San Francisco International Airport (Saturday, June 19, 2010)
The international terminal was quiet at midnight; too quiet. It was impossible to buy a bottle of water and there were no diversions from the boredom of waiting for our EVA Airways flight to board for a 1:40 am departure. Soon enough, however, after a half hour delay, we were in the air. Having seats near a galley meant easy access to water and juice, making the limited service in economy class more bearable. The fried fish with rice, and the morning rice porridge were nothing special. We will eat very well from here on out.
Taipei (Sunday, June 20, 2010)
Touching down around 5:50am, we made our way through the very long immigration lines to agricultural quarantine. Here we tried to finish a huge bag of cherries forbidden admission to the island, pigging out in the terminal just beyond baggage claim. Our host Chang had arranged for a car to pick us up, and our friendly driver watched our bags as we changed an ample quantity of U.S. dollars for New Taiwan dollars. Soon, the shopping would begin.
For breakfast, we enjoyed a bowl of beef soup in a rich broth flavored with star anise, accompanied by a steamed bun. The bun, made with regular flour and oats, was from a street vendor around the corner. The homemade soup was prepared by one of Chang’s employees; there must be a favorite cook in every office.
After much map study, Dad and I headed out to visit the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. In Taipei’s subtropical heat and oppressive humidity, this was a long walk and we took advantage of the air conditioning in the gift shop and exhibit areas to cool off. A snack from the snack bar was passable for sustenance, but quite unimpressive. We wandered back to the apartment to cool off and plan next steps.
My visit to the Chunghwa Telecom/Senao store did not go smoothly: apparently the combination of plans suggested to me in a customer service email was not possible or was so unusual that no one could understand it. I really should have printed that email and brought it with me. Eventually I ended up with a 3G SIM card and seven days of unlimited data use, but I can’t seem to text and don’t think I have a phone number. How will I fix this? Hmmm…
Before dinner, we headed for a flower market a few blocks away. Located under a lengthy section of elevated roadway, the market offered cut flowers, potted plants ranging from bansai to chillies, and a wide variety of merchandise for the home gardener. The flowers looked good in the tropical heat, even as we wilted. Across a wide street was the “jade market,” a series of stalls from which vendors hawked not just jewelry and incense burners, but housewares and remarkably powerful shoulder massage pads. We didn’t end up buying anything, but I will have to research the massage pads. Do they really run on rechargeable batteries?
Our next stop was in the lively Ximending neighborhood, known for its large number of movie theaters and shops. We made a refreshing detour to pick up some icy fruit drinks, and because Dad was suffering in a pair of heavy hiking boots, we scoured the shoe stores for appropriate sandals. Once he was comfortably fitted, we were on our way to dinner.
The original location of famed dumpling house Din Tai Fung had a line out the door. Actually, it was more like a mob on the sidewalk. After joining the waiting list, you get a clipboard with a form to fill out your order. A colorful poster lists the popular choices, but it still helps to understand Chinese. While we waited, we browsed the adjacent bookstore, imagining we would find a handy phrasebook, but no such luck.
Soon we were seated on the second floor and men carrying stacks of piping hot bamboo steamer trays began to appear at our table, with waitresses managing the delivery and checking off items from our list. Many of our items were Shanghai-style “soup dumplings” with a large volume of broth within their delicate skins. The classic xiao long bao, a pork dumpling with a delicious broth, was spiked with sesame oil making the broth seem much richer. A filling of minced shrimp and angled loofah squash in a simple broth provided a light intermezzo before we devoured a rich pork-and-shrimp dumpling with unbelievably fine pleats. A rich chicken soup, grilled meat patties (of chicken?), and sauteed water spinach with minced garlic filled out the menu. And our stomachs. We finished with assorted dessert dumplings containing either a dark red bean paste or a light purple taro paste, both sweet and creamy. It was a feast to remember. A stop at the fruit stand on the way home completed the feast.
During the night, we turned off the A/C, only to have to turn it on again. Taipei, it seems, never really cools down in the Summer time.