National Week Vacation

We left Beijing at 1 in the afternoon, the highway eerily empty on Sunday. Although missing a day of travel, leaving Sunday enabled us to avoid the mass exodus and chaos of the first Saturday of National Week. We flew, without mishap, to Hong Kong, paused for a snack of noodles and wontons, and flew on to Taipei, arriving late in the evening. After retrieving our bags, a very friendly security guard with surprisingly flawless English walked us to the bus, as I had completely forgotten to research this aspect of travel (well, I’ve always been picked up from the Taoyuan Airport). We both fell asleep for the hour long ride, although I tried to keep my eyes open.
We disembarked to drizzle, and dashed across the street to find a cab. As our driver sped down the slick streets at a breakneck pace, I craned my eyes out the window trying to recognize anything. It took until we were almost at Da’an Park for memory to kick in.

Dolamanco Hotel. It was decent enough, I’m not very picky. A small room but comfortable bed, flat screen TV, clean bathroom although no shower curtain. I slept like the dead until Sawyer woke me up around 7. A terrible breakfast–cold eggs, bad coffee. I filled up on toast, and we drew up an itinerary. We bought umbrellas and walked to Da’an station. Our first destination was an hour and a half outside of Taipei, a touristy little place called Jiufen. An old gold mining town on the top of a mountain, it’s scenic with great views of Keelung and the northeast coast, some good touristy-trinket shopping, and great food. From Zhongxiao Fuxing, we took the 1062 bus to Jiufen. The drizzle slowly worsened along the ride, and by the time we arrived in Jiufen, it was a torrential downpour. I was a little bit worried this might ruin the trip, but my wonderful boy was laughing the whole time, to my relief. We hurried into the Old Street, which has partial roofing that offered some slight protection from the rain, and we bought blue and yellow plastic ponchos. We wandered upwards, stopped at a tea house. Downstairs, window view of fog. I showed Sawyer pictures of what he would be seeing in nice weather.

The tea ceremony. A heavy black ceramic water pot boiled over a chunk of sterno. Our waitress poured water over the teapots and cups to warm them, and left us. I’m bad at tea ceremony. I left the tea in for too long, and it got too bitter. I could barely lift the big pot to refill the tiny one. We drank many small cups of tea (the taste of which slowly improved as I got the hang of it) and dried off and warmed up and Sawyer played angry birds.


After a while we ventured back out. Still raining. I bought a dachangbaoxiaochang to share, wild boar sausage inside sticky rice sausage. Garlicky and sweet and hot and delicious. We descended down a short flight of stairs to a tiny noodle cart shop, I ordered niuroumian and pork”gan” noodles. Turns out “gan” means liver. It wasn’t bad, but a little bland. The beef noodle was delicious–greasy, rich, flavorful chewy noodles. We shared another sausage on the way home.

The Most Delicious Thing

Traditional Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

We arrived back in Taipei around 2, and immediately found a cab to the National Palace museum. Although I’ve been there many times, still enjoyed walking around seeing all the historical treasures. A quick walk through, then back to the hotel for a short break. We walked around trying to find a travel agent near Zhongxiao Fuxing. Finally found one, got lots of advice for our week of travels, then walked to Shida Night market, cutting through Da’an park. Walked by my old apartment on Xinsheng South Road. So many things have changed. A new bookstore across from my old place–I would have loved this cafe. New restaurants and stores all over. But more importantly, we were starving, and the night market is a treasure trove of deliciousness.

Tender Delicious Iron Plate Steak with Noodles and Fried Egg

First we stopped at a jipai cart. A filet of chicken that’s been flattened, deep fried and sprinkled liberally with MSG and chili powder. The vendor cuts it into little strips and we ate by poking awkwardly little sticks into the bag as we walked down the crowded streets. After circling around, Sawyer was intrigued by the iron plate steaks. I ordered one for us to share and we sat down out of the misty drizzle that’s still present. Our food arrived, a sizzling iron plate mounted in a thick wood base, with a mess of thick noodles, covered by a red sauce, a lightly fried egg and a generous steak. We mixed the egg yolk up in the sauce as it cooked on the iron. The steak was surprisingly tender and delicious for something that cost us 5 dollars. I purchased a cup of the tangy citrus drink from the corner stand that always has a cute girl (at least for the past 3 visits over 5 years) manning it, and Sawyer gets something grapefruit based. Enticed by the fragrant steam buns folded over around shredded soft braised pork belly and pickled vegetables, Sawyer stopped and bought one. We shared bites of it and then follow with dessert: a bag of luscious fresh fruit from my favorite stall. I had a serious fruit habit when I lived in Taipei, I went to this corner stall at least once a week, dragged all my friends there. The strawberries burst with flavor, bell apples subtle and refreshing. Crisp Asian pears and white peaches, mouth melting succulent mango halves, juicy chunks of vivid pink dragon fruit. We walked on through the drizzle and waited to meet some friends of mine from last summer’s conference. We met in front of the Burger King (one of many new places since my time) and rambled through the night market to Cafe Bastille. They offered an impressive, overwhelming selection of beers. I nursed a Chimay while reminiscing with the guys and they discussed their different China and Taiwan experiences.

Shredded pork steambun sandwich

We woke up far too early in the morning for my liking, but I reluctantly put on my running gear and followed my athletically inclined boyfriend out into the gray morning. We ran through my old campus, Taiwan National University, and I pointed out my classroom, old hangouts, etc, and then we circled a few times around the park. We walk back around my old neighborhood and bought breakfast from one of the ubiquitous little hole-in-the-wall breakfast joints. Two sandwiches, luobogao and danbing to go (a steamed and then fried turnip cake, and a crepe-like fried egg ‘burrito’ for lack of other description). We tried to sit in Starbucks but they kicked us out for having outside food (even after Sawyer bought a coffee). Back at the hotel, we sat in the breakfast area and figured out our next travel options. The people next to us enviously eyed our food and sighed when informed it was from several blocks away.

Danbing, or fried egg crepe

Luobogao, steamed and fried turnip cake

The receptionist helped us book hotels and airline tickets and contact the Penghu hotel. She wanted to make us reservations in a more expensive hotel with English speakers, but I impressed upon her my ability actually speak Chinese, despite my online-website-illiteracy. We bought train tickets to Hualien at the Taipei Main Station before heading off to Xinbeitou.

When my sister came to visit me over Christmas, one of our joint adventures was to this little suburb hot spring town. In the middle of winter, markedly more hungover, I somehow got us there, where we halfheartedly nibbled on some really amazing corn from a street cart, and dipped our feet in the hot stream. I don’t know why I didn’t do this more often when I lived there. Xinbeitou is only a 30 minute metro ride outside the city (and apparently an up and coming suburb now, since it’s so beautiful). It’s outside the general urban center of Taipei, but still conveniently on the MRT.

Xinbeitou Public Library

At Beitou, we switched to the five minute shuttle to Xinbeitou. A ten minute walk uphill from the station brought us to the hot spring museum and new gorgeous public library. If this was a feature when i was living here, I’d have been there every weekend to study. Next to the museum is the public hot springs. we decided to keep walking and soak on our way back. We walked around to the Thermal Valley (also known as Hell valley). Boiling hot water trickles down through the town in little rivers, a hot gutter lines one side of the street, that some locals (and occasional hungover halfie robot sisters) will sit on the curb and dip their feet in (despite signs forbidding this). Thermal valley is a large pool of this sulfurous boiling water, steam rising thick and odoriferous into the trees above. Engrish signs warn of the extreme temperatures and not to betray the water lest it burn you. Steam rises up from the sewer grating on the sidewalks.

Don't Cross It.

Xinbeitou Thermal Valley Steam Rising

We ate lunch at a Japanese udon noodle house. Mine had thick chewy noodles in broth with a tea egg and several fish cakes. I supplemented it with an order of pork chops which I dunked in the broth. Sawyer got kimchee noodles with pork, and added a “hot-spring” style soft poached egg, and we shared Japanese style silky tofu. Then it was hot spring time.

Pork and Fishcake Udon Noodle Bowl

Kimchee Udon Noodle Bowl

The public hot springs is great. It’s outdoor, and mixed gender so bathing suits are required and most people wear swim caps ( we refrained from this). It was slightly drizzling but that just made the whole experience more relaxing, I think. For 40 NTD, about $1.20, you can stay there as long as you’d like. 20 NTD gets you a locker for your things. They have showers and bathrooms, sell beverages, bathing suits and towels. We started at the lowest pool and worked our way up the 4 levels of heat, although I could only dip my toes into the 4th level before it got excruciating. I sat up to my chin and soaked in the middle level before moving on the the next. Moving was painful. I counted the seconds. Skin turned bright red when we moved on to the cold pool. We completed this process several times. Sawyer made a friend–a funny little old man who garbled some words at him in the cold pool.
“Excuse me? I don’t speak Chinese.”
The old man looked at me, smiled, and repeated himself. I realized he was saying “reeeed laaabstah.”
“Oh, yes, yes, red lobster.” I smiled back.
He pointed at Sawyer “Your friend, no English” or something vaguely similar to that twisted out of his mouth. I smiled and nodded pleasantly, but really mister, I don’t think it’s his English that needed improving. When we were relaxed and completely dehydrated and ready to move on with our day, he admonished us, “too early to leave!” I think. He could have been calling me a pterodactyl or something for all I could understand his English.

Unassuming entrance to public hotsprings. Most relaxing dollar I ever spent.

We went to Taipei 101 upon our return to the city proper, shared a snack of dou-hua, or soft tofu pudding with red beans, and walked around Shinkong Mitsukoshi where he bought a camelbak and then we met my cousin at the Taipei Main Station (terrible idea, she didn’t realize we didn’t have a cellphone, I had to bother some poor stranger and call). We had dinner and caught up before our train to Hualian.


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