Showing posts with label travel_in_taiwan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel_in_taiwan. Show all posts

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Rambling around Ximen, afternoon tea, flowers: what I've been up to for Taiwan Scene

So, I've got a few things out at Taiwan Scene that I thought I'd share.

First, a guide to afternoon tea in unlikely places. I ventured beyond central Taipei (where you can get a decent afternoon tea at any number of establishments) to find places for a mid-afternoon repast where you wouldn't expect it. Say goodbye to 7-11 if you missed the lunch hours of regular restaurants!

Then there's "A Day In Historic Ximen" - yes, I reviewed a bunch of places, but I also added my knowledge of historical sights in the area. Some famous, some recently-restored, some a bit less well-known.

I also wrote a few pieces on flower season in Taipei - this one focuses on day routes where you can find different flowers, and another for Taiwan Scene on flower etiquette. It's probably too late to actually do any of the flower viewing routes, but keep them in mind for next year!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sorry Kaohsiung, but Barcelona you ain't

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The view from the British Consulate at Takao
You're a pretty city, Kaohsiung, and I enjoy visiting you, but you can't justify a tourism tax


So, Big Uncle Dirk Han Kuo-yu is talking about introducing a foreign tourism tax in Kaohsiung. As Taiwan News reported (yes, Taiwan News does report things), the tax would be aimed at foreign tourists, not domestic ones, charging (for example) NT$100/day, typically payable at hotels.

In this way, the plan is modeled on city taxes currently in place in several European cities which are also popular tourist destinations. This year alone, I paid tourism taxes in Lisbon, Porto, Rome and Siena (and may have paid one in Milan; I don't remember.) The taxes in Europe range from €1 (or less) to as much as €3 per day.

With that in mind, Kaohsiung's proposed tax would be at the high end even for major European destinations. Rome, for example, was €3/day. NT$100 is about US$3/day.

I have a few issues with this. I'm not against tourism taxes generally - the infrastructure of many major European cities has to support not only residents but visitors. Despite the adage that "if you want less of something, tax it; if you want more of something, subsidize it", the taxes are low enough that they are unlikely to deter tourists, especially those who've traveled a long way.

That said, such taxes are usually levied in places where tourism is already strong. Dirky-doo wants to 'prioritise tourism' which doesn't seem to be particularly strong in Kaohsiung (some discussion of numbers found below). The effect won't be brushed off as a minor fee, as it generally is in other places where tourism numbers are already massive. It will deter tourists, not promote them. How exactly are these two policies meant to align? Or, perhaps Big Uncle Dirk is full of crap and always has been, and it doesn't matter if his ideas make no sense jointly or severally?

It makes sense that, in addition to bolstering the economy through spending on their visit, that tourists should also contribute directly to the local government for the purpose of maintaining the infrastructure that they themselves strain. How much of this money actually goes to this, however, is not at all clear. For example, this explainer of where Penang's tourist taxes go doesn't look at all as though they do anything useful. I wouldn't want my money going to some committee organizing useless conferences and chartering flights from Wuhan. Some discussions of tourism tax have the revenue going into general government operational funds - also not a strong sell to tourists wondering why they're paying out.

But let's be honest here. It doesn't seem to me that Kaohsiung is a city whose infrastructure is unduly strained by the number of tourists who visit. If anything, tourism numbers there are...okay, but flagging, though the data is a bit outdated here. You can find some more numbers in the various tables here - they're national statistics, not Kaohsiung-specific, and relevant data is spread across several spreadsheets.

But these national numbers for Taiwan can be compared to, say, the number of tourists going to Barcelona, Spain alone (one city - not even all of Spain, let alone all of Europe). Barcelona is a good example as it's a city which is increasingly suffering from a glut of tourists it can't handle, and which locals increasingly don't want to handle. (Barcelona's tourism tax is variable based on the accommodation chosen).

I know you do get tourists, Kaohsiung. But I'm sorry, you are not Barcelona.

Kaohsiung, honey, you don't have massive infrastructure or overcrowding issues the way European cities do. Your public transit system is finally turning a profit (which I'm not even sure public transit needs to do, but isn't a bad thing.) There aren't hordes of foreigners crowding your streets or causing environmental damage. You don't need the money for the same reasons that European cities do.

What's more, I don't really think Kaohsiung has the draws that these other cities do. While its architectural heritage interests me, it's not exactly mind-blowing to your average international visitor. There's no Roman Forum, Sagrada Familia or even Jeronimos Monastery or Sao Jorge castle in Kaohsiung. The city has gotten brighter and lovelier over the years (so Big Uncle Dirk campaigning on it being a dingy old city run into the ground by the DPP is especially offensive to me in how deliberately wrong it is) but it just isn't the sort of wow-bang-sparkle destination that can justify something like a tourism tax.

In fact, it's a really quick way to convince tourists to go to other parts of Taiwan. Most international visitors to Taiwan are Asian, and they don't necessarily have the spending money that tourists to Europe do (the Asians with heaps of cash head west), or if they do, they'll save that for their trip to Rome, not their trip to Kaohsiung.

And, of course, it also leads to a few other questions.

First, how would visitors from China be treated? In the statistical links above, you can see that they are treated separately from other foreign arrivals. Yet they are the biggest group of non-domestic tourists by a very wide margin, so not taxing them would basically invalidate the whole point of the tourism tax to begin with. Dirk is an unabashed unificationist dressed in a populist's clothing and, although I'm speculating here, probably conflates "promoting tourism" with "promoting Chinese tourism", which is apparent given his desire to increase flight connections to China (ignore the dumb headline). I would not at all be surprised if he declared that visitors from China were "domestic" and therefore not subject to the fee.

Second, most other "foreign" visitors to Kaohsiung actually live in other cities in Taiwan, like me, and most visitors overall to the city are domestic (source: see Focus Taiwan link above). Although Big Uncle Dirk says domestic tourists wouldn't be included (which is not the norm in Europe, where all visitors pay as it's essentially a hotel occupancy tax). I have to wonder whether foreign residents, who are technically domestic tourists, would be similarly exempt. I know that if I found out I'd have to pay this tax because I don't look like a domestic tourist...well, see how fast I would not visit Kaohsiung, just on principle (or I'd stay with my friend in Dashe, even though that's a bit far from the city.)

Yes, tourism has a lot of indirect economic benefits; some will say that these are sufficient and it's unnecessary to add a tax on top of what tourists already spend to be in a city. However, these benefits are variable and often have deleterious costs associated with them (same link), are often not much at all if a large number of tourists are on a shoestring budget (say, gap year kids in Thailand or people on cut-rate Chinese group tours). There are also a number of disadvantages including exploitation of local labor and environmental effects, and most tourism dollars appear not to stay in the local economy (ignore the jingoistic headline). This makes sense; for example, in developing countries, labor costs are low relative to what major hotel chains charge for rooms. Most of that money likely goes to the international conglomeration that owns the hotel, not the local economy that the hotel is in, though there may be other economic benefits.

But I don't see how any of it matters for Kaohsiung, a city whose main economic driver is not tourism, and a city which doesn't experience the worst effects of tourism (aside from some slight overcrowding at Shizhiwan and Cijing Island). Why do they need a tourism tax which will drive tourists away, won't be charged to the bulk of tourists because they're domestic, may not be charged to Chinese tourists, and therefore just causes annoyance without much benefit, and arising from no great need?

Monday, October 22, 2018

You don't adopt Taiwan, Taiwan adopts you: a book review of Formosa Moon

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I used to believe that I’d adopted Taiwan, but the truth is, Taiwan adopted me, taking me in when I was in my early twenties and giving me a series of increasingly interesting reasons to stick around....Six months ago, I brought the love of my life to Taiwan. The idea was ostensibly to convince her to love Taiwan much in the way that I did. In this I believe I’ve met with some success.

- Joshua Samuel Brown, Formosa Moon 
(by Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman, ThingsAsian Press, 2018 - buy it here - and if you're in Taipei, there's a launch party this weekend)


I've heard people say that the best travel writing to read is about places you've never been: places foreign and "exotic" (how I hate that word) that you know next to nothing about, but come to understand in some small way through a guided journey by the author. If I'd ever quite bought into that, Formosa Moon cured me of it, reminding me that there is an earthier satisfaction in reading other peoples' experiences in places you know well.

Although none of the places mentioned in Formosa Moon were new to me (well, some of the hotels and restaurants mentioned were, such as the Dive Cube hotel), there's a certain beauty in reading about a place you're so familiar with that you can smell the air, see the details of the parks and unkempt sidewalks, picture the mountains, know intimately what kind of trees are growing all around and what it's like to live your life in a series of tiled buildings.

A section of the book takes place at Sun Moon Lake. Been there, didn't love it. Another one describes National Chengchi University. My sister studied there for a year. The Dome of Light? I was there two weeks ago. Tainan? I go every time I get the chance. Jiaoxi? Several visits, soaked in the public hot spring too. Huwei? I'm one of the few foreigners who went to Yunlin for fun over a Dragon Boat weekend just to see what it was like.

But there's something deeper about Formosa Moon that I just get. I think pretty much everyone who's made a life here - that is to say, many if not most of my closest friends at this point - understand as well. Taiwan is like a cat: you don't adopt a cat. A cat adopts you.

You might come here thinking you're going to just "go abroad for a few years" and do that privileged First World thing by teaching English to fund your time in Asia (you're probably not an actual English teacher). You might stay for 1, 2, 3 years: most of the cram school crowd seems to turn over in roughly those increments. Some of you won't get it: the traffic - there are traffic laws, I swear - the pollution, the ugly buildings (you will almost certainly live in one of these), the humidity, the long or weird working hours and greatly reduced career options, the crowds will all collude to gently push you out. Or maybe none of them will, and you'll enjoy your time here just fine, but when the clock is up it's up, and you were always going to return to the place you know is home anyway. Taiwan didn't adopt you. That's OK.

Some of you will fall in love here, or find your groove, or take an interest in Taiwan's unique history, or build a community. Or it'll be the damp hills, the palm trees, the local aunties, the 7-11s, the traditional markets. Or you'll watch a major social movement unfold up close and realize Taiwan is a place and a cause worth fighting for. Something about life here will speak to something inside you, and you'll stay. You probably didn't consciously choose to. You were adopted.

In this way, I found it appropriate that Formosa Moon heavily featured cats, though they popped up in the narrative for no particular reason, and certainly not in any planned thematic way. It just did. From the cats of Houtong (another place I know well, and have started hikes from) to the painted cats (among other fantastic creatures) of Rainbow Grandpa to Joshua's friend's cats which provided a cozy sense of home to Stephanie - the other writer of the book - I found the unexpected feline leitmotif to fit. Taiwan not only adopts you like a cat (or it doesn't), but it can be as cool, beguiling or mercurial as a cat, or as winsome and homey as one too. You know your cat loves you, but you're never quite sure how much.

Or, to put it another way:


Taiwan is kind, to its native born, adopted children, and short-term guests alike. But Taiwan doesn’t change its tempo for you. Instead, you must change your tempo to adapt to Taiwan. And this will make all the difference.



Of course, you get to wax lyrical about all of this because you chose to come for reasons other than making a basic living. Supporting yourself may have had something to do with it, but you could have done that where you'd come from. You're aware that exponentially larger numbers of foreign residents in Taiwan had no such privilege. (You are aware of that, yes?)

All this is not to say that only those who know Taiwan should read Formosa Moon. I'll certainly recommend - if not outright purchase as gifts - copies of the book for loved ones back home who perhaps don't get it, most of whom because they've never visited. It describes the country well, and even the pictures (which are very "homey", not glossy professional shots, which I see as a plus) show in accurate detail what life in Taiwan is like.

As the book itself points out, cities like Kyoto (or Shanghai or Singapore or these days, Seoul) beckon to the Western traveler who is planning their first trip to Asia. Most travelers don't think of "Asia" and immediately think "Taipei". So they don't come, and therefore, they don't know. Formosa Moon, I hope, might tempt some of them into finally visiting to see for themselves why I've chosen to stay for most of my adult life.

And not only that, I'll recommend it for its unique perspective. Every other piece of Taiwan-focused travel writing on my bookshelf is by a white guy. I haven't cracked them all yet, but will. I'm sure they'll be fantastic; people whose opinions I trust have told me so. But, so much travel writing is done by white guys hitting the trail alone, and other narrative voices enrich the genre. I don't think I've seen a travelogue written by two partners in a relationship before, each with views that play off or add depth to the other.

As someone who also moved to Taiwan and then six months later convinced the love of my life to move here too, that appeals to me - as a woman and a person in a committed relationship. Ours took a slightly different route: he didn't know he was the love of my life when he moved here (I kind of did, but didn't tell him so right off), and our relationship evolved here, not in the US. I didn't "love Taiwan" when he moved here: my first six months here weren't that great, to be honest. I am sure I have had success, however, in convincing him to love this country as much as I do. We show it in different ways, but I know.

More poignantly, Formosa Moon captures what it's like to be both in a relationship with a person, and with a country. We never had to face the challenge of Brendan liking Taiwan; he did immediately, on his first visit here. I wasn't sure then how much I liked Taiwan: I didn't decide to make the commitment until three years later. That was when I'd been planning to decide if I'd stay or go; it also happened to be the year we got married. I suppose our somewhat weirdly polyamorous love grew together.

Of course there's a bittersweetness to every love story. You know how they say that in a relationship, someone always loves more, and the other less? And the one who loves less has all the power?

Although I know I can never truly be "a local" (forget not looking the part: it's just not my native culture), I want to stay and advocate for Taiwan, and gain legal rights - not just privileges accorded me out of courtesy as a permanent resident, which can be revoked. I don't expect a perfect life here. It would be nice, however, if in my relationship with Taiwan I didn't always feel like I was the one who loved more. I like to think that by opening myself up to Taiwan, that Taiwan has opened to me a little. I'll never know how much, though.

I'll end, then, on a particular salient quote from co-Stephanie Huffman:


Taiwan and I were certainly friends but had we really progressed to a love state? I didn’t know even know how Taiwan felt about me and I certainly wanted some indication of her feelings before I made any commitments.




Yup. Except I did that thing that relationship advice columnists say never to do: I made the commitment without knowing quite how she felt about me.

Still here though. You see, I was adopted. 


Monday, October 15, 2018

Go see "Nude" in Kaohsiung - and Taiwan, promote your events better!

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Go see Nude!

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to go to Kaohsiung for a few days to take part in a tourism-related conference. That part was interesting, but not something I feel the need to blog about.

Being down there, however, gave me the chance to see one of my oldest and closest friends in Taiwan. Helping to run the family business mean she doesn't have a lot of time to come to Taipei, so we often see each other when I'm able to head down south. For those of you who think I'm a public transit snob who won't grace an old-school Taiwanese scooter with her precious princess bum, I actually had a blast riding around Kaohsiung county (technically 'city' but that was a stupid change and I won't dignify it) and downtown on the back of her scooter. I just won't drive one myself, because I value my life.


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Anyway, we decided to check out the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Art, which is currently hosting "Nude", an exhibit of works on loan from the Tate Modern in London.

The theme of the exhibit is nudity in modern art, and it discusses (with well-planned wall panels in English and Chinese) the evolution of nudity in art through the late 19th century to the modern era. It includes some stunning - and some head-scratching - cutting-edge modern work along side classics by Matisse, Rodin, Renoir and Picasso.

To be frank, it was just an amazing exhibit. It was fine art of a high calibre which is a real treat in Taiwan, with a smattering of well-known masters but not necessarily focusing only on the big names. It featured Rodin's Kiss, which is one of the great works of Western sculpture. The evening we went, a concert was being planned around it featuring modern works of classical music.

Photographs were not allowed, so you'll have to make do with a shot of the brochure and some postcards I purchased.



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A Matisse and a Nevinson



The exhibit runs through October 28 and costs NT$280 (with concessions including a student discount), so you still have time. Go see it!

I mean, I was just in London. I went to the Tate Modern. I didn't get to see stuff this great there!

Here's what keeps nagging me: I had heard that this was taking place through the local grapevine, though it wasn't promoted in any way that made a huge impact on me. I had forgotten that it was still running, and in fact though I wouldn't get to see it as I was away for most of the summer. My local friend had to remind me that it was still an option.

When I got back to my hotel, I searched a bit to see where news of the exhibit could be found by tourists (plenty if information is available in Chinese, and the exhibit seemed to be locally popular, with the museum staying open until 8:30pm that Friday). A few articles from over the summer mentioned it, including the Focus Taiwan one linked above. After that, nothing.

A visitor searching for events in Kaohsiung in September or October (perhaps even August) would have trouble finding out that this exhibit existed, especially if they were a foreign tourist searching in English. The information is there, but it's hard to find for travelers. About to attend a conference on tourism promotion in Taiwan, this struck me as especially strange.

As a traveler in Kaohsiung - although a domestic one, as Taipei is my home - I was keen to see the exhibit, and yet would likely not have thought to go if not for my friend. And I actually had known about it! Imagine a foreign tourist here who hadn't seen any of the local news items featuring it when it opened. They'd have no idea.

Here's an example of what I mean. If you search for events in Kaohsiung, you might come across this website by the Kaohsiung City Government. It's actually a pretty good website in a variety of languages, which is already exceptional for Taiwan (where websites in English are often so terribly-designed, unclear and devoid of real information that they are essentially unusable and, I have to assume, only exist for decorative purposes or so that someone could give their nominally-English-speaking nephew a website development contract).

But if you actually search for events, say, this weekend, this is what you get:



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Same thing for no keyword, "art", "museum" and "nude"


Nothing.

Put in some keywords (I tried "museum", "art", "nude" and "tate") - still nothing. A tourist using this site would never have found the sublime exhibit I was lucky to see.

It really seems as though events in Taiwan are either heavily publicized but terrible, or great but not promoted well or consistently.


So, hey, Taiwan. You can do better. You have interesting events that travelers will want to know about. Make sure they do!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Taichung: where transport cost more than my hotel

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Taichung is now the second-largest city in Taiwan


Quite some time ago, I took a quick weekend jaunt to Taichung, mostly to see friends, but also to give the city a fair chance.

I'll admit, I've never been the biggest fan of Taichung, and I don't really understand why so many foreign residents say it's the best city in Taiwan to live. Sure, the weather is better, but the pollution is unbearable, making it hard to enjoy. Being in central Taiwan, it's equidistant from the attractions of both the north and south, but it's not actually in either of those places (to be fair, the area around Taichung is lovely). It's more laid-back, true, and more affordable - but there's also not a lot to do. The city has tried to improve public transport, but I'd say that has spectacularly failed. It has arguably one of the best night markets in Taiwan, but it's not easy to get to if you don't drive.


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Miyahara, near Taichung Train Station


That said, I'd only stayed briefly in the past, usually on the way to somewhere else. So I felt I should at least spend a few days there before being so dismissive. It has also beaten out Kaohsiung to become the 2nd largest city in Taiwan, so it seemed like a good time to give it a chance.

The result? Mixed. Don't get me wrong, the cover photo on this is meant to be cheeky and fun, not a wholesale put-down of Taichung. I had a fun weekend - it's just that it cost me a hell of a lot of money to get around.


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From our nighttime walk through central Taichung city


I arrived on a Friday evening and immediately went to a friend's house, where a few other friends had gathered. I drank a bit too much whiskey, ate a few too many fried chicken anuses,  and let's just say I'm pretty sure my friend had to call an exorcist to banish the demons I expelled in his bathroom later on. That was probably my most authentic Taichung experience: whiskey, chicken ass, and horking up that chicken ass a few hours later because why the hell would anyone eat that much chicken ass?

The next morning, I wandered downstairs not feeling great at all, and found a local breakfast shop. This is a small pleasure of Taiwan - little shops that have all sorts of tasty, greasy fare and are open until nearly lunchtime. Most foreigners in Taiwan seem to go for dan bing (a savory pancake-like roll with egg and filling, which is often cheese or bacon), but my go-to breakfast is a hamburger and turnip cake. The food was good and cheap and the atmosphere local. Being an industrial area, most of the other customers were Southeast Asian - Taiwanese factories frequently employ labor from nearby countries. This is one facet of the real Taiwan: not a "pure Han Chinese" "island" which is "historically a part of China" with "Chinese culture" where foreigners are temporary guests used for convenience, but a multicultural nation with a unique identity and strong ties to its Southeast Asian and Austronesian neighbors, where many foreigners of various backgrounds build long-term or permanent lives.

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I'm a big fan of these flag guys - we have them in Taipei too

I have to say this for Taiwan: my friend lived in an industrial park. This is not what you'd imagine in the West: there is residential and commercial activity in such places in Taiwan. That said, in the US, in an "industrial" zone on the outskirts of town, I don't know if I'd have felt safe as a woman walking around alone. In my native land, such an area would probably have been a quiet, eerie place on a Saturday morning. Too deserted for a woman to feel comfortable.

In Taiwan, I knew I was perfectly safe.


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There's no Curry Orgasmo in Taipei


After saying goodbye to my friend (and reminding him that both of his bathrooms now contained horrors that needed a few power of Christ compels yous for them to be truly clean again, I mean spiritually clean, not just mopped down, and, oh, sorry about that), I came face to face with Taichung's biggest problem: just...not very good public transport at all. I'd stayed quite far from the city center, and faced a not-that-pleasant ten-minute walk to the nearest bus stop to get into town. No idea when the next bus would come - though to be fair that particular route was probably well-serviced - I took a taxi.

The cost of that taxi was about half of what I'd spent on the hotel. It's not that I didn't have the money, I just resented spending that much cash to get around. I like cities that facilitate rather than hinder transit. I can drive: I even hold an international driver's permit. I won't drive in cities, though, because I value my life and my sanity. I'm not a comfortable city driver by any means, although I'm quite happy to tool around the mountains in a rental car. For someone like me, who feels deeply uncomfortable with city driving, there is no easy way to get around Taichung.

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An evening walk in Taichung - if you have nothing else to do here, at least get yer teeth did at Hotshot Dental Center (if you are too snobbish for that, there's an Elitist Dentist in Taipei you can visit)

I waited for my husband to show up - he would meet me in Taichung after his Saturday morning private class, and we'd grab a late lunch before checking out Taichung's #1 tourist attraction: Miyahara.

I - and every other tourist in Taichung - enjoyed Miyahara, a gorgeous setting to have tea, coffee or ice cream. I almost feel obligated to write that, though. I'd write more, but Miyahara is well-covered elsewhere. We enjoyed the atmosphere enough that we ended up hanging out there until it was time to go to dinner. Even the view (of the abandoned Qianyue Building) felt very Taiwanese. As Stephanie Huffman noted in Formosa Moon, Taiwan does a good job of not hiding its scars.

Later that evening, it was also pleasant to walk from downtown - most affordable hotels are near the train station - to meet another friend in a restaurant near the Calligraphy Greenway. We avoided the massive Taiwan Boulevard, which didn't run particularly close to our destination, and took quiet backstreets. Again, in Taiwan we knew this was perfectly safe. I don't know that I would have done so after dark in many American cities.

Buses along Taiwan Boulevard were an option, but not particularly convenient to where we were going. Fortunately, we didn't mind the walk. Good thing too, as there was no alternative way to get there.

We met at Curry Orgasmo. If you're wondering whether I chose it for the name...I did. Also, it has perfectly acceptable (but not orgasmic) curries, and there isn't one in Taipei. This part of town is great for nighttime walking - there are parks, shops, restaurants, places to grab a drink. It's lively, without the unending crowds of Taipei. If I were planning to return to Taichung I'd look into staying in this neighborhood instead. The area around the train station is crowded and bustling, and the hotels are cheaper (some of them don't give you condoms and lube on the nightstand, even) but there's not quite as much to do.

After curry, beer and chat, we were meant to head out to meet yet another friend for drinks and dessert at Delys&Sens - a bar and cafe that had real French desserts and well-made drinks by an expert...what are the kids calling it these days, "mixologist"? Count me in!


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A drink from Delys&Sens


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Desserts at Delys&Sens

Inviting our dinner companion along, we realized that the walk from Curry Orgasmo to Delys&Sens would be just a bit too far, so we hopped in another taxi. Despite friends insisting that Taichung does have a working bus-based public transit network, there was no clear way to get between the two without a wait and walk that was long enough to not justify trying.

Delys&Sens was absolutely fantastic - I enjoyed hearing about how the bartender refused to work with Aperol but was willing to use Campari, despite being a fan of Aperol myself (too many grad school-based summers in Europe) - and the desserts, well, I wish I could easily find desserts that good in Taipei at reasonable prices. In Taipei, I feel like I usually end up with a $200NT slice of defrosted chocolate cake purchased from the same factory that every other cafe orders from.

This was a level above. Just good Western desserts. Just good. With good drinks. Just...good. I cannot recommend it highly enough. We were also able to sit on an outdoor terrace - a rare treat coming from Taipei, where there is hardly ever outdoor seating (it's not only too crowded, the weather just doesn't cooperate most of the time). It was one of those laid-back evenings in a different city with friends that you can enjoy when you actually live in a country, rather than trying to pack in must-see tourist destinations from dawn-till-bedtime.

No chicken asses to be found, but I'd had enough of those. This was another Taiwan urban experience.

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Scenes of Hell at the City God Temple

The next day, we started with coffee and a browse of the books for sale at Fleet Street. Then we set out to find some of Taichung's older points of interest - the City God Temple (城隍廟), which is to the south of Taichung train station and in the area where the Qing were building what was to be the capital of Taiwan ("Taiwan City"). Nothing remains: the temple is still there, but the rest was torn down by the Japanese. But, it's an interesting old part of the city to poke around in and get a cheap lunch.

The temple itself is also interesting, with - as City Gods aren't always the nicest or kindest dudes - lots of scenes of Hell, as in, that's where you'll go if the City God judges you at your death to deserve it.

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Fleet Street Cafe

Then we tried to take a look at the old Imperial Examination Hall - a wooden structure, one of the oldest and best-preserved Qing-era buildings in Taiwan - but it was closed for renovation. We tried to sneak in, but it just wasn't happening (and perhaps was not entirely safe).

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A peek through the bars at the Qing Imperial Examination Hall

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A zoomed-in look at the Examination Hall

As - again - there was no public transport between these two stops, we were downright flushed from walking given the heat of the day. We'd also stopped in a Filipino supermarket we'd passed to load up on things that can be hard to find in regular shops - beef bouillon, adobo seasoning, that sort of thing.

Fortunately, near the examination hall, one can find Taichung's old City Hall, a gorgeous Japanese-era building that is still in use as a government office. You're allowed to take a look as long as you sign in, at least on Sundays (I can't speak for whether that's possible on weekdays, as it seems to hold functioning office space). This sort of building just feels like Taiwan: Chinese on the signage, a Japanese colonial-style building, all bricks, concrete and plaster, colonnades. Balmy tropical heat, palm trees in the courtyard. Peeling paint. A laid-back, chilled-out vibe. A friendly security guard lounging out front, drinking from his glass thermos of Chinese-style tea, who doesn't mind if you walk around unsupervised. Staircases with worn-out red carpeting, the mechanical sound of a big metal fan churning the air. A few families with kids playing in the courtyard because why not?


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At the City God Temple


International tourists might not find these things of interest, but as a domestic tourist, to me it's quite heartening. Yup, this is Taiwan. This is my home.

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This is so Taiwan. I look at this scene and can only really think of this beautiful country. 

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Inside the Old City Hall

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Cat shaved ice

Feeling a bit too overheated to do much more, we took a brief walk - basically just across the street - to another old government building. To find it, just look for the other colonial-era structure near the old City Hall. With dinner plans looming, we didn't have a lot of time to walk around the building, but you can find vintage-vibe Cafe 1911 on the ground floor. We had some iced milk tea and a small shaved ice dessert decorated to look like an adorable little cat, and relaxed until it was time to pick up our bags from storage and head to the other side of town.

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This, too, is just so Taiwan

It should have been a 30-minute drive, but it took closer to an hour and cost about $400NT. There was no public transit option, and certainly no MRT to avoid the snarled traffic. We were late for the soft opening of Texas Roadhouse Taichung, where we'd been invited to join some other friends. The food was hearty, American and yes, good - I may travel the world but I'll tell you, American mid-range restaurant chains are very good at comfort food and I won't pretend a hipster distaste for them that I don't have - and the atmosphere reminded me of the country of my birth.

Certainly there was no more chicken ass.

From there, we had to taxi to the HSR station as well - again, no convenient public transport that could get us there in a reasonable time frame (I'm not sure there was any transit available at all in that part of town) - for another chunk of cash.


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Some of the books available (no real English selection) at Fleet Street

And that's the story of how I had a very enjoyable weekend in Taichung with friends, and spent more money on taxis than on a hotel, because if you don't drive, there is no reasonable, quick way to get around the city.

That's the only reason I hesitate to recommend it as a weekend for readers who live in Taiwan but don't drive. You can have a lot of fun, especially if you have friends there or like searching for old or vintage things. I could have spent more time there, heading up to Dakeng, wandering Taichung Park, or another evening in the neighborhood around Curry Orgasmo, trying a new restaurant. I would have loved to have taken Brendan to Fengchia Night Market, but it's a bit far out and the last time I went, I spent more on the taxi there and back than I spent in the market itself. Or I would happy wander in any of these areas.

Taichung isn't that pretty on a large scale - cities in Taiwan usually aren't - but you can find lots of pleasant little nooks and crannies, and unexpected things if you walk around, that might surprise and delight you. If you skirt all the construction, that is.


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Just a random old thing on the street in Taichung

But if you don't drive, it will be a more expensive weekend than you might like. Few things are near each other, taxis often need to be called, and while there is a bus network, it's just not that usable or convenient if you don't know your way around already (which I didn't).

By all means, visit. But budget accordingly, become comfortable with city driving (something I will never do), or stick only to activities along the major bus routes. As a city to spend a weekend in, Taichung gets an A- (it would get an A if not for the pollution). As a city I had to navigate without a car, it gets a D at best, and that's only because the desserts at Delys&Sens made me feel generous.


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Doughnut-like baked goods vendor on the way to the City God Temple (her products were delicious, and her dog adorably scruffy)

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Re-learning Taiwan

IMG_0283When you think of tourism in Taiwan - domestic and, to some degree perhaps, international - you probably think of at least a few of these:

- Night markets
- Old streets
- Local crafts (e.g. woodcarving or porcelain)
- Regional foods (e.g. 肉圓 in Zhanghua and mochi in Hualien)
- "Taiwanese" culinary cultural icons (think the toilet restaurant and bubble tea)
- Shopping and eating in Taipei, including the massive ATT4Fun and eslite
- Hiking, cycling etc.
- "Cultural creative parks" like Songshan Tobacco Factory and Huashan
- The National Palace Museum
- Tourist destinations like Jiufen, Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, Tainan, Kenting and Taroko Gorge
- (Maybe) Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
- Indigenous festivals and dances
- Temple festivals

Some of these are great - Tainan is unimpeachably fantastic, though perhaps growing a bit gentrified or at least on the cusp of it happening - and the outdoor sports are bar-none amazing.

For the rest, though, slowly and steadily most of the pleasure I might have once been able to derive from them has been chipped away over the years as I seek to learn more about Taiwan.

Night markets are still kinda great, but a lot of the "famous" foods are made famous by savvy promotion rather than actual deliciousness, and with the piling on of food scandals over the years, I can never be quite sure that the snacks I'm getting are safe to ingest.

I appreciate the attempt to preserve the architecture of Taiwan's old streets - and some still do a reasonably good job of this (Hukou, Xiluo and Xinpu are still quite nice, and Dihua Street is still on the right side of fun, although I worry the scales will tip). Yet, a number of them have been turned into shopping drags selling touted "local delicacies" and shop after shop of "traditional items" (think old-fashioned kids' toys and wooden massage implements). They're basically all the same, nothing local or special about them.

Those local crafts? Well...I can't say I'll be buying any Taiwanese wood products or returning to Sanyi anytime soon. And Yingge sells some lovely ceramics, but historically was more known for making bricks, not fine vases.


Regional foods? Michael Turton has already covered that minefield:

All over Taiwan, if you say a city name, like Changhua or Hsinchu, people associate a food with it automatically (ba wan and mi fen). Even foreigners know many of these associations. This attitude is common in Taiwan, but it is rare in the rest of the world....

Why? It’s political, of course. In most countries tourism consists of local history and nature. I grew up in Michigan, where we visited the Upper Peninsula and state parks for nature, and local battlefields and forts for history. No one ever suggested that the state’s prodigious cherry production should be its key association. But in Taiwan, the food association functions to keep locals from associating places with their history, and thus, developing associations with local history that in turn would support and build local identities… Hence, in Taiwan, local domestic tourism is not historical tourism, but food tourism.

I'll add to that some ethical issues: I love bluefin tuna, but...well...hmm. Okay maybe not.
All I gotta say about the toilet restaurant is UGH not the toilet restaurant again, and I do like bubble tea but the aforementioned food safety scandals make me a bit wary of it. Also, it's way too easy to weirdly exoticize it as some Mystical Eastern Thing that Asian People do that Civilized Countries Have Just Discovered.

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Hehuan Mountain is gorgeous - and not on the list of "famous tourist sites" in Taiwan
(sorry for the low-res photo, I took it years ago and had to gank a low-quality copy from a previous post)

Let's machine-gun through the rest of that list quickly.

Shopping in Taipei? Eslite is a huge international company, not a plucky local chain (and frankly their selection of English-language books tends towards the pedestrian, and they have a weirdly tiny selection of English-language books about Taiwan). Those Xinyi malls? I've been complaining for years that good local street-side restaurants that give Taipei its atmosphere are being gobbled up into one massive East District food court, and I do not like it one bit. For example, Opa Greek Taverna was great. Then it moved to ATT4Fun, and it's kind of terrible. We never go anymore. The Diner was a lovely place in a lane of Dunhua Road with some outdoor seating (there is still one on Rui'an Street but little-to-no outdoor seats). Now it's a big restaurant in a mall. Blech.

Those "cultural and creative parks" are pretty corporatized and rarely house the most innovative artists in Taiwan. Songshan, for example, has a Liuligongfang (or at least it used to - I haven't been in awhile and it may have closed) and is bordered by yet another eslite.

ALL THE STUFF IN THE NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM COMES FROM CHINA IT'S NOT EVEN TAIWANESE UGH. 

(I mean it's fine to visit if you are interested in Chinese history but don't go there thinking you are going to learn about Taiwan. I generally don't recommend it to visitors who are interested in Taiwan, only those who are primarily interested in China.)

And I don't even think I need to tell you what the problem is with Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

Temple festivals? Watch out, it's not always what you think.

And are you really sure you want to go to an indigenous festival where you might not be welcome, to see performances by tribes who have been unfairly historically stereotyped as good at three things: singing, dancing and drinking?

And almost all of the famous tourist destinations listed above have been disfigured by tourist infrastructure, with Sun Moon ****ing Lake being among the most degraded. From one side you can't even see the lake from most parts of the town unless you stay in one of the expensive - and often not very good - hotels ringing it (the good ones are very expensive). Taroko is still beautiful, but marred by controversy and a very ugly cement factory with its management that has very ugly morals. Jiufen has lovely views but is so blighted with tourists that it can be difficult to enjoy these days. 

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So where did that leave me, once I came to these realizations? That everything I liked about Taiwan was a sham? That Taiwan has nothing of interest for tourists? That everything good about Taiwan was invented to keep the country from discovering its real roots?

No.

I was depressed for a time, once it really hit home that so little of what is commonly touted about Taiwan actually embodies Taiwan's strengths, and much of it has been co-opted by forces I'd rather not encourage (like the encroaching uniformity of the old streets and the ghastly tourist infrastructure in scenic spots. I figure themed restaurants aren't hurting anyone). It can be hard to take, learning that things you thought you liked had all of these layers of complexity and undercurrents of problems that make them difficult to keep loving.

I had to tear it all down to build something better - because this country has so much more to offer than sun cakes and Sun Moon Lake. I had to quite literally re-learn Taiwan so I could talk about it for what really makes it great, not just the tourist hype that is so often riddled with problems.

I won't tell people not to go to Taroko or even Alishan (I will generally advise against Sun Moon Lake but if a tourist chooses to go, they might not have an awful time), but I will recommend they go not just to Tainan - god I love that city - but to direct their attention to the national parks, the East Rift Valley, relatively quiet areas of natural beauty like Hehuanshan, Lishan, the Taoyuan grassland/Wangkengtou/Caoling Old Trail part of Yilan, and of course Taiwan's stunning outlying islands. I haven't been to Green Island yet but Matsu, Kinmen, Lanyu Island, Penghu - I love them all. I'll send them to the eastern coast of Pingdong and down to Cape Eluanbi, but have them avoid Kenting itself (there are better beaches anyhow). I'll send them to Lukang, which still has something of a small-town feel, or to explore the smaller towns of Hsinchu county by car. I'll only bring them to Jiufen on a weekday, and if we go I'll insist we hike up to the Japanese shrine above Jinguashi ("yeah you thought Taiwan was Chinese but this ain't Chinese at all"), or approach the town from the Xiaotzukeng Old Trail.

There is so much to see and do in Taiwan - take it from me, someone who's done a lot here, and yet has never actually been to Alishan - that you can have a fantastic time even if you don't go to Sun Moon Lake or buy mochi in Hualien. (Feel free to buy taro cakes in Dajia, just make sure you go to the smaller shops and get them fresh from the oven, stay away from the prepackaged ones which are...fine.)

And it's enjoy the food - just enjoy it for its own sake, eat good stuff where you find it, without buying too much into the "local food as local identity" hype. Some foods really are local - you aren't going to get better milkfish congee than in Kaohsiung, and you can't beat eel noodles or shrimp roll rice in Tainan. You just can't.

I'm still not sure how to promote this Taiwan - the Taiwan I re-learned - to the world. International tourists are more into things like the National Palace Museum than, say, an architectural history of Taipei or learning about Taiwan's vibrant civic engagement, not to mention what Taiwanese history and current political issues have to teach (and warn) the rest of the world. It took years of ripping away beliefs instilled by tourism promotion to see what makes Taiwan worthwhile, a dedication visitors generally don't have (though the number of visitors who come for awhile and end up staying is surprising. We all know that person who'd planned to come for a month and backpack and now lives here full-time, or the one who came to "teach English" [heh] for a year or two and move on who is still here a dozen years later...ahem.)

But now that I know what I've re-learned, I can certainly try.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

My first for MyTaiwanTour: traveling in Taiwan as a woman and a person

A piece of mine is featured in the MyTaiwanTour blog this week - hopefully the first of many - on traveling the world as a woman (it's not possible to unhook gender from experience especially when traveling abroad, among different cultures and people) and also as a person, pointing to the (mostly) good and (some) bad of being a foreign woman in Taiwan.

I hope you'll check it out!

I have to say, I wouldn't be here, in Taiwan, nor would I have stayed so long if I didn't feel comfortable as a person here - not just as a gendered person, but as a whole one. It's not perfect - no place is - but I do not feel nearly as constrained by my gender here as I have in other parts of the world.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Kaohsiung Weekend

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I'm quite slow with travel posts, often creating them long after the actual trip taken - and this is no different. The reason is simple - unlike writing, which I can just punch out on my computer or even iPad with the help of a Bluetooth keyboard, travel posts require photos, perhaps a touch of background research, online checks for locations, directions and addresses etc. The photos are the most annoying part: years ago I exhausted my Blogger photo storage limit and have been posting from Flickr ever since, and frankly I find it to be a pain. So, I procrastinate.

Anyway, over the summer I had the chance to travel for work to both Tainan and Kaohsiung. The Tainan post for that work trip can be found here, but I'm only now getting the chance to write the Kaohsiung one. I took the HSR down on a Friday, met my colleague, we did our work, and then I was free for the rest of the weekend to enjoy the city. My colleague hightailed it back to Taipei but I love southern Taiwan - I was happy to take the opportunity (and free HSR tickets) to stick around in a part of the country I don't get to go to very often.

The last time we went to Kaohsiung it was very briefly, on our way back from exploring the east coast of Pingdong (a wonderful trip that you can read about here). We met our friend from Dashe - mentioned below - ate at that super local burgers-and-rice-vermicelli chain (Dan Dan?) that is all over southern Taiwan but not Taipei, and went to the Sugar Refinery (one of those government 'creative park' projects that takes advantage of old industrial space, is basically fine, but not the most interesting thing most cities have to offer). A good 5-6 years before that we had a free day in Kaohsiung, also due to my having a business trip down there, and we wandered Hamasen, Qijin Island, Chaishan - to see monkeys - and the British Consulate at Takao after spending the night in the Batman Room of the Eden Exotica Love Hotel - an experience I highly recommend by the way. We'd taken trips before that, but all were quite some time ago, stopping at Love River (really only nice at night, decent beer garden with weirdly no bathroom?) and a few other places.

For this trip, Brendan had work on Friday evening, so I had the city to myself until he could join me around midnight.

I checked into our hotel - a pretty good one though it was one of the many in the 85 Tower (I can't remember the name, but there are a ton and they are all fairly similar) and booked it to Formosa Boulevard Station. Enjoying the Dome of Light was not my main goal, though I always take a moment to appreciate it:

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My main mission, though, was to visit the silversmith who has a small shop (half a shop really, he shares space with another vendor) in the MRT station. He makes gorgeous silver flowers: cherry blossoms, lilies and more. I already have two; my sister wanted one. After procuring it, I met a friend for dinner and drinks at Beast (recommended: all the food, though I had the sweet potato quesadillas, and their drinks - I had a cucumber mojito that was excellent).

In fact, I would go so far as to say this is my favorite Western restaurant in Taiwan now, and I am impressed that it is in Kaohsiung, not Taipei (not because I think Taipei is better, but it is bigger, has a bigger international/expat scene and most people think of it as the place to find good Western food).

Beast American Bar & Grill 野獸美式餐廳
118-1 Liuhe 2nd Road, Qianjin District, Kaohsiung (MRT Formosa Boulevard Station)
前金區六合二路118-1號
07 286 5137

The next day we didn't stay in Kaohsiung city at all (or at least not what I consider "Kaohsiung City" - the reorganization of counties into cities in Taiwan is not something I've ever grown accustomed to and doubt I ever will). Instead we headed out to Dashe (大社) to visit our friend, Sasha. We haven't had the chance to see much of Sasha since she moved back to Kaohsiung, so we were happy to have this chance.

The most interesting thing to do in Dashe is go to Guanyin Mountain on the outskirts of town. Near the base of the mountain there is an old memorial arch, and several eateries serving a local specialty: whole chicken in a pot (土雞). At the right time of year you can also buy large quantities of green jujubes, the local fruit of note, around here.

We went through the market and stopped at one random house (was it a house? I'm not sure) whose owners had several pets, including two cats and a lizard. I am not sure they were all very good friends.

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...before hiking to a scenic viewpoint and just hanging out for awhile. I have a picture from this but I don't like how I look, so I'm not going to post it. But first, of course, we got chicken:

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About that sticker on my water bottle: my favorite question this year was my cousin from the USA, who doesn't really know Taiwanese politics (he actually bought a KMT sun pin, and I told him he was lucky I was letting him in the house with that trash): "Who's Bumbler Ma?"





















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Anyway, as evening fell we said goodbye to Sasha and headed back to Kaohsiung City, where we met my friend and student Charlene to go to Ruifeng Night Market (瑞豐夜市) near MRT Kaohsiung Arena, a far better night market than the more famous Liuhe Tourist Night Market downtown. We hung out in the market, ate various things, saw some straight up weird stuff:

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I don't KNOOOOOOOWWWWWW

...and then grabbed a beer at Sojourner Cafe nearby. In fact, there are two fantastic cafes in that area, Sojourner and Reve Cafe. Both are cool places to hang out.

Sojourner Cafe 蝸居咖啡
1035 Yucheng Street, Gushan District Kaohsiung (MRT Kaohsiung Arena, near Ruifeng Night Market)
鼓山區裕誠路1035號
07 555 2530

Reve Cafe 黑浮咖啡
#2 Wenzhong Street, Gushan District, Kaohsiung (MRT Kaohsiung Arena) 
高雄市鼓山區文忠路2
07-5525885

The next day, in keeping with my theme during these trips of doing the things we did when we visited these cities nearly a decade ago, no matter how touristy, I suggested we take advantage of the good weather and go to Lotus Lake (which, by the way, is very hard to reach by MRT - we ended up taking a taxi).

This was an easy choice because, having to leave on Sunday night rather than Monday morning for Taipei, we checked out of our hotel and stored our bags in lockers at the HSR station: Lotus Lake is not far away. 

The most famous of the many temples around Lotus Lake is the Dragon Tiger Pagoda (龍虎塔) and an easy place to ask a taxi to drop you off. From there, you can wander to a few other spots and there is at least one cafe (but not much in the way of food) in the area. This part of Kaohsiung has been pretty well covered in English travel guides and blogs as it is fairly touristy, so I won't say much more - enjoy some pictures: 

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After that we headed down to another touristy area, Pier 2. Again, a place we'd been before but not for many years. Honestly, there's still not that much going on around here, but sometimes a little market sets up and it can be nice to walk around. Though it does feel kind of like a government 'creative park' project that never quite caught on (though I feel the same way about Huashan and Songshan Creative Parks in Taipei, and rarely go to either - I don't think I've been to either in years, in fact). But, you always see interesting things, like this guy who brought his cat. The cat was not into it.

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And I will say the large-scale outdoor art is interesting, and makes for good photo opportunities.

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...and that all in all, while Tainan has my heart and Taipei is my home, Kaohsiung remains one of my favorite cities in Taiwan. I appreciate that it has acceptable public transit (something my beloved Tainan lacks, though Tainan does have something of a walkable core, unlike Kaohsiung), the weather, my friends there, the general feel of the place - a relaxed, laid-back culture.

In any case, because I had a class on Monday morning, we had to leave Sunday night. We watched the sun go down on Pier 2 and went out to eat at Zzyzx because they had Takao Beer.

Zzyzx 宅克斯
#234 Chenggong Road, Lingya District Kaohsiung (MRT Central Park or Sanduo Shopping District, though neither are very close)
苓雅區成功一路234號
07 269 3438

I know it seems like we went to Kaohsiung and ate all Western food, but I assure you our other meals were entirely local, either from random restaurants and noodle shacks on the street, like the 涼麵 place near our hotel, or at the night market. I'm pointing out the Western food because Taiwanese food is easy to come by in Kaohsiung. But, do try Zzyzx - it's more of a bar and I wasn't a fan of the music, but the burger was good and I actually prefer Takao Beer to Taiwan Beer (sorry).

After dinner, though we would have liked to have stayed, we walked back to the MRT (Central Park) and headed to the HSR. A great trip, far too short.

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P.S.:

Oh yeah, one of the things you'll notice in Kaohsiung is how mayor Chen Chu's adorable cartoon avatar is everywhere. Here she is racing a car and getting a massage (which totally looks like she's a sniper aiming at a target while getting an encouraging back rub).

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