In Defense of Kangding

kangding mountain (1 of 1)

Kangding does not exactly get a glowing reception in the major guidebooks, which describe this Chinese-Tibetan border city as “uninspiring,” maybe even “boring.” I am here to say that they are wrong, and that I am happy to defend Kangding’s honor – this pleasant little city with crisp mornings, a remarkable vegetable market, and a surging whitewater river right through the center of town.

If you want to travel in Sichuan’s Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, you must first go through Kangding. Getting to this border town, which is known as Dartesedo or Dardo to the Tibetans, requires a heavily theoretical six to nine hour bus ride –  the duration of which can lengthen shockingly when a landslide takes place or an accident stops up the narrow mountain roads.

I booked a bus ticket in Chengdu and reported at the exceedingly shovey station at 9:00 AM sharp, where I boarded the Luxury Bus (well, sort of) and headed for the mountains.

cliffs in sichuan

The trip took us through the surprisingly bucolic lowlands of Sichuan, dotted with electric green small farms and traditional white Chinese houses with black trimming. Eventually, we began our climb upwards, into ever more enormous canyons covered in bamboo and thick jungle foliage, the roadsides dotted with endless unfinished construction projects.

In the finest Chinese tradition, my seatmate appeared to have some of unpleasant respiratory disorder and spat at regular ten minute intervals into a small blue bucket in the aisle, provided for that purpose. We got on well enough until he produced an enormous hunting knife and a sausage, which he carved at meditatively around tight mountain passes, which we traversed at high speed. This made me nervous.

The Zhilam Hostel entrance in Kangding.
The Zhilam Hostel entrance in Kangding.

We finally arrived in Kangding around 6:00 PM. As soon as I got off the bus, it was glaringly apparant I had left China and entered an – as the anthropologists call it – Cultural Liminal Zone. Kangding used to be where Tibetans and Chinese would meet for trading purposes, the Chinese hauling great blocks of Pu-Erh tea and other goods up the jungle roads I had just traversed, the Tibetans bringing furs and yak meat and other high-altitude valuables to meet them.

The city remains the gateway to historical Tibet, and remains primarily Tibetan with some Han Chinese population, in a region that some say with confidence is now more Tibetan than Tibet proper.

Certainly, this Tibetan predominance was evident in the tanned and angular faces of the tall, ponytail wearing men who gathered around me as I walked out of the bus station – and all of them thought I should really hop into *their* taxi, except none of them spoke any English and damned if I knew any Tibetan. I almost never take unmetered taxis, operating under the assumption they are almost exclusively driven by cheating bastards. I could see metered taxis streaming by, but none of them were stoppping.

I called the Zhilam Hostel and begged for mercy – and conveniently, ran into a British couple who were also heading to the same place.

Allie, a London-based worker for a startup company, eventually managed to fling herself halfway into one of the taxis which had (foolishly) stopped within running distance of us. Meanwhile I shoved a phone with the Zhilam Hostel owner on the line into the bewildered looking drivers face. We got our ride.

Kangding at night.
Kangding at night.

The taxi deposited us at the base of the hill, and I soon discovered that the “uphill” location of the Zhilam Hostel was actually a very delicate understatement. In fact, it was a 15 minute upward haul to the hostel, a narrow switchbacked stretch that no taxi could be cajoled to bother with. Cursing the life choices that had led me to carry three bags (one of them wheely) through the odder stretches of China, I began the upward climb, swearing quietly to myself at regular intervals as I clacked along. The British couple, bless them, took pity on me and helped.

I arrived at the Zhilam Hospital sweating, slightly irate, and in dire need of a beer. I felt a bit better as I looked the place over, an American-owned guesthouse decorated in a traditional Tibetan style, all wood, colorful paintings, and comfortable cushions and couches. The place was full of sunburned Western backpackers, a stack of well-thumbed Lonely Planets dominating the kitchen. I had booked a dorm bed and was happy to find the dorm rooms were spacious and actually had curtains, and lacked the persistent smell of mold and despair that seems to characterize Chinese hostels.

Upstairs, I spent a pleasant evening chatting with two American rock climbers and their Australian friend, all coming down from Sichuan’s northern regions. The rock climbers had just finished a first ascent of a route in what’s termed “Asia’s Patagonia,” while the Australian was hustling down to Chengdu, after being bitten by a dog in Litang. (This was to be only the first in a series of interesting rabies conversations I engaged in in the region of Garze).

We shared a yak meat pizza, which was accidentally given to the wrong party, but we got it eventually. I can confirm that yak meat is perfectly edible, especially when it – as is ideal in Tibetan culture – has suffered from a pleasantly accidental death instead of an unsightly planned *murder*.

The pines above Kangding.
The pines above Kangding.

I woke up early the next morning in an effort to catch some AM photos of the mountains that loom over Kangding, which didn’t work out very well because it was rather overcast and depressive looking. I punted: I bid farewell to the rock climbers (headed to Chengdu) and ordered some surprisingly excellent French press coffee, plotting out the rest of my day in Kangding. First on my agenda was fixing my knockoff North Face backpack, which had cost me the princely sum of $12 in Phnom Penh a month ago. It had rewarded me by having both the straps pop off within a week, leaving me to wander around China with a red and black backpack secured to me only some straps of fabric and my own profound annoyance at the situation.

Even worse, the knockoff trade in China had diminished greatly since my last visit in 2007, with all the available backpacks costing at least $60 at shiny outdoors stores with Adidas signs all over them. I didn’t know what to do.

“You could buy a new one,” the hostel owner said, “but you can just find one of the old men with sewing machines to fix it for you.” Of course I could.

I had just forgotten that I was back in the part of the world where elderly people with extremely tiny street-based businesses will solve most of your human needs for under $5.

Sure enough, I found an elderly man with a considerably more elderly sewing machine at the base of the hill where the Zhilam Hostel sits. I handed him my backpack, showed him the damage, and looked unhappy about it, and he understood immediately, going to work with tools likely last in vogue in 1935. Within 20 minutes, he had resewn my straps and added new bolts to my loose backplate, transforming my knockoff backpack into something considerably more stalwart. I tried to hand him 100 RMB as a gesture of extreme gratitude, but he shrugged and pushed it away, delicately accepting a 10 RMB note instead.

Impressive and pointedly male yak statue in downtown Kangding.
Impressive and pointedly male yak statue in downtown Kangding.

Enjoying my newly rejuvenated backpack to an almost bizarre extent, I walked into town in search of things to put inside of it (as well as an ATM). Kangding reminded me of Reno in an odd sort of way, with its rushing river through the middle of town, sharp mountain air, and aura of slightly odd people making easy money.

Dancers heading to a Tibetan performance.
Dancers heading to a Tibetan performance.

The mountains towered up all around, from the basin in which the town sat, and I was reminded of the words of British explorer Elizabeth Kimball Kendall in her 1913 “A Wayfarer in China,” who described Kangding – known to her as Tachienlu – as lying “at the bottom of a well,” with “hardly room to stand.” Modern Chinese construction was doing its best to alleviate the canyon situation of Kangding, but the aspect of the place was still aggressively vertical – hemmed in by rock and trees and the omnipresent danger of landslide.

The town’s Peoples Square was hosting a Tibetan song and dance festival, inspired by the omnipresent Chinese love song inspired by Kangding’s mountain. I shoved my way to the front of the crowd (as is proper) and watched for a while as a boy and a girl, dressed up in a deer suit, acted out a melodrama involving the female deer being shot and eaten by other teenagers dressed up in furs. It was very exciting.

Kangding's finest construction workers.
Kangding’s finest construction workers.

I wandered down the river and found myself in the midst of Kangding’s food market, which stretches along the left side of the river for a good half-a-mile. The produce was tremendously attractive, as fancy as that found at a horrendously expensive California Whole Foods – enormous pink radishes, robust and luridly colored eggplants, and an endless variety of wild-picked mushrooms. I eventually found myself in the butchery section, where tables held the remains of yaks, made recognizable by their hanging, tufted black-and-white tails.

I planned to take the gondola up the mountain, but instead, I misplaced my passport. This led to a good two hours of ransacking the hostel in a state of slowly increasing panic, which magnified after I looked up the horrifyingly byzantine process that is getting a US passport replaced in Chengdu. Eventually, one of the young Tibetans that works at the hostel produced a penlight and discovered my passport had somehow slipped out of its sleeve – where I had put it for safe-keeping behind the front desk – and under a cabinet. whew.

The British couple, Tony and Allie, and I decided to have dinner at the Malaya Restaurant, which we found was on the 6th floor of Kangding’s most posh office building, above the omnipresent Dicos chain restaurant After accidentally heading up some distinctly murderous-looking stairs, then finding the right staircase, we emerged into a wood-paneled and pleasantly Tibetan-decorated restaurant, with waitresses in black silk and embroidered Tibetan garb, and a fine view of the Las Vegas lights of nighttime Kangding.

Yak burger.
Yak burger.

The menu was distinctly Tibetan, with everything from benign momos, to raw yak meat, to yak tongue served with Sichuan’s famous, supposedly medicinal fungus worms.

Eschewing the Tongue and Worm combo, we had beef with hot chilis, which was smoky and good. Next were stir-fried wild mushrooms, which were quite tasty but also cost 150 RMB, ensuring we didn’t repeat the experiment.

Hot stone beef at Malaya Restaurant.
Hot stone beef at Malaya Restaurant.

Last was a “yak burger,” which was actually a large steamed dish, with boiled Tibetan bread on top, yak stew in the middle, and potato on the bottom. Yak was surprisingly tender and tasty in general, and the potato did an excellent job of soaking up all those delicate yak juices.

We headed home to Zhilam, the walk uphill slightly more manageable without our luggage. The next day, we would head to Tagong to go trekking.

As for me, I’d concluded that Kangding deserves a much fairer shake than those stupid guidebooks would have you believe.

Blue sky above Kangding.
Blue sky above Kangding.

 

Chengdu: First Impressions

motorbike lights (1 of 1)

Chengdu falls neatly into the orbit of massive, bustling Chinese cities that the West has given almost no thought to. Certainly I hadn’t, beyond a vague sense that it was in Sichuan and was where people went if they wanted to go see pandas. I was not expecting an immense, modern metropolis with a Metro system, massive designer shopping outlets, and a mall that so huge that it has an actual, simulated beach in it. Such are the wonders of modern China.

I mainly came here for the food, after a life-time spent being intrigued by the kind of peppers that make your mouth go numb and strange upon consumption. I flew in from Shanghai, catching a late afternoon plane from the immense and disturbingly empty Pudong airport.

The new Shanghai airport is like someone’s vague, poorly-expressed fever-dream of a welcoming and luxurious international airport, with gate upon gate laid out in a grey and very clean expanse, with nowhere to buy much of anything beyond a single Famly Mart convenience store, as well as some souvenir luxury food emporiums that sell little beyond very strange-looking beef jerky. Thankfully, my China Air flight was on time, which left me with only a bit of time to enjoy my ready-packaged tuna fish sushi roll.

The hostel sent someone to pick me up in Chengdu, and we drove into town – allowing me to immediately appreciate how enormous the city really is. I had a vague idea of Chengdu as being Northern and largeish, but no comprehension of its true scale: it is in fact China’s 5th largest city and has a population of 14 million. For reference, the 2012 population of New York City was 8.337 million. (Some fudging may have been done on the municipal area vs. the city proper – this link puts Chengdu at a respectable 39 on the world scale of biggest populations, between Hyderabad and Lahore).

Street crawfish in Chengdu.
Street crawfish in Chengdu.

As we drove in, I saw the curious neon expanse of the New Century Global Center, which is supposedly the largest building in the world. Coming in, I tend to believe it. That’s big enough to house 20 Sydney Opera Houses. China, as is evident to anyone paying attention, is going hell-for-leather to rack up as many world records as humanly possible.

I stayed at the Chengdu FlipFlop Hostel, which was a deceptively large place near the Chunxi Metro area of the city – near the glitzy International Finance Square mall, which has an entire wall covered in lightbulbs compelling you to buy exceedingly expensive  Louis Vuitton products.

The hostel happened to be near a nice food area, and I walked down the street watching Sichuanese promenade on a Friday night. Slightly less accustomed to a sea of foreigners than those in Shanghai, young men said “Hello!” to me as they went by on their silent electric scooters. Hot pot place after hot pot place lined the streets, as well as small BBQ places selling fish and squid and small birds on sticks.

There were also small tuk-tuks selling noodles, and numerous restaurants filled with hard-drinking and very sociable Chengdu natives. I noticed a rough collie – the Lassie-type dog – standing by a BBQ stall, shaved down with a summer cut like all the other furry dogs with owners here. There were also crawfish, which I wish I could get the chance to try.

beef fried with pretzel chengdu (1 of 1)

Eager to use a picture menu, I opted for a restaurant. Eager to try Sichuanese food in its native home, I walked into a popular looking spot and walked in. Pointing wildly at the menu while a disenchanted looking Chinese woman stared at me, I ended up with a delicious dish of stir-fried beef with Sichuan chiles, peppers, ginger, and – curiously enough – chunks of breadstick and peanut. The combination was delicious and entirely unusual, with the oil-sodden breadsticks adding a tasty, carby influence to the stir-fry.

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I also enjoyed ordering green beans with stir-fried eggplants, which is a typical sort of Sichuanese thing. There’s a photo of the restaurant sign up above, and someone could do me a favor and translate for me if they’re feeling compassionate.

 

China: The Shanghai Museum

shanghai museum
From WikiMedia Commons, because I forgot to get a photo.

Wherever I go, I always visit the museum, operating off the assumption that a people’s hand-picked selection of interesting objects are always worth seeing. Provincial or national – I love them all. The Shanghai Museum, unsurprisingly, is a particularly worthy entrant. Most pleasantly? It’s free.

The Shanghai Museum is situated near the People’s Park area of the city, and is built in an aggressively modernist but not unpleasant building, with pinkish brick and a large circular arch over the top of it. You won’t miss it unless you are very stupid.

The downside of a free museum is that everybody wants to go, and there always seems to be a considerable line to get in, which is slowed down by the required security check. You do not have to check your bags, and cameras are permitted, which is a nice touch. I’d suggest coming here on a weekday to avoid spending an hour waiting in line in the sun with a lot of other sweaty, mildly exasperated people.

Split into four floors, the museum has a particularly interesting selection of ancient artifacts that were found in the vicinity of Shanghai, proving China’s authority as one of the oldest cultures on the planet.

There are also bronzes, including bells and some immense drums, a wide selection of Chinese landscape painting, a display encompassing China’s ethnic minorities and their traditional outfits, and even a display of ancient coins. Signage usually has some English translation.

Here are some photos of the things I liked best in the museum, in no particular order whatsoever:

clay dog (1 of 1)

A clay statue of a dog from the Eastern Han tradition, likely dating from between AD 25 to 220.  This charmingly realistic beast hails from an interesting tradition of dog art, crafted to guard the tombs of the dead – many of whom, presumably, were particularly fond of their pets. Dogs were divided into watch dogs, hunting dogs, and dogs for eating, per the Liji (Book of Rites) from the era,

scratchy dog (1 of 1)

A Tang Dynasty lion sculpture, likely from between A.D. 618 and 907.  Like most of the lovely objects here, it was likely a tomb decoration. More information was not forthcoming from the museum, but you can read more about the Tang tradition of funeral statuary here.

bulls on jar (1 of 1)

I’ve always been particularly taken by ancient Chinese metalworking, which is intricate, exotic, and far more impressive than its contemporary works in the Western world. This cowrie-container with eight yaks on top likely hails from the Western Han, from 206 BC to AD 8.  Cowrie shells are thought to have begun to be used as currency during the Shang Dynasty, around the 16th to 11th century BC, and continued to be used as such up until the Ming and Yuan dynasties in some regions of China. This proves that these shells have value beyond adorning the necks of annoying people from California.

shrimp ornaments (1 of 1)

This is a pair of spectacular gold hairpins in the shape of shrimp from the Ming Dynasty, unearthed at the site of what is now the Huili Middle School in Shanghai’s Huangpu District. The Internet Oracle reveals very little about this dig beneath a middle school in the heart of Shanghai, but I’d definitely like to hear the story. Regardless, I wish this kind of thing was back in style, although I also know I’d lose them within five minutes if I owned them.

buddhist relief shanghai museum (1 of 1)

This rather Byzantine-looking Buddha relief is from the rather short-lived Northern Qi Dynasty, which ruled between 550 and 577 AD, and was the successor state of the Eastern Wei Dynasty. Buddhism is thought to have arrived in China during the Han Dynasty, and by the time of the Northern Qi, it had many well-matured customs within China proper.

Much art of the era demonstrates a distinct influence from the styles practiced in Western Asia, indicating considerable cultural exchange. I’ve recently been very interested in the Buddhist art of Afghanistan, and it’s interesting to see how these traditions spread across Asia and picked up influences from the Greek art brought over as early as the time of Alexander the Great.

wooden men shanghai museum (1 of 1)

These are processional figures from the Ming Dynasty tomb of Pan Yongzheng, who was buried in the current environs of Shanghai.  (He is NOT the Western Qing Emperor – I can tell you were getting confused). I would like to tell you more about him, but I am encountering the existential limits of Googling for Chinese historical information in English.

bird shanghai museum (1 of 1)

This painting is entitled “Peasant, Bamboo, and Chrysanthemum,” and was painted by Hua Yan in the Qing Dynasty – sometime during his lifespan of 1682 to 1756. A native of Shanghang in Fujian province,  he relocated to the art centers of Hangzhou and Yangzhou as he aged – becoming one of the famous “Eight Eccentrics.”

We should all aspire to become a big-e Eccentric in our twilight years.  On an additional note, I’ve always thought the Chinese were better at painting birds than anybody else.

ox shaped zun statue (1 of 1)

This ox-shaped zun (wine vessel) hails from the Late Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history, from the early 6th century to 476 BC.  It’s a stint in Chinese history particularly known for impressive, stylized bronzes, which I’ve always been partial to.  On a related note: plowing through Chinese history again in an effort to add some context to all the nice museum pieces I see.

Some Thoughts on Shanghai

 

the bund (1 of 1)

I arrived in Shanghai at the totally uncivilized hour of 5:00 AM – and, unsurprisingly, saw that the airport area was surrounded in a thick bank of typically Chinese-style haze. (For a moment, I convinced myself it was fog. Lies). Going through customs proved painless enough, and I spent a while wandering the airport trying and failing to find a currency exchange operator open at the aforementioned ungodly hour. I also wandered from one side of the immense terminal to the other to find a taxi stand with anyone at it in the early morning. But I eventually found a small brown car that would convey me to downtown. The freeway into town was called, as are most Chinese freeways, a Ring Road, and it was Sunday and rather vanishingly empty.

I’m staying at the Marriot as I’m here to live-blog the Asia Microfinance Forum for the Microfinance Focus Website. I was very pleased that the hotel was willing to let me into my room early, and I proceeded to draw myself a bath and do battle with the VPN system – finally settling on Astrill, which mostly allows me to access all my seditious websites.

Old buildings near the Bund.
Old buildings near the Bund.

After a red-eye flight recovery nap, I set out into Shanghai, in the general direction of the Shanghai Museum, which is quite close to the Marriot. My first, totally unoriginal impression of Shanghai was that it was very much like New York, from the viciously humid summer weather to the ceaseless landscape of skyscrapers and wide avenues and well-kept up leafy trees. It didn’t feel quite Chinese, I thought, at least in this downtown area: you could replace all the signs with English and it would be rather hard to tell the difference. There was at least one specialty coffee shop on every corner,and sometimes two.

The Shanghai Museum turned out to have a long sweltering line set up in front of it, and I sensibly decided that was a terrible idea and shifted my plans: to the Bund.

The Bund is the strip of historical architecture you see in every single promotional image of Shanghai ever – a long strip of colonial-era Western buildings in the monumental fashion, looking out over the water and towards the Blade-Runnneresque skyline of the other side of the river. It has a long and illustrious, complex history which I admit I don’t have time to go into here: suffice to say there is more than meets the eye, and I’m glad it survived China’s tumultuous recent history.

I wandered along the cement walkway of the Bund for a while, watching the remarkable profusion of ferry traffic headed up and down the water, including one barge carrying a massive shipment of logs from who-knows-where. There were plenty of tourists and all of them looked roughly as poorly hydrated as me.

roof shanghai peace hotel (1 of 1)

I split off from the Bund and found myself at the Fairmont Peace Hotel, once the most elegant hotel in Shanghai and still quite the glamorous Art Deco edifice. I asked about happy hour at the jazz bar and the receptionist looked at me with an expression of mild terror. “There is no Happy Hour,” she said. Noted. (I may come back yet, if I can handle a $10 beer).

I walked down the street and found myself in an exceedingly busy shopping area, with all the major US and European brands represented, and lots of people banging into each other with enormous shopping bags. There was the occasional shop selling grilled beef jerky, dried fruits and candies, popsicles, and other snacks, and the usual Asian profusion of glittery multi-story malls. I was not in need of Cartier, and so I walked to the outside.

Somewhere off Fangbang Lu.
Somewhere off Fangbang Lu.

After a stop back at my hotel, I went out again in the evening, heading to one of Shanghai’s remaining food streets. It’s called Fangbang Lu, and I should say now that I got the cab driver to drop me off at the wrong end of it: the fancy mall bit which begins at the cross-street with Henan Road. Enter Fangbang Lu at the other side.

moon in shanghai (1 of 1)

This lovely scene was in the fancy mall area, which was very pretty but actually consisted largely of Starbucks emporiums and places to buy either very expensive jewelry or very cheap jewelry. And the usual profusion of wandering salespeople who think I want to buy a pair of light-up bunny ears. The good news was that the authentic food area was at the other end of Fangbang Lu. Well, not exactly: the street stalls are off Sipailou Lu and other allies. Just keep a sharp eye out. The street itself is largely cheap clothes stores and oddly enough, toy emporiums selling knock-off drones.

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I came across a man making dumplings and another man making shwarma while dressed in a very uncomfortable looking pig costume. I cannot explain this.

hand pulled noodles (1 of 1)

I wandered the area and saw lots of stinky tofu and squid on sticks and fried pork buns on sticks and other delights, and I mostly couldn’t make up my mind, even with all the vendors shouting HEY LADY at me. I hadn’t had a bowl of Lanzhou pulled noodles since I was last in China in 2007, and I enjoyed the cinnamon-inflected broth, although it could have done with more meat.

Night games.
Night games.

I walked and kept on walking and found myself on the way to the Bund – the bulbous pink and green mass of the Oriental Pearl skyscraper just peeking above the tops of the under-construction buildings lining the way. For one or another reason, there was a huge screen playing football matches and a group of people playing badminton below it.

I hit the main drag to the Bund and found myself walking under an immense skyscraper being worked on, a welder some sixty stories up dropping uncomfortably large sparks down to the street below, which fizzled out just before they became truly worrisome.

Old Bund buildings at night.
Old Bund buildings at night.

Soon enough, the full expanse of Shanghai at night opened up before me, and I watched as a full-color I <3 Shanghai sign scrolled itself out in neon colors across one of the buildings, while the others glittered on and off, or sparkled in rainbow colors, or blinked, or did some other hyper-actively shiny thing, far into the night. All the lights made me feel as if this was some sort of mild commentary on Western cities, most of which can only manage one or two aggressively illuminated edifices

“Look what we can do, jerks,” the buildings seemed to be saying. “I bet your buildings don’t project cute messages at the exact same height as Godzilla.”

Making Chinese burritos.
Making Chinese burritos.

I finally found myself back at the Marriot, and realized I wasn’t entirely sure what was around the general vicinity of said glittering edifice. Maybe there was more food. I walked around the corner a couple of blocks, and soon enough found a couple grilling up what can only be described as Chinese burritos

. They had skewers with different kinds of meats and vegetables, and you selected the ones you wanted to be charred to perfection on a nice greasy hotplate. You also could point at a piece of flatbread, which would be cooked with egg and chives. Then, your skewers are placed on the eggy flatbread, and doused in spicy sauce, flavored salt, and some cilantro if you want it. The whole thing cost me about $2. I sat on the stairs of the shady hotel behind the street stand and ate the delightful thing entirely.

 

 

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

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.