Taiwan was my first ever south east Asian country, I have never been to this region before and I was really looking forward to discovering it. Everything was new to me, especially the food and the humid weather (both were killing me xD). The culture as well was very different from what I was used to (Europe, Middle East and Latin America), both in terms of “sightseeing list” and in terms of local lifestyle. Sometimes I had my difficulties adjusting to this new world, but overall I looooved the experience, because it was really unique and special for me. I remember recording long voice messages to my friends telling them about all the new things I was encountering every day. I just had so much urge to share my Taipei adventure and I could not keep it to myself.
The first thing that struck me was food. I have been to Asian restaurants in Europe before, but as you can imagine that cuisine was different from what I saw in Taipei. As volunteers we were having breakfasts and dinners at the university canteen and sometimes I just had to pass and stay hungry, because the food was too weird for my taste. I figured out quite fast that Taiwanese breakfasts were not my thing and easily found a replacement. I went to Carrefour on my second day and bought cereals, oats and milk. I know I am so predictable! =) After that I have never gone to the canteen for breakfast again and could get some extra 30 minutes of sleep every day. Replacing lunch and dinner was however not that easy. There were quite a few times when all I could eat from the served meal was white rice. The first thing about the food is that all the meat and fish are deep fried. So deep fried that you basically have 30% of the real meat and 70% of fried flour. The second thing are all the strange sauces they love to add to the majority of dishes. I am sorry, I am not a huge fan of sauces in general and Taiwanese sauces were just way out of my culinary comfort zone. The third thing is the total absence of fresh vegetables. No fresh vegetables at all – that was my personal hell. I missed fresh salads so much! I was lucky when I was served cooked vegetables and I have to say, when there was no sauce on top I really liked them. There were different types of cabbage and algae and I found them really tasty! After a week of experimenting I came to the conclusion that when I have a choice I should always opt for a vegetarian meal. I became a vegetarian for the next couple of weeks and my meal disaster ratio went significantly down 😉
You might say “But there must be something that you liked about the food, it can´t be all that bad, right?!” Yes! I loved the dumplings! Most probably because they are very similar to Russian pelmeni and it´s natural to like what you are used to. Once two Russian volunteer girls brought me to a very nice and famous restaurant Din Tai Fung where we had a great dinner and I discovered those delicious pieces of culinary art! After that everywhere I could I was ordering dumplings. I have even bought them couple of times as packaged fast food in the supermarkets and heated them in the microwave.
About microwaves. An interesting peculiarity of Taiwanese shops and supermarkets was the presence of “public” microwaves and a small space where you could heat your food and eat it. Sometimes I even saw boilers with hot water, so you can enjoy some tea. I found it very convenient and totally unexpected, as I have never seen anything like this in Europe.
Another interesting encounter I had were the fruits! I love fruits and thanks God there were plenty of them including the ones I never tried. My new favorite was the dragon fruit, so juicy and so delicious! I did not try durian – a sweet but very very smelly fruit that literally stinks! I did not dear to taste it. I tried local variation of pears and some berries I don´t remember the name of, in general I find it so cool to see the variety of plants that we don´t have in our part of the world.
There was a funny story with apples that made me stop trying to understand local food habits. Sometimes we had fresh sliced fruits in the canteen, mangoes or bananas usually, and once they put sliced apples. I served myself a small plate of them planning to enjoy it as a desert after my main meal. When the time came to eat my apples I found the taste a bit weird. I made couple of bites more and realized that they were salty! I went to a sink, tried to wash the salt off but it did not help. Finally I had to throw away the whole plate with apples cause they were uneatable. Later on in the evening I encounter my supervisor and she tells me that there are some apples left for dinner and if I want I should hurry up and take some. To that I replied:
“No thanks, they are salty, I think I’ll pass this time”.
“No, they can´t be salty!”
“Yes, they are, I even tried to clean them during the lunch with water…”
My supervisor is having an “a-ha” moment and tells me:
“Oh yes, they add salt so that they don’t oxidize!”
*Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?* Facepalm =)
You see, they make salty apples and think that it´s okay to eat them. I am sorry, that is beyond my understanding xD (Later on when telling this story to someone else, I was told that once in Taiwan they got served melon with mayonnaise on top (they thought it was cream at first hahaha)). Well, Taiwan indeed needs an open mind and I admit, I am simply too narrow in my food preferences.
One of the most prominent things to do in Taipei is to visit the night markets. As I understood they are a popular place to go with friends to hang out … and to eat the famous street food! As you might have realized by now, I am not really enthusiastic about local food so I was not so impressed by the night markets either. But still it was nice to have this experience, to stroll around the streets packed with food stands and small shops and to look at all the unusual meals being prepared in front of you. Besides food they sell all kinds of stuff there, like at every market, so if you need souvenirs, this is your place to get them.
One of the things I found really beautiful and unique were the temples. There are many of them, I only visited the three most famous ones (Longshan Temple, Confucius Temple and Baoan Temple). I loved the colors, the ornaments and most of all that peaceful and silent atmosphere.
I was in Taipei during the hottest time of year (august) and it was really hard to survive everyday heat, it was unbearable to be outside during the day and to do any kind of activity. On the pictures above, where me and Yasmina are visiting temples, we were literally melting from the heat and humidity. Even during the night it was hot and sweaty, but at least no direct sun into your poor red face. My favorite night activity in Taipei was riding public bicycles around the city! I loved it so much! The system is very easy, you just take a bicycle from one station and then ride wherever you want and park it at another station close to your destination. We used this mean of transport a lot to get around. It was like a blessing to feel the fresh air on your skin and the wind in your hair and I enjoyed a lot observing the life of the city from my two wheels.
The actual number one mean of transport for the locals are the motorbikes! They are everywhere in Taipei.
Our dorms were just 5 minutes away from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. I have never been at this square during the day (because of the heat!) but during the night I came there several times with my volunteer friends, with my friend Yasminka who visited me for a weekend and just by myself to take some pictures. The spot in the middle of the square seems to be very popular, once we were sitting there with some volunteer friends and singing old Russian pop songs *haha*. And once I met some local Taiwanese guys who were sitting there and drinking wine. I stayed with them for a while, we talked about my experience in Taiwan and the life on the island.
The best view on Taipei and on its famous 101 tower can be enjoyed from the Elephant mountain. You will have to climb for around 30 minutes and you will be dead afterwards (stairs + heat), but the view is truly fantastic! (You will probably have to fight a bit to get a good spot for pictures, but don’t worry, eventually everyone gets its shot).
A great day trip from Taipei is to take Maokong gondola to the nearby mountains and to visit tea plantations. The air in the mountains is fresh and the temperatures drop to a very pleasant number! On the day of our visit while walking around we were suddenly hit by heavy rain. As it started pouring, we saw a tea house on the edge of a hill and ran as fast as we could to the shelter. It turned out that at the tea house they don’t serve tea, they only provide the equipment and you have to prepare it yourself. Obviously, we had no idea how to prepare the tea, but we were lucky to meet a big local family sitting next to us. They showed and explained to us all the procedure and then Yasmina, a newly born tea master, prepared the tea for us. We were sitting with Yasminka in this tea house, enjoying our tea and looking at the beautiful scenery and powerful rain that was like a wall. One of my best moments in Taiwan, priceless!
Taipei was a new world for me, I even managed to do some crazy things like getting an appointment with some local healer to help me with my back (I got a sort of massage and some acupuncture needles). And once while walking around the streets I saw another massage center and decided to randomly drop by and treat myself. I tried famous local pineapple cakes (highly recommended!) and learned how to use metal sticks (this is actually quite logical and natural, but nevertheless I was surprised that they have metal reusable sticks as we have metal forks and knifes – check my first photo with Taiwanese lunch, you will see them). I was positively surprised to see free public toilets at every metro station and was amused by the drawn lines for queuing to enter the train. I loved seing Chinese characters everywhere and I am thinking about learning Chinese now. I would call Taipei my door to the Asian world, I am quite impressed with what I saw and I hope I can explore more of it!