Showing posts with label taoyuan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taoyuan. Show all posts

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:


Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Longtan Weird House (龍潭怪物房)

I am not sure that's the actual name, but it's something along those lines.

This "house" in Longtan, right on the main highway through town (not downtown). Apparently the following things are true:

1.) It was built by the mayor's brother

2.) The mayor's brother is a bit of a weird guy (really, ya think?)

3.) The mayor's brother designed it himself and - apparently, though maybe there was a language-based miscommunication here - built it, too, as he owns a construction or contractng firm. He designed it this way because he liked it.

4.) People still live on the ground floor (it sure seemed that way)

5.) The mayor's brother actually lives on the upper floors (really?! I am not sure I believe this)

6.) The inside is really quite luxurious, in a "太over啦!", European chintz way

7.) You can go inside if you want, and there's even a restaurant (I have a really hard time believing this)

8.) Everyone in Longtan knows it (this has to be true - you can't NOT notice a monstrosity such as this)

9.) People who don't live in Longtan have also heard of it - it's actually quite famous

10.) It was apparently built with the mayor's brother's own funds, not taxpayer dollars

I don't know how much of the above is true and how much is dodgy info from locals, but there you have it.

The Longtan Weird House.

When I showed Joseph and Brendan while we were in town for Dragon Boat (I knew it because I go to Longtan for work fairly often - I teach a seminar at the Acer facility out there on occasion) I said before we got there "it's a really odd building. It won't change your life or anything, but it's really, really strange."

Brendan: "You lied to me! You said this building wouldn't change my life, but it did! LOOK AT THAT THING. I mean...WTF? Seriously?"



Monday, June 6, 2011

Dragon Boat 2011!

One of my favorite festivals in Taiwan is Dragon Boat - I like it because it reminds me a bit of the atmosphere around a good Forth of July celebration back home, even though the two holidays are celebrated for completely different reasons. The warm weather, the unhealthy food vendors, the carnival atmosphere, the people out and enjoying the day - it's a good reminder that we're all the same around the world, even if we come out to celebrate different holidays. A kid with a balloon and cotton candy watching fireworks or playing carnie games in the USA is no different from a kid with a balloon and cotton candy watching dragon boat races and lion dances (and playing carnie games) in Taiwan.

And because I'm still a kid at heart in so many ways, I love it.

There's also the fact that while dragon boat is a holiday in China, it's hard to find actual races. They do exist, but they're not as common or popular (they seem to be more popular in Hong Kong, actually).

Every year (except for the years when we travel) we find a different place in Taiwan to check out the races. Our first year we were in Penghu, which was cool although there wasn't much of a festive feeling and the races were far out in the harbor. The next year we went to Erlong, near Jiaoxi in Yilan County. One year we missed the races in Hong Kong, but last year we went to Bitan to see them in Xindian.

This year, we ventured out to the aptly-named Longtan (龍潭) in Taoyuan County but not far from Xinzhu, with a large temple holding court over the dragon-named lake - an event we all agree has been the best so far.

Beyond the actual racing, Longtan's dragon boat celebrations include a night-market style area with games and unhealthy food, ice buckets crammed with cans of Taiwan Beer, plays, fireworks (in the evening) and lion dancing over the water.

It's not really so much about the races for us - we don't even know who is competing most of the time - but the atmosphere around it as we're shouting "Go Red!" or "Go Team Blue!" despite having no idea which team represents which group or organization (groups such as schools, clubs, companies, churches, temples and aboriginal tribes will often form a team and enter).

And of course the cute dogs. I'm fairly sure this little guy's eyes were about to fall out of his sockets (his name is Lucky).

Longtan is a bit built-up and is a larger-size city than I expected. I've been through several times to teach classes at Acer's training/resort facility on a hill outside of town, surrounded by tea farms. I'd never been downtown and was surprised at the size of the place.

Despite the concrete jumble of buildings encroaching on the lake, it is a scenic place to watch the races and you can see the goings-on fairly up-close, with the temple in the background.
Longtan is also famous for its Hakka population - the big draw being lots of restaurants serving Hakka food. Our lunch was good - a bit mediocre by Hakka standards, but then there's no such thing as bad Hakka food, methinks, and in wider comparison I would say it was quite tasty.

Longtan is also famous for peanut candy (花生糖) - we bought assorted candies from the famous Longqing (龍情) peanut candy company as well as Chiwei (知味), which makes a coconut peanut candy that I like as well as a dried tea-leaf covered candy that I am fond of. Now we are the proud owners of a ton of caramel-covered peanuts, which threatens to destroy my continued attempts to eat healthier!

Longqing is right on the lake, so it's easy to visit if you ever pass through Longtan (worth it on a non-festival day mostly for the Hakka food, temple and peanut candy), and Chiwei is on the main drag out of town heading towards Zhongli (中壢).

For those not familiar with the history of dragon boat racing, the story is that an official and famous poet named Quyuan who lived during the same period of Chinese history as Confucius and possibly Sun Tzu (of the "Art of War" fame) drowned himself in Hunan province as a protest against corruption. The people tried to save him, beating drums and doing other things to keep evil spirits away. I always thought that people beat drums on Dragon Boat so the rowers could row in time, but it may also be related to this myth. After it was clear that Quyuan could not be saved, people threw rice into the water to keep his spirit from feeling hunger. Because dragons were eating the rice (okaaaay), they started wrapping them up in triangles - the origin of today's leaf-wrapped zongzi, or sticky rice dumplings. I like the meat, peanut and mushroom ones although many kinds are sold.

Side note: I once met a woman in the wet market near MRT Yongchun who made so many zongzi in her life, she said, that she'd worn down the skin on her fingers and as such no longer had fingerprints. She showed me her hands and indeed, she had no fingerprints...I do believe her story, but I have to

So now, to commemorate the death of Quyuan, but mostly to go out and have fun as the summer starts rolling in, dragon boat races are held every year. Which, come on, most of us celebrate Forth of July for the same get a few patriotic sorts who really do celebrate the founding of the United States but really, most of us are in it for the fireworks, picnic blankets and corn dogs).

One thing that you can see in Taiwan is a "flag grabber" at the end of the boat who grabs a flag to determine the race's winner. This is done in parts of the world with large Taiwanese populations (such as Vancouver), as well.

One thing we noticed in Longtan was that instead of drum beats for the boats, there was a drum but they mostly played well-known Western songs such as the James Bond theme, Mission Impossible, Flight of the Bumblebee, something by the Beach Boys and El Cumbanchero. When the aboriginal team was racing, they played aboriginal music (the stuff that goes "oh hei-oh hai oh-ah") which struck us as...well, probably well-intentioned but imagine if a Chinese team had been competing and they'd played some sort of fakey Chinese music (ding ding ding dong dong ding)...which, come to think of it, they probably would do.

Anyway, enjoy some more photos from the day...including the giant roast pig above, the giant balloon orb with legs below, and more!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Here's a bright idea for you

Taoyuan Airport to Institute Food Review System


Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport authorities will organize a food review to help improve its unenviable image as a place for “awful and expensive food,” the airport’s office director announced yesterday.

Beginning in October, a public review of the food sold at the airport will be held on a regular basis to encourage caterers at the airport’s two terminals to present more appealing food, Taoyuan Aviation Office Director Wei Sheng-chih (魏勝之) said.

Complaints from passengers using Taiwan’s main gateway are all too common, with the food generally criticized as being of dreadful quality, overpriced and with little variety.

Responding to the criticisms, Wei said the airport has made some improvements, including introducing popular restaurants to cater to passengers.

He said it would also invite passengers, food critics and travel tour organizers to review the food at the airport to encourage caterers to offer more local gourmet foods and make dining at the terminals more attractive.

Wei’s office will also take measures to encourage the businesses there to drop their prices to more reasonable levels and to provide consumers with a wider variety of dining options, he said.


OK. That's nice. It's true that most of the food in the airport is overpriced and atrocious. There's only one place I find acceptable - overpriced but at least the food is edible - and that's the one with the lanterns and the fake hedgerows that has a Western side and an Asian side. The Asian side food is overpriced, but at least it's basically OK. (The Western side provides soggy sandwiches and subpar coffee).

Otherwise there's that painfully horrendous bakery thing where two small danishes that taste like they're made of plaster and kids' glue sticks and charred, bitter coffee could cost you NT $300.

Terminal 2 is slightly better, but astronomically overpriced for what you get - more so than other airports (pretty much every airport has overpriced food, but Taoyuan manages to go beyond).


Here's my idea, guys. Tell me if I'm crazy.

Instead of a food review system to review food we already know is bad, why not encourage more restaurants to open?

I know, it's just nuts to think about, isn't it? /sarcasm

I realize that having sixteen duty free shops that all sell the same stuff somehow brings in more revenue and that most airports have overpriced, unsatisfactory food because the entire point is to keep you shopping, not eating, while you wait for your flight, but you'd get happier customers snapping up manicure kits, stale Godiva and souvenir mugs if they're well fed and haven't spent all their money on baked goods that put the "paste" in "pastry".

It is true, by the way, that there are far more storefronts to shop in than eat in because they bring in more money, though I have to wonder why. I mean, how many bottles of Bulgari Omnia (for the ladies) and Chivas (for the men) can Japanese tourists buy? Do we really need all those shops that sell the same stuff?

And the Hello Kitty waiting area for kids? Really? I don't like Starbucks, but if there were one I'd go because their lattes are vaguely drinkable if you're desperate. So why isn't there a Starbucks? (If there is, I haven't found it, and I fly out of Taoyuan fairly frequently, as many expats do). Why is a Hello Kitty waiting area somehow higher on the Places of Importance scale than a coffee shop?

I don't need a review system to tell me that the coffee at TPE is made of spent jet fuel and costs half my monthly salary.

What we need are more restaurants. So why not spend the time and money you're wasting on the review system and open more restaurants?!

I mean, is this really so inconceivable?