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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.