Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Noodle House

The Noodle House
堂慶(character I can't read - funny script on the card) 手麵食
1st floor #103 Xinyi Road Section 3, Taipei

It's near Da'an Park, on the north side of Xinyi, very close to the Xinyi-Jianguo bus stop if you are coming from the east.

If you try any one not-expensive, low-key restaurant in Taipei, try this one. Well, this one and "Taste Good" restaurant (好 口甲 - can't type it in Taiwanese) in Nanjichang Night Market, and the Sichuanese restaurant of awesome in Dingxi that I can't say enough good things about.

Anyway. The Noodle House is spectacular, yet simple. The interior is decorated in a half-industrial, half Old China style that works really well - unfinished brick walls are painted a dark factory gray, and accented with Chinese-style carved wood. There is carved wood in lots of prominent places including at the counter and on the windows and door, and the tables are the old style square wooden ones with stools.

The Small Eats (小吃) in front of the counter are just as fresh and delicious as they look - we had mi fen (jelly-like squares made from rice flour in a chili oil sauce), cold chicken with ground Chinese chives, garlic and chili, something with tree ear mushrooms and a chewy squishy thing that was either tofu or fish-paste based, and cold cucumbers. All of it was just astoundingly good. The cold chicken is a house specialty and I highly, highly recommend it.

We also had regular green veggies (Chinese celery or 空青菜) that were fresh and good and split a bowl of regular dry noodles, also fantastic. We each got a bowl of dry wontons draped in a hua-jiao laden chili sauce that was spicy and mouth-numbing at the same time.

And it was all soooooooo good. For cheap! Everything was extremely well-made, fresh and nicely presented.

I highly recommend this place to anyone and everyone.

Da Jian Mountain (大尖山)

I apologize for not updating for some time - after a long break from wedding planning, I've realized that as dumb as this seems, photographers and DJs are already booking up for September. I think it's ridiculous that one needs to book such things six months in advance - a party for 100 people should not take this long to plan or need to be planned so far in advance, it's purely idiotic - but there it is. After several photographers I liked were either booked already, too expensive or both, we found this very talented professional. We can't afford her for more than 4 hours, but we're fine with 4 hours of coverage and getting photos from the end of the reception from guests. We'd rather have 4 hours of an amazing, offbeat, non-traditional pro than 7 hours of someone not as good, or a typical "Wedding Photographer" who takes the same dumb poses and pictures of pearls and soft focus roses for every wedding, who won't get the vibe we're going for (non-traditional "party to celebrate a marriage", with lots of color, all our favorite people, good food and shenanigans, not a Wedding with a capital W in any way except for the part where we get married. No white in sight, no roses, no satin or taffeta, no pearls, no white dress, no cake that tastes like Styrofoam, no garters, no bouquets, no YMCA, no dried up Wedding Chicken, no "giving away", none of it).

But in the midst of all that - happy to have a photographer, still no DJ because we can't afford the usual cost of a pro - we managed to go hiking last week on Dajian Mountain, and do some other fun stuff in between. More on the other stuff later.

Dajian Mountain is a mountain and scenic area in the town of Xizhi, 20 minutes east-ish of Taipei. The "summit" (not the true summit, which has less of a panoramic view) commands fine views from Taipei - including 101 in the distance - all the way to Keelung, the Pacific Ocean and Keelung Island.
A view of Taipei from Tianxiu Temple in Xizhi

You can also see Yangmingshan and Guanyinshan on the other side if the weather is clear. (Yangmingshan is peaking out over another mountain, so you can only see the top). While it is theoretically possible to set out from the Xizhi train station and climb from there, I highly recommend taking the free bus - it comes every 45 minutes to an hour from the train station to Tianxiugong (天秀宮)- a temple 3/4 of the way up the mountain. Ask around for where it picks up. If you take the bus, you won't miss much in the way of fine views that you can't get at the top.

This area is protected - at least I am pretty sure it is - and, like Pingxi, is a riot of butterflies. I saw several different species and while I'm no lepidopterist (that's your word of the day, kids), I was impressed by the color and variety found there, so someone with an interest in butterflies would quite enjoy it.

Creepy Pandas at Tianxiu Temple

We had just missed a bus so we took a taxi to Tianxiu Temple (125 kuai). We ate lunch there - there are many options, all of them mediocre) and you can also pick up water and Pocari Sweat.

Then we headed to Xiufeng (?) waterfall, up the hill and then down a peaceful, easy wooded trail that can be slippery in wet weather. The waterfall was lovely, cascading down a rippled rock face into a heart-shaped pool. The rocks were red and gray -red where the water was not constantly flowing over, allowing lichens to grow, and gray where nothing could grow due to the force of the water. The cool air spilling off the waterfall was also a treat. Down the trail a bit to the end, you'll come to an area with four chairs and what used to be a table - a fine spot for a picnic.

Red lichen rocks at the waterfall

The lovely waterfall off the side trail

After that we walked back up to the road and continued up to the viewpoint of Da Jian Mountain, hung out there, befriended some other hikers, ate lunch and continued on our way.

A view of Yangming Mountain peeking out behind a ridge

Partway up the trail, a prayer-bead holding Guanyin was placed next to a golden rooster and a maneki-neko (招財) cat.

We tried to continue along to another waterfall, skirting Monk's Head Mountain and going over a series of easy hilly summits, and then going down a slippery, narrow path through the underbrush, but met some hikers on their way up who insisted that further down, the trail was no longer passable. It had taken a lot of energy to get down, using our arms and always precariously balancing on the slippery mud and rocks, and we didn't feel like going further only to have to turn back without reaching our goal, so we turned tail and went back up the trail. We decided not to continue along but rather to walk back to Da Jian Mountain, enjoy the late afternoon and then head down on foot to Tianxiu Temple and by bus further down (though we ended up on foot for most of it as it took awhile for a bus to arrive).

An Earth God (土地公)shrine partway down the path that led nowhere

Towards the end, we tried to head to a temple at the base of the hill, not far from the train station, that has a preserved monk idol (another one, like the one we visited in Beitou a few months ago, where the idol is in fact the real body of a departed monk) - but when we got to the turn-off, it was late, we were meeting someone in Raohe Night Market for dinner soon, and it was up another hill that we were too tired to climb - so we gave it a pass for now and will revisit it some other day. We plan to return to Xizhi for the Old Street as well as the Xinshan / Dream Lake hike, anyway.

Back at Tianxiu Temple, some guy was feeding his varmint. Awww, what an adowwable wittle varmint!

Dajianshan in the late afternoon

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ice Monster

This *also* appeared in the Taipei Times this morning:

OK. Ice Monster was pretty good. I always enjoyed eating there.

But it was not the best shaved ice in the Taipei metro area. It was one of the best, sure, but come on.

Like Dintaifung or that lady in Xinzhu who sells popcorn (any local will know what you mean), it was considered the best because of its fame, not necessarily because it was the best. I like Dintaifung, though I think they are overpriced. Shanghai Dumpling on Minsheng E. Road (east of Dunhua) is just as good for 1/3 the price.

And as for Ice Monster, again it was good. But if you want fantastic shaved ice, then you need only go to Sugar House in Nanshijiao night market (The market is T-shaped - it's on the base of the T, a left turn about halfway down if you enter the market from the MRT).

China - takin' care of the peeps

This Guardian article appeared yesterday in the Taipei Times.

I have to say - seriously? Really? I would think that Kishore could do better, being the dean at a Singaporean school of public policy and career foreign service officer/UN representative and all.

A few choice quotes below - and I followed them with quips from Brendan, my wonderfully witty fiance, because his one-liners are often better than mine.

"The key to understanding Asian approaches is their pragmatism. Asians constantly adapt and change."

"Really? I'd hope that that's true of all people. Oh, those crazy non-adapting white people!"

At a recent workshop that we co-chaired in Singapore, the inevitable question was raised: can Asians lead in meeting global challenges? The responses from the Chinese and Indian participants were striking. They argued that by taking care of more than two billion people – and taking care of them well – both China and India were already making a major contribution to global stability and order.

"Well, you could argue that China is taking care of its people better than it has in any other time in recent history."

and my personal favorite -

"China takes care of its rich people well. Like all Communist societies."

So, uh, Kishore. Yeah. About that. What the hell are you smoking?! India does the best job it can of taking care of its people - I've been to India, I've seen the challenges the Indian government is up against, from natural disasters to a giant poo-storm (hey, my family reads this thing, sorry about the kid-friendly language) left by the British, to institutionalized corruption.

China may be developing faster and have a slightly wealthier populace but it's clearly on the wrong track. A track that was laid in 1984.

So...yeah, Kish. The Kishmeister. Kish-ore-rama. Um. Do you really believe that China is taking care of its 1+ billion people well? Really? Forserious?

If you do, then either you've drunk the Kool-Aid, or you've never been to China. Which, as a career diplomat, I find surprising.

Oh, wait. I studied International Affairs. I met tons of diplomats in training. I could have been one and chose not to (I'm too blunt, see). As such, I don't find it surprising at all.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival

Some photos from this past weekend's lantern festival in Shifen (near Pingxi). The quality of the photos isn't as great as it could be - my camera doesn't take fantastic night shots This is one of the few times I've felt, though, that having an older Canon PowerShot (A520) was a real hindrance, because I can't get the quality of photos I want if it's not ideally bright, or if it's too bright. That means most shots of the lanterns actually in the sky are blurrier than I'd like.

Anyway, enjoy!

Monday, February 22, 2010


So every year at Christmas I get annoying carols stuck in my head - usually Joy To The World and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. I'm not even religious! But oh well.

And as you know, Chinese New Year has its own complement of songs that are, well, just like Christmas carols (with pithy, throwaway lyrics about the season and catchy jingly tunes) except in Chinese and on a pentatonic scale.

Turns out I get these stuck in my head as well! I never realized, as until this year, I've always gone abroad for CNY.

Thanks to Matsusei - yes, the Japanese grocery chain - I got "恭喜,恭喜,恭喜你!" stuck in my head for days, to the point where people would giggle when I'd randomly start humming it in elevators. Just to get it stuck in your head, here you go. (Any long-term China/Taiwan/Singapore expats will recognize this irritating little tune, but for friends back home who read this, have fun getting it out of your skull! Mwahahaha!)

That was finally pushed out when we went to Cingjing Farm last week, and the lodge we spent all of our time in because it was too wet to hike had this Awesome Robot Confucius:

Who I realize is a prosperity god and not a Robot Confucius, but I just like the phrase "Robot Confucius" so I will continue to call him that. He was basically just like one of those annoying mechanical Santas who, when turned on, sway back and forth holding a bag of presents and sing "Jingle Bells" or some such...over and over and over again. You know what I mean.

Oh, you can't see it in the photos but he has blue eyes, which is vaguely hilarious.

Well, this guy sang the song that got the first one out of my head: 財神到 (literally "the wealth god arrives"). Turns out this song is even more irritating than "恭喜,恭喜,恭喜你".

So. I was telling some students today about getting songs stuck in one's head, and got to teach them a nifty phrase as a result ("get a song stuck in [your] head" - v phrase) and how both of these songs have been bouncing around my brain for weeks now and I've started listening to the Magnetic Fields to try and force them out.

They laughed, said the same thing happened to them, and that they have a name for the kinds of songs that seem to be implanted firmly in my cerebral cortex: 叮叮噹 or "ding-ding-dang".

叮叮噹 are those Chinese songs that "sound Chinese" - you know, like that old favorite, Kung Fu Fighting ("And everybody was kung fu fighting - 叮叮叮叮噹噹叮叮噹 - those kids were fast as lightning - 叮叮噹叮叮噹叮叮叮噹噹") that Americans find vaguely offensive and everyone in Taiwan seems to like. This is, apparently, a well-known enough phrase that if I mention "叮叮噹歌" to anyone, they'll understand instantly that I mean those old-timey Chinese-sounding songs that go, well, ding ding dang.

I love that. It's like a funky piece of cultural understanding that I'm now grateful to have. I haven't been this chuffed since I learned what a "雙-B" is.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chinese New Year Extrava-freakin'-ganza

So, we set off the day after Chinese New Year for a quick trip to Central Taiwan - the plan was to head up to Cingjing farm and hike a bit - well, walk happily in the mountain air anyway - before heading over Hehuanshan to Lishan, which our friend Emily has never been to. I've been through Cingjing twice but never stopped, but have always wanted to poke around a bit more and figured that this past week was my chance.

Oh, how I was wrong. It rained the entire time we were there, and as we were camping, in a tent, in the cold and the rain, it was mostly just miserable. We didn't feel like hiking because there was no view due to fog, and the rain was cold and horrible, and we were all already damp from tent-livin' and walking around in the cascading streams and rivulets of water around the campsite.

So, we hunkered down at Starbucks for the first day, hoping that our second day would be clearer (we were told it would be cloudy but it was not likely to rain). Emily drew a picture of what we could see from the vantage points around Cingjing:

We woke up the next day and while chilly, the sky had cleared enough to show us what we were missing: lovely views from the campsite. I snapped a few photos and am happy I did; within 20 minutes the fog was back and it was all obscured again for the rest of our stay.

And it rained some more.

Though when NOT raining, it's a gorgeous place, walkable from the bus stop and so good for visitors without their own transport. Traffic was horrible on the main road, which surprised us because it would make more sense for the weather to drive people away despite the national holiday. The owner of the lodge was very brusque and tactless, but also motherly: she'd make fun of us for sleeping in (it was COLD. And WET. And there was no view. Our sleeping bags were warm and dry. What else were we going to do?), drinking too much (it was not too much, it was about what you'd expect from three vacationers stuck in the mountains with nothing to do) and all around being weird...but then provide us with hot cooked meals as we had not brought our own stove and help us out in all sorts of ways. She also cares about aboriginal rights and economic development, and hires only local aboriginal people as workers. She yells at them the way any laobanniang (boss lady) would yell at subordinates, but also looks out for them.

To reserve grass space for a tent (NT300/night), a platform (NT800/night) or a pre-set-up 4-person tent (NT1600-1800/night) or one of their small sheltered rooms with a bathroom, call 049-2801001. The owner speaks some English but not much. To get there, get off the bus at the top of the farm (the final farm stop - NOT the Mist Center as you enter the farm - it's a large gate to a grassland with sheep and a kiosk for NT100 admission tickets). Do not enter (do not buy a ticket) but get back on the main road and walk downhill about 50 meters. Ignore the 1st sign near a parking lot for a campsite - if you can't read Chinese, it's OK, the phone # above is also on all signs - and turn left at the 2nd sign. Go downhill past cows, sheep and a huge creepy mansion. When you get to the bottom, the lodge and campsite is on the right and they play music during business hours. They have outdoor and indoor toilets (indoor open during lodge hours 7am-10:30pm), hot water, food, snacks, extra gas and other supplies for sale, beer, hot water and beverages and will feed you good meals for a fee per meal (breakfast is included free at the whim of the owner). If you bring your own mini-stove you'll be all set. There is parking if you are driving.

We mostly stayed in the lodge the 2nd day - we never wanted to see Starbucks ever again - playing cards, drinking tea and generally socializing because it was either that or stew in our shot-to-hell vacation.

At least the views from the walk up to the main road were nice, with gnarly trees poking through the fog:

...and if you measure your vacations by time spent with friends drinking beer, sharing millet wine with locals and meeting new people as well as reading novels in your spare time, the Cingjing Farm fiasco was a great success. If you measure it by gorgeous views, hiking and outdoorsy activities, it was something of a massive FAIL.

The Fengyuan Bus to Lishan was not running as snow on Hehuanshan had not been cleared from the road. The campsite laobanniang knows a driver named Mr. Chen (I know, everyone is named Mr. Chen here) with snow tires who makes the trip every day and will take people for NT600-800 per person depending on the size of your group (up to 4 I think). There are also taxis in Cingjing who will take you anywhere but they are a lot more expensive. They're run by a guy - Mr. Wang - whose business card denotes him as "Old Master". We thought about it but then called Lishan and learned that it was also raining there, so instead we chose to try it another time and head back to Puli.

Puli is a drab little town with gorgeous views in the foothills of the Central Mountains and a rich history. With no good local public transport and no one spectacular thing to do we probably wouldn't have gone if it hadn't been rainy in the mountains, but once we did we were really happy we chose to check it out. At first it was a "oh well, I guess this will suffice" but by the end of our day there, we were all thinking "man, that was really great!" We even have stuff to return to see - like the massive monastery - so we'll be back.

The outskirts of Puli, where the mountains are more visible than many towns not at a high altitude:

Notice the clouds low-slung above them. This was taken at the entrance to the lane to the Paper Museum.

In town, there were many small but poignant reminders of the 9/21 earthquake, such as spots with demolished buildings, where nobody had bothered or been able to take away striking little details, like books in old bookcases, sitting in a casement high above the ground:

This was taken outside YoYo coffee, the only coffee we could find near our hotel (the youth hostel outlined as a good option in Rough Guide Taiwan). The coffee is good but they don't open early enough! The hostel was great - I highly recommend it. NT600/night and while I guess the apartment-like dorm offered would be crowded if entirely full, it was empty so the four of us felt we were living in absolute luxury for the final day of our trip - and after 2 nights in a freezing wet tent we were grateful for it. The hostel provides rooms off of a central living room with couches and cable TV, a good bathroom with full bath and hot water, towels, a kitchen (no gas hookup though) and several bedrooms. There is internet in the "lobby" (also a lottery store) downstairs on a good computer. The boss (also a woman though a man works there too) is very friendly and speaks good English.

We first stopped by the Shaoxing Brewery which was fun in a corny sort of way, as well as poignant - the English on many signs was horrifically funny. We got a kick out of the commemorative Puli Shaoxing bottles:

You can buy one with Ma Ying-jiu on it in the shop downstairs. They also had one with an old photo of A-bian and Wu Shu-zhen labeled "A-bian and A-zhen: Brewed With Love".

Poignant because of the section dedicated to the damage to the brewery following the 9/21 earthquake.

And corny with little attractions like the House of Drunk Experiencing:

...I am pretty sure that is not how I feel when drunk.

But all in all it was an earnest effort and we had fun, plus the "VIP tasting room" at the end was fantastic - 50 kuai for a free glass and a generous taste of a product of your choice. We got more than one (I tried brandy, Ailian wedding liquor and Shaoxing 10 year aged wine) but I am not sure that is customary. The shops downstairs yielded affordable sake that we enjoyed that night, some snacks and treats and a new jar of face cream for me that is working well.

The next morning we made our way by taxi to the paper factory. The Rough Guide says one should hire a taxi for the day as sites are spread out and there aren't any local buses, but we disagree. We really only needed a taxi for the paper museum, and we'd have needed one to go to the huge monastery, but for the other museums it was really all walkable.

On the way up the road we passed a family producing and selling honey and honey products:

And bought a bottle of their delicious honey.

The paper factory was also fun, and I can see why kids would love it. We got a free, and informative, short guided tour, watching workers creating, drying and peeling paper.

Then we bought some paper (very affordable) at the gift shop and made our own prints: well as buying some very reasonably priced gifts and souvenirs. We then ate lunch and headed to the Museum of Natural Lacquerware, which is not really a "museum" but is a very interesting stop and definitely worth visiting. We learned a bit about Taiwanese lacquer products, and saw the trees that lacquer comes from:

As well as looking at the items - some artifacts, some samples, some setups of different Asian countries' method of lacquer production, some examples of refined, unrefined, clear, brown, black and red lacquers. Apparently this is how they test the quality:

And this is the lacquer master at work making spoons.

The tour is given by this guy's niece, and she's clearly taken a course in giving an engaging tour as she used some of the tricks, hooks and presentation skills I've taught my own students at companies where they will need to give tours or show foreigners around. We appreciated that - it made it, in Emily's words, "more interesting than the National Palace Museum" because the explanations were so good. It was kind of a "toot their own horn" thing - look how great natural lacquer is, by the way you can buy some here", but we honestly didn't mind as it was fun, and the products on sale were quite nice and not astronomically priced.

Our last stop was a taxi ride from Puli to Caotun on the way to Taizhong with heavy packs in the trunk - remembering this post by the Daily Bubble Tea about Ci De Temple in Caotun, we figured we ought to have a look. It's not hard to find if you go to Caotun town, have the name of it written in Chinese and preferably a printout of the map outlined on Todd's website. I recommend taking a taxi if you don't feel like walking up a steep hill. With our heavy bags, the taxi was the right choice and the driver himself was rather astounded at the temple at the top.

Rather than re-describe this masterpiece of weird, read The Daily Bubble Tea's post on it and enjoy some photos!

(On a positive note, we got to meet the guy who built the thing, Mr. Zhang. He's quite a friendly guy and was excited to show us the gift another foreigner had given him - a Batman keychain flashlight).