon this steamboat or hotpot restaurant (called O God in English, though their website address is, and figured we'd give it a go.

It was an enjoyable hands-on experience as we each get our own little pots to cook our selected menu items at our table.

This is the seafood hotpot, I think, though as you can see, other than the fish, clams and prawns on the side, it has other bits and bobs in it as well.

Hotpot exhibit one, from O God spicy hotpot restaurant (老先覺麻辣窯燒鍋).

And this, if I recall correctly, is the pork hotpot.

O God hotpot exhibit two.

And that's all for our time in Puli. Now we move on to our visit to Sun Moon Lake!

You can take the bus from Puli to Sun Moon Lake; it takes about 40 minutes to get there. Not too shabby!

The scenery here is indeed pretty.

The loveliness of Sun Moon Lake in full force here.

I will say that not all parts of Sun Moon Lake is as tranquil as it might appear in my photos. The fact is, this is a popular tourist destination, and you get tour buses offloading what can be overwhelming buckets of tourists at various points in the area.

However, all you have to do is take some initiative to get off the beaten track, and it's not too difficult to get away from the crowds at all if you want to.

A quiet aboriginal village in the Sun Moon Lake precinct.

We found our peaceful place in this sweet and sleepy little aboriginal village.

An older man relaxing outside his home.

And the best thing was, this adorable dog came up to us while we were taking a break on a bench in the village, so obviously we lavished him (her?) with loving attention and yeah, we gave a bit of our food as well. Look at that cute face! You just can't say no to a face like that. It's impossible.

How can you resist this doglet?

I can't remember where we saw this winsome cat sign, but anyway, I'm sharing it here.

Careful! Cat comes and goes. (小心! 貓出沒).

We eventually made our way back to a busier part of Sun Moon Lake, the street market area.

Thao's/Shao's Authentic Grilled Wild Boar Skewers  (邵族正宗烤山豬肉串), 1 stick for 35 NTD, 3 for 100 NTD.

When I saw this stall selling grilled wild boar skewers, I knew it was something I had to get. I have had wild boar only a few times in my life, it really is a treat. Here, the wild boar meat had been marinated in a sweet-savoury sauce, and the end result is a very tasty skewer.

A grilled wild boar kabob.

Sun Moon Lake is a picturesque attraction for sure. It didn't quite knock our socks off, but admittedly we didn't get there in time for sunrise, and we didn't stay for sunset, either. Moreover, while we hopped on the shuttle boat, we didn't take the cable car ride, which probably would have been quite awesome. It's also supposed to be good for cycling and hiking. Thus, there is definitely a lot of potential here that we didn't completely seize. So, for those of you who are curious about Sun Moon Lake, perhaps when you go, you can try out some of the activities we neglected - and I'd love to hear you report back on your experience!

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Sunday, 16 July 2017

tainan: old-world charm, fish noodles, and cat cafes

Eating out, with a side of geese, in Tainan (台南).

So look, I have pretty much good things to say about every place we visited in Taiwan, but I'm going to come right out and play favourites here: I am particularly fond of Tainan. This city has so much character - it's just such a beautifully warm blend of old and new. On one side you may see little shops that look like they have been around for centuries, offering traditional goods and services that are increasingly rare in the modern world. On another, you might come across youthful, trendy stores and eateries with cosmopolitan vibes and experimental twists.

Just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about, this traditional puppet parade was one of the first things we stumbled upon on our first day exploring Tainan city. I think it's part of some Taoist ceremony, but that's my best guess. I asked a local bystander, and she didn't know, either!

Giant puppet parade in Tainan.

Soon after that, we strolled by a roadside setup where you can try your hand at making a traditional Taiwanese candy with sugar and baking soda, a crunchy treat similar to what you might know as honeycomb, hokey-pokey, or cinder toffee.

Cooking candy in the streets of Tainan (煮碰糖).

One moment, we'd be eating "top scholar" cakes (狀元糕) - traditional little rice cakes steamed in curious contraptions that look like mini totem poles, with ground peanuts or black sesame...

Top scholar cakes, also sometimes translated as champion cakes, from Wang's stall (王家庄狀元粿).

But another moment we'd be eating mini Belgian-style waffle ice cream sandwiches.

Belgian waffles with ice cream from Gold House (金色小屋比利時松餅).

We'd slurp down delicious douhua (豆花) - tofu pudding - from well-established shops that specialize precisely in this type of dessert. You can get it in the basic original flavour, which is simply sweetened, or you can get it with toppings such as red beans (adzuki), green beans (mung), tapioca pearls, lemon, and barley. You may see tofu, or bean curd, with a subtle grayish tinge - these are made from black soy beans instead of the usual yellow ones. Some shops add charcoal, making the gray colour way more distinctive and prominent.

I am partial to getting my sweet soybean curds with red bean topping,

Black soy bean tofu pudding with red bean topping from Mao's Black Sweet Tofu. (茂記黑豆花大王赤崁店)

While Simon can never seem to resist getting them with black tapioca pearls.

Tofu pudding with pearls from Tong's Anping Bean Jelly (同記安平豆花).

And we'd indulge in sweets from this sleek Japanese dessert shop - at the time we went, it also had
a casual photo exhibition in the upstairs dining area, and I think the pictures were from the shop owner's travels - so that was pretty interesting.

This fish-shaped cake, known in Japan as taiyaki, has an exterior that is made with a batter similar to what is used for pancakes or waffles.

Red bean and matcha taiyaki (紅豆抹茶鯛魚燒) from Hanami UJI Matcha WA-Sweets (宇治花見), 25 NTD.

The filling is part red bean paste, part matcha cream, and it is absolutely divine, especially when the whole thing is still fresh and warm. The sweetness of the red bean paste and the gentle bitterness of the matcha cream complement each other wonderfully.

The taiyaki's crisp exterior and lush fillings are a seriously fabulous combination.

And if you feel like something cold, there's the combination milk-and-matcha soft serve.

The soft serve milk-and-matcha twist, 80 NTD.

One thing I really wanted to try in Taiwan are fish noodles, which are not noodles and fish, but literally noodles made from fish. It's not terribly common - there's supposed to be a fish noodle stall in Cijin Island of Kaohsiung that's excellent, but it wasn't open when we went there. So it was to my delight that I found that there were two shops in Tainan that do handmade fish noodles!

At both places, I tried the fish noodles, as well as fish dumplings. As I've mentioned, the noodles are made from fish, but the cool thing is that the dough for the fish dumpling skin contains fish as well. Meanwhile, it seems that the dumpling filling is typically pork or a combination of fish and pork.

We went to the Xia Family Handmade Fish Noodle Shop first.

Behold their fish noodles...

Xia's fish noodle soup (夏家手工魚麵), 45 NTD for a small bowl, 70 NTD for large.

And their fish dumplings.

Xia's fish dumpling soup (夏家魚餃湯), 30 NTD.

Then we sampled the fish noodles from Zhuo Family Shantou Fish Noodle Shop...

Zhuo's fish noodle soup (卓家汕頭魚麵), 45 NTD for a small bowl, 75 NTD for large.

And also their fish dumplings.

Zhuo's fish dumpling soup (卓家魚餃湯), 35 NTD.

Honestly, it's been so long that I can't remember if one of the fish noodle shops was obviously better than the other one. In any case, they're both well-regarded and are located within a 10-minute walking distance to each other, so if you're in the area, it totally makes sense to try both anyway.

After eating fish noodles, relaxing in a cat cafe with a drink is a good idea. We went to two cat cafes in Tainan, and we found them to be superbly pleasant. We were entertained by the cats, and the cats seemed content and comfortable with the cafe setting and can easily choose to engage with guests or peace out in a safe space, which is so important, and exactly how cat cafes should be.

(AT) Cats & Tea is the more elaborate one, with a generous number of cats, and lots of space.

The bright orange sign was very effective in getting our attention.

(AT) Cats & Tea (茶飲輕食) cat cafe in Tainan.

We found this cute grumpy cat amusing. Despite the disdainful expression, it was amenable to being patted.

Cat with grumpy face at Cats & Tea.

And how about this adorable tabby being all loaf-like on a chair?

A tabby loaf at Cats & Tea.

Oh, my heart.

Fluffy blue-point cat taking a cat nap at Cats & Tea.

The other one we went to, Cafe Moment, is a very modest setup in comparison. It's more like a cafe that happens to have a couple of cats hanging around all casual-like, rather than the expected style of cat cafe that has more of a playground element to it, if you know what I mean.

Cafe moment (貓門咖啡).

I think we saw two cats while we were there. This cutie was there by itself for awhile before another one made an appearance.

One of the cats at Cafe Moment.

The menu has such a sweet personal touch, and the coffee here is so very pretty!

Cafe Moment menu and coffee.

I didn't mean for this post to end up being so long, but seriously, it could have been much longer, with way more pictures, more thoughts. There are many things I enjoyed in Tainan, and this is but a mere glimpse of what it has to offer.

Dragon fountain at Koxinga Ancestral Shrine (鄭成功祖廟).

So I say, if you get the opportunity, go stroll the streets of Tainan, and experience its charms for yourself!

A walk in Tainan.

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