I arrived safely at TPE and easily found my way through immigration and customs. I thought originally I’d have to take the bus or a cab to my friend Nick’s place but luckily one of his local friends, Sonny, was willing to drive. Good dude, drives a Honda.
Side note – Much to my surprise, I found out that I had brought the rainy weather with me all the way from CA. And yes, these two blamed me for it.
Nick lives in the industrial city of Zhongli (pronounced Jong-Lee), which is located roughly an hour train ride south of Taipei. Factories and temples flew by during our drive to his apartment. It was so interesting to see these incredibly ornate, colorful, beautiful buildings of worship littered around these massive, plain, rundown factory buildings. The contrast between the two really made the temples stand out.
We arrived at Nick’s place around 7:30am. There were few businesses open at that time but a restaurant right down the block was up and running: breakfast!! I’d tell you the name of it if I could but it was in Mandarin; everything was in Mandarin.
There were breaded items of all kinds! For this carb-depraved woman, this was a dream come true. I told my friends I wanted to try as much authentic food as possible so please pick out a bunch of items (excluding fish). We picked up a vegetarian pork-bun (which was filled with cabbage, carrots, and noodles instead of pork), a red bean burrito-type thing made with the same fluffy sweet bread as the pork bun, something similar to a small omelet but wrapped with a thin rice wrap, another bigger omelet dish wrapped in something similar to a tortilla and lightly pan-fried, and a sweet pretzel-like bread with spicy curry folded into itself, creating many beautiful layers of bright yellow and golden brown goodness. Also, don’t forget the milk tea.
For all of this food, our total came out to $200 NTD (New Taiwan Dollar) which converts roughly to $6.70 USD. And it was absolutely delicious! It was a nice change to eat basically all carbs. Needless to say, I enjoyed every bite of each of these dishes. It was quite the authentic first meal and got me ready for the day.
We were able to enjoy some down-time after breakfast so I got settled in at Nick’s. This tiny apartment (bigger than most NYC studios) was perfect. I was able to connect to his wifi and update all of my friends and family about my trip thus far, Nick showed me some videos and educated me about
the relationship between Taiwan and China (let’s just say, if they were a Facebook status, it would be “it’s complicated”), and we planned out our day.
Lunch was next on the agenda. Nick and I met up with his friend Kerrier at a little restaurant half a block away (btw do you know how hard it was for me not to say “Chinese restaurant”?). This place was also tiny. As we walked in, the owner saw us and moved two customers to another table so we could fit, and the customers moved willingly! Such a difference from what we see in the U.S.; everyone needing to sit at least one seat away from the next person, being bothered when the smallest of requests is made of them because they “got there first.” It was culturally very shocking. We sat down and looked at the menu. That is legitimately all I did: look. The entire menu was in Mandarin. I left the ordering to Nick and Kerrier trusted they were ordering what they said they were.
I loved the way this place worked. We each were given a small bowl of rice (with free refills, mind you) and our dishes came out on three different plates. Wonderful, family style! I got this. We enjoyed a delicious beef and tofu dish, REAL kung pao chicken, and sweet and sour chicken. Compared to Chinese food in America, this was F-R-E-S-H. Smaller portions but it fed the three of us perfectly. Our total came out to roughly $450 NTD, meaning that this food fed all three of us for roughly $15 USD. And we were stuffed!
We left Kerrier and set off on our next adventure: Taipei. The bus/train ride combo wasn’t too shabby and we made it to The National Palace Museum in a little over an hour. Talk about gorgeous! From the two lion statues greeting us at the front entry to the white and teal strewn about on this temple-esque styled building, it was an incredible sight.
Inside were Buddha statues big and small, dishes and vases made from everything from wood to ivory to lapis to jade, scrolls with ancient writings, calligraphy, and classic stories, many beautiful pieces of artwork (all on scrolls), and some of the most ornate sculptures I’ve ever seen. The detailed work was absolutely incredible! On pieces large and small. Made of all different kinds of material. Simply thinking about the types of tools they used to create these sculptures, how steady their hands had to be during the process, and how in the world had they been preserved for all these years! Nick and I decided that some of these pieces were kept safe inside little boxes by 50 generations of grandmas. That’s the only explanation.
In total, we spent about 4 hours there. By that time, we’d become quite hungry, so naturally the next place to go is the night market!
A short bus ride later, we found ourselves at the Shilin Night Market in Taipei. I’d seen YouTube videos about it and had seen articles, but nothing can truly capture the energy that was there. Street vendors cooking all different kinds of cuisines, small shops slinging their version of American fashion (we saw one bomber jacket with ARMS across the front, maybe they were going for “Army?”), and even a whole area dedicated to games, like a massive fair! They had dart games with balloons, fishing games (with guppies, baby turtles, and shrimp), and plenty others along those lines. When we first arrived, we tried these warm little sandwich treats. Made from sweetened batter, they cooked the outer layer till crispy and filled it with whichever filling you wanted: chocolate, cheese, chocolate and cheese, red bean, corn and ham, mochi, tuna, etc. A little smaller than the size of an Egg McMuffin, these fit easily in your hand and were nice and warm on such a cold rainy night.
We continued on exploring. Suddenly, we happened upon a dish Nick had warned me about: stinky tofu. It’s fermented tofu that smells like pickled rotten fish, tastes like it smells, and is apparently very popular here. I want to experience authentic, but I passed.
One of the things I really wanted to try was some of the local fruit. I LOVE fruit (you can’t not love fruit after working at Trader Joe’s for 5 years) and there are a few fruits here that we can’t get in the states. We tried this über ripe cherymoya (amazing!) that had a texture similar to a ripe mango and tasted like the love child of guava, lychee, and honeydew. We also tried a green apple guava, a small crispy fruit that reminded me of an apple, but not as acidic. It was green and crunchy, so naturally I assumed it would be tart, but it was pleasantly refreshing. A nice contrast in texture from the cherymoya. They also had a handful of other fruits I didn’t get to try but the lady was starting to get pushy so we go our fruit and left.
After ingesting that much sugar, we were ready for some protein. We looked all around for ji pai and finally found it at Hot Star! Ji pai is in essence, a fat piece of fried chicken. Thinly sliced, battered in flour, and fried in oil, I don’t know why this tasted so amazingly delicious. The little Asian lady making the chicken-for-cash exchange also sprinkled these spices on our ji pai that took it to a whole new level. Now THIS was wonderful. The freshly fried goodness warmed us both up as we continued walking through the market looking for other goodies to consume.
It was getting late and our bellies were full. We still had an hour train ride back to Zhongli and we both dreaded it. We walked through the rain and back to the station, waited for a few trains to pass in an attempt to find a not-so-packed train in hopes of scoring a seat (which I did and fell asleep twice, loudly dropping my empty bottle to the floor, waking myself up, and bringing attention to myself), and we finally reached our destination in Zhongli. But our journey wasn’t over yet.
The busses were no longer running at that time which left us with two options: find a cab for 5 minutes or walk for 15 in the rain. We tried getting a cab but they refused to take us such a short distance. We tried 3 different cabs and were rejected by all of them. Nick was irritated but I was honestly too tired to care. We ended up walking the distance, feet hurting with each step. When we finally made it back to his apartment, I set a world record for getting ready for bed and passed out. Successful first day in Taiwan? I think yes.