Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Weekend at Lalashan


A few weeks ago I was invited, on the spur of the moment, to Lalashan - a gorgeous mountain "recreation area" known for its snow peaches (large peaches with a honey-like taste) and persimmons. My student, Michael, was telling me about his planned trip and I mentioned I'd never been - I wasn't fishing for an invite - seriously! - and so he invited me along with his wife and their friends, many of whom I know from a few group outings I've gone on with them.

I had never had the chance to go to Lalashan because to get there, you really need to drive. There's a bus as far as Shangbaling, a tiny town perched on a ridge over Baling, several hundred meters below on the North Cross Island Highway, but you can't get very far out of Shangbaling unless you have a car. I don't, nor do I wish to drive (I would be willing to drive the North Cross Island Highway in a rental car, but I would not be willing to drive in Taipei city, and I'm not sure how I'd feel driving outside Taoyuan, so my options are quite limited). Lalashan for me until Michael invited me along.

I was supposed to study for Delta that weekend, but it was a rare chance to go somewhere it's hard to reach without your own transport, so I went. Brendan unfortunately could not join us as he had to work on Saturday (I didn't).


We stopped in Daxi for lunch - Daxi is famous for its well-preserved Japanese-era shophouses and dried tofu. One fun thing to do on the usually crowded old street is to try all the free samples.


Then we headed up into the mountains. Sitting in the back, I didn't have the guts to tell Michael that his fast, take-those-curves-by-the-horns driving was making me supremely nauseated.

We finally stopped in Baling for a cup of coffee and to meet Michael's friend, Wuya (Crow), and I stumbled out of the car. I am pretty sure I was puce-colored. At least I was chartreuse. This dog owns the road that passes through Baling.


It's HIS road!

Crow had cycled as far as Baling, and had pre-arranged with Michael to get a ride the rest of the way, to Shangbaling and then down the ridge to the homestay near the river at the base of the mountain. The homestay was owned by Michael and Fuzhen (his wife)'s friend's parents (the friend is named Teresa - I only know her parents as Chiu Ma and Chiu Ba).

The homestay has two lovely, friendly German shepherds and two cats who are so shy that I never did get to meet them. Our mutual friend Gary, who is shy around most people, had a special connection with the dogs.


We went because it was persimmon season, and the Chiu family was going to take us to their persimmon orchard across the river to pick as many as we'd like the next day. That's why I've had so many persimmons to experiment with in what I've now dubbed Jenna's Test Kitchen (other discoveries: cherry tomato salad with figs, capers, pomegranate seeds and roasted garlic with greens, dressed with fresh herbs, a touch of salt, olive oil and fig balsamic vinegar...and couscous cooked in chicken stock with butter and savory apple pie spice - apple pie spices with sweet paprika, black pepper and salt added).


Three great things about the trip:

1.) It was all Taiwanese and me, so I had a nice long weekend to speak nothing but Chinese in a fully authentic atmosphere. It was great practice!

2.) It was nice and cold, which meant fresh cool air more appropriate to the seasons where I'm from, and that I had a good excuse to make everyone my signature hot wine.

3.) Taiwanese-style socializing meant lots of free time to goof off - I could chat, or play with the dogs, or read for a bit, or futz on Facebook...there was no need to be "on" all the time.


Michael bought some chicken feet in Daxi. I said NO THANKS but the dogs were quite interested.


Teresa and her parents, the owners of the homestay, and Teresa's husband:


Gary and Michael play some online game - which meant lots of free time for me to just relax:


In the evening we played mahjongg (I'm a terrible player and they're serious, so I watched):


The most important ingredients in hot wine, and Fuzhen is quite enjoying herself after a glass:


Hot wine:

- 4:1 ratio of dark, spicy red and Fire Water cinnamon schnapps
- Shots of Goldschlager or an alternative to taste (I usually go with 3-4 shots per bottle of wine)
- For one bottle of wine: 4 cinnamon sticks, 6-8 cloves, 1-2 nutmegs well cracked, 1 star anise, 5-6 cardamoms cracked open. You can use powdered spices but I do not advise it

Heat together until wine is hot with tiny bubbles forming at the sides and steam but NOT boiling, strain out spices with a spoon strainer, serve with cinnamon sticks (your best bet for light drinkers is to put it, with the spices, into an insulated coffee/tea/hot water carafe, and let them drink it slowly out of small cups, don't bother serving with the cinnamon sticks).


The group included a pair of newlyweds, who got the best room at the homestay. For everyone who thinks Taiwanese people are prudish, I submit that that is simply not true. The next morning the newlyweds did not emerge - the husband came out to tell us that his wife "doesn't feel well" so they would skip the persimmon picking. Someone who was not there asked about them and the answer was "oh...they're busy...ha!". Crow was in the room below them and was asked, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge, how he slept. When the husband finally emerged but his wife was still resting, Chiu Ba asked about her. "She's not feeling well." "Ah!" he replied. "You're too strong!"

Yeah, no, I don't think Taiwanese people are prudes at all, or at least you cannot generalize this. Despite what a lot of expats believe.

Persimmon picking was fun - not challenging, but fun.


We also stopped at a grove of trees whose leaves taste and smell of cinnamon (they may be cinnamon trees, but I'm not sure). You can use them as cinnamon substitutes in cooking, so we all picked a few to try. You can also chew them as a natural breath freshener.

Just below Shangbaling and visible from lower on the ridge is an aboriginal community with a very unique church:


Seen against the entire mountainside it looks like an ark on a cresting wave. Quite creative there.

Our persimmons:


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why are you trying to cut me? I'LL CUT YOU and I DON'T mean in line!

Most of you know that I have few long-running complaints about Taipei, but that pedestrians and some cyclists and scooter riders and their awful street etiquette is one of them. In fact, this is the only complaint I've heard across all expat groups, the only universal, the only thing that every single foreigner (and many, if not most Taiwanese) in Taiwan can agree on. It's the common ground where there would otherwise be none.

I do not accept that it is a cultural trait to walk and cycle around in a little cloud of selfishness like HERP-A-DERP-A-DIDDLY-DOO-WHAT-DO-YOU-MEAN-THERE-ARE-OTHER-PEOPLE-HERE-LA-LA-LA (imagine me making sing-songy "derp-a-doo" songs like the Swedish Chef here as I imitate these people).

My other long-running complaints are:

1.) The weather (not much we can do about that yeah)
2.) Sexism (because NO, it's not a necessary evil in a traditional culture. You can keep a culture intact and not be sexist, YES YOU CAN DON'T MAKE EXCUSES)

I do not accept it as a cultural trait because plenty of people don't act like that - most people, really, you just don't notice them unless you think to, and because plenty of locals complain about the same problem. Also because I feel like if it were a cultural trait, everyone in Taiwan would have wandered off a cliff or into an ocean or oncoming traffic or something, tapping on their smartphone like doo-dee-la-la-da-doo.

So today, I come across four distinct acts of this which affected people other than myself, arranged artfully in order of response. It was so beautiful, like the universe putting on an interpretive urban dance just for me, that I was inspired to write about it.

First, as I'm waiting to get on the MRT at a crowded time, people ahead of me push on before those on the train can get off. An annoying, but common occurrence. People even get irritated at me because I refuse to also do this. So a woman ahead pushes on, and someone trying to get off is thwarted in her attempt to get off the train in a dignified manner at the stop at which she wishes to disembark. Does she say anything? No. Does she even make eye contact with the push-on lady? Nope. Just patiently, resignedly, waits until she can slink off the train, slithering past people who've just gotten on, including the push-on lady, who doesn't move for her. Does she give push-on lady a gentle shove to get off (I would!)? Nope, she just nearly snaps her spine as she tries to disentangle herself from this hurtling tin can of humanity.

My rating?


Second, I'm walking toward the escalators at SOGO (but not near them), and two young women are also approaching at a ridiculously slow speed, nattering about whatever it is that's worth nattering about. Probably the same things I nattered about when I was 19. As they get to the top of the escalator, they stop there and natter for easily another ten seconds, blocking everyone in their path before stepping on, and then stand next to each other as they continue to talk, making it impossible for anyone else to walk down on the left as many wish to do. I'm too far away to be affected by this or to just say what I'm thinking - what the hell is wrong with you?! I get on behind them. Another guy is approaching from about the same distance I am, but he's in a hurry. He tries to walk down and is stopped by the two girls, who don't notice that someone clearly wants to walk down the escalator. He catches my eye and rolls his. I was impressed by the depth and breadth of his eyeroll - and that's saying a lot: I'm a New Yorker.

But still. My rating?

Bzzzzzzzzzzt. Better. But not close enough.

Third, I'm about to get back on the MRT, and as I approach the platform and head toward the line I want, one guy comes in from the side and gets behind the other guy who's already there. Okay, that's fine. But then as the train approaches, he tries to slip around the guy who is clearly in front of him and clearly was there first. Guy in front knows what's going on and simply won't move. Other guy tries again to slink around, but first guy shoulder-blocks him. It's really obvious from his body language that he's sending a big "SCREW YOU LINE CUTTER!" to the guy behind him, who has to wait his turn like a humiliated gerbil before getting on the train. He never, however, once turns around to confront the guy or openly acknowledge his presence.

My rating?

Pass. Pretty good, but even better would be turning around and saying "why are you trying to cut me?" (the "nice New Yorker" in me might say that) or better yet, "seriously why the fuck are you trying to cut me? I'LL CUT YOU and I DON'T mean in line!" (the "not-nice New Yorker" might think that, but she probably wouldn't say it).

As my sister has pointed out, there are MRT employees right there whose entire job is to hold their hands up and blow a whistle to enforce a rule we all already know - why don't they stop this? Why not make a rule that you have to wait for people to get off before you get on, and enforce it? I bet folks'd follow that rule.

Finally, I'm heading home, and there's a woman some distance in front of me. She stops outside some store - I think the 7-11, even if it wasn't a 7-11 that's probably a pretty good guess - right in the path of moving pedestrian traffic. She doesn't step to the side or otherwise indicate that she will be immediately getting out of the way, oh no, she whips out her smartphone and begins doing some whatever-the-hell right in the middle of the sidewalk where people are walking. She's blocking pedestrians from both directions, not just the one she and I were going in.

So a guy was coming in the other direction at just that moment, and with only a second to spare, walked basically right into her. I am pretty sure he saw her there, but didn't have time to adjust his course...or maybe, deep down, he wanted to make a point to someone who thinks it's OK to stop in the middle of a busy sidewalk to tip-tap on their phone. I don't think so, though: sure looked to me like it was 100% Phone Tapper's fault.

So rather than say nothing or mumble out an apology (sometimes they apologize for walking into these people. For what? It's not your fault, it's theirs!), he spits out the Taiwanese equivalent of "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU FUCKING DOING?? DON'T JUST STAND ON THE SIDEWALK! PEOPLE WALK HERE!"

My rating:


OK, maybe a little harsh, it would not be necessary to be this brazenly angry in other cities, where people just randomly standing in the middle of sidewalks is rare and likely the result of genuine human error (we all do dumb things sometimes) and therefore deserving of a little tolerance for human frailty.

But this happens all the time in Taipei. It's constant. I'd say "it's not rude to do that here" but that's not true, because it's rude to do that everywhere, because it's just rude. It's the universal human constant of rude. It happens too much for it to just be one idiot or one preoccupied, tired or not-thinking person. And what you need when you've got an entire flotilla of sidewalk-morons, not just one preoccupied person, is a little anger.

So I say good work, Angry Guy. Good work. I approve. Maybe if stopping in the middle of a crowded sidewalk would not get people slinking around you or apologizing for their walking in the path of your standing, but rather people telling you to stop being such a doink,

You are welcome to move to New York.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sauteed Persimmon and Smoked Duck Baguette: A seasonal treat

1240032_10152018931531202_1613492407_n I went to Lalashan recently - that'll be another post once I have more free time - with some friends right smack in the middle of persimmon season. I don't think I'd ever seen a persimmon in the USA (or I did, but I didn't stop to figure out what it was), but between mid-autumn and mid-winter in Taiwan they're everywhere. It's a great chance not only to eat them straight - yum! - but to mix them with yoghurt, bake them into breads (think banana bread but with persimmons), cookies and muffins, put them in fruit salads, but also to cook with them!

What I really wanted to try was a roast duck with persimmon glaze, but having never roasted a duck before, and not giving myself lead time to find a duck to roast - plus I'm not a fan of buying meat still on the bone and cooking it myself - the deboning part is never something I do gracefully - I ended up with a packet of smoked duck slices from City Super instead. 

What I made, however, was absolutely delicious, and a unique way to enjoy persimmon season in Taiwan if you're not into eating them raw, or just don't like them that way. It also just feels seasonally autumnal, in a way that's actually more authentic than pumpkin-based foods (which I also love).

It tastes best if made with just-ripe persimmons. Red and soft enough to have that intense spicy-sweet flavor, but still hard enough to slice up more like a peach than a tomato. A very deep nearly-red orange'll do ya.

You don't have to have this with duck, the two just happen to go very well together.

Makes 2-4 sandwiches

1 good baguette (try Lalos on Anhe Road between Xinyi and Ren'ai)
1 ripe persimmon (see above)
1 pack of boneless smoked duck slices - City Super at SOGO Fuxing Rd. has this, 150-200NT
Soft goat cheese - NT200 worth will do
A good lettuce - no iceberg, nothing too bitter, the sweetish one with green leaves and ruffled red edges does nicely
1/2 lemon (you only need the juice from 1/4 of it though)
Half a thumb sized piece of young ginger, pressed - MUST be young ginger and should be nearly pureed, you can do this in a garlic press
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika (NOT spicy)
a pinch of cinnamon powder
a pinch of clove powder, or 2 whole cloves
a pinch of nutmeg powder, or 1/2 a crushed whole nutmeg
(optional) a teaspoon of fresh rosemary leaves, chopped and crushed slightly
Oil - any good saute oil, butter may be OK (haven't tried this)
optional: a teaspoon of crisp white wine
A heavy-bottomed pan

Oil your pan with just enough oil to coat evenly and to coat the spices, heat on low
Add crushed ginger and while roasting, prepare other spices
Add other spices, saute on low (DO NOT allow to burn) as you slice your persimmon into "sandwich tomato" style slices
Use spatula to move spices evenly around pan, juice your half lemon
Add 1/2 of the juice to the pan (using more is optional), add rosemary, make sure it's all really evenly distributed around the pan. If you have wine, add it now.
Lay the persimmon slices in this oil-spice-rosemary mix and turn heat to medium-low
Gently saute, occasionally turning, until persimmon slices get a bit transparent around the edges and turn darker in the center, and are well-coated with the mixture
Layer duck slices on top - your goal is not to cook these, but to warm them and mingle the duck and persimmon flavors - continue to saute for about a minute
Turn the duck slices once and saute for another minute, liquid should be more or less cooked off by now
Turn off

Slice your baguette and prepare pieces for your sandwich. Smear top and bottom with soft goat cheese. On the bottom, layer the duck and persimmon (I do duck on the bottom - it doesn't really matter) and then add lettuce on top.


YUM! Amirite?

I made a really nice cherry tomato salad with this - a carton of halved cherry tomatoes, several cloves of well-roasted garlic (some shallot would have been good too), basic Italian seasoning (parsley, basil, oregano) with fresh thyme and rosemary, the rest of the lemon juice, some thyme-infused aged rice vinegar, some rosemary infused good olive oil, a pinch of salt and a handful of capers. You could also add cubed hard cheese, roasted shallot, walnuts, whatever to this. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Doing the (Distance) Delta in Taiwan: The Halfway Point

We've just started the 5th of 8 units in the Distance Delta, so I thought I'd throw down another blog post before hitting the books again. It's a good time to sit back and think about what we're getting out of this and what I wish were different.

Some good points about the course:

I'm learning a heck of a lot. Some of it is just putting terminology or academic weight behind concepts I had already been trained in or were implementing intuitively (I get the feeling that a lot of research in ELT and Applied Linguistics generally consists of studies of things teachers have known intuitively for awhile). Some of it is learning about language systems in general, which is helping me more accurately diagnose, test, explain and give feedback to my students on their language skills. Some of it is helping me look at tests and textbooks with a more trained, critical eye. Some of it, however, is just new stuff that's great to know.

It's forcing me to use the phonemic script enough that I can now actually claim to know it. I never did bother much about it after CELTA.

It's putting me in contact with widely-circulated ideas in ELT that, as a teacher in a school run by non-professionals (not one person on staff is a truly trained teacher - some claim to have training, and perhaps they do, but not quite to the level of what's needed to run a language school), and now as a "rogue educator", I wouldn't otherwise have access to.

It's giving me access to more people who really know the field, who can offer feedback and critique. As usual, things I thought I was weak in (analyzing form and use) I am actually quite strong in if I take the time to look over them properly, and things I thought I was strong in (discourse analysis) are areas where I actually need a lot of work.

A lot of this new knowledge is making me feel more confident about grad school - I won't be going in as a total rube.

I do find the exam practice is helpful for increasing knowledge and acuity, so I don't feel that I'm just studying to a test.

Finally, I appreciate how the reading recommendations on the course are a good way to suss out good books on ELT - there's a lot of reading material out there, and I don't have time to read it all. I do, however, have time to read a few carefully curated recommendations.

Finally, ELT gets a bad rap worldwide - it's known as a field full of ne'er-do-wells, itinerant hippies who need a job, inexperienced kids and idiots who couldn't make it elsewhere. Real teachers, apparently, teach in international schools or in schools back home, not in kids' cram schools around the world. It doesn't help that the owners of these schools are generally not terribly concerned about the talent and training of those they are hiring, and will hire the morons, no-talents, kids and hippies (and let's not forget about the old perverts). In one way I'm complicit in this: I wasn't too interested in a buttoned-down "real job" in the USA (tried that - no thanks) so I came as a young-kid-itinerant-hippie, and only later grew up enough, and became interested enough in the field, to make a real go of it.

So I'm happy to see that it's not this way everywhere, with every person. That there is a legitimate ELT academic field, with its own conferences, publications, luminaries, ideas and journals. It's not all just untrained people teaching kids to sing "A-ah-apple, B-buh-ball".

I appreciate that the ideas bandied around in forums and commented on by facilitators are pretty modern and progressive. You won't find any stuffy grammar prescriptivists among the staff. You won't find the online equivalent of your gray bouffant hairdo'd horn-rimmed glasses'd elementary school English teacher (I never had that teacher - I'm just quoting a stereotype).

Some things I'd like to see improved:

There's not enough time to do all the reading I want to do, and so I feel like because I don't have 20+ hours a week to devote to the course (we were told 6-7), that I won't do as well because I can't possibly read two or three books a week plus suggested articles plus the core material plus the exam practice. Eventually I'll catch up - I suspect I'll be doing a lot of the reading after the test, just for general knowledge. It would have been nice to be able to do that before taking the test, though.

I also feel that the amount of time they said we'd need to do the course (6-7 hours/week) was as off as I predicted it would be. I do wish they'd just give a more accurate assessment at the beginning. I had to quit Chinese class until December because I just didn't have time for that and Delta. With Chinese class I only had 2-3 hours per week to study, and the rest had to happen on weekends. That just wasn't working for me. It also meant Brendan got way ahead in reading for awhile (he still is).  If I'd known it was going to be this far above their stated estimate, I wouldn't have started new Chinese classes to begin with!

It'd also be nice if the test was open-book, not because I want an easy way out but because that's how life works - life, including working in ELT, is one big open-book test. So why not add some construct validity by testing us in the way we'll be executing this knowledge in the real world?

I do sincerely wish one thing - and I hope someone from Delta staff reads this and takes this idea to heart: I feel there's an undercurrent of academic snobbery in the whole system. No idea if that came from Cambridge or if it's home-grown or what, but it's there. It manifests itself in a few ways:

1.) Readings: there's a list of core texts, which we did purchase and borrow. That's fine. The list wasn't all that long, although if you are on your own in some foreign country ordering all these books just for you, because you have no access to them otherwise, it can get really expensive really fast. Because we are two people who need just one set of books, and because we were able to borrow many titles, it was OK for us. But imagine if it was just one of us in some small town in Indonesia without resources or other students nearby.

The greater issue is all the "suggested" reading. If you do it all, or as much of it as you can, you'll almost certainly do better on the exam. But the suggested reading implies that you have access to it - and we don't! The articles suggested are not available online or must be paid for, and the books aren't exactly sitting around in a library where we can borrow them. So some candidates are already primed to do better than others because they have 'access', and we don't. That seems a bit snobbish to me - the 'in' circle is inherently more privileged because they have a way to read all the literature. Those studying at British Council or International House centers would have access, as would those in major Western cities with good library systems, but the whole point of the Distance Delta is that not all candidates have these things, nor do they have inexhaustible funds with which to buy the suggested texts. And they are suggested, but you know, a lot of things are "suggested but not required" in life, but are more essential than people realize (networking, access to good education, the ability to afford to do the unpaid internship that'll get you the job, that sort of thing).

2.) Fees: the initial and exam fees are fine. At the beginning we're then told there may be an 'invigilation' fee for the exam, but not how much that is (to be fair, it varies by center). I guessed it'd be twenty bucks or so. Then we all start registering for the exam, and find out it's half the cost of the initial exam fee, which raises the total cost of the exam to 50% higher. That's only for British Council centers - for outside centers, they can charge whatever they like, and that can as much as double the initial fee (or more)! We're never told this - you only learn that it will cost that much more in October, when you're already invested.

We're not struggling, so it's not like we can't pay the fee. It's just...the snobbery inherent in knowing that British Council will charge so much, and other centers often charge twice that - and they must know it - and not telling us, assuming that people can just pay the fee because that's what ya do, is surprising. What's with the assumption that everyone has a hundred extra pounds kicking around? Especially in ELT, where you can get paid very well by local standards (as we are), but in the beginning you're often just scraping by? Why do they assume it's fine to drop a fee like that on everyone, and it won't be a big deal? That academic fees are somehow 'different' and if you want to be a part of this inner academic circle, you have to have the ability to pay them? It reminded me of GW in that way, and I am no fan of GW and their overpriced tuition and nickel-and-diming ways.

I can imagine a person doing this test without much money - perhaps on a reduced teaching schedule so they have time to study - who actually doesn't have the extra fifty or hundred quid to pay for the 'invigilation' fee within the window of time that it must be paid, who then has to postpone the test until June (putting him or her at a disadvantage, although it would mean more time to read). And all that could be avoided by just being upfront about the expected fees.

3.) The test reports: I can't put my finger on it, but something about the wording of the test reports and Cambridge ESOL Guideline Answers is a bit snobby. I am sure they don't intend it to be that way, but the whole "Stronger candidates did this" and "weaker candidates did that", plus a few other choice phrases, strikes me as formal British academic phrasing that, to American ears, sounds Posh English Snobby. As a friend put it "what is this? Evolutionary biology?"

Anyway, that's it for now. I have to get back to reading. Woooo.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Autumn in Taipei: Hipster-iffic pumpkin spice muffins


Today's the first day of fall that it's been chilly enough for me to briefly wear a long-sleeved shirt, and we've had a few other cool, gray days recently. So I figured, time to make something delicious and autumnal and rehabilitate the mainstream backlash against pumpkin spice.

For a few hours this week, my apartment has smelled like Hipster Autumn, and I just don't care. I'm not a fan of "pumpkin spice" coffee drinks, because there doesn't seem to be much actual pumpkin flavor in there, and because what flavor there is seems to be mostly artificially manufactured. But pumpkin flavored products with actual pumpkin in them? Sign me up! I love pumpkin! (For real - my favorite pasta is homemade pesto with chunks of sauteed pumpkin).

I couldn't find any canned pumpkin puree - what most people use for their pumpkin baked goods - so I took it up a notch and made my own (it's not that hard - use peeled sliced sliced pumpkin, or even butternut squash, but I prefer real pumpkin, it's got a creaminess, nuttiness and starchiness that butternut squash lacks and purees into a thick, creamy goo whereas butternut squash purees into the texture of applesauce. Cut it into chunks and sautee in nonstick pan with either butter and vegetable oil or butter and water, cover and cook until it's falling apart - with water this will be more like a steaming and with oil it'll be more like a frying - then whizz it in the food processor perhaps with a little water).

I topped it off with maple cream cheese frosting - even better if you add a bit of butter! - dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg and decorated with walnuts, raisins and cinnamon candy. I also baked walnuts and raisins into these delicious things.

And boom! Autumn in Taipei may be somewhat disappointing - you often get good weather but this year we haven't been that lucky, it's never cool/nippy (by the time it gets cool out, it's winter and always overcast), and I'm still in t-shirts - but this recipe will add a little fall to your expat life.

Pumpkin Spice Muffins (OK, cupcakes, shut up)

2 cups pumpkin puree (see above)
1 stick of softened butter (and a little more never hurt...almost anyone)
4 eggs
2 tsp vanilla (REAL vanilla, NO FAKESIES)
A shot of your favorite thing that goes with pumpkin (I used whiskey for my first batch, nothing for my second as a pregnant friend will likely eat one of these) - brandy would also be very nice but stay away from anything too fruity or citrusy as you don't want to overpower the pumpkin
A pinch of almond extract or walnut oil would also be fine, but is optional

3 1/2 cups flour (substitute some for ground flaxseed if you wish)
2 cups packed brown sugar - really packed, you want that sweetness
Hefty amounts of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice and ginger (ginger can be fresh grated or powdered, I used powdered as it was easier to distribute in the batter) - and err on the side of too much, not too little (all of these can be purchased at City Super, Jason's or Trinity Indian Store near Taipei City Hall) - a tablespoon of each would not be overdoing it
1 tsp baking soda
3 tsp baking powder
Salt - should be one teaspoon but I find one spoonful from the tiny red spoon in my salt cellar was enough

Chopped walnuts to taste (I find half a cup works) - these tend to be cheaper at traditional shops and shops that sell traditional goods plus Chinese medicine
Raisins to taste (black ones are better than gold)
Butter or oil for greasing
An oven (sorry, I know these can be hard to come by but a cheapo electric one works)
A muffin tin
Ground cinnamon, nutmeg and other decorations (walnuts, raisins, cinnamon candy, whatever)
A rubber spatula scraper thing

1 packet cream cheese, softened
Half a stick of unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (real)
Icing tube and tips (optional - you could just spread it)

Preheat oven to 190C, grease muffin tin (I smear a little butter in each one and use a paper towel to smudge it around for an even coating)

1.) Sift all of the solids together. Use a colander if you don't have a sifter.
2.) Mix solids together completely - use an egg whisk, it retains the fluffiness of the various powders. Trust me.
3.) Mix all of the liquids together, you can do this by hand or give it a whizz with a hand mixer (that's what I did)
4.) Add the liquids to the solids and beat briefly until just about mixed
5.) Add raisins and walnuts if desired
6.) Beat, whisk or hand-mixer it one more time until just mixed but not a second longer (keeps the batter fluffy)
7.) Pour into muffin tin, make sure each depression is full to the top so you'll get a nice "muffin top"
8.) Bake for 20 minutes or until they look done (golden on the sides)
9.) While baking, beat softened cream cheese until fluffy, add butter and beat until fluffy again, add confectioner's sugar and keep beating it, add maple syrup one tablespoon at a time and keep beating. Then add vanilla and beat that too. I find a fork works best. Transfer to icing kit if using one. Do not refrigerate.
10.) Take out muffins, allow to cool. Use rubber spatula to get under the muffin brim and separate the muffin from the tin, this will make it come out more easily (you can usually just gently twist them out)
11.) Since we're not in America and our ovens are not big enough for multiple tins, clean muffin tin, re-grease, re-fill and bake more. Makes about 14 muffins, or 2 full tins + two more.
12.) Allow to cool completely, ice, dust with spices by sifting them through a tiny mesh colander, decorate with whatever you want, and then eat.

If you don't go all glutton and eat them all, you can then refrigerate them.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Eat Here: Tibet Kitchen

Tibet Kitchen
#217 Sec 2 Heping E. Road, Da'an District, Taipei
MRT Technology Building

Our tasty fried appetizer (I forget its name)

This was once the site of a pretty good Singaporean/Malaysian restaurant (I was a fan of their chicken rice and their laksa). I'm sad to see it go, but happy to see Tibet Kitchen - rather than some mediocre overpriced Chinese establishment - take its place (and for every delicious restaurant, stall, nook and cranny in Taipei is an overpriced mediocre Chinese restaurant - think of the one that replaced the old Yilan seafood place across from Zoca Pizza).

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Samosas with chili sauce

The only thing that could have been better is if we could have both restaurants nearby, but I guess you can't always get what you want, huh?

Anyway, Tibet Kitchen succeeds where the only other Tibetan restaurant I've been to in Taipei failed: the Tibetan place in Shi-da, now closed thanks to terrible, terrible people whom I wish very bad luck on, was, to be honest, not great. The chicken was drenched in something I can only describe as American Sweet&Sour Sauce, and the macaroni dessert...thing was incomprehensible. It didn't taste very authentic (not that I'd know for sure) and it just didn't taste very good.

This place is different. I don't know who ran the Tibetan restaurant in Shi-da, but I do know that this place is run by Tibetans. It also doesn't appear very busy, which is a shame, because the food is delicious.

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Beef slices and fried bread

We popped by for a late-ish lunch one weekday - maybe the reason why it wasn't busy - and got two appetizers and two entrees. Everything was yummy. And everything tasted as close to "Tibetan" as I'm aware of (I've been to a Tibetan community in southern India, and I've been to Nepal where the food is similar, but not Tibet yet). As one might expect, some food was Indian-influenced (you can get Indian milk tea, lassi and samosas, and they claim to have basic Indian fare too), some Chinese influenced and some right in the middle (like the sliced beef with peppers we enjoyed).
We got samosas (cooked more in the Chinese 'wrapped' style than the Indian battered-and-fried style) and deep fried beef "croquettes" (my word), which came with a different take on coriander chutney and a bowl of fresh ground red chili - the latter being a sauce I enjoyed often in Nepal. Both were delicious - the chili sauce imparts more heat than flavor, but as I see it that's OK: that's what it was like in Nepal, too.

For our appetizers, we got the beef slices - they were tender, perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious. To eat it with, we got some "deep fried bread" - think like a fried naan from India, or a very thick poori bread without too much air inside. It had just been cooked and was scalding hot - and therefore was absolutely fresh and delicious.

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A plate of momos

We also a plate of momos, which tasted more or less like the ones I ate in the Tibetan community in southern India, and again in Nepal (I do realize I'm not the best person to comment on the authenticity of Tibetan food, but hey, I'm trying). We got more chili sauce for the momos, which brought me back to my days on a shoestring budget in Kathmandu.

To wash it all down we had sweet lassis, which were just standard lassis, but tasty (even the most normal lassi is delicious).

All in all we thoroughly enjoyed our meal and feel that this restaurant and its friendly proprietors deserve way more business. Go there! Enjoy! Stuff yourselves! You won't be sorry.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Following Matsu (updated!)

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I have a lot to say about our trip to Matsu the week before Mid-Autumn Festival (the long weekend was all booked out in terms of flights and hotels - turns out we lucked out, as most of those flights certainly never took off thanks to the typhoon).

Considering the fact that my other interesting domestic (as in, in Taiwan) trip this year was to see the kick-off ceremony of the Matsu pilgrimage in Dajia, near Taizhong, I feel like 2013 has been the year of Matsu - the year of me, consciously or not (I'm not really sure), following Matsu and her influence around Taiwan.

Matsu Village (Nangan), where Matsu is said to have washed ashore, and Jinsha (a great place to stay):

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The goddess Matsu (the same one I followed the pilgrimage of in Dajia earlier this year) is said to have washed up here after drowning - in fact, the beach she's said to have washed up on fronts a town now called Matsu, which has a statue of Matsu (above) whose lantern lights at night. In Magang Temple, overlooking the water, is an old stone coffin set into the floor. Engraved on it are phoenixes - it's said that this is Matsu's grave (others say it's her clothes, or the brother of hers who died when her meditative trance was broken as she was saving her father and brothers from drowning).

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I strongly recommend staying in Jinsha, the tiny, picturesque town a short drive south of Matsu (you can drive between them both on the tiny seaside road - don't try that at night - or on the "main boulevard" of Nangan). It's got better accommodation than Matsu village itself - the Jinsha Culture Village (0928812879 or 0836-26190) and the #1 Youth Hostel are in traditional buildings next door to each other and are probably your best bet on the island. Jinsha doesn't have a lot - one restaurant, really, and a shop for snacks and old wine that you can bring back with you - but both offer breakfast in the morning, and the hostel has coffee. You're a short drive away from Matsu, however, where there are a few good eating options (including the excellent Dazhong Restaurant - see below) and a 7-11.

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I also strongly recommend renting a car, not a scooter.

A few things about that.

One, yes, I did learn how to ride a scooter just for this trip. No, I won't be riding one around Taipei anytime soon (they still look like death traps on wheels to me), but I can ride one now and am willing to on easy roads in the countryside or on outlying islands. That didn't work out for us, though, so we rented a car.

Boy are we glad we did - Matsu's the first place I've been to in Taiwan where a car (or scooter if you enjoy dying - I would have skidded right off one of those hills and down into the ocean) is 100%, no way around it, can't avoid it necessary. I felt the hills in Nangan and Beigan were far too steep to safely ride a scooter up and down, so we rented the hotel owner's friend's old Toyota, and it was great. I'd say my whole "NO DRIVING IN TAIWAN" policy - I just don't feel safe doing it and I am not an experienced or confident city driver - has been overturned, but it hasn't. Driving in Matsu was fine. We felt safe. The hills were steep and the turns crazy, but that was never my problem: I freak out when there's too much traffic. Too many other people. I can't do it. A windy, hilly road is no biggie as long as it's not that busy.

You could get away with not renting a car, but I wouldn't. You could get a taxi driver's card and just use him as your personal driving service during your stay (I've done stuff like that), or you could try and take the bus...but really, it's not that hard to drive. The roads are nearly empty.

What struck me was this: we tried to go to Matsu 7 years ago. Our flight was cancelled due to fog (that's common) and we ended up in Penghu instead, where it's easy to get taxis to take you here and there, and the landscape is flat so you can walk more (the hills in Matsu are steep...and everywhere). 7 years ago I would have relied on taxis: no way would I have gotten behind the wheel of a car, even there. The fact that I was happy to just hop in the driver's seat (Brendan and I shared driving responsibilities: I don't really get the whole "the man drives" mentality at all) now is indicative of how much I've changed in this past near-decade. I am a much more confident person than I was in 2006, and I'm happy for that. 2007 me would have freaked out a bit at the hills and lack of transportation. 2013 me was totally fine with it.

By the way, don't let anyone tell you that you can't rent a car in Beigan. You can. More on that when we get to the Beigan photos.

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The beach where Matsu is said to have washed ashore:

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Very high quality woodwork in the Magang temple:

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Matsu is full of temples - most are either to Matsu (duh) or to the White Horse God - a god whose spirit is a general (or somesuch) whose body washed up ashore not far from where Matsu's did, but at a different time - and each is interesting in its own way. Some follow the Fujianese "Fire Wall" style - pictures posted below - which I've dubbed "Fujian Psychedelic". Others have roof/cornice (?) designs that look like a type of stepped pyramid, others still have unique roof and wall patterns not found in mainland Taiwan. All in all if you're even passively interested in temple design, or just think temple iconography is cool (and it is cool), Matsu is a good place to stomp around looking for unique designs that you won't find in Taipei.
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I also love this cool old building housing Matsu Village's "bus station". Note the torn Ma Ying-jiu poster at the bottom. We had great fun watching the 陰莖之戰(英金之戰)on TV - the people of Matsu, who lean dark blue, are just as displeased with Ma as the rest of the country. One person asked me as I watched TV "what party are you?" - quite straightforward, no? Maybe indicates cultural differences between Matsu and Taiwan? - and I figured, "hey, ask a question get an answer" so I told him "Well, DPP or TSU, but really, they're all terrible (天下烏鴉一般黑), really I just support those parties' ideas more than the people themselves". He gave me a thumbs-up - I guess I found the only green guy in Matsu!

Jinsha's one restaurant:

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Pretty good local food here - yu mian (fish noodles), giant mussels/clams called "shenghao" - basic, rustic stuff. Tasty. I recommend it. They also have the locally made "aiyu" (transparent fig juice with jelly) which is refreshing on a humid Matsu day.

"Downtown" Jinsha:

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It says "Iron Blood: Kill The Reds and Push Out Mao, Stop the Chinese and Soviet Communists".

I mean I agree, but really they both suck - the CCP and the KMT.

Matsu, with its military history (it was bombed toward the end of the Chinese Civil War, then bombed on "odd days only", and retained strategic importance even after bombing stopped, and was heavily militarized for years), is full of these vintage KMT slogans, painted and carved everywhere. You can explore the tunnels of Matsu (many of them, at least) but I find searching for these bits of history - as much as I disagree with them - to be even more fascinating.

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Definitely get some 老酒 - old wine - while you are there. The store with the teddy bear outside, across from this wall of wine fermentation pots, sells it at NT200 or 250 a bottle depending on the length of fermentation of the wine.

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Someone explained to me why Jinsha has brass instruments tacked up all over it, but I didn't really understand (something about a musical instrument factory, or shop, or a music school). My fault: they were telling me as I was perusing a map and I was only half paying attention. Perhaps a commenter could come weigh in.

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This shop sells good local products you can buy and bring home.

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Jinsha's Matsu temple, with gorgeous floor design.

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This shot captures both our hotel (foreground) and the youth hostel (background) - both are good value for money (they're linked to above).

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One of the best things about Matsu is that even on Nangan, which has the archipelago's greatest concentration of sights, there's not tons to do and nothing is terribly far apart. That makes it easy and fun to just drive around for the hell of it, exploring, enjoying the view and weather, stopping to eat or have a can't not relax. We quite enjoyed just driving our little Toyota around, stopping in towns with traditional granite houses and just wandering and taking photos, maybe stopping to eat, getting lost in the lanes, getting exercise on the hills.

There are also a lot of cats on Matsu - notably, more than dogs in my observation. They tend to be street cats, but are clearly cared for and fed by people.

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Do you see the little tortoiseshell kitty looking at us?

The decorative spouts (as below) in dragon, lion or fish shapes are popular home accoutrements. They almost certainly function as storm drains or runoff spigots, as Matsu gets a lot of rain (although the ground seems dry - the climate is almost Mediterranean, with dry rocky soil but humid air, at least when we were there - perhaps because the soil sits atop pure granite).

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The scenic drive between Renai Village and Matsu Village:

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I love this shot - look closely at the dip in the road. See those two figures? They're soldiers doing exercises (or just exercising for fun - who knows?). Matsu gets a smattering of Taiwanese tourists, very few foreign tourists, and is mostly populated by locals - many of whom still fish for a living - and soldiers, due to its strategic importance and overall military history.

People tell me that young soldiers doing their national service hope not to be posted to Matsu as it's far away from Taiwan. I wonder about that - can you think of a more gorgeous place to just take a nice run? And I hate running! Looks like it's a kind of paradise if you think of your posting optimistically, no?

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Guess the age of this pavilion. Qing? Ming? Song?

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Things on Matsu - even Nangan - close early. This is Matsu village at 8pm (tons of dodgy KTVs and Internet cafes for the soldiers). The only other open establishments were Da Zhong (seriously, eat there) and the 7-11, which closes at midnight.

I strongly recommend Dazhong (大眾) Restaurant in Matsu Village (same road as the 7-11, "uphill" away from the parking lot a bit, on the right). It's excellent and well-known, and rightfully so. Ask any local - they'll direct you:

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Old Wine Rice Vermicelli (老酒麵線) - the best in all Matsu, I guarantee it. You MUST try this.

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"Jiguang Bing" or "Matsu Hamburgers" - soft, sesame flavored bread rounds that you stuff with an oyster omelet of tender oysters, greens, onion and egg. SO GOOD. You won't find this stuff in mainland Taiwan, and if you do it won't be as good.

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Near the Beihai Tunnel (my photos in the tunnel weren't very good):

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Matsu's famous "yu mian", or fish noodles (noodles made of fish paste and starch):

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Matsu's famous hongzao (red date cooked) eel and pork:

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We drove over to this giant sign (it translates as "sleep with your sword ready until dawn"), the characters for which were originally written by Chiang Kai-shek, and which looms over the harbor in Nangan so all ships coming and going can see it. Under it (and pictured below) is a sad little old man (Chiang Kai-shek) looking at the China he lost.

I'd say I'm happy he lost it, but the folks who won it were even worse than his sorry self.

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Poor widdle Chiang, stuck in Taiwan (he never liked it here, and his wife liked it even less), pining for China. Boo hoo. I feel so sorry for him [/sarcasm].

In truth, while people defend him as the "one who industrialized and modernized Taiwan and its economy", and I do see where some of the truth in that lies, I see him as the single worst thing to happen to Taiwan in modern history. He never loved Taiwan - his eyes were only on China. He never understood Taiwan and didn't want to. Taiwan is still suffering under his wrongheaded ideology, dictatorship and well-documented mass murder.

And yet he's memorialized. He has a memorial hall, he has statues, he's remembered and not always in a bad way. I don't think he should be: banish this asshole to the annals of history where we can learn from his mistakes (it's thanks to him that Taiwan's not in the UN).

So you can imagine my delight when I saw this sad, lonely little man staring back at China.

LOSER! Not even Taiwan wants you.

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That's China in the distance, by the way. It's very clear from a few points on the various islands of Matsu. At one viewpoint you can actually see cell phone towers and roads.

A temple in Niujiao:

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Anyway, temple design, even inside, differs from that of mainland Taiwan:

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Wandering the streets of Niujiao:

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The famous Furen Coffee near Siwei:

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We stopped and got coffee at Furen (夫人咖啡) Coffee...a locally famous coffeeshop on the peninsula north of Matsu village in Furen village (夫人村), near Siwei. Drive up there, and past Matsu you start seeing signs for it - just follow the signs on down to the cafe. Get their house special - mild coffee (it doesn't need milk) topped with a thin layer of high quality, lightly salted cream. It's fantastic. Their shaved ice, covered in traditional dessert items (red bean, sweet potato gummy etc) is also tasty.

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The next day we took a boat to Dongju - this is one island where we truly could not rent a car - although I bet if we'd stayed there, we could have found a local with two cars who'd rent one out to us informally. As we were only going for a few hours we didn't have time to set that up.

So, we joined a small tour group. Our hotel gave us the number of Chuan Lao Da - 船老大 - 0933-814986 - who runs tours of Dongju. It's NT$1500 per group, assuming 5 people per group at NT300 each (they'll feed you for an additional NT300 each, or you can just figure out food on your own). Not wanting to pay the full NT1500 ourselves, we joined a group which we believed were all put together and didn't know each other. Turns out they were friends from Taoyuan who'd booked this whole three day tour through a travel agent so they wouldn't have to worry about their own transportation.

On the good side, they were friendly and didn't seem too annoyed by our intrusion into the group (we truly didn't know - I'll just go ahead and assume the tour guide asked first). We got transport around Dongju without being in some huge group herded around.

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On the bad side, first, it was a tour group of slightly older people, which meant being herded from one visitors center to another to watch a presentation on the sights rather than actually seeing them (we'd drive by). I wasn't too interested in that (in fact during the first presentation I fell asleep in the visitor's center theater), so whenever we stopped I negotiated with the tour guide to just let us wander around and take photos, which is all we'd wanted to do in the first place, while everyone else saw a presentation. Why would you go somewhere to drive past something quickly and then go watch a presentation on it? That's dumb. But, it's apparently what some people want or expect. Okay. Well. It's still dumb.

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It also turns out that the group was coming down with food poisoning, from (from what I understood of the conversation that was half in Taiwanese) oysters. So one person didn't get out of the van at all, one was in the fetal position on her seat by about halfway through, and nobody seemed to have any energy. By the end, only we and one other person in the group was actually getting out of the van...but at least there was no puking.

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I felt bad for them - three days in Matsu, and one of those days ruined by bad oysters. We saw them again in Beigan, mostly recovered. The sickest of the lot was "resting in the hotel" though. Poor thing. Her whole vacation ruined!

Dongju was beautiful - there's not a lot to do, the fun thing here is really to just drive around and enjoy the view. The hills weren't too crazy and I would have liked to have rented scooters, but that was not an option for us (Brendan hasn't learned yet and I can't confidently carry him on the back - I'm still new at this), to just drive around and enjoy the air. All in all you can take the 11am ferry and come back on the 3:30 and pretty much see everything. You could even walk it, if you like steep hills and no shade (I don't recommend this - not so much for the no shade as the hilly terrain. It wouldn't be strolling).

Some photos from Dongju:

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A "Fujian Psychedelic" ("Fire Wall") temple:

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This little temple is so damn cute:

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View from the lighthouse:

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Some soldiers stationed on Matsu were out here for fun. None had cameras or cell phones (as you may remember, those are not allowed on army bases) so we took photos for them and I emailed them to the group a few days later. The friendly black goat came up for a visit.

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Dongju is gorgeous and picturesque - too bad it's hard to get around:

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We got back to Nangan before sunset, worked out a deal with the hotel owner's friend with the "rental car" to take it for the evening at a discount (worth it!) and drove around at sunset enjoying the view before stopping for dinner in Renai.

Back to Renai for dinner:

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This was the only night in Nangan that we didn't eat at Da Zhong. This place was pretty damn good too - we ate at 鐵板小館 (Tieban 88 - call 083623531 or 0925096250 if you need directions) near the shoreline in Renai. It's in a restored granite house with a traditional wood interior, more beautiful upstairs with some great balcony seats. Although I feel overall that Da Zhong has the best food in Nangan, this place was great too, and I recommend it for the food and atmosphere.

They also have accommodation if you want to stay in Renai.

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The most famous White Horse temple (白馬宮) in Ke Ting village just a few clicks north of Matsu village (walkable if you don't mind a hill). Just keep driving north from Matsu, the road will narrow, and on your left will be a big building with a parking area. Just past that is a little walkway - you could scooter it but don't drive it - down to the temple, which is closer to the shore. It's not far down but only visible from the main road if you're coming from the other direction (southbound).

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And the next day to Beigan:

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Now, don't let anyone tell you that you can't rent a car in Beigan. It is patently false. You can. We did. What you'll hear at first is "there are no car rental agencies on Beigan, it's too small". That's true. But you don't have to rent a car through a car rental agency - on Matsu (and Orchid Island for that matter) - most of the time you just pay someone who has 2 cars (or doesn't but doesn't need their car) to use it for a period of time - usually about NT2000/day.

On Nangan this was easy - they handed us a beaten-up Toyota and didn't even ask our names. On Beigan it was harder. First the hotel asked if we'd take a taxi around instead. Okay...I mean we were willing to. Then we said "so you don't know any local with two cars who can just rent us one for the day? We'll pay!"
"You can drive?"
"We can! We just don't think scooters are very safe, he can't really ride one well, but we are both pretty good drivers."
"Beigan has a lot of hills, more than Nangan."
"That's OK. We can handle steep hills" (a lot of the terrain isn't too different from the hilly driving conditions not far from Brendan's hometown) "it's just But we CAN drive."

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So she called someone up in Tangqi - turns out right across the street from the airport. If you fly into Beigan, exit the airport and look to the left. There's a big sign that says "scooter rental" on a building that has a green corrugated tin building on top. The shop itself is sort of like a pharmacy/variety shop, but they also rent cars and scooters (the sign only says 'scooters' but they have at least one car). We drive over there to rent the car. They think the 14-year-old local kid who drove us - hotel owner's son - was renting. When they saw we were, they were all "they can't drive here!"

Ugh. I have nothing to say about this except that at this point I realized it wasn't about there not being cars, it was kind of about racism, too. Or at least racial prejudice. A Taiwanese person could rent a car just fine, but they just didn't want to rent to foreigners. I realize they probably thought "if a Taiwanese person wrecks our car, we can recover damages, but foreigners can just leave".


That may be the thought in their heads, but it's still racial prejudice. No thought to whether we were careful, responsible drivers (we are, almost to the point of comedy), or that we looked to be a clean-cut, straight-laced, "boring" (honestly) married couple in their early thirties. We weren't exactly a bunch of crazy people happy to get drunk, drive their car off a cliff and laugh all the way back to America.

It's also possible that that was their own car, and they really only had that one to drive as well as rent out. Matsu is not a rich place, I doubt they had the money to own a fleet of cars for rent. However, the fact that they'd have rented it without a problem to a 14-year-old Taiwanese kid but not two thirtysomething Americans still makes me wonder.

So we talked to them, convinced them we were responsible people and would care for their car (a minivan really, or SUV like car), gave them our IDs which were clipped into a binder full of IDs of people who'd rented scooters, and off we went.

Tangqi also has a 7-11 a short walk from the airport and car rental place - if you need anything, this is the time to stop. There's also a post office if you want to mail postcards...and don't believe guidebooks who say there's no transportation at the harbor or airport. There are taxis and scooter rentals at both.

We started in Qiaozai, a small town with "more gods worshipped than people". Qiaozai only has a few elderly residents - the "market" is a truck full of vegetables that drives through once a day - and a bunch of temples among its old stone houses. I counted six.

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We stopped for lunch in Qiaozai - you can also get shaved ice here by the way, if you're hot and tired - and had an excellent meal at the one restaurant, which appeared to be made of driftwood (it wasn't, it was just old and weatherbeaten) and run by an old guy who sure looked like he knew his way around a fishing boat.

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This was delicious. Get this:

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Then we drove to Banli, which has a beach, a lovely restored old house you can wander in, a homestay connected to that house, and the cutest damn Matsu shrine ever - seriously, this thing is adorable. Note the differences in color, architecture and design from temples in Taiwan proper. This is pretty typical of the Matsu temple style.

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Matsu's friends, Thousand Mile Eyes and Ears on the Wind - two demons who fell in love with her. She promised she'd marry the one who defeated her in martial combat. She defeated both and they became her friends and acolytes.

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The beach at Banli. Walk to the left of this, towards the visitor's center, for a better, more accessible beach. There are shower facilities and a visitor's center, but no lifeguard. It looks safe, but don't take my word for it. Take care. The signs state you can swim there, but not here.

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At the Banli visitor's center, you can watch even more movie presentations on Matsu, including in English (which is overwrought and oddly written but generally accurate).

I get the feeling that a bunch of money was just poured recently into Matsu tourism infrastructure. There are more taxis and scooter rentals, visitor's centers everywhere, a whole series of movies in a few languages on different parts of Matsu, new parks, museums and exhibition halls, beach facilities. Someone or some people clearly took the time to develop these amenities to make Matsu an attractive and accessible destination, offering things tour groups generally like (like those video presentations) but that individuals can also enjoy.

I hope that's not a precursor to casinos going up - something I had hoped local residents had voted down, but it turns out I was wrong - Penghu voted down casinos, Matsu didn't. I get why - jobs, jobs, jobs. I don't quite get the profit end, though: Matsu isn't a pleasant place to visit for much of the year due to weather, and for another chunk of the year heavy fog causes many cancelled flights and ferries. I can't see a casino making much money. But developers gonna develop, I guess. I heard they're planning to build this huge bridge to connect Nangan to Beigan and...well, who am I to stand in the way of progress? But I can't help but feel that the entire character of islands will be changed, and not for the better.

Overall, though, those lovely tourist facilities and infrastructure, on a quiet Monday as we drove around, seemed like they were ready to welcome tourists, but there were none to be had.

Of course, it was a Monday, and the Monday before a long vacation for which all flights and hotels were already booked. It makes sense that it'd be a quiet day in terms of tourism. If you know anything about Taiwanese culture, you know that people will take Thursday and Friday off, maybe even Wednesday, go to their destination, fly back Saturday afternoon or night, and "rest" on Sunday before work. It's the total opposite of American culture where we stretch our vacation to the limits of our leave. My students were shocked that I flew back Tuesday morning and taught a class Tuesday night, but to me it was really no big thing.

One place where we did meet a lot of tourists was Mount Bi (Bishan) - while we were enjoying the view, four tour buses stopped to regurgitate passengers who milled about in sports-fabric protective sleeves, hats, sunglasses and wielding all manner of cameras. Bishan has a great view of the airport, but sadly we didn't get to see any plane take-offs or landings (there are only a few flights a day).

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During our entire trip we didn't see one other foreigner of any descent. There were plenty of Taiwanese tourists (mostly in tour groups - even in their own country people seem to prefer to sign up for a group rather than travel on their own, although in the youth hostel in Nangan we saw several independent travelers), but foreigners really don't make it out here often.

People are therefore more curious, more openly interested, more plainly "you're a foreigner!" (in Taipei nobody cares), kids stared more (that's OK) and few people speak any English at all. It would be a goo idea to go with a Chinese speaker, if you can (although you'll be OK if you don't - maps and such are available in English, some of the soldiers will speak it as they'll be from Taiwan, not Matsu, some hotel owners speak a little bit, and there's always charades. If we could get through eastern Turkey without speaking Turkish, you can get around Matsu).

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We stayed in Qinbi, the most well-preserved stone village in all of Matsu. It's not totally empty, although a lot of the old house are abandoned. You can tell some money is flowing in, and there are restoration efforts underway. There are a few hotels and coffeeshops and one small restaurant (for anything else, you have to drive to Tangqi). More on that later.

We then drove under the airport (yes, that's what I meant) and across the causeway to Hou'ao, another small stone village. It's not big but it's picturesque and also has its own temple.

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From Hou'ao we drove up to the old military installation, where there's a new exhibition hall of military relics and some placards of "oral history" which I found interesting. The center's not quite finished, but just as with Qinbi and Banli, you can tell some money is being poured into readying it for a greater volume of tourists. It was, along with Bishan and Qinbi, one of the only places where we did see tourists, mostly in groups, as usual.

From there, what's even more interesting is driving out to the various scenic viewpoints now open to the public. From here you can see the "Lion islands" (they're said to look like Chinese male and female lions):

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...and other viewpoints that feature old machine guns, tanks and howitzers.

Two shady characters shaking hands over a tiny island. Can't help but feel this is a metaphor for Taiwan's treatment in the international community in general:

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Here's me with a howitzer. The best part? Brendan was all "oh, a tank" and I was all "that's a howitzer, least I think so." And he looked at me like "how the hell do you know what a howitzer looks like?" and I was all "my dad's into this kind of stuff".

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The famous stone village of Qinbi (definitely stay here):

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I really recommend staying in Qinbi. You may have to drive to Tangqi for a few things (really not a daunting proposition) but you can eat, drink coffee and enjoy yourself just wandering around the stone houses. There are a few hotels and coffeeshops and there's one restaurant - and they all have wifi. That's good, as if you have Taiwan Da Ge Da as we do, not China Telecom, you won't get a signal here, you'll instead pick up China's signals and be on their telecom network!

Most hotels will pick you up and even drop you off at the pier or airport (if you rent a car or scooter you can drive yourself and drop it off there, too). We stayed at the Chinbe #25 Guesthouse, which I highly recommend (083655628). . Pay for the sea view. Trust me.

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The houses are under various stages of renovation - you can tell some money is coming in here to preserve and restore them, as well. They are clearly hoping that more tourists will come by to see what Matsu has to offer.

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I'm really not sure if they actually used to have an opium den here or if this was always meant to just be decoration:

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...but do come to Matsu. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Richard Saunders' exhaustive guide (I don't agree on the 'scooter' thing, but for everything else he's on target):

Exploring Matsu (just keep clicking forward for the entire five-part series of posts)