My Trip to Asia, Part 1: Taiwan

I flew to Taiwan the day after Thanksgiving. I spent Sunday through Wednesday hanging out in Taipei with my friend Rachel, then flew to Guiyang, China, where I went to the “SF Camp” sponsored by Future Affairs Administration and Wanda Group. I’ve been meaning to do a set of posts to share pictures with friends. Also, part of the deal with the China trip is I need to write a story, and although my story is now in progress, I think it would help to revisit the trip. If other people’s vacation photos bore you to tears, please feel free to skip these posts.

It took some time to get all the requisite ducks in a row for the trip, so I spent a lot of October and November not 100% sure that it was actually going to happen.  But by the middle of Thanksgiving week I had my visa and tickets and I flew out on Black Friday, changing planes in San Francisco.

Rachel met me at the airport and we took a bus back to her neighborhood in Taipei. There are a lot of really beautiful Temples all around Taipei, including one very close to her apartment:

A view of a temple in Taipei, taken from a balcony.

That Temple also has some pretty cool stuff close up:

A very colorful Chinese dragon sculpture in an artificial pond. The dragon is made out of some very bright material that might be tile or colored plastic.

I lost a day to the weirdness of international travel and arrived on Saturday night. On Sunday, after checking out some pretty spots in her neighborhood, Rachel and I went up a gondola (which is part of the Taipei public transit system) and had tea in this weird lovely mountaintop suburb called Maokong (which I just discovered means “cat hole.”) The main thing you do in Maokong is go to a tea house, drink tea, and admire the view.

Here’s the view from the gondola itself:

A somewhat vertigo-inducing photo of distant gondolas on a cable, taken from another gondola, over heavily wooded terrain.

We had some snacks at the top but mostly just drank a lot of tea and admired the view. If you look carefully you can see Taipei 101.

A view of a hillside with gardens and a lit road. In the distance you can just barely make out Taipei 101, a particularly well-known building in Taipei.

On the way back down we stopped at another Temple.

Many shiny gold tags with red tassles hanging from a bush.

To get a tag, you make a donation to the Temple. Each has a set of things you can check off to pray for. When we got back down, we took the train to a night market (I forget which one we went to each night) and I had chicken butts on a skewer (in the US they sell this part of the chicken but call it the chicken’s tail — in Taiwan they just call it the butt) and an oyster omelet. Before I went, Lyda had insisted I watch the Tony Bourdain Destination: Taipei episode so I could see some of the things I needed to eat. The oyster omelet was on the list. It was delicious, while not really being an omelet.

On Monday, Rachel had to go to work. I went to the National Palace Museum. I realized partway there that I was starting to get hungry, and accurately guessed that the museum food might be overpriced and not terribly good. I stopped for lunch before getting on the bus to the museum, at a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant. All ten seats were taken but there was a stool for the next person to wait and I was waved to the stool with a clear “we’ll get to you, don’t worry” attitude. When a spot opened, the woman running the restaurant gestured me back outside so I could point at the menu item I wanted. I wanted gua bao, which is a dumpling-like bun with pork belly inside. It was delicious.

You will sometimes be reassured before traveling that “everyone there speaks English” and this has never, in my experience, been true anywhere. My experience in Taiwan was that people would speak cheerful Chinese to me and expect me to grasp the essentials from tone and context.

The National Palace Museum is one of the great museums of the world. Eleanor Arnason’s summary of it goes something like, “when the Chinese Nationalists realized that they were going to lose, they picked up literally everything they could move and took it with them to Taiwan and now it’s all in the National Palace Museum.”

You are not allowed to bring food or drink into the museum, and I discovered when I went through security that they are aware that an empty water bottle is an end-run around this restriction, and they won’t let you bring in water bottles either. There’s a cloak room with lockers and also baskets with Post-It notes for you to write your name on and label your water bottle, which you can then leave in the basket if you’re not excessively worried about someone stealing it. (Which you should not be. Taiwan is one of the most weirdly crime-free cities I’ve ever spent time in. People leave bikes unlocked all over the place.)

I took pictures in the National Palace Museum but none of them turned out particularly well. Their most famous artifact, the Jadeite Cabbage, was not on display. (It’s a beautifully carved Chinese cabbage, and people line up for it.) Its companion piece, the meat-shaped stone, was on display and I did get a picture of it:

A picture of a carving in a display case that looks like a piece of pork belly.

(Yes, that is a stone that has been skillfully and delicately carved to look like a slice of pork belly.)

There was also a pretty fun VR exhibit that I had to sign up and come back for; it immersed me in the scroll painting, Along the River During the Qingming Festival (presumably the remake that’s owned by the National Palace Museum.)

Rachel and I met up for dinner and I think had Mongolian BBQ that night. (Which is not at all Mongolian but is authentically Taiwanese.)

The next day I went for a long, kind of random stroll around Rachel’s neighborhood. Taiwan gets a lot of rain and deals with it in various ways, including a lot of covered sidewalks (in the parts of town that have sidewalks):

A Taipei street, with a narrow sidewalk sheltered by a greenish awning.

I also walked along the river and passed a Temple on the river bank:

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And I took pictures of various fascinating things, including this bike that looks like it would be a really bad idea to ride:

Two bikes that have been attached side-by-side with makeshift bars. The handlebars are connected with something like baling wire and a broomstick.

I visited one of the more famous Temples of Taipei, the Longshan Temple:

A view taken through a doorway of part of a very decorative Temple roof.

While the trip was still very much in limbo, Lyda Morehouse did a bunch of research on things I ought to see/do in Taipei and found out about this thing called the Night Patrol Festival that was going to be happening while I was there. This was a neighborhood religious festival with a parade. It sounded cool. Rachel tried to figure out for me when it was happening, exactly. The information on the website was not super helpful. I went over to that neighborhood in part because I figured maybe the Temple would have a sign up saying when the festival was, which would of course be in Chinese so I wouldn’t be able to read it, but I could take a picture and maybe text it to Rachel…? But no, there was no signs. As I walked around that neighborhood, though, I heard a whole lot of firecrackers going off, and followed the noise, and found the festival.

Hilariously, the earliest parts of the parade were sharing the street with car traffic. (That link should take you to a video I shot.) There were trucks of old folks in chairs playing musical instruments:

A truck with an open bed and a bunch of old people in chairs. They're all wearing matching blue jackets and baseball caps.

And pairs of people in costumes, one very tall and one very short:

Two people in elaborate costumes with masks and fancy headdresses. One is tall and thin, one is short and squat.

There were LOTS of these pairs (one tall, one short) and the tall one swept his arms back and forth very dramatically (you can see this in the video).

There were people dressed in red with painted faces:

People dressed in red (long-sleeved t-shirts, sweat pants, and caps or scarves) with painted faces. Some are holding large fans.

And big crowds of people dressed in yellow:

People dressed in yellow (loose jacket-like tops, yellow pants) and carrying paddle-like things over their shoulders, plus two people who are wearing blue with brooms and conical straw hats.

Just like you see at the Mayday Parade (a large local parade in Minneapolis that’s filled with art and music) the last person in the parade had a bucket for contributions:

Someone with a mask, a yellow smock, and a bucket.

Finally, before I left I took a picture of a guy sweeping up the fireworks. There were SO MANY FIREWORKS. SO MANY.

A man with a broom sweeping up a huge quantity of tiny red balls (which are spent fireworks lying in the street). You can see the people in yellow from the parade beyond him, moving on.

They were cleaning fireworks as they went, in fact, this is just a small portion of what got shot off at this particular corner.

So that was fascinating, and a great way to spend an afternoon, and I’m so glad Lyda tipped me off and sent me in the right direction to see it.

That evening, Rachel and I went to another night market. (I think that was the night we went to the Shilin Night Market.) I had grilled trumpet mushroom and “sausage in a sausage” (which was delicious) and a really excellent noodle soup. Night markets are a little reminiscent of the Minnesota State Fair, if it were year round and just food. Lots of carts, lots of crowds, things on sticks. I really liked the sausage in a sausage. Rachel told me that the Taiwanese night markets are usually centered around Temples, and the Temples are in fact why they’re there — the gods like hustle and bustle, and a Night Market is an easy way to provide it.

A black cat facing the interior of a brightly lit Temple.

We had Taiwanese shaved ice for dessert.

I really liked wandering around Taipei. There were just a lot of weird and interesting things to see.

A Cinderella-esque carriage, sitting empty and unattended.

I didn’t get any pictures of the fabric mall I visited the last day, but it was enormous and fascinating and there were some excellent deals on fabric (I wound up bringing some home). It was a very large building but set up kind of like a classic department store, with lots of individual proprietors of specialty departments. There were people who clearly specialized in bridal fabrics, and people who had funky fun prints, and people who had the sort of wool you’d make into a nice suit. Some of the wool sellers had pre-made poncho type things and when one lady saw me looking at them she promptly got one down and put one on me, giving me what was clearly sales patter. I think I mentioned up above that I speak exactly one word of Chinese (“xie xie,” which means “thank you”) and it really is impressive how much context and tone will do for comprehension because it was entirely clear that she was saying “oh, let me get that down for you. Here, put it on like this. Look how nice it looks on you! You look great! Oh, you don’t like that one? It’s okay, let me get this one down for you. It will keep you very warm on cold nights!” (I did not buy it, though.)

There were also some older ladies preparing to serve food somewhere near the parade route — I couldn’t tell if they were related to the parade or unrelated. I was stuck next to them for a bit and they tried to start a conversation with me, and I could tell that they were progressively simplifying, probably going from “where are you from? are you having a nice trip to Taiwan?” to “YOU: VISITOR?” When I proved completely useless, they tried a cheery thumbs-up. I returned the thumbs up and added “xie xie!” and they all laughed amiably.

On Thursday, I went to the airport, and flew to Guiyang, China, which will be in a separate post. My visit to Taipei was delightful, and so was seeing Rachel. I highly recommend Taipei as a place to visit, especially if you like food.

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