Taipei (Monday, June 21, 2010)
After dinner, we had visited a large local fruit and vegetable store. Huge displays of ripe mangoes and other tropical fruit drew us in. We came away with a bag of very fresh lychees swollen with flavorful juice, and a container of pre-sliced mango ready to go. We added a few steamed breads from a street vendor, and enjoyed an almost all carbohydrate breakfast. There was a little left over beef noodle soup for protein.
We hired Chang’s friend Sue, who we had met the day before, to drive us around town for some sightseeing. Her English was limited, but between Chang’s instructions and Google Maps on the phone, we were able to get around. The first stop was the immense National Palace Museum, home of innumerable treasures rescued (some would say looted) from mainland China as the country fell to the communists in 1949. Among the most iconic works of art is a large bok choy artfully carved from a piece of jade to take advantage of both the green and white parts of the stone. Replicas are available in a variety of sizes and materials, but the ones that were actually attractive were quite expensive.
We rented the tour headsets and when we saw a code we entered it. This played a long, often digressive, discussion of the relevant exhibit. Or not. The descriptions definitely could use a good edit. After a couple of hours of exploration, we visited the coffee shop for an expensive tea and snack. When the time neared for us to meet Sue, I stepped outside and was stunned by the dark sky and soaking web ground. Somehow the weather had changed completely during our time indoors. Sue agreed to wait a while longer while we visited the main gift shop. Some of the books were beautiful, but too heavy to lug home. Most of it was just silly.
Our next stop, at Dad’s request, was a botanical garden in the heart of town. It was sprinkling a bit when we arrived, but it wasn’t too bad. Sue parked nearby, and we stopped just inside the gate for a map. When the gentleman at the window was unable to answer questions about where we might find particular species of long-lived trees in the garden, we headed around the corner to the Forestry Research Institute. After speaking with the front desk and a couple of employees who came down to assist, two gentlemen with both excellent English and wide knowledge of Taiwan’s oldest trees came down to speak with the man who asked all these difficult questions. I tried to be inconspicuous, searching things on the mobile phone when I thought it might help.
After about half an hour, we were given a recommendation to visit Sitou (or Hsitou, sounds like SHE-TOE) to see old trees, as well as a nursery for seedlings. We were invited upstairs for a tour, and then to a building nearby to see cross sections of enormous tree trunks, as well as other “by invitation only” exhibits. In addition to Sitou, it was suggested that we visit a resort area on the East side of Taiwan. After we met up with Sue, one of the forestry officials gave her written directions, and called Chang to discuss our schedule. It was all a bit hard to follow, but it was helpful in filling out our schedule.
When Chang said we were having dinner at a live fish restaurant, I imagined tanks but instead we found two refrigerators. Customers peered through the glass doors, inspected the fish, chose the ones they wanted to eat, negotiated the preparation, and then waited to be served. Fresh it definitely was; still living it was not. Except maybe the clams. As our selected items made their way from the tiny dining room to the kitchen, I started with a large bottle of Taiwan Beef, a ubiquitous lager that seems well suited to hot weather and spicy food.
Our first course was octopus served with soy sauce and wasabi. Cooked only briefly, if at all, the octopus had an excellent texture and light, clean flavor. It wasn’t that popular with our group, so I got seconds and thirds. Next up was a soup with a very mysterious fish. Each piece of fish meat was firmly attached to a translucent layer of gelatinous, almost tendon-like, fatty substance with a very weird mouth feel. Despite the brightly flavored broth, this was a challenge to eat. Fortunately, it got easier from there. Deep fried shrimp balls, a soup of clams and (I think) cucumbers, deep fried whole fish, steamed whole fish, and a shrimp fried rice featuring tender little whole shrimp in their shells rounded out the meal. I have no idea of the name or location of this hole in the wall, and perhaps that’s for the best. I wouldn’t want to blow their cover.
I had mentioned an interest in a temple festival, so we dropped by a local temple. It was quiet, and difficult to photograph, but an opportunity to view the local deities.
I was exhausted, but Chang had convinced a friend to take me out to some bars for a good time. Chang and I caught a cab back to Ximending where, after a brief delay, we were met by two men: her friend, and his friend who spoke better English. Chang headed home while we strolled down the nearby strip, discussing which bar to try. After a beer for me and cocktails for them, Chang’s friend announced that he had to go, leaving his friend to give me a little tour of the neighborhood. Not exactly a wild night on the town, but I have to admit I didn’t have the energy for much more.
I found a restroom at the McDonald’s and then hopped on the MRT for my first subway ride. The walk back to the apartment was a little confusing, but went without incident. We were heading South for some tree-related tourism on Wednesday, so I emailed ahead about adding Sitou to the agenda and crossed my fingers. After a debriefing, I headed to bed: tomorrow would be a big day.