Sunday, January 18, 2009

Greetings from Singapore!

Without the ability to upload photos on this clunky airport computer (hey, at least it's free) I figure I'll keep this short and write a better post later with illustrations.

Brendan and I have just landed in Singapore and spent the day in transit.

I wuuuuuuv Singapore. I know it has its detractors, people who call it SingaBore and that it's quite fashionable to hate the place. Sorry, though, I love it.

I love the hot weather - Singapore boasts my ideal climate. Hot in the winter and hotter in the summer. I can fly home to upstate NY if I really want to be cold.

I love the mezcla of cultures - it helps that I can speak two of the four official languages and have a rudimentary knowledge of the other two (Tamil more than Malay, but I know a little Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia from my time in Sumatra). I love that Lee Kiew Trading Co. is in a shophouse right next to Krishna Emporium. I love the Chinese temples, Malaysian/Indonesian food and Bollywood soundtrack.

I love the food, of course. Every meal is good. You have to actively try to eat a bad meal in Singapore and even then what you get might well be fantastic.

People say it's too clean - I think it's got its grit (Little India and Chinatown are not 'spotless' by any standard) and the clean part is refreshing. I don't get people who don't like cleanliness.

I do get hating Orchard Road. I've never walked down it, but we took a taxi down it today. Yucky. If you've never been past that strip of consumerist horror, I can understand hating Singapore.

The last time we were here we wandered Little India, Chinatown, the colonial area, Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Esplanade at night after a Lau Pa Sat dinner, and enjoyed ourselves a lot.

This time we took the usual spin around Little India for an idli-dosa-vadai-kappi breakfast (romba nalla irukku!) and then the cable car up to Mt. Faber - overrated. We are happy we did it so now we can say we've done it, but won't be rushing back. There is almost no view due to the trees and the harbor is nice, but not worth the combined S$25.00 it took to get up there and back. We then headed to the National Botanical Gardens and enjoyed the orchids and the giant pond - although the craziest orchids were not in bloom, it was still lovely and romantic on a sunny tropical day.

Next stop: Bangalore!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Leavin' on a Jet Plane

Just to let y'all know, it'll be quiet around here for the next six weeks or so. We're taking a long-awaited and well-deserved vacaaaaaaaaaation!

On Saturday we head to Singapore, and spend most of Sunday there before flying to Bangalore, where we'll see my good friend Hemant and his wife for the first time in years (actually I've never met his wife, but I know her - long story).

We'll then ramble around southern India hitting Hampi, Hassan and surrounding temples, Mangalore, Udupi, Kannur and surrounding villages, Calicut, Wayanad (Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary), Cochin and the Kerala backwaters, hopefully in the most eco-friendly way possible.

Then we'll take a 26 hour train up the Konkan coast to Bombay - yes, Bombay - where we'll meet more friends and go sightseeing before boarding a plane to...

...Cairo! We'll spend 4 days in Cairo and around before heading down the tourist circuit to Aswan, where we'll spend a few days relaxing by the Nile and a day in Luxor to hit a few ancient temples (after Hampi and the Pyramids we figure we don't need to see more than a day's worth of temples) before heading back to Cairo to transfer to New York.

Then I'll head up to my parents' house and visit relatives for a week while Brendan does the same in Maine. We'll meet again in New York and head down to DC for a few days to visit friends before returning to Taipei on one looooong trans-Pacific flight.

Brendan's excited because he's never been to India before (so am I, even though I've already been to about 50% of our itinerary - we're hitting the main sights because he's never been), and I'm excited because I've never been to Egypt before. Our flights will circle the globe - heading across the Indian Ocean to Africa before hitting the Atlantic and the USA, then crossing back over the other way. It'll be my second round-the-world and Brendan's first.

I'll still be around on here, posting the occasional update from the road - but it'll be March before you get any more Taiwan blogging out of me.

Happy New Year - Xinnian Kuai Le and Gong Qi Fa Cai!*

*again too lazy to type in Chinese

Mother Goose Goose Meat (and other Taiwanese treats)

I love the name.

Mama E Rou has terrific goosemeat - succulent and fresh, lilting and savory.

You can locate it at Jingmei Night Market - take Jingmei MRT Exit 1 and when you exit, turn away from Roosevelt Road, instead heading left along the lane that takes you to the night market. Across from Cafe 85 is another lane that bisects Jingmei Street (the night market main drag) which is laden with good options. The "stuff on sticks" guy to the right is also quite good.

Anyway, walk in a bit, and it's right near the little shrine on the left. It's a basic Taiwanese 'joint' - not a restaurant, not an eatery, not a cafe, but a joint - where you get goosemeat, white or dark. it comes with bones and skin, sliced onto a plate with two dipping sauces the way cold chicken does (but the sauces are different). You can order noodles to go with it, made with a velvety goose broth, as well as xiao chi and seasonal vegetables.

It's really, really good. They do an excellent job with high-quality meat, the way any little joint should.

Sorry that I'm lazy about typing in Chinese; I would really prefer Pinyin input - sorry, I know, evil Communist Pinyin - and it takes too long to do the bopomofo. I am practicing though. I'm trying to do more reviews of Taiwanese restaurants as opposed to foreign food. It is easy to get reviews of foreign food in Taipei online (I subscribe to Hungry Girl, so I know) but really hard to get info on the little places - the joints - that serve the best local food and snacks.

Someday I'll write an epic post on the myriad kinds of onion pancake and where to get the best ones, I swear.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Zhongxiao E. Road Section 4 (near Zhongxiao Dunhua MRT) Lane #216, Alley 11 #21

Go here.

It's a new foreign-owned Tex Mex restaurant and it's fabulous. The food isn't "Mexican" (as in, no corn tortillas and delicious tamales from the back of a van by the side of the road outside Houston, which is my fondest memory of true Mexican fare) but it is legitimately "Tex Mex" (the American spawn of Mexican + Southwestern) and is legitimately good.

I know there's a good Mexican place up in Danshui, but dude, that's Danshui. An hour on the MRT? I know La Casita has a good reputation for food, but their reputation for friendly service is lacking. Tequila Sunrise on Xinsheng S. Road does Tex Mex tailored to Taiwanese tastes - that is, entirely too mild. Jake's is alriiiight but a bit greasy, and I do think Tianmu is inconvenient.

This place is the real deal, and in a convenient location, too. We came at 4:45 and were still allowed to order off the lunch menu (ends at 5). Service was excellent and friendly, and the staff speaks fluent English as well as Chinese, which is good because I have no idea how to order Mexican food in Chinese unless it involves Chinese-ifying words like 'tortilla' into 'tou ti la' and 'salsa' into 'sa lu sa' or some such.

The food was great. The nachos...were really...nachos! REAL NACHOS, people. I haven't had those in awhile. Real cheese, real melting, real toppings. Not just microwaved Doritos with a few sad strips of plastic cheddar. Real salsa, not glorified ketchup. Real. Sour. Cream.

Emily said the rice was too mild, but I am sure a kitchen request could fix that. She had effusive compliments for her ribs, though, which "were so tender they were just falling apart. I'm used to having to saw ribs apart to get any meat." Our sandwiches were fantastic, with lots of spicy jalapenos, tender chicken and other good stuff, and came with generous corn chips and salsa. They were also huge, and on the lunch menu, less than $200 NT each.

I do wish the dinner menu contained more options for those of us who like our Tex Mex food pre-wrapped in tortillas - the only fajitas are steak fajitas, and otherwise it's either nachos, half-chickens, ribs, shrimp, etc.

They had flan with vanilla ice cream, but we were too full for dessert. The margaritas (only a few on the menu but all looked good, not foofy or frilly) looked fine, but I'm on meds for bronchitis so no drinkies for me. We only went there in the first place because I am sick and craving Western goodies. I always want pasta, Tex Mex or some such when I'm ill.

A generous meal for 3 came to $1170 and there was no service charge! We tipped, because we liked it. Good deal for tasty foreign food, I'd say.

The service was spectacular - friendly staff, helpful but not intrusive, and honestly trying to please. The waitress confirmed the order and the waiter who spilled a few of my chips on the table brought a bowl of fresh ones.

Bonus - the decor wasn't tacky, froofy or embarrassing. It was minimalist, with a southwestern feel. No plastic cacti or sombreros with poofballs on walls or all those other things that make me avoid Tex Mex restaurants.

It was nearly empty at 5pm on a Friday night, and that just ain't right - though it seemed they were setting up for a party downstairs.

So. Um. Go here!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Racist Toothpaste

For those of you who are already familiar with Darlie (which used to be labeled with something much more offensive, differing from "Darlie" by just one letter), you must know that the label in Chinese has not been changed. In Chinese, it's still "Black Man Toothpaste".

Seems offensive enough already, right?

Now pair that with the travel toothpaste you get in many hotels, which conveniently has an English label on one side...



...wait for it...

...and yes, the backside of the smaller tube says "White Man" in Chinese.

I believe "guffaw" is the correct reaction here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The New Year's Taiwan Loop II (South Link Railway and Taidong)

After a day and a half in Tainan and Anping, we took a short trip down to Gaoxiong (sorry, Kaohsiung just looks funny) and spent just a few hours wandering down by the Love River.

Recommendation: Don't go to the Love River during the day. It's quite boring and the city views aren't even that great. Do something else - go to Chaishan and the Old British Consulate, or explore Cijin island, go to Little Liuqiu, Meinong, Zuoying or do anything else. Save Love River for an evening when its promenades show some sign of life, when the city lights make Gaoxiong look beautiful (it's not a bad city, but it's not on my hot list of scenic cities of the world), and when the beer gardens are open. We had to leave that area and go searching in Yancheng for some food.

We ended up eating a delicious, inexpensive and relatively healthy meal at a small restaurant near the City God Temple.

One of the lions outside the City God temple.

Then we boarded the South Link Railway. On this segment of the railroad, you can't go north past Taidong, and I am not sure if you can do so on the Gaoxiong side. There are plenty of options along the way, though. Hengchun is not only the jumping-off point for Kending, but also boasts its own natural gas-and-water hot spring in which bubbles of gas catch fire as they exit the water. Guanzilin has something similar. Taimali looks like an interesting stop; the name is almost certainly of aboriginal extraction and my students later told me that if I want to try local food, Taimali is the place to do it. Taidong really doesn't compare on a culinary level.

The scenery along the way is also quite spectacular. It begins with the fading industrial plain and turns to southern countryside before ringing several palm forests and then coming out along the eastern shore, with nothing but sea views on one side, and mountain vistas on the other. I took a few photos, but not many came out well. I am, however, quite happy with this one:

This railway is a good alternative for a scenic ride along the southeastern mountains, as the Suao-Hualien stretch of railway is mostly tunnels and you get very little in the way of good views.

We arrived in Taidong at sunset and went to our hotel (Ming Yu hotel, off Zhonghua Road - good value for money at $2500 or so a night for a clean room with lots of amenities, though we didn't use the breakfast coupons for McDonald's because we don't really like McDonald's and anyway, it was too far to walk. Bonus: gangta rap in the lobby. Ha). There isn't much to do in Taidong, so we satisfied ourselves with a grazing dinner of dumplings, stinky tofu and other snacks and headed back early.

I enjoyed the fresh sea air of Taidong - it was softer, milder and cleaner than elsewhere in Taiwan and the light had a different, almost filtered, quality. I think that and the mountains in the distance really made the city for me, because the urban bustle is all but nonexistent. On the second day (Sunday) we checked out the night market but it was already winding down at 9:30 (!!) - all that was left were games, knock-off accessories and fried food. I was hoping for more aboriginal fare but there was none to be had.

We're not really museum people - I, for one, prefer to see life in action rather than a display case - so we forwent the Museum of Prehistory and spent the second day hopping up the east coast to Sanxiantai and Baxiandong.

Sanxiantai - or Three Immortals Platform - was beautiful:

...with lots of rocks, paths, crevices, niches, stairs, walkways and caves to explore. We never made it to the lighthouse, but we did find a path through a cave on the larger of the "immortals" (the rocks, presumably volcanic in origin) which was quite a lot of fun, and included lots of scrambling to get to.

The souvenir and food area nearby isn't so bad - you can buy CDs of aboriginal music, decent food and good seafood, and grab a cup of coffee afterwards to warm up on a cool, windy day. It's also very accessible by bus and very near the fishing town of Chenggong.

Baxiandong (Eight Immortals Caves), however, was something of a disappointment. The sea views were lovely, and we did see a monkey playing in the trees on our way down, so all was not lost. The exhibit housing the neolithic tools found was quite small, however, and the Daoist grottoes were kind of tacky. Tthe group of meditators at the top were very peaceful and lent a lovely air to the place, though.

The grottoes of Baxiandong
Obviously not a neolithic cave sculpture, but photogenic nonetheless.

We returned to Taidong via Chenggong, where we stopped for a lovely seafood dinner of squid, a heavy fish with an almost chicken-like texture to the flesh, clams and shrimp with egg. There's not much going on in Chenggong but it's a good place to grab a meal.

The next day we returned to Taipei from Taidong via the East Rift Valley. Riding a train with large windows that beautifully framed the passing scenery, I've decided that this has to be one of the most scenic railway journeys one can take not only in Taiwan, but in the world. Especially when crops are in full bloom - we seem to have hit mustard or rapeseed season by the look of the yellow fields. You can see mountains on both sides and rural roads twisting away like ribbons between the fields, and it's wonderful just to contemplate, even if you don't stop. Taking the railway, in this way, is better than driving because you don't have to pay attention to the road; you can admire what's around you instead.

I enjoyed snapping pictures along this route, thinking about how much fun it is to watch the natural and human worlds take turns dropping things in front of you, and as you move, twisting them around into new positions and scenes. Your job, as the photographer of that scene, is to snap right when those arrangements are best. Wait for that unfurled road when it's most striking, or take the shot when the sun hits the water just so, or the cloud passes right there. When the person walks in front of the building in exactly that way, or when a bicyclist or vendor moves a little bit to make the scene more compelling.

I'm not very good at this, of course, but it's wonderful to think about.

The Taiwan Coastal Loop I (Tainan)

We rang in the New Year 2009 with a five-day trip around Taiwan by high speed rail, regular rail and bus. Starting in Taipei, we took the HSR to Tainan and enjoyed two days there (this was my third trip to Tainan, as well as Brendan's; a second trip for Emily and my sister's first).

Of course, before that, we went to SYS Memorial Hall to watch the 101 fireworks, like the rest of the city. My sister had never seen them before and was dying to go, so I figured a third New Year's Eve doing just that was no big deal (I didn't care either way, as I've seen it so many times.)

Then we headed to On Tap somewhere near Anhe Road for drinks - I don't recommend it. The fries and buffalo wings are good, but the "nachos" are not nachos at all and the bartender gave us a hard time about providing a pitcher of Guinness (we don't like any of the lighter options normally sold in pitchers) and then when they did agree, brought us a pitcher full of head. We let it settle only to find that we barely had 3/4 of a pitcher of actual beer. Then they were difficult about pouring a pitcher of Snakebite...and this is a British pub? Pfft.

Also, all the big old dudes dancing with young local girls - I've got nothing against chubby folks (I am so myself) and nothing against older guys, but come on. The 'old chubby sweater guy with the young bikini top wearing local in a glittery cowboy hat' is not only lame, it's old.

We all slept very well on the HSR, regardless.

Fortunately us Tainan veterans got to see a lot of things that are not on the main tourist loop; we did see the usual sights (Chihkan Towers, the God of War Temple, the area around Anping) but we enjoyed heading out of the way a bit to take in quieter pleasures such as the Wind God Temple, Medicine God Temple, Five Canals area and some of the less-explored backstreets of Anping. We saw lots of domestic tourists but no foreigners at the Julius Mannich house and Eternal Golden Castle fort (not so much a fort as a pleasant 'this used to be a fort' area) and had a long, pleasant stroll around the harbor area of Anping, where hundreds of locals were out with their myriad dogs, flying kites, or both.

Some photos from Tainan:

I believe this guy is in one of the back rooms of the lesser-visited temples; either the Haian Temple across the street from the Wind God Temple, or behind Kaiji Guangong Temple.

We saw this kind of flag outside all temples in Tainan; either something I haven't noticed before, or placed there for a specific reason at this time. I remember seeing them last during a zhentou (god processional) near Shuanglian in Taipei, they were wielded by a group of people offering money to ghosts and demons. Note the black and white color and the bent, knotted staff. Some of these flags were in very poor condition - faded and tattered. I tried asking a few locals about them but nobody wanted to tell me, or they lacked the language to tell me at my level of Chinese, or they just didn't really know.

Any ideas? I'm mighty curious. One guy said that the staff was bent because of "the wind" (yeah right) and that the flags were tattered "from overuse" (maybe). The fact that I've only seen these flags in ghost offering ceremonies or outside temples in Tainan on the day we were there makes me wonder. Anyone who knows, please do comment.

The 'lion of Anping' which can be seen on doors, walls and on tchotckes in souvenir shops all over the district. This was on a backstreet off of Zhongxin Road.

The famous Chihkan Towers. Definitely worth a stop, but I advise going in the late afternoon as the light turns orange, then lavender, and the sun finally sets. It's much more atmospheric than going during the day with all the tour groups.

Doorway down a historic street in the Five Canals area, near the Water Fairy Market (which is really just a typical market with a lovely little temple inside).

Interesting wall near the Five Canals area. Note the spray painted bugs near the bottom. We're pretty sure this used to be a pet store that specialized in exotic insects.

I realize you can see sugar cane guys everywhere, but I liked this photo, so thought I'd share. I think it's well composed, and I love the slicing action it captures.

Something I love about Tainan is how the outside is bright and sunny - we got sunburns in December! - but venture inside any of the historic sights and you are confronted with cooler air, dark wood and old veneers. The light and mood of the place immediately changes.

You can also see it here:

The old gate and entrance to the Wind God Temple.

The Mazu statue (I believe it's Mazu) looking out over Anping harbor as kites fly in the background. I like how she came out peach colored (the setting sun was behind me as I took this photo) with the blue sky background, which you can see fading to dusk at the edges.

Brendan and Becca at Anping Harbor. Very Beatles album cover-y, methinks.
Some recommendations for Tainan:

Hud La Voos
Tainan City, Zhongshan Rd. Lane 82 #6

Aboriginal bar owned and operated by Bunun people. Very friendly, usually not crowded, with big comfy couches upstairs and interesting decorations - wall paintings in what I presume are Bunun designs, photos, fabrics and a skull (monkey?) which is probably real as the bathroom faucet. They have a full menu of generally good food, including Chinese staples (kung pao chicken, ma po doufu, dumplings), aboriginal dishes (the usual mountain pig, freshwater prawns and dried squid, as well as fried baby hornets, cricket stew and mountain rat. They also have a full drinks menu including their own concoctions with millet wine as a mixed drink ingredient. I recommend the "Spirit People".

Chikan Danzi Mian
Tainan City Minzu Road Section 2 #180 (just east of Chihkan Towers)

It's much more than the usual Danzimian (or rather, ganzai mian) - set in three old shophouses that have been remodeled as one unit, they have a menu of local specialties including fish belly, shrimp rolls, bamboo cup rice and, of course, danzi mian. They also have an extensive buffet of lu wei, which is expertly cooked. The tea is ultra-sweet and the desserts are not as good as the food (for good dou hua, go to the touristy-type place on Anping Road with the old-fashioned decor, and skip the creme brulee thing completely.)

Slack Season Danzi Mian
Tainan City #16 Zhongzheng Road

Really famous place and also easy to find in the Rough Guide, so I'll just plug it here and say that it's good.

That Touristy Restaurant on Anping Road
I have no idea what the address of this place is, or even what it's called, but it's on the left as you enter Anping Road from Fort Zeelandia and looks all old-style, with a terra cotta lion over a brick edifice and lanterns.

The food is OK - standard xiao chi - and the decor is great. The reason to come here, though, is for the dou hua. Truly the best dou hua I've ever had - the tofu was so silken, it was like pudding. I don't think I've ever had creamy tofu before this!