Asian Adventures – Part 1

Whilst in Hong Kong, I resolved to see the parts of Asia and the Orient that I am closest to. My most recent excursion has been to Taiwan and here, I will recount some of the things I did in Taiwan, starting with Kaohsiung. First, a few basicas about Taiwan:

  • The currency is the New Taiwan Dollar (NTD). The typical exchange rate is approximately NT$50 = GB £1.
  • The main language is Taiwanese  Mandarin is widely spoken. English is rarer but most people have a pigeon understanding (e.g. How much? Where is? etc).
  • The tap water is not drinkable unless you boil it first or don’t mind being violently ill.
  • The food is good (and pretty cheap).
  • Milk tea is king.

We flew into Taipei Taoyuan airport as the prices of flights into one airport and out of another in Taiwan were simply horrendous. It was far cheaper to fly into and out of Taipei Taoyuan and pay for the bullet train down to Kaohsiung than it was to fly into Kaohsiung airport and out of Taipei. So, that’s the first thing we did. From the airport, we took a bus to the Taoyuan High Speed Rail (HSR) station which cost us NT$30. We then bought our tickets to travel on the High Speed Rail. There’s three kind of tickets you can get; business class, reserved seating, unreserved seating. We opted for unreserved as it was the cheapest (NT$1290) and we didn’t mind standing for a couple of hours if we had to but we didn’t. There were plenty of seats free in the unreserved cars and we sat comfortably for the couple of hours it took to get from Taoyuan (near Taipei Airport) to Zuoying (which is in Kaohsiung). At one point, the train reached a staggering 175 mph but it never felt it.

Once in Kaohsiung, we walked from Zuoying HSR station to our hostel. It was just around the corner from Kaohsiung Arena. It took us around an hour. The weather was good so we didn’t really mind the few kilometers plod along the streets. Our hostel was called Bike Kaohsiung and we got an incredibly warm welcome. Here’s a little snap of me posing outside.

Bike Kaohsiung

The hostel is owned and operated by a man called Paul. Nothing you can ask of Paul is too big or too small. He is only to happy to help. There is also a very cute resident cat:

Bike Kaohsiung cat

On top of this, the hostel is decorated with various ‘cult’ icons (E.T. was painted on our floor asking people to be quiet) and internet memes. The place bathrooms and kitchen were clean as a whistle. The dorms were not only clean too but additionally, roomy and airy. I was very surprised indeed as a bed in our all female dorm was only NT$400 a night! That is cheap as free, right? Here’s a snap of the dorm we were in:

Bike Kaohsiung dorm

On our first evening in Kaohsiung, we went to the Ruifeng night market found near the arena. What a sight it was. Rows and rows of food vendors, games and stalls selling everything from clothes and belts to personal care products. We arrived at around 6pm and the place was already packed. We began what turned out to be an epic 2 hour walk/shove around the market. Here’s a little picture of the crowd so you get an idea of what we were up against:

DSC05715

The market is a lively, bustling experience not for the faint hearted. It’s loud, bright and will assault every sense, particularly your sense of smell.

We began at what seemed to be exclusively food stalls. The first few we saw dealt mainly in sit down trade. There was hot pot, sizzling dishes and plenty of noodles in soup. There really didn’t seem to be that many tourist around and we got the distinct feeling that the market really did cater to mainly locals. No problem, we thought! I was good at charades, the Taiwanese people are incredibly friendly and helpful and my companion spoke basic mandarin. We got by but we did choose mainly food which could be pointed at. I was rather jealous of the hotpot fest going on. We walked past several places specialising in only hotpot but were not brave enough to sit down and order one. Here’s a little picture of one of the stalls.

Hot pot

Neither were we brave enough to sit down where this man was cooking up a storm. Everything was sent out on sizzling plates and delivered to tables by waiters shouting for you to make room for them (I assumed they were yelling “THIS PLATE IS BLOOMING HOT. GET OUT MY WAY!!!)

Cooking hot hot hot

So, there were definitely things we were not brave enough to buy but, there was even more food that we were brave enough to buy. And boy, did we buy. The first thing we bought was dessert. We bought dessert first because we actually could not resist what we saw. Our eyes landed upon what looked like pancakes, but thick pancakes. Thick pancakes in the shape of a cute little pigs face. We watched them being made for a while and realised that, these cute little pigs faces were filled with tasty stuff! Some were filled with chocolate goo, some whith custard goo, others with creamy goo and many with red bean goo. We simply had to have some! We tried the chocolate and cream versions. They did not disappoint. Four large pig heads set us back NT$50. Bargain.

Pig cakes

Continuing in the theme of cute food, we also saw bread which looked like turtles. I desperately wanted to devour one of these little mites but, alas, no one was available to sell me one (and stealing is wrong). I just took a photo instead. All together now, “Awwwwwwww” (I’d still have eaten his head and legs before his shell if I’d had half a chance).

Turtle bread

I wouldn’t say my next find is ‘cute’ food, but I was certainly amused. It’s an entire squid, battered and deep fried but, this stall holder thought it would be a good idea to make the squid a little more memorable. It worked. This is the squid I remember and I could tell you where the stall is too:

A whole squid

There was a wealth of food to choose from. I saw plenty of food on sticks, tomatoes in hard sugar coatings (think toffee apple style but with cherry tomatoes on sticks, not apples), soups, noddles, rice, food I couldn’t identify, food I didn’t want to identify and food I really, really wanted to eat. I identified what looked to be marinated chicken being cooked kebab style and then served in a bun with salad and more mayo than a human should consume in their life. I had to try it. I think you’ll agree it looked amazing. Sadly the taste did not deliver. All my palette could discern was sugary mayo and sugary bread. I was disappointed:

Chicken kebab

I consoled myself with one of the food stuffs in the most plentiful supply. Taiwanese milk tea. The Taiwanese really & truly have tea with jelly/tapioca pearls in them down to a fine art. I knew this type of tea came from Taiwan because I’ve been drinking it in Hong Kong and my favourite type has ‘Taiwan Tea Company’ written on the cup. Anyway, what I didn’t prepare myself for was how much better it tastes in Taiwan. It’s actually shocking. I like the stuff in Hong Kong but, I had to actively stop myself drinking the Taiwanese milk tea all day every day. It is yummy. So very very yummy and cheap. And everywhere. A 750cc cup of it will set you back between NT$30-40 and it is worth every dollar. It has an amazing floral aftertaste that I cannot put my finger on and it tastes so good, I could weep. I really could. If you go to Taiwan, drink the milk tea.

I also tried the fruit/tomatoes covered in sugar (toffee apple style) but not in Kaohsiung. My companion tried tomatoes and prunes coated in a hard sugar glaze in Kaohsiung and she adored them. I therefore tried it in Hualien. I did not like it at all. It was savoury and sweet all at the same time and confused my mouth immensely. I like toffee apples so I had assumed I would like other fruit covered in hard sugar too but, no. I do not. You should only cover apples (crispy apples at that) with sugar syrup and let it harden. Don’t do it to other fruit and especially don’t do it to cherry tomatoes. It’s not right.

Plain fruit on the other hand should be eaten at every opportunity in Taiwan. It is very tasty indeed. I enjoyed guava, apple, strawberries, pineapple and a kind of apple that I do not know the name for. It’s red, small and sort of triangular in shape. Very yummy.

I did eventually invest in some noodle soup. It was served to me take away style. By ‘take away’ style I mean I was furnished with a paper bowl and a spoon. My soup was then poured into a plastic food bag which contained fresh coriander and chili sauce. By this point though I was ravenous. My chicken bun had been a failure and the milk tea had done nothing but whet my appetite. My eagerness to eat the soup resulted in no photos being taken. Well, not by me anyway. Sorry. There was a local guy who was so amused at seeing me eating my soup that he took a photo of me. If you’re that guy, send me a copy of that snap please? Thanks.

The market was not 100% food and tea. There were also games to be played. One of the most popular was an old fashioned ‘hoopla’ style game. You get the hoop over the bottle and you win the prize attached to the bottle. Not rocket science and great fun for everyone as you can see from my picture, all ages were taking part:

Hoopla game

After the flight, high speed train and walk to the hostel, our two hours of night market fun was enough to warrant an early night so we meandered back to the hostel. It’s only about a ten minute walk from Bike Kaohsiung to the night market so it was a pleasant way for us to prepare our brains for bed.

The next day brought glorious sunshine and the will to explore Kaohsiung by foot. We headed off towards Lotus Pond Lake (a.k.a. Lotus Lake) to see what we could see. It was around 3km from Hostel to lake but the walk was scenic as it used a lot of shared pathways with cyclists. There was greenery and childrens play areas along most of the route. I particularly liked this bicycle compass which pointed bicycles in every direction. This is entirely apt as Kaohsiung is very bicycle friendly. They have a cycle hire scheme but I did not get a chance to use it so am ill equipped to advise on it. I just know it exists. Anyway, here’s the compass:
Bicycle compass

We approached Lotus Lake from a rather imposing, white footbridge. It gave an excellent birds eye view of the lake but we were more interested in getting up close and personal with the temples and pagodas. As we visitied Taiwan in the midst of Chinese New Year festivities, there was a playground and market all along one side of Lotus Lake. That meant there was more food, more games and more tea to be sampled. I have to admit, I found two of my favourite Taiwan ‘eats’ in this market. The first was more of the pancake type pies but not in the shape of a pig. It looked more like a pie and it was filled with taro. I loved these taro pies.

Taro Pie

The other item I found was a soft, chewy mix of black sesame seeds and sugary syrupy yum. In mandarin, we found out it was called (spelled phonetically) ‘Hey Sue My”. It was just divine. I didn’t get any good pictures of it because I ate it too fast. It was sweet and bitter all at once. Simply yummy on every level.

Anyway, I digress. Pagodas and temples.

There are many famous pagodas and temple around Lotus Lake. The most famous are the tiger and dragon pagodas. They are decorated accordingly with tigers prowling all over the roofs of, that’s right tiger pagoda. Dragons stalk the roofs of the dragon pagoda. If you still had any doubts about which pagoda is which, you have to actually enter the pagoda through the mouth of the dragon and exit through the mouth of the tiger.

through the mouths of beasts

They were impressive structures but, due to Chinese New Year, they were very, very full so we did not get the chance to climb them for a view of the zig zag walkway. We continued around the hustle and bustle of the market instead and towards one of the (many) temples located around the lake. This one was by far the grandest but lacked any signage in English so I genuinely don’t know which God it is for especially. I think you’ll admit though, it is imposing and ornate.

Temple

There were decorations for Chinese New year on every temple, statue and carving for as far as the eye could see. Coupled with the market, it was truly an incredibly festive atmosphere which we thoroughly enjoyed. The crowds could be intense at some of the narrower sections of walkway but, on the whole, it was nothing more than a busy market so we ploughed onwards.

The next structures we came to were the Spring and Autumn pavillions. You can just see, to the right of the picture, a statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) riding a dragon. She guards the walkway to a temple which is dedicated to the God of War (Kuan Kung). Again, they are all beautiful to look at and impeccably maintained.

spring and autumn pavillions

There really are a multitude of temples and statues all around Lotus Lake. It boasts a Confucius Temple which was, very unfortunately, under renovation so we could not go and view it. There are also good pockets of natural beauty to behold around the lake. We saw multitudes of cranes flying around diving for fish as well as other birds, flora and fauna. Obviously the name ‘Lotus lake’ came from somewhere so, when I spotted a lotus or 60, I took a photo.

lotus pond

Lotus Lake, and Kaohsiung in general, is an incredibly worthwhile visit. I imagine it would be far more serene and generally a little more accessible when it is not packed with people for Chinese New Year but, in a way, I’m pleased we saw it at it’s most vibrant and festive.

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