Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Taipei Odyssey

So... where to begin...
Ah yes...
Let's start at the very beginning.

I know very little about Taiwan aside from the fact that they are being reclaimed by mainland China and that they are descended from rebels that fought the Communists.

We chose Taiwan because the flight was on sale and my buddy David needed to renew his visa. (so he can stay longer in the Philippines.)
David's a good friend from San Antonio and we've traveled together a lot in the past around Texas with other groups of friends. He is our guest here in my house in the Philippines for his 3 month stay.

I said I'd go if the country is interesting. Taiwan? Sure.
So I went.

We booked a 4 day outing. A day to get there, 2 full days to explore and a day to get back.
We booked Air Asia with Yomi Hotel as our hotel. (more on this hotel later)

Day 1:
Clark Airport was a breeze to get through. No hassle and it was wonderful. I highly recommend it. Flight is an easy 2 hours so that's also great. The flight was cheap because they will sell you literally everything on the flight --including water bottles.
We refused. If the online reviewers were correct, we were in for a gastronomic delight 2 hours from now anyway.

Once we got there in Taiwan, the tour de force began.
OK, my imaginings of Taiwan is third world. I bet most of us imagine this crowded Asian metropolis bustling with people.
That part is true. It is a huge metropolis. It is bustling with people. It looks like Manhattan or downtown LA. But that's where the similarities end.
This is NO third world country.
In fact... I have never seen anything like this. Ever.

It appears third world because of its old buildings retrofitted with electric cables, aircon boxes out of every window and dangling wires, but the attitude, equipment, way of life and population are first world --on steroids, I may add.

I was so pleasantly surprised straight from the start!
Every public toilet was spotless and odorless. That's a major first.
They even had decorations like glass vases overflowing with plastic flowers. The stalls are closed all the way to the bottom. These are comparable to any quality hotel. The fixtures are not what I call "prison toilet" style where they are either so ugly or so bolted down that nobody would steal them. Clearly, stealing toilet equipment or even vandalism is not a problem here in this country.
Speaking of that...
There is NO grafitti on the toilet stalls or on ANY wall.
No matter what alley you turn to, there is not a piece of candy wrapper on the ground. It is first class and soooo CIVILIZED!

Back to the terminals.
The attention to detail is phenomenal. Everywhere there are signs and directions are fairly easy to follow. within minutes, we were buying bus, subway and high speed rail tokens.
Very rarely is anything out of order. All the machines work. That's just how it is.

Oh, the High speed rail...
I can write a whole essay about that alone. :)
I will describe it in 3 sentences.
It runs at 250 KPH.
Interiors and seats are better than half the airlines I've been in minus the stinky carpet odor and stifling airconditioning.
They even have stewardesses pushing trolleys down the aisle selling food.

Once we got to the city, the surprises don't end. They've just begun.
Like I said, the street level activity is frenetic. Lots of pedestrians and scooters.
There are NO beggars in Taipei city. There is no smell of urine on the walls and alleys. And did I mention there is not a spot of trash anywhere? People clean up after themselves. Even the vendor who sells boiled corn is well dressed.
Let that sink in... Well dressed street vendors! The woman hawking some eggs on a stick wore a fur trimmed coat.
This is civilization on a whole new level, clearly.

To the guys reading, yeah, 50% of the women are good looking and the other 50% are freaking gorgeous. When you are around younger girls, fashion-wise, it's like being in a perpetual Anime convention minus the coloful wigs and plastic swords.
OK, enough about the women. :)
The people in general share one trait with New Yorkers: Everyone is FIT. I tried to spot an obese person, there just isn't one! Sure, there's overweight folks, but everyone will fit in a normal chair (ya know what I mean). I am probably one of the fattest around there. Everyone is so fit because everyone walks.

Escalator Etiquette:
Everyone standing in escalators is on the right. People rushing overtake on the left. That is just a rule and we expats all picked that up fast without being told.

And the scooters! OMG. Yeah, I am based right now in the PHilippines and there's lots of scooters here? But good God, there's a LOT of scooters there!

And yet again, the Chinese attention to detail on how they handle scooter traffic is phenomenal. EVeryone's so disciplined and everyone just hums along nicely. Scooters have their own waiting box at every intersection and every "go" signal looks like the start of some derby. They line up nicely too. It's not harum scarum like I saw elsewhere. It's safe to be in a scooter that everyone is on one not just daredevil males. Women, businessmen, old people... the only ones not on scooters are probably people below the age of 15 or something.
You just have to see all those motorbikes parked in a neat row everywhere as if Rain Man parked them all to know what I am talking about. Every alleyway is well lit and clean.
It's all soooo... CIVILIZED. :)

I haven't even gotten to the part about us getting to the hotel, haven't I?
These are just first impressions and they carried throughout our stay wherever we went so we know this isn't just in the city. EVERYONE everywhere does it.

This is another major OMG on my part.
I mean, what do we envision about Taipei and a hotel in such a crowded bustling district? Smoky lounges? Skeezy Chinaman at the counter twirling his fu manchu mustache? Pallet beds?
The truth is, the little hotel we were at wasn't even the top of the line ones that were way more expensive. On the hotel meter we looked at, maybe this would be cost-wise about 4 out of 10 on the money scale.

I've been on a LOT of hotels.
This little hotel was maybe 10 floors with around 6-8 rooms per floor?
I am not kidding when I say this place is so packed with amenities all you need to do is show up with your clothes. That's it. Any toiletry you can think of, it's there. There's even a soap packet for women to --erm wash their special parts with?
Unlike most hotels, all the snacks and coffee were indeed free. And they were replenished each time you took something away from the little table in the room. There was also free water in bottles...

And the toilet of this hotel! :) If you think the public restrooms are awesome...
this is another OMG... so many OMG moments, I am moved to tears to think there is a country that is so... top of the line like this.
Their bowls actually have bidets.
and the shower... this is a FIRST for me.
They have full shampoo and body wash dispensers on. the. wall! Obviously, they trust that whoever uses them won't just go crazy and use up all the shampoo they can JUST because they can, you know what I mean?
You get the sense this society really trusts you to do the right thing.
It's sooo.... (all together now) CIVILIZED!

I realize I haven't even begun to make a dent into the days we were here.
These are just the general impressions and experiences we had in our 4 days here.
David and I would talk so much about the many surprises and yeah, we would be envious at times at the sheer attention these people have to amenities and human comfort.
And the level of trust they have! Obviously, they expect people to act like decent human beings and these surroundings bear that out. Man, we were in a totally new world.

OK, so having checked in...
We went out and sampled some of the street food on offer.
And this is the best part of Taipei... Those of us who travel to Asia and elsewhere know that the cheap and flavorful food is what draws us there.
This whole city is one big restaurant. From street cart vendors to holes in the wall places to full five star restaurants and every concievable size in between, if you can imagine it, they have it. EVen the McDonald's and KFC's have been Taiwanized so that some dishes are so tempting to try out... but no, we are here to have Taiwanese cuisine so this we must have!

A giant mall and a giant restaurant city. You would not believe all the shopping areas of this place! Almost every train station has an underground mall and more shops above ground.

My dinner here was a noodle soup with fried pork in an actual restaurant place along with some boiled veggies. David got the panfried noodles. We both chose hand cut noodles instead of the long egg noodles because well, never tried them before.
We then found a couple of vendors. One was a middle aged lady who served pan seared pancakes stuffed with mung bean paste (David would keep returning to this one lady in the coming days because he liked the flavor so much and that she sold her pancakes at only T$25 a piece - 30 Taiwanese dollars being equivalent to one US dollar.) We found one that served what the guidebooks say are fried chicken bites. They are heavily seasoned, spicy and crunchy. They are ok, but what bothered me is that they were made with chopped chicken --bones and all-- that which on occasion you would get in your chicken nugget. Me being somewhat of a chicken strip connosieur, it's a bit of a turn off to be honest. That's my one food semi-disappointment of the whole trip.

Just got out of the bakeshop behind me. I will be on my way to get some pearl milk tea.

This city is touted by the locals as the pearl milk tea capital of the world. I am not sure if that is true, but there sure are a PLETHORA of bubble milk tea places! So each day, I would try one or two flavors. I had one tonight after our meals of seared pancake stuffed with mung bean and the not so gratifying chicken bites. (on the upside, their fried squid was a success with me. But then, I am also a calamari connosieur and I've had better calamari elsewhere -- Italian restaurant in NYC comes to mind.)

One last thing about the hotel room. Just like an Asian airline, they provide disposable slippers in the room. That really makes one feel right at home so we both slept well. I took the bed by the window and David the one near the door.

Day 2:
Our first whole day.
I will try to be brief with this but it is hard.
Breakfast was a stunner. I am used to being spoiled by breakfast buffets in other hotels. But for sheer variety, this little Yomi hotel takes the cake.
You have your usual continental breakfast of bread, eggs, Canadian bacon (or ham), salami, sugar cereals, cheese, butter, marmalade, etc... But along with that comes the Asian counterpart which is rice, congee (and about 10 things to add to that congee which are various pickled vegetables, tofu and fresh greens), 3 cooked whole dishes that look like they belong to a lunch buffet (beef, pork and chicken dishes with heavy veggies), and a smattering of salads and chopped nuts.
Milk, soy milk, and various pastries round out the selection. There is a conveyor belt toaster that is always on and will take anything from slices of bread to meat (I "grilled" my bacon on there by passing them through instead of just bread and cheese to melt)
There's 3 coffee brewers. This ain't your gasoline station coffee... this is those machines in Starbucks that dispense espressos, lattes and regular brew!
It's an incredible setup and so cool!
So naturally, we had what I would call a brunch that lasted almost 2 hours.

But off we need to be so off we went eventually.
One more thing to note about the hotel room.
After a few seconds of being "on", all the interior lights will shut off if you don't have the room key inserted in a special slot with a sensor by the door. This design is so brilliant, it's one of those "of course they'll think of that" moments that quickly added up as we commenced our exploration.
What a no brainer.
You have to be in the room for the lights to work! The idea is so simple yet this is the first time I have ever encountered something like this.
Brilliant... and... Civilized.

So what did we do on our first day?
I figured that if we are gonna explore Taipei, we'd be better off doing the far things first.
Taipei 101 was our first foray. I plotted our course and because of the brilliant railway network, it was easy to thread our way to the place with the help of Google map prints and the maps they have available.

What can I say? It's massive and so tall! Even though it now is 3rd in the rankings, it is a very impressive sight.
The interiors are just as lavish with the first 5 floors dedicated to upscale shops and restaurants. Needless to say, brand names and those kinds of status symbols are not impressive to me or David.
When we found out about the hour long wait to get to the top, well, we just had to admire it from the outside. We had other places to be at!

A last minute change in plans landed us far south of the city... riding an MRT that went through 2 mountain ranges the size of the ones near Clark in Angeles. Wouldn't you believe it? the Taipei 101 is so tall, you can see its top floors on the other side of the mountain chain! That's definitely another first for me.
Taipei's buildings may be 3rd world old, (think Metro Manila old building appearance) but the public works are first class. Not a single pothole in sight. the MRT is resplendent and the ride so smooth, it feels like you are in a limo. They must have a really nice suspension system.

The landscape outside Taipei city is just beautiful. Rolling mountains with pristine forests alternating with big pockets of civilization --again think of old buildings circa 1950's retrofitted with wires, antennae, and the ubiquitous airconditioner box sticking out of one window. In between the nature and the buildings are vacant lots planted with all kinds of gardens... mostly food, I suspect. And the larger plots of flat land probably for farming. Every little space is used wisely. And the scooters are parked in neat rows everywhere.
And the people everywhere.... oh, the people!
The trains are quiet and nobody plays obnoxious music or talks too loud on the phone. Everyone is well dressed again and not a beggar in sight. Cops are skinny and FIT. Everyone smiles and bows and is very courteous.

It is also obvious that we who visit these countries... ahem, we are the cream of our countries' crop as well. heheh!
You won't see any slackers among us too. EVeryone is on their A-game. Even the guys who come in who look like punks are actually well behaved and know all the rules. It is impressive to see and observe. David asked a European looking young man for directions and he gave it to us... then turned around and spoke perfect sounding Chinese to another lady behind us.
 I am very proud of our performance. The image of the bumbling foreigner is long gone, I think. :) The new travelers I have flown with anywhere outside the US of A and many other places is a smart cosmopolitan citizen of the world.

Where was I?
Oh yeah, we went south to see 3 temples.
But the unexpected joy was to be found in a lovely cable car ride that one took to get up to those mountain top temples.
The views were exquisite and just wonderful.
Below us was virgin, overgrown forest butting up against well laid squares of civilization. It's an incredible contrast of nature and human habitation at its finest. I did not imagine I'd see something like this in what was once Asia's factory island. It's an incredible sight. You can even hear jungle birds chirping in the woods as you pass by high up in your cable car!
I took so many pictures of the views all around us. It's a wonderful trip and it was a true gift and privilege to behold such majesty of human achievement.
And of course, once we got up there...
Oh, the temples! Straight out of a kung fu movie, of course only they're freaking real and you really see people praying with incense sticks. So wonderfully serene, all of it.

Almost everyday I had noodles. This was a delicious fish ball noodle soup to go with some takeout sushi.

We spent some time walking to all 3. One was rather small but the other two... immense structures! and the gardens surrounding them were just lovely. Even the people sweeping the stone pathways had uniforms and were well dressed. You can tell these aren't like goofball losers who can't find any other job so they are sweepers. They take pride in their meticulous work. (the cleaning ladies of the airport and all the train stations are all like that... they all look professional with their uniforms --nobody does stupid things like "personalize" their outfits by putting colorful bandannas on their heads... none of that! They don't chew gum during work and they don't have loud music blaring in their ears.)

The 2 Chinese men we shared the cable car ride back with were also very courteous. We all gazed at the scenery as if monks contemplating on a rock garden. Occasionally, one of us would speak but only to point out something to the other and exchange hushed whispers.
When we were alone of course on the trip up, David and I had one cable car to ourselves (it seats maybe 6) so we could be as loud as we wanted because there was so much stuff to see and appreciate.

Back on terra firma, we found our way back to the center of Taipei city and on a quest for more food.
This time around, I did indulge a bit of a craving for sushi. I got 2 packs of 8 sushi rolls for a total of T$220. ($9 USD)
David located the kind middle aged lady with the pancakes and we also found a bakery which sold a lot of wonderful buns.
The Taiwanese love their baked goods!
Reminds me of the Aussies love of baked goods. And each of them is run by a single proprietor or small business.

Well, anyway, I found a small noodle shop with 8 tables.
We got by this whole experience by pointing and pantomiming. So this whole trip was like one big game of Gestures or Pictionary.
At one point, I even acted like a chicken with my arms as flapping wings in asking if the dish was made of chicken. It's hard to tell oftentimes for the sauces would be heavy or the filling would be finely ground you cannot distinguish foods.
I never thought I'd do the chicken dance in the middle of downtown Taipei...

We purchased our usual pastries from the bakeshops and I bought home the finest bubble tea to date: white gourd. I have no clue what that is, but based on the description I ordered it. I suspect it kept me awake till 1 AM but I did not care. We both knew we were under no pressure to wake up at a certain time.
That's what is wonderful about finding a travel buddy that's compatible with your time schedule. When I take a vacation, I don't look at clocks. Aside from the plane flight, nothing's set in stone.
I am mellow about everything and every situation.
It's the best time ever.

Day 3
Learning History

Day 3 is full of learning. We broke fast at the buffet once more then headed south for a visit to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and the Taiwan History Museum. Very fascinating learning! I got to chat with a lovely Museum guide who told me a lot about the exhibits. We spent about 30 minutes just talking about the museum items.
To fully appreciate the massive scale of that thing, check out the tiny person on the right.

Noodle carts are never far away! Here I am having a light lunch on the one table the vendor set up. On the cart are the various vegetables, tofu, fish balls, chicken and many other items you can choose to put in your noodle soup. 

This is where I learned that the Chinese here in Taiwan consider themselves the "real" China. This explains the pride they have in their history and their place in the world. They are the longest continuous civilization on the planet, pretty much and they are not ashamed to tout it. From artifacts of 6,000 years old to the present, you can feel the weight of this entire civilization reverberating through time.

They trace their ancestry back to the first dynasties and then to present day Taiwan (Republic of China). No mention of the communist country beside them, of course. It's like that did not exist.
And as if to hammer down their claim as the "real China", their museums are full of the empire's treasures and the treasures of the dynasties that ruled in the past. Yep, they took as much of these artifacts with them as they fled the mainland, apparently. Given them new homes in the new country.
They have royal treasures so well preserved by every dynasty dating back 4,000 years! And they kept so many meticulous records of everything that they had and everything that went missing each time a dynasty toppled another dynasty... But the treasures remain passed down from one ruler to the next... tributes from past empires... they were there! Even tributes from Spain, England, etc... when the silk road opened up. It's an incredible span of history and they've been around through that time.
EAsily the most impressive display were those 4,500 year old jade treasures. the wood blocks they sit on look like they've been carved and lacquered yesterday. (preserved by every dynasty in their vaults for centuries)
They were using stamp pads and fine calligraphy on paper and beginning a rudimentary printing press around the time the pyramids of Egypt were being built. It is all so stunning and very humbling. No wonder they take so much pride in their country.
These people just don't think they're number one... they know and act like it.

Here's something we also learned in our museum hops:
Taiwan had indigenous peoples who share the bloodlines of Filipinos, Hawaiians and Malaysians. When the Han Chinese came to the islands around the time of the Manchu Dynasty, (400 years ago) they were ordered to pay "rent" to the indigenous mountain people as tribute for settling the land!
Just imagine the early European settlers doing that for the indians of America?
Not a chance, bub.
this and many other things such as that really change your views on how well the Chinese used to run their empire even back during the times of the Emperors.

And many of the programs the Manchu dynasty implemented during the 16th century were advanced for their time as well. They instituted areas where Han Chinese were not allowed to go to and designated them for indigenous people use only. 16th century!
The same time when supposedly "civilized" Christian Spaniards were doing all they could to take advantage of the indians they found including enslaving them.
Incredible. Just incredible stuff.

I posted of Facebook that I am probably on my honeymoon phase of this country, but no matter how dispassionately I view it now, there's just some things the Taiwanese are just dang really good at.
Being civilized is definitely one of them.

This is not only in the cities. As we rode out into the countryside, you will see no rivers with plastic bags, no empty lots with trash, no youths or ne-er do wells lollygagging... none of that! Everyone is busy and employed.
My initial paranoia about being stolen from really quickly dissipated when I realized everyone on the train--and I do mean everyone-- was probably middle class like me. There's no hawkers, no gawkers... no beggars, and no preachers. The only holy person I saw was a female monk silently just holding a bowl and some falun gong practitioners handing out leaflets telling the world how the mainland treats their followers (harshly).

Sick people wear masks to protect you from them in public. Sometimes some people wear masks to filter the air as well. Children had face masks that had cartoon characters on them.
It's a country where "thank you" ends every meeting and every conversation.
(even the regular citizens we encounter and ask... either they are super helpful or are apologetic they cannot be helpful more)
I've never seen a collective population so proud of their country and their heritage. It is amazing.

Everyone is all so... CIVILIZED!!!

Day was capped off by me visiting a sushi train restaurant. this time, I plunked down more cash for 22 pieces of sushi, sashimi, red tuna, white tuna, various rolls with salmon eggs and seared salmon. All good. We finished that with more bubble tea, more rolls from the bakery (I make it a point to try new rolls each time just like trying new flavors of bubble tea).
The food reviewers who have gone here were right: you do need several stomachs for this place. The choices are just mind blowingly awesome.

Day 4
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
Oddly enough, I had a regular continental breakfast on this last day. I had the run of the eggs, sausage, bacon (more like ham), breads and marmalade with rice.
David on the other hand, already had a program in place where he would mix the congee with fruits. This he had every morning.
The congee is simply thick, almost glutinous rice soup which is bland by itself. You customized it by adding either salty, tart or sweet elements to the mix. I'd always go for salty mixes with the pickled veggies and tofu while DAve would mix in pure fruits and soy milk.
We would be so full with this huge brunch that real lunch would be out of the question.
It was ridiculously easy to retrace our steps and even work the vending machines to purchase our tickets to the bullet train.
Once in Taipei international airport, I savored the last moments of this wonderful place. It was then I remembered that I have been in precisely this wing of the airport but back then I was merely a traveler waiting for my connecting flight. What a world I was not aware of existed just mere kilometers from where I sat!
And who would have thought that in that teeming city, there'd be lots of noodle dishes served on carts that would top the awesome one I had at the airport kiosk some years ago?

So all in all, I'd definitely go back. Even back to the same hotel!
Like I said, that middle class hotel beats out many first class hotels that I've stayed at. Sure, there's no grand pianist playing in the atrium but dang, for all the amenities they offer and the generosity with things like soap dispensers and the ubiquitous presence of hand sanitizing machines in most buildings... it's great.

Food is third world cheap, but first world quality.
Vendors serve fresh meals cooked right in front of you. There are barely any food stands where the food sits marinating in heated pans all day. The little vendors assemble your noodle dish in front of your eyes with the ingredients you select yourself (she hands you a basket and tongs and you go to town on the various ingredients you want in your noodle soup).
In many aspects, the way people conduct themselves is far and away the best quality not just of this city but of the country in general. You can see this is a nationwide habit even in the countrysides and areas outside of Taipei.
It is truly humbling to experience such human warmth in such an advanced civilization mixed into one country. Usually, you get one or the other or a smattering of both but not both things at once at a 100%.
And just like Toyota, you get a consistent product everywhere you go.

People friendly, sights wonderful... food Sumptuous...
What's not to like?
Everything was perfect except for the language barrier. But then , you are in the land where people consider themselves descendants of a 6,000 year old civilization so if you don't speak Chinese, well, better learn it or just pantomime. You are in the presence of civilization older than Rome. :)

Everything's just so... Civilized.

All told, our costs amounted to 10,000 pesos each and spending money of about 4,000 pesos for the 4 days we were there (transport, food and incidentals like museum tickets).


  1. Wonderful review of your visit! Thanks!

  2. If you can try making it over to Sun Moon Lake and spending a day or two out there. It is gorgeous and peaceful to no end.

  3. You're welcome, Tony, Karen. I will try to make it out to Sun Moon when I return, Steve. It's been a great 4 days. The food was just incredible.