Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Taiwan: The Maokong Gondola, Ignore Hello Kity

The Maokong gondola.

The Maokong gondola.

Taiwan’s tourism board is very intent on getting you to go try out the Maokong Gondola.  A gondola system imported from France, Taipei hails it as one of its top tourist destinations, allowing visitors to be conveniently ferried from the Taipei Zoo to the Zhinan Temple without having to clog up the roads or hail a cab.

As more than a bit of a contrary dick, I’m normally suspicious of tourist attractions that people are very aggressively trying to get me to go see. Especially when they’re thoroughly emblazoned with Hello Kitty, which is exactly what the powers that be have done: little cartoons of Hello Kitty greeting pandas. Hello Kitty riding the gondola – expressions of Taiwan’s national romance with a bizarre little mouthless cat.

Farmer at Maokong.

Farmer at Maokong.

Regardless. We went and did it, and we were very happy we did, because the Taipei gondola system is a remarkably relaxing (and pleasingly cool) way to spend the day.  To reach the gondola stop, we jumped on the endlessly convenient MRT and rode to the Taipei Zoo Station, which we could readily identify from the sea of panda images at the stop. A nice young college student who attended Michigan State made sure we went to the right place, as often happens in Taipei: a concerned local will find themselves wondering if you have any clue what you’re doing, and will steer you in the right direction.

Views from the gondola.

Views from the gondola.

Gondola passes were inexpensive, and we were able to swipe ourselves into the boarding area with the same EasyCard we’d purchased and filled up on our first day here. You’re charged based on how many stations you exit at. Even though it was a Friday afternoon in summer, we got there around 10:30 AM and were pleased to find there were no lines.

Skipping the zoo — sue me, I think pandas are evolutionary dead-ends who should be chastised — we decided to ride all the way up to the final stop, the Maokong station. This proved to be a wonderful 30 minute ride over dense jungle, with immense views of the Taipei skyline, the highways snaking off into the distance, and the blue, jewel-box expanse of the Taipei 101 Tower. The only annoyance were the Hello Kitty stickers that had been thoughtfully affixed to the windows, though one could pretty easily see over the top of the eponymous cat’s bulbous white head. It was almost silent inside the gondola, and we were well ventilated by the wind. It was in fact so pleasant that my dad fell asleep at least twice.

We didn’t know what to expect at the top, but got off anyway. Maokong proved to be a pleasant little tea growing community, with leafy walking trees and a wonderful high-altitude breeze that was a far cry from the infernal temperatures of Taipei in the inner city in summer. Tea houses and small restaurants dot the walking path in either direction, as well as small-scale temples and the occasional summer home.

Maokong, interestingly enough, translates into “cat empty.” This has nothing to do with the actual population numbers of felines here, but is probably a Japanese bastardization of the original  Taiwanese Hokkien “jiâu-khang,” a name for the little natural potholes that dot the rocks here.

Buying a very excellent onion cake.

Buying a very excellent onion cake.

It was quiet up here too, with only a few tourists in evidence, and a couple of exceptionally hardy (and sweaty) hikers huffing past on the way down to somewhere. We stopped and bought a flaky and delicious onion cake with egg inside from a woman and her young daughter, then walked to view a small temple, brushing flaky crumbs off our clothes.

“If you move to Taipei, you want to know someone with a place up here,” my dad observed, as another quiet little breeze swept past us.

dragon fountain 2

We walked back to the gondola stop after a while and descended down the hill to the Zhinan Temple stop, intending to check out the remarkable Chinese edifice in red and blue that we’d spotted on the way up. At the MRT stop, we walked to the left to check out the decadent water and garden feature outside, featuring a golden dragon, an artificial waterfall, and well-thought out spritzers of cool air.

dragon head derp

There was a path through the forest with represetnation by different animals of the Chinese zodiac, but we turned around and walked to the famous Chi Nan Taoist temple itself, the other direction below the MRT line. Founded in 1882, this exceedingly majestic mountain-side temple is devoted to Tang dynasty scholar Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals of Chinese mythology. Getting here was once an exhausting affair consisting of well over 1,000 up-hill steps, but in recent years, a bus route and now a highly sophisticated gondola allow anyone with a pulse to view this sacred site – so goes progress.

temple hill

We wandered through the red and yellow halls and looked at the offerings of fruit and snack food to the Immortal at the central Chungyang Baodian chapel. Locals filtered in and out, carrying offerings of purple orchids, incense, and fruit to be placed at the shrine. An attendant informed us that the temple had free water and tea, and we poured some out from a large silver jug.

The aggressively bearded Lü Dongbin is known to be the patron saint of barbers and their “immortal patriarch,” in case you were wondering about this kind of thing. He’s also supposed to be very good at delivering people from poverty and seducing unmarried women, although I admit I did not find myself seduced by an immortal Taoist scholar during my visit. (This is almost disappointing).

Tree on the path near Zhinan Temple.

Tree on the path near Zhinan Temple.

Unmarried couples are traditionally warned not to come here for this very reason, although I submit that this is the most excellent excuse for a breakup I’ve ever heard. “I’m sorry, it’s not you – it’s the irresistible influence of the spirit of Lü Dongbin.”

Proceeding to the basement, we were impressed to find a room full of golden tag-like offerings and statues of the Eight Immortals, with a ceiling painted blue with tiny lights meant to represent stars.

Trees with golden offerings on the path to Zhinan.

Trees with golden offerings on the path to Zhinan.

We came out again and decided to walk down the covered path towards the farther off temples — with great views of the temple behind us, and a brief respite from the direct sun.  Eventually, we headed back to the MRT stop and another highly relaxing aerial trip back down the hill.

Regardless of your stance on Hello Kitty and popular tourist attractions, you should take the Maokong Gondola ride if you’re in Taipei. When I return here, I’m especially interested in taking the gondola ride at night, which will guarantee a remarkable night-time view of Taipei and a quiet evening meal at the restaurants up at Maokong.

 

maokong view

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Taiwan: Taipei Night Markets

cooking night market

Night markets are likely Taipei’s most iconic attraction, and probably the one most visible to those who have never visited the country before. Food Adventurers like Anthony Bourdain regularly traipse through them with a camera crew following behind, sampling this and that from different carts, beneath a canopy of red-and-yellow lights.

Not that I’m going to be contrary, regardless of my opinion on Xtreme Travel television shows. Taipei night markets are awesome, and the food is unmissable. They’re huge, walking food-courts, and if you do manage to find a place to sit and eat, they provide remarkably pleasing people-watching, with all of Taipei’s different subcultures on display.

All are united by one thing: the desire to eat something inexpensive, tasty, and preferably exceedingly fully-flavored. And they do mean full flavored: as a friend of mine observed to me yesterday, “I think Taipei is the stinkiest city in the world.” (In the good way).

Kids gambling for prizes.

Kids gambling for prizes.

We visited a few different night markets in Taipei but were particularly taken with the Ningxia street variant. It’s an easy stroll from the Shuanglian or Zhongshan MRT stops, and you’ll know it when you see it from the surrounding commotion on any given evening. Friday evening found the place packed face-to-back with strolling, hungry people, perusing the wares from stands that seemed to be intentionally packed uncomfortably close together.

Once you get over the closeness of the situation, you quickly realize that English signage has been provided for your convenience (well, probably), making it a bit easier to determine what you’re actually getting. Not that it’s too important: if it looks good, point at it, pay a rather nominal amount of money, and you’ll be eating it within five minutes.

taiwan oyster pancake

Taiwan has unusually fantastic oysters – tiny and briny, with a delicate texture. It’s considered essentially mandatory to order oyster omelette at the night markets here, which is made with egg, oysters, green onion, and some starch to give the whole affair a characteristically glutinous texture.

making oyster pancke

The starch is tossed into the skillet, the eggs come next, and then come the oysters. It’s all served with a slightly sweet, savory sauce that’s placed on top, and there’s chili sauce on the table. It’s a pleasantly filling and briny comfort food, the sort of thing I wish you could just order ordinarily for breakfast at American diners.

spicy chicken nuggets

They didn’t really look like much, but it turns out that the Taiwanese have, through some dark pact, become some of the finest chicken friers in the world. We were exceedingly impressed with this bag of dark meat chicken nuggets, coated with a pungent dusting of five spice powder, chili, some sugar, and who-knows-what-else. Also keep an eye out for fried Taiwanese chicken served with a distinctive vinegar sauce, an elegant combination of flavors.

sea urchins

Seafood is an immense draw at the nightmarkets, with great assortments of prawns, lobsters, sea urchins, and oysters large and small displayed on ice and ready for grilling or stir-frying.

grilling scallops

It’s beautiful, fresh seafood that would be the envy of any locavore snob with a fixed gear bicycle in San Francisco. (Taiwan, of course, has its own complement of people with ironic facial hair who ride fixies and have very strong opinions about food.)

squid stands alone

Both squid and chicken cutlets are flattened to remarkable dimensions and flash-fried here, providing one with a conveniently hand-held slab of protein custom built for walking around and looking at things. Sitting while eating is not considered particularly important in Taiwan.

stir frying

We also tried the “aboriginal style pork sausage,” which tasted pretty much like a standard Asian style sweet sausage but was quite tasty. Beyond that, we simply wandered around taking in the energy of the place, and enjoying the photographic potential one is accorded by a place with a whole lot of different kinds of lighting.

Night time in Taipei.

Night time in Taipei.

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Taiwan: Lin Family Mansion and Garden + Beef Noodles

city garden

Taipei’s Lin Family Mansion and Garden is an off-the-beaten track type of tourist destination, ideal for getting away from tour groups and the profound heat of summer in tropical Asia.  This lush and quiet park was constructed as the personal dwelling of the Lin Ben Yuan family, one of Taipei’s most wealthy and prominent families. Militiamen were stationed here until the Japanese occupation began in 1895, as mainland Chinese immigrants from Zhangzhou and Quanzhou battled it out.

big house

Lent by the Lin Family to shelter mainland soldiers in 1949, part of the garden was donated in 1977 to the city of Taipei. It was restored from neglect and occupation by squatters in 1986, and (per the inscription outside) has been periodically spruced up ever since. The main mansion and museum here is currently under this exact sort of restoration, and will be open again…eventually.

forest path

Regardless of the museum, this is an elegant, low-key example of a high born Chinese families residence and grounds, with specialized flower-viewing pavilions, elegant terraced ponds with covered walkways and lotuses, and carefully marked plantings of local trees. Entry is free, and in the summertime, the park is largely occupied by locals taking a stroll and students gathering together to do their homework or sketch the buildings for art classes.

lotus blossoms

While at the garden, I briefly talked to an older man in a white sun visor, who worked for the Taiwanese FCC equivalent. We were both trying to identify a bird, which eventually landed on a branch near us — resembling a fat and unusually saucy magpie.

Neither of us were able to appropriately identify the bird, but we chatted for a bit beneath the shade of an enormous banyan, looking over the little red and blue bridges that cross the landscaped ponds. He told me: “I’ve gone to the US maybe 12 times. It’s a beautiful country. It’s very hot here.”

Bed of green water plants in a pot.

Bed of green water plants in a pot.

I reassured him that Washington DC, which he visited regularly during the cooler months, was just as loathsome in the summertime. I could tell if he was unsure whether to believe me. I was reminded again that the Taipei Taiwanese are exceedingly friendly for a bunch of harried urbanites — striking up conversations on the MRT, lending directions, combing their cellphones intensely for the titles of restaurants if you express mild concern over directions.

Making beef noodles.

Making beef noodles.

Lunch time beckoned, and I decided to try out Lin Dong Fang Beef Noodles, which gets a slavering amount of online attention for their particular rendering of the Taiwanese speciality. I got back on the blue line and headed for the Zhōngxiào Fùxīng Station, then made my way to No. 274 Bādé Road Section 2, following the metro line then turning left. (The map in the MRT station was much more specific than the rather gauzy English-language map offering of the hotel).

beef noodles derp

There was nothing approximating English signage, as one should quite justifiably expect in Taiwan, but a line of hungry looking business people and a massive pot of stewed beef seemed to indicate I was in the right spot. I waited for a few minutes and was shown to a table right by the open kitchen. I pointed at the man next to me’s bowl of steaming beef noodles and was served promptly — grabbing a couple of the vegetable side dishes on offer to accompany my soup.

The flavor was rich and herbal, reminding me of a slightly sweetier, earthier rendition of good old Vietnamese pho. The noodles were thick and chewy, rather like udon. The beef shank had been cooked long and slow and had taken on a velvety, fall-apart texture, with remarkably attractive fatty marbling.

I tried reaching for the chili paste and was firmly pushed in the direction of Lin Dong Fang’s signature condiment, a combination of chili and lard that added fatty, smoky unctuousness to the soup. My only mistake? Not knowing how to order the beef AND tendon combo. Next time.

Taiwan business district street.

Taiwan business district street.

HOW TO GET THERE:

Located on Ximen Street in Taipei’s Banqiao District, it’s easiest to just hop on the MRT to get here. Get off at the Fuzhong Station on the Banqiao or “blue” line, and then follow the eminently convenient English language signs to the gardens itself. There are plenty of nice little street cafes and coffee shops in the area, and it makes for pleasant strolling after you’re finished with the gardens proper.

big ancient tree

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Taiwan: The National Palace Museum Taipei and Some Cabbage

national palace museum

On Thursday we went to the National Palace Museum, which I’ve been hearing about from my Asia-dwelling family members for approximately forever. Located a bit outside of the center of the city in the green and hilly environs of Shilin, it’s one of the biggest collections of Chinese art in the world, with a whopping 696,000 artifacts spanning a (mere) 8,000 years of history.

Treasures fleeing the Japanese in the 1930s.

Treasures fleeing the Japanese in the 1930s.

Why is all this glorious stuff here in Taiwan and not in, say, Beijing? The vast riches of the Chinese empire were stored in the Forbidden City until the Japanese invasion in 1933, when the artifacts were evacuated. Returned to Nanjing after World War II, they changed hands again after Chiang Kai-shek realized that the Communists would defeat him. A total of 2,972 crates of artifacts (roughly 22 percent of the total collection) were shipped to Taiwan, representing some of the finest objects ever produced in the entirety of Chinese history. Considering the incredibly rough period of history these artifacts were evacuated in, it’s a wonder that many of these delicate, small, and exceedingly valuable pieces have survived.

Needless to say, the People’s Republic of China considers the collection to be stolen, although relations appear to be thawing somewhat in this regard — in 2009, China and Taiwan agreed to the first-ever joint exhibition of artifacts. Who knows what will happen in the future?

What matters for the purposes of this brief blog post is that you’d be a real dumbass to visit Taipei without making a visit here, to put it delicately. Prioritize appropriately.

In light of this, my dad and I decided it’d be a good idea to hire a guide for two hours, to give us some grounding in the massive scope of the exhibits and explain what we were looking at. The cost came out to $150 and I’d say it was worth it. Jennifer Tang proved to be a lovely woman with a long background in Chinese painting, and came at the exhibit with an obvious and profound affection for everything we saw — pointing out fine details or providing the background story of how one object or another came to be, and came to enter the imperial collection.

jadeite cabbage

The most famous item here is probably a carved jade cabbage, which is accompanied by another piece of jade that looks remarkably like a piece of roasted meat. These two venerated art objects may sound rather pedestrian, but when you actually push through the crowd to gaze upon these Rocks That Look Like Food, you’ll be more impressed than you anticipated.

The Jadeite Cabbage, which is white at the bottom and tapers to a luxuriant green at the top, has a locust and a katydid concealed amidst the leaves, and was supposed to be a present symbolizing fertility for the Kuang-hsü Emperor’s Consort Chin. It could also be mean to “chastise fatuous officials.” Or it could be a remarkably attractive and valuable representation of a bug-infested vegetable. You make what you want of it .

meat shaped stone

Here is the Meat-Shaped Stone. You thought I was kidding, didn’t you? I knew it was a glorious work of art because it suddenly and irrevocably made me hungry.

Other highlights here include remarkably intricately carved ivory boxes, which allegedly took so long to execute that a single piece might be passed down for three generations (assuming, presumably, that three generations did not produce someone with awful hand-eye coordination). Our guide said that legend has it these fine carvers — working in mediums as tiny as peach-pits — sometimes did their work without even opening their eyes. “They had a very special feel for it,” she said, reverently.

Jade Bixie amulet, of which I now own a paperweight.

Jade Bixie amulet, of which I now own a paperweight.

Ritual jades from the exceedingly antique Xia and Shang dynasties were also very interesting, including facial covers and plugs for funerals. “There was always a chance that the dead would come back,” our guide said.

bamboo spring

Tang Yin’s remarkable renderings of bamboo.

Paintings are of course a major draw here and the exhibits rotate regularly, and the current exhibit features Ming Dynasty master Tang Yin. His contemplative nature paintings are gorgeous, and his life story — a brilliant middle-class academic screwed by the Imperial system, a poet, an artist, and business-man — adds flavor to the works themselves. I was particularly taken with his simple renderings of bamboo, in which he used dark and light washes of ink to portray leaves shaking in a rainstorm.

If you do not have a guide, it is best to simply wander around and look at what catches your fancy. This is a wonderful place to get totally lost in, and there’s always more to see — an immense scroll here, a massive jade disc there, an exhibit of antique medical textbooks in Chinese tucked into a back gallery, and son on and so forth. There are interpretative signs in English, and many interesting interactive exhibits, as well as an audioguide.

SOME TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS

It is best to come either early or rather late. The middle of the day finds the museum absolutely overrun with tourists, mostly clumping together in sardine-like tour group packs. Someone will be shouting at them and waving a flag around in your face. Avoid at all costs. (There is a brief let-up during the lunch hour). Budget at least 3 hours here, especially when factoring in queuing time if you manage to come here right at the very peak of Milling Tour Group. You can take a taxi here, or you can take the MRT to the Shilin stop and then board a shuttle bus.

There are no photos allowed and no backpacks either, but the nice ladies at the coat-check will keep your things for you unmolested. You can bring your phone in, but expect to be collared by an irate guard if you try to Instagram something — we saw this principle in action.

We liked stopping at the tea-house at the very top of the main gallery, which had a menu of noodles and light dim-sum snacks, and a good view of the little green valley that the museum is set in. It was surprisingly uncrowded around lunchtime.

Finally, the museum shops are excellent and have a pleasing selection of stuff from fine art reproductions to hilariously awesome kitsch, and you should probably know that I absolutely adore ridiculous, mildly personally humiliating souvenir opportunities. Our family now has more key-chains and magnets featuring plastic representations of a jade cabbage than we know what to do with. I also have a t-shirt with the Jadeite cabbage on it, although I picked that up at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. Don’t leave Taiwan without one.

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Taiwan: Longshan Temple and Shaved Ice

Longshan Temple roof.

Longshan Temple roof.

On Tuesday, I went to the Mengjia Longshan Temple, one of Taipei’s largest and most long-standing places of worship. It’s been around since 1738, albeit in different incarnations, and was last extensively rebuilt in World War II following bombardment by Americans.

Lighting candles.

Lighting candles.

On a Tuesday morning, the place is choked with worshipers lighting incense and candles and making the rounds, flanked by nuns and monks in light grey robes, many of whom have prayer beads and other knick-knacks to sell. The ambiance is like that of a Chinese temple most any place, but it’s a nice little look into popular religion in Taiwanese.


Of particular appeal are the lush grounds, featuring a waterfall, plenty of Rubenesque koi fish, and this fantastic dragon fountain that spurts water.

Tasty.

Tasty.

The area around Longshan is a busy shopping district with a lot of Taiwanese Sports Lottery storefronts, appliance stores, and the usual glut of Family Mart and 7-11 emporiums. I wandered around for a while, growing increasingly hot, and ducked into a Taiwanese buffet for lunch. It’s less of a buffet and more of a point-and-eat: lots of appealing food is laid out in a row and you point at what you want.

A severe looking woman spoons your food onto a platter and also hands you a bowl of rice, and you’re welcome to select a pot of soup as well. Mix your own sauces, then eat. Cheap and delicious, especially the eggplant and the braised spinach with tiny white fish.

sun yat sen statue
I hopped back on the remarkably pleasant MRT and headed to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, which commemorates the other national political hero of the Taiwanese people. Dr Yat-sen had a remarkably adventurous life and attempted to carry out numerous revolutions before his ultimate success, a fact that the displays here are keen to remind you of. There’s signs in both Chinese and English, and it’s a pleasant way to learn about how Taiwanese democracy came to be — although I admit I’m not much closer to entirely grokking the fiendishly complex 20th century political history of China. It’s a start.

changing of the guard sun yat sen

Much the same as the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, there’s a constant guard here that changes on the hour, which is fun to watch for a while if you’re willing to brave the crowds that apparate within two minutes of the ceremony beginning. The rest of the hall, which encompasses four stories, includes adult classrooms, galleries with a somewhat random smattering of art and photography exhibits, and an air conditioned and very popular periodical room with lots of people taking naps. There’s also a cafe and a gift-shop, in which I purchased a t-shirt featuring a jade cabbage. This made me happy.

taiwanese shaved ice

In the evening, I decided to find a place to locate Taiwanese shaved ice, which is sliced off a big block in pretty much the exact same way as gyros meat. (The flavor is different, you’ll be happy to know).

It’s a specialty that has made its way to Silicon Valley in recent months, to the general acclaim of some of my friends, and I wanted to try the stuff in its native land. The Smoothie House came highly recommended, so I made my way to Yong Kang Street, which was full of wandering snackers at 9:00 PM. Mango is the big hit here but decent strawberries are rather harder to find in Southeast Asia, so I went with the strawberry sorbet option.

The menu.

The menu.

Verdict? A pleasingly light and rather immense dessert, with a curious but highly enjoyable “fluff” texture. Rather like eating frozen cotton candy, flavored nicely by the sorbet on top and the fresh strawberries. This is probably the ideal way to restore one’s electrolytes after a face-meltingly hot day of tourism in Taipei’s heat.

Mango Snowflake facade.

Mango Snowflake facade.

 

 

 

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Today I Went to Taiwan

chiang kai-shek memorial

On Monday, I arrived in Taipei.

I have gone through the airport in Taiwan many times on the way to Phnom Penh, because it’s a convenient Eva air hub and a nice place to get noodles and beer as you await onward transit. But I had always wanted to properly visit Taiwan, bolstered as I was by collective family memories of visits back in the seventies, where one could gaze upon things like magnificent horse scrolls and a giant jade cabbage.

“The Kuomintang took all the good stuff from the Forbidden City and brought it here ahead of the Communists,” my mother explained. That was a good enough reason to visit the country in itself. I was planning to return to Asia at the first opportunity after I graduated from Stanford, and my planned return coincided neatly with a business trip my father was taking in Taipei. I decided to meet him here. And here I am.

Changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall.

Changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall.

My first impressions of Taiwan, thus far: the drive in from the airport encompassed tons of healthy-looking greenery and clean blue skies, a far cry from the dystopian misery of most city-approaches from Asian airports. Everyone was following traffic rules. I immediately wondered if I had even returned to Asia at all.

I fetched up at the hotel and woke up my dad, and — thanks to a surprisingly pleasant plane ride — I was ready to go and tourist within an hour or so. We headed to the MRT station, wrestled briefly with the go-card machines, and boarded the trains. Predictably, for a first world Asian city, they were clean and well-marked and pleasant, and put the San Francisco Bay Area BART system to such earth-shattering shame that the two barely belong in the same sentence. (Such is the pace of development).

Chiang Kai-shek looking benevolent.

Chiang Kai-shek looking benevolent.

We headed for the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall first, a few train stops away from our hotel. First opening in 1980 to commemorate the 1975 death of the Kuomintang leader, the Hall sits in an immense space that was (we were told) built over existing military property. In the modern era, the space was used for pro-democracy protests, and is now a popular tourist attraction that reminds one very much of the Lincoln Memorial if you squint a bit. This was intentional.

We watched the Changing of the Guard, along with dozens of aggressively photographically inclined Chinese tourists, then descended the stairs to the museum which described Chiang Kai-Shek’s life and times, from his calligraphy to his evening slippers.

It's quite the likeness.

It’s quite the likeness.

We chatted with a friendly English-speaking docent as we admired a replica of Chiang Kai-shek’s office, complete with a figure of the great man himself in wax. She described to us how roughly 40 percent of the Taiwanese population (in her estimation) absolutely prefers to be separate from China in all things, while the others are more on the fence. She also mentioned she had lived in San Jose for a decade, and I said I’d just got a masters from Stanford, to which she responded with a sharp, amused bow. “Do you know the Stanford shopping center?” she said. “That’s my very favorite.”

The docent had told us where to go to get good beef noodles and we dutifully walked out of the monument and through the streets to get there. Taipei’s streets are clean, walkable, and bizarrely quiet on a Monday afternoon, with almost none of the murderous motorbike or truck drivers I’ve become accustomed to in most Asian cities. It was hot and sticky, but we encountered regular gusts of cool air from the storefronts we passed.

Beef noodle storefront for future reference.

Beef noodle storefront for future reference.

I’ve always enjoyed Taiwanese beef noodles and this place was a good representative of the species – “Pot roast with noodles,” my dad observed, approvingly, as we dug in. We also ordered steamed spareribs with a tasty, spicy rice topping, and sampled a few of the side dishes displayed on the side.

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The setup is rather like Korean banchan, except that you point at what you want and a harried looking young man delivers the side-dish to the table. The best of these was the delicate, marinated eggplant..

Commit this storefront in Taipei to memory because the food was stellar.

Commit this storefront in Taipei to memory because the food was stellar.

We walked back to the hotel to make Dad’s meeting, and I spent most of the afternoon working and watching a truly impressive tropical rainstorm blow in over the city — something, I realized, I’d missed in the benign climes of northern California.
For dinner, one of Dad’s friends — a Taipei native — led us to one of his favorite restaurants in the neighborhood of our hotel, which had no English signage but which he informed me translated pretty much into “The Freshest Taste.”

Grim spectacle (that's a lie).

Grim spectacle (that’s a lie).

This was one of those delightful Asian beer-swilling joints with stools and an open front to the outside, where a somewhat desperate looking girl in an Asahi beer dress tried (without success) to sway us from the local Taiwan beer. The restaurant had a check-it-off menu of small plates, and the setup was very much like a Taiwanese variant on a tapas bar.
The food was absolutely superb, and we tried roughly a dozen dishes, which came out quickly and were summarily removed as we devoured them.

raw clams

Raw clams – amazing.

My favorites included braised tofu with oysters and black beans and chives in a delicate, sea-water infused sauce, fried and sliced tripe with peanuts and chili in the Kung Pao style, marinated raw clams of tiny dimensions and immensely subtle flavor, and flash-fried chicken with a light crumb batter and a vinegar sauce on bottom.

Braised baby squid.

Braised baby squid.

But it was all excellent — even the stinky tofu, although I continue to be unable to fully get on board with eating chicken blood. (Shame – a great source of iron).  Below is an exhaustive gallery of all the things we ate.


I ended the evening at one of the night markets, which was approximately like every other night market in Asia, except with many more shops selling toys in capsules. Taiwanese youth culture is very much like our own, with hordes of kids out late on a summer Monday night perusing shirts that featured things like Mickey Mouse giving the audience the finger and the characters from Adventure Time.

Capsule toy hell.

Capsule toy hell.

Of most interest were the food stalls, where people gamely queued up to buy chicken schnitzels as large as their heads, fried potato chips cut into patterns and mounted on a stick, and endless variations on the theme of sweetened grass jelly (marked with frogs here). I even walked by a Chipotle knock-off, titled California Burrito.

Watch palooza.

Watch palooza.

Somewhat dazzled by the sheer variety of Taiwanese youth culture and the vague feeling I was both too uncool and too jet-lagged to fully participate, I found myself a cab and returned to the hotel. Typically for Taipei, the cabbie was polite and turned on the meter immediately without being asked — a far cry from the bickering that ensues over such matters in many other cities. Thus far? I like this place.

Alley shopping.

Alley shopping.

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Hobby Lobby: No, Preventing Cheap Access to Contraceptives Won’t Save You Money

The font of all evil.

The font of all evil.

Amidst the explosion of justifiable online rage over the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby ruling, it’s worth remembering one thing: subsidizing birth control saves taxpayers money.

Many supporters of the Supreme Court ruling noisily claim that they’re opposed to insurance-covered contraception because it will cost them money. “But I don’t want to paaaayyy for it!” they say. “Self-actualized adults should pay for their own medical care!”

Cute idea, I suppose, if you never quite outgrew that extravagantly selfish Ayn Rand phase. But this “fiscally conservative” stance happens to be unsupported by fact.

Let’s refer back to a 2011 Brookings Institution study, which found that unintended pregnancies are expensive: really expensive. Researchers found that US taxpayers shell out about $12 billion annually for unintended pregnancies.

And there’s a lot of them: almost half of all US pregnancies are not expected, a proportion that hits 60 percent when one is dealing with teenaged, unmarried, or low income women.

While the numbers are grim, there’s an easy solution: public policy that hits the problem on multiple fronts, including access to inexpensive birth control. Per Brookings: “There is strong evidence that expansions in access to publicly subsidized family planning services can affect rates of contraceptive use and unintended childbearing.”

Ok, but what about those poor, long-suffering insurance companies?

It’s true that it’s less clear if insurance companies themselves save money on providing contraception. Factcheck.org concludes that evidence is distinctly murky either way, eventually concluding that while the President’s contention that contraceptive insurance will pay for itself cannot currently be proven right, it’s also impossible to prove it wrong. 

Most evidence certainly seems to suggest that the up-front costs of providing coverage are minimal. US government data claims adding contraceptions to an insurance coverage planwould only increase premiums by 0.5% annually, while a 2011 study estimated a cost of $26 per enrollee per female.

I believe many of us happily spend that much per week on fast food,  and it’s a particularly low cost to take into account when one contemplates how expensive unplanned pregnancies are for everyone.

Does even that small amount of money sound usurious and cruel to you? I weep, but I will also point out that you probably do pay taxes. Which means that the $12 billion in expenses Brookings documented will come out of your pocket eventually, one way or another.

The source of all this recent, frenzied Internet.

The source of all this recent, frenzied Internet.

What’s more: all kinds of basic preventative care cost insurers money. These would include measures that get a lot less frothy media play, such as basic cancer screening, cholesterol drugs, routine checkups, and other boringly quotidian measures. This is done because a wise collective risk pool prefers to spend a little money now rather than lot of money later. That applies to major health events from heart attacks to — yes — unintended pregnancies.

There’s also the fact that American women themselves seem to have saved an immense amount of money on contraception since Obamacare came into play. A recent IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics study found that women saved $483 million in out of pocket contraceptive costs in 2013 alone.

If one operates under the at-times-controversial notion that sexually active women are legitimate taxpayers like everyone else, that means a very substantial portion of the population is finding subsidized birth control to be wonderfully thrifty.

And the money those women are saving will help them improve their lives, in many ways beyond a less stress-filled sex life. A 2013 Guttmacher study documents the positive improvements women reported in their own lives due to contraceptive access, while there’s profuse evidence from around the world documenting how access to family planning services improves the lives of everyone — women and men included.

Finally, many women use birth control pills for reasons that have nothing to do with being a Big Slutty Slut — myself included. They’re used for painful and disfiguring medical conditions from polycystic ovary syndrome to cystic acne to dangerously heavy menstrual periods.

Here, of course, is where it gets tricky. Many women, per Guttmacher, use the pill for both medical reasons and for its contraceptive capabilities. If you’re a proponent of a small, un-intrusive government, you should agree that I’d rather not have my insurance company monitoring my house or covertly rummaging through my trash for signs of an active sex life.

So, let me ask you again, “fiscally conservative, small government” defenders of Hobby Lobby: why do you want to cost the taxpayer money? Why do you want to potentially invade women’s privacy?

And if you admit that you don’t actually care about the well-documented savings contraceptive access provides, then what really bothers you about birth control pills?

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Monterey Bay Aquarium: Tentacles and Photos of Tentacles

 

spotted jellyfish

Between the last post and this one, I’ve graduated with my Masters, finished a thesis about drones (surprise!), and have traveled to the East Coast to see family. This made me embarrassingly remiss about blogging.

Here’s some recent photos from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Myself, my cousin Laura, and my friend Curran all made the trek down there during my graduation weekend, intent on viewing the anticipated glories of the Tentacles special exhibit for ourselves.

Find the lurking baby cuttlefish.

Find the lurking baby cuttlefish.

I’ve had a slightly weird life-long love affair with tentacled creatures of the deep, starting with a childhood in which I had no teddy bears but a remarkably diverse assortment of plush tentacled sea life instead. I was insistent at an early age that Things With Noses Aren’t As Cute, and would become extremely offended if someone dared portray an octopus with a bullshit faux, circular nose. Mostly, I found them fascinating: as intelligent as cats, able to change color at will, and remarkably effective, sneaky predators.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 1.41.34 AM

My love of cephalopods has persisted into adulthood: I had a giant squid battling a whale on the cake my mom got me for my undergraduate graduation, while my family exchanges clever squid-themed gifts whenever we find ourselves in the same geographic location. Becoming a scuba diver only made me fall more deeply in love: seeing the real thing jetting about the ocean floor, lurking in coral, undulating.

I encountered a cuttlefish in the Philippines last summer — a tiny little job, about the length of my already-small middle finger. It was hovering by a piece of coral and took cranky note of my existence: I had spotted it and begun squealing in glee quietly to myself through a regulator.

Brittle star tentacles.

Brittle star tentacles.

I drew closer and the cuttlefish nonchalantly positioned itself behind the coral, operating under the assumption I wouldn’t be able to see it. This didn’t work, and when I peered at it from the other side, it grew irate, turned black, and blasted a miniscule, delicate spurt of ink into my face.

This is probably the cutest thing that has ever happened to me or will ever happen to me.

Lurking giant octopus.

Lurking giant octopus.

In any case: the Tentacles exhibit was really excellent. A short entry-way with a display of Greek pots with squid on them and popular portrayals of these beasts throughout history, and into the exhibits: giant octopi, bigfin squid, stumpy cuttlefish, chambered nautilus, and many other delightful, odd creatures.

The Aquarium mastered the care and breeding of jellyfish and has used its considerable resources and scientific knowledge to do the same for some rather unusual species of cephalopods: there are critters here you are unlikely to have previously viewed through the smudged glass of some also-ran aquarium.

They're hard to photograph. Had to outsource to Wikipedia.

Flamboyant cuttlefish are hard to photograph. Had to outsource to Wikipedia.

My favorite by far was the flamboyant cuttlefish, a flip-phone sized creature that is colored in orchid-like purples and yellows. In severe contradiction to the floral beauty of its exterior, the flamboyant cuttlefish is the Pug of the ocean: it trundles slowly and with seemingly great exertion to wherever it is going, on two inward turned tentacles. They look unlikely in that adorably awkward way so favored by human onlookers, and as we observed, that pathos-laden lack of grace applies to hunting: they don’t seem to be that hot at it.

As we looked into the aquarium, a clear plastic tube appeared and emitted a few dozen tiny pink shrimp: lunch time. The shrimp found their way to the yellow sand of the bottom and we crowded around in anticipation. But the cuttlefish did not gracefully devour them.

Gorgeous chambered nautilus.

Gorgeous chambered nautilus.

They trundled. They trundled towards the shrimp with staunch, lugubrious intent. A cuttlefish feeds by jerking a tentacle out from its center mass of tentacles towards the prey, and then yanking the hapless victim back into its (hidden) beak – the effect is rather like a frog.

Unfortunately, the flamboyant cuttlefish kept missing. They would jerk out a tentacle, and miss the shrimp by a few centimeters, and the shrimp would fail to notice and jet away. The cuttlefish looked frustrated, and the shrimp looked almost pleased, if it’s possible for a shrimp to be pleased.

moody giant octopus

One shrimp actually hopped onto the back of one of the more hopeless cuttlefish, after evading a particular miserable attempt at tentacle-grabbing. The cuttlefish immediately became alarmed: it shifted from magenta to a deep, blackish purple — angry colors, the species equivalent of yelling “Oh Shit.”

The shrimp hung on, and the cuttlefish tried backing up, propelling itself with little ineffectual squirts of water. The shrimp hung on. Another ferocious backwards puff, and the shrimp finally became dislodged. The cuttlefish reared up, positioning its tentacles in a savage, cobra-like display, rippling with black and purple and white. Surely it would learn. Surely it would submit.

The cuttlefish came closer, and the shrimp hopped on its back again.

cuttlefish couple

More great exhibits awaited: graceful bigfin squid with giant eyes, lugubrious giant squid, steampunk animated displays explaining what it’s *like* to be an octopus. We even got to watch cuttlefish have weirdly rough sex, preceded by an aggressive, ink-filled slugfest between at least a dozen combatants.

You must go see this exhibit. It is more entertaining than anything on television, or at least equivalent to YouTube.

Here’s a gallery of my other photos:

 

 

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Bottega – Yountville, California

bottega kitchen

Bottega Napa Valley
6525 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599

My family takes a bi-monthly or so road trip from Sacramento to Napa to go to restaurants and buy wine, which really translates into “spending a day pleasantly making fabulously wealthy people even more fabulously wealthy, sort of a wealthy-people vicious cycle of overeating.” If you detect a mild, self-loathing tone creeping into my food-blogging, you may be diagnosing something lurking below my soul. Not that I’m passing up the wine and cheese.

Anyway.

We had been meaning to try Celebrity Chef (TM) Michael Chiarello’s Yountville outlet for some time now. I’ve been vaguely aware of Chiarello for years, ever since he played the slightly menacing, goomba-esque presence on Top Chef, and roughly after his rustic lifestyle catalogs begin arriving in regular shoals in my parent’s mail-box.

An exceedingly clever businessman, the California native parlayed high-end Italian cooking into television shows, a winery, regular appearances in the media, a line of furniture, and God knows what else — picture a much gruffer looking Martha Stewart, although I know Chiarello has never been to prison. We made a lunch reservation at Bottega.

The restaurant is dark inside and full of brass and amber accents, creating a late-night feeling even when it’s high noon outside and getting progressively hotter. An open-style kitchen allows diners to watch the kitchen team move in a fast paced frenzy, slinging huge metal pots with preternaturally strong wrists. The warm color given off by the flames of the oven, interplaying wit the cold steel of the fixtures, lit them all in a delicate, Renaissance-like tone. It was good viewing.

We were seated quickly, thanks to our reservations, and began paging through the immense wine list and the rather interesting cocktail menu. Mindful of our planned itinerary of paying people well over $10 a pop to take small swigs of their fermented grape juice, we stuck with the non-boozey stuff — the ginger lemonade was surprisingly delicious.

The menu, true to form, is a combination of California local ingredients and contemporary Italian cooking, with ingredients like sea urchin and nettles bumping shoulders with ricotta gnocchi and grilled skirt steak.

bottega brussel salad

The shaved brussel sprouts salad was tucked into a small pyramid (and I do mean rather small) but had a delightfully spring-y taste, evading the uncomfortable chewiness of less worthy raw brussel sprouts preparations. The combination of egg, almond, pecorino cheese and Meyer lemon gave the dish an earthy, season-appropriate richness. I want to try to emulate this at home.

bottega meat balls

Meatballs, polpettas, whatever — these were excellent, composed of extremely tender grilled shortrib meat that fell apart with silky intensity when poked with a spoon. They were served with a hummus-like puree made from sunchoke, a somewhat under-adored vegetable. This is the kind of thing you would imagine yourself ordering in a simplified form at an Italian estate after slaying a slag sometime in 1723, or at least these are the fantasies with which I sustain my life. I should build more slaying into my routine.

bottega minestrone

Minestrone featured tender green chard, flatleaf spinach, nettles, and wild vineyard mustard, served in a prosciutto broth with potato and a slab of bread. Tasty, earthy, and violently rich in nutrients, this nevertheless struck me as not fancy enough for the setting — the sort of thing I’d probably be able to whip up some simulacra of in an afternoon in between bouts of pretending to write. You’re paying Napa restaurant prices — in my mind, you might as well try something that involves obnoxious procedure and cutting tiny things into even tinier things, thanks to the efforts of some poor prep cook who is perennially being shouted at for breathing.

bottega duck

I ordered the duck three ways because I have always been highly susceptible to duck. I will say right now this was a monumentally enormous restaurant dish, the sort of thing that you look at and think “Did they make some kind of mistake?”

But no, this is half a duck — the breast is roasted until tender and juicy, the leg prepared in a tender confit, and the liver (presumably deriving from a different duck) smeared on a sidebar crostini. Accents were watercress and a strawberry compote garnish, although these serve somewhat as afterthoughts for the duckfat-dripping main event. I managed to finish it. It might have been poorly advised. I did leave a small piece of pate on the crostini, which I looked at with both embarrassment and dog-like lust as it was taken away at the end of the meal. (This is probably a metaphor for something). This is not delicate or particularly sophisticated food, but you will be absolutely good on the duck front for a long while to come.

bottega corn

Less deliciously egregious was a pasta made with corn meal and mushrooms. It sounded rather interesting on paper but was too sweet in practice, producing a rather cloying effect. I don’t like overly sweet cornbread, and I resent it in my pasta as well.

cavatelli shrimp

Cavatelli was served with a sea urchin sauce and hefty head-on prawns. A delicate white bowl was provided for the little remnant crustacean skulls. It was almost as if they knew us. The sauce was delicate, had a bit of saffron in it, and had that delightfully buttery and of-the-sea essence that defines all fine seafood pastas. Would order again. Definitely the most refined dish of the meal.

No dessert. Both because we’re not really into that, and because I had just eaten half a duck with accompaniments. The existential shame was already complete.

The sizing of the portions is smallish but not quite on point if you’re hoping to do a true Italian-style meal, with a small starter, a pasta course, and a main dish — judging by the quantity of the duck, this would induce almost instant gout and possible death. I am not sure if this is a bad thing.

Inexplicably, there is no pizza oven here. There is a large wood-burning oven, but I remain unsure what it is for. Maybe creating rustic clay pots.

Would I return again? Yes. Celebrity chef foolishness aside, the food was good and the menu items interesting, and I’d like to poke around what they’ve got on offer to a greater extent.

Also, they sell black truffle potato chips in the store next door. You want to get those. Eat them slowly while you read Piketty and contemplate what has brought you to this place.

 

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Irresponsible Photoshopper: Snowden Doge

I’ve considered putting “purveyor of fine obnoxious Photoshop” on my business card. I wonder how that would go over.

snowden-doge

I have long felt a profound, sympathetic connection between Doge and Snowden. I may be delusional.

 

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