Sunday, March 31, 2013

Post trip Taiwan 2013 - Taipei

Taipei, the shopping mecca of Taiwan!

We were staying at an apartment booked from airbnb, nearest mrt station: Zhongxiao Dunhua. This is as downtown as it can get, with Taipei 101 and the shopping Xinyi district to the right and the shopping/hopping Zhongxiao Fuxing area with its Sogo, Breeze Center, Yong Kang St and karaoke joints and clubs one mrt stop away to the left.

I was delighted to find that there was an Eslite branch near our apartment and better yet, that particular Eslite branch was open 24 hrs every day! However, only the main section was open 24 hrs. The children's section of the bookstore was not open until 11 am daily.

Scheduling Taipei at the end of our trip meant that we needed to be smart about all our choices in Taipei; where to eat and where to shop. I told SO "Effectively, we only have 4 meals in Taipei. So you have to tell me what you want to eat, so I can find the right restaurant in Taipei".

BBQ beef at Yuan Shao. This was the only picture of the entire meal! 

In our 2 days in Taipei, we had barbecued beef, Japanese tempura (just like in Tokyo!), Taiwanese beef noodles. I also found out about this famous breakfast place in Taipei and we decided to go since DD is an early riser. Fu Hang (closest mrt station: Shandao station) is a breakfast joint open from 5.30-10.30 am. When we reached there around 9 am on a Friday morning, the queue had extended from the second floor where Fu Hang was to the ground level and outside the building itself.

Place your orders at Fu Hang! 

 Seats available as no one lingers after eating

Hou Bing w/ egg on the left, shao bing w/ you tiao on the right

We were slightly daunted by the queue but I took DD for a walk around the building and came back to see that the line was moving quite fast. We decided to persist and have breakfast there. This place was indeed famous with both Taipei people and tourists. The ladies in front of us in the queue were from Taipei who were bringing their Taiwanese friend to check out Fu Hang and the ladies behind us in the queue were from Japan and placed their order by showing the staff a picture on their mobile phone. To boot, when I told our Taipei friends that we had gone to a famous place for breakfast that morning without mentioning the name, her first comment was "Fu Hang?"

At the counter, customers were asked to order their drink first (hot/cold soy milk) and to place food orders with another staff further down the counter. I ordered hot soy milk but did not expect it to come in bowls. I asked the staff for the soy milk to be in cups (so it would be easier for DD to drink from) and the only cups they had were effectively for take-away, in sealed tops just like bubble-tea drinks. We tried a variety of their offerings, hou bing with egg and shao bing with you tiao. We agreed that the hou bing was far superior.

 Japanese tempura for lunch

Rice, miso soup, salad and pickles as part of my tempura lunch set

I had done very little shopping throughout the trip, intending to shop in Taipei. I had bought books from Eslite whenever I woke up early in Taipei. It felt different to be wandering a bookstore at 6 am with a few customers and yet to go back to the same store at 11 pm on the same day (Friday) and have the store packed to the brim with customers.

Near our apartment, just outside the Zhongxiao Dunhua mrt exit 2, is a 24 hr Watsons (green arrow shows the location of the Watsons). This was a 2 storey Watsons and carried quite a good range of products. I managed to buy For Beloved One masks for a friend and picked up some Dr Wu products which I have been meaning to try since the store was having a 15% off on Dr Wu products.

As I only had a couple of hours to do my shopping alone (SO agreed to take over child-rearing duties solely for a few hours), I decided to focus on what I really wanted: lingere. We headed off to Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Xinyi as there was a playarea in the Xinyi area that SO could entertain DD at. Lingere shopping is indeed a different experience in Taipei!

On the whole, everyone in our travel party was happy with the trip. SO was happy as we did very little shopping, got to see sights and had a leisurely time travelling and ate good food. DD was happy to have gone to the ranch and farm and played with other kids. SO and I were talking about the pace of this trip on the flight back and how we should try to duplicate the pace for our future trips and the places in Taiwan we should visit next.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Post trip Taiwan 2013 - Yilan

After checking out of Silks Palace Taroko, we took the hotel shuttle bus to the nearest train station, Xincheng, thinking it would save some time to Yilan as it was closer to Yilan than Hualien station.

It worked out well but it could have been a disaster. Xincheng station is a small station which is the closest train station to Taroko Gorge. The station were packed with tourists alighting from their tour coaches and tour guides leading the way for them to take the trains.

View from the 2nd storey of our accommoadtion in Yilan

Our next stay was a minsu, or Taiwanese B & B which I read about in a travel book. We checked in and promptly headed to a farm popular with Taipei weekenders, Guan Shing Leisure Farm. The farm was smaller than Shin Kong Chao Feng Ranch in Hualien, but they had clams and other art and craft activities for kids.

After the farm, we headed to the Luodong night market was famous, we decided to head there for dinner on our first night in Yilan.

Spring onion pie

Sausage wrapped in pig's caul

We followed the crowd, queueing at the food stalls. Had a good time, although not as satisfying as I thought. The night market here tended to serve a lot of deep fried food, unlike Hualien where one could still buy barbecued corn and porridge etc.

Breakfast provided by our minsu (I'd admit it, I selected the minsu on the strength of their breakfast)

We got up early the next day to take the Yilan tourist shuttle bus to the Traditional Arts Center (approx NT36 for 1 adult, one way).

The Traditional Arts Center, Mandarin name: 国立傳統藝術中心, is located near the Dong Shan river area and the nearest main train station is Luodong. When we got there, I managed to borrow a complimentary stroller from the customer service. We got there just in time to watch their morning show, a parade of sorts through the Arts Center.

Performers during the parade

Performers during the parade when they moved to a staged area

The Traditional Arts Center was fascinating for both adults and children. Other than the show/parade through the Center which repeats again in the afternoon, there were shops selling supposedly unique Taiwanese things. I felt the various shops sold unique things and there weren't any 2 shops that sold the same things or same types. They had Cartoon King, a shop famous in Taichung for its paper products and I was sorely tempted to get the travel stool!

Can you spot my DD?

There were plenty of food joints, ranging from a food court to restaurants and stalls selling ice cream, pop corn and bubble tea. We ended taking a walk through the garden area of the Traditional Arts Center and checking out the 'dying arts' exhibition at the museum. It was interesting to see traditional arts like paper puppet making, embroidery, etc and their evolution in Taiwan.

We left the Traditional Arts Center for Luna Plaza, a shopping mall near Yilan train station. This is the big shopping mall in the Yilan area and has a hypermart (Carrefour), bookshop (Eslite) and the usual suspects in a departmental store. It is linked to Silks Palace Yilan, a hotel our friend had assured us had a super cool kids playarea for hotel guests.

After whiling away the time at Eslite (I love bookstores!), we headed out to dinner. Yilan is famous for 'no menu' restaurants, also known as tasting menu or omakase (for those who are used to Japanese cuisine). These restaurants typically do not have any a la carte menu for you to pick and choose from, merely menus of different price tags e.g. NTD$1500 (approx SGD$75) or NT$3000 (approx SGD$150). Arguably the most famous 'no menu' restaurant in Yilan is Glass House. We did not go there as the owners of the minsu we were staying in told us it was mighty hard to call in to book a table.

Outside the restaurant

Our menu presented at the table (but the server did introduce each dish verbally too)

So we decided to check out another place instead. After much extensive research, on Taiwanese food blogs etc (my ability to read traditional Mandarin improved vastly after doing the various readings for this trip), we eventually selected one restaurant. We were very happy with both the restaurant's food and the decoration of the restaurant itself.

DD's table setting. They provided seafood porridge for her at no extra cost and which she gulped down. It was super tasty as porridge goes (different from the Cantonese type of congee). 

So happy with the food here, in fact, I believe, I was 'rewarded' by Mr effort to take over the child-rearing duties for 3 hrs in Taipei so I could shop to my heart's content (more about shopping later). Mr effort loved the sashimi here and I loved the uni (sea urchin) with tofu which was a replacement for the sashimi. Haagen-Daaz uni!
Fantastic sashimi

An amuse bouche they presented to us at the table. Would not have thought of pairing panko crumbs, strawberries, mayonnaise, cabbage and seaweed as a roll! They even gave a piece of the seaweed for DD for her to eat. 

Both of us, being used to eating beef medium, were not used to the beef dish they served here which was cooked well-done. Mr effort didn't like the dessert they served which was a beef tomato in a slightly sweet-sour sauce, but I quite enjoyed it.

We left Yilan the next day for Taipei. We had various options of travelling to Taipei, but as we were staying in the Zhongxiao Dunhua area in Taipei, the coach was going to be more suitable rather than the train as it had a stop nearer to the Dunhua area.

Post trip Taiwan 2013 - Hualien

Best trip to Taiwan ever!

It seems like I make a trip to Taiwan every 2-3 years. SO had to clear some vacation days and we had friends currently staying in Taipei, so we decided to head off to Taiwan in March 2013. The trip before that was in May 2010, and the trip before that was 2009.

This time round, SO wanted to check out Taroko Gorge in Hualien after hearing travel stories from his colleague and I wanted to check out Yilan for its famous spring onions. Naturally, we allocated some time in Taipei to catch up with friends and to shop and eat.

The weather forecast predicted Hualien/Yilan/Taipei to be cold and rainy, so I packed rainproof winter gear for all of us. However, when I reached Taiwan, apparently they were enjoying a spurt of good weather and it wasn't until at the tail end of our trip in Taipei that the winter gear needed to be taken out. And by good weather, I mean sunny skies, slight breeze, temperatures around 25 deg C. Taxi drivers in Hualien & Yilan were wearing short-sleeved T-shirts!

Arguably the most famous attraction in Hualien is Taroko Gorge. Other attractions include Chixingtan (direct translation would be "Seven Star Beach) and Zi Qiang night market.

Taroko Gorge. Booked a half day tour from Silks Palace Taroko where we were staying. 

To entertain our toddler, we also brought her to the Shin Kong Chao Feng Ranch while staying in Hualien. It was more enjoyable than we thought and we returned much later to our accommodation than expected. We rented bicycles (one with a toddler seat) and cycled around the ranch. DD loved feeding the animals and seeing a cow in real life. The milk ice-cream sold by the ranch helped too!

Cycling in Shin Kong Chao Feng Ranch

For more details on travelling with a toddler in Hualien, check out my tripadvisor forum post.

Memorable food in Hualien includes Zi Qiang night market and Gong Zhen Bao.

Zi Qing night market: 第一家烤肉串. Meat and veggie skewers

 BBQ corn (almost at the end of the market, past the famous fruit drinks stall)

  Pick the doneness of your corn (hard, QQ, soft etc)

Weighing the corn, specifying spice level and payment

Why are there mahjong tiles?

It's your number to collect your food!

Gong Zhen Bao

The one on the stick is 蒸饺 steamed dumplings (similar to northern Chinese ‘shui jiao’, best eaten w vinegar & gingerand 小笼包 xiao long bao (size/look more like small char xiao bao). 

The owners of the accommodation we were staying at in Hualien city told us that locals head to the restaurant next to Gong Zhen Bao in a pinch as the queues for Gong Zhen Bao can get quite long.

We wanted to swing by Gong Zhen Bao on the way to the train station but didn't have time. Aw shucks!