After spending nearly two months in the Philippines, we were positive that we’d visited the friendliest island nation on the planet. There was no way we could possibly find a country to rival hospitality and warmth that Filipinos displayed, a place we’d never been but that immediately made us feel like we had come home.
And then we visited Taiwan, and boy did it ever prove us wrong.
I’d go so far as to say that of all the places we visited in Taiwan, we ate the very best and enjoyed the food the most while in Hualien. And just like the kofta from New York City that haunts us in our dreams, many of these meals were ones that if we were ever to return to the city on our own, we’d have a hard time replicating.
I’m sure that most of our loyal readers have come to this post expecting it to be a rundown of five amazing things we ate while in Taiwan. After all, when I first began relaying our stories about Taiwan, I shared that the primary mission for our visit was to eat our way through as much of the country as the non-elasticized waistbands on our clothing would allow, so that would be in keeping with our raison d’être as travelers.
When it comes to the rain, there is no escaping it. Nearly every day since landing in Taiwan, rain has been dogging our every step. Fleeing as far south as Tainan bought us a brief reprieve, but now that we’re back up in the north, the miserable, cold drizzle has returned with a vengeance.
I have a sneaking suspicion that if I asked you to tell me the first food that you think of when you envision Asia, I would be hearing an awful lot of “noodles” and “rice”, maybe some “fish” and “curry” as well. But, I’ve got to tell you that those are all the wrong answer. It doesn’t take too long here before you realize that by far the culinary craze that is sweeping the continent is a dish that goes by many different names, but which we tend to call hot pot. Involving a simmering cauldron of heavily spiced broth and generally some of the more creative cuts of meats we Westerners are more likely to toss in the trash, you can think of hot pot as Asia’s answer to fondue: diners are responsible for cooking their own dinners—thinly sliced beef, earthy mushrooms, nutty pumpkin, raw eggs, crunchy leafy greens, squishy blood cubes, tofu skin—if you can eat it, into the roiling pot it goes.
Sure, the folks on the tourism board for the city have done their best to help visitors out with a few dedicated bus lines that will carry you around from one main attraction to the next, but where’s the fun in that? Even if you don’t love getting lost, surely you love surprises (of the good variety), and I promise you that there is one waiting for you around practically every unmarked corner in Taiwan. But stuck on a bus, you’ll miss most of Tainan’s delights, which are really the kind you discover rather than actively seek out, and in order to do just that, you’re going to have to take your feet to the streets and walk.
Six years ago at the tender age 24, I took my first trip out of the United States. Granted, it was only a trip up to Steph’s hometown of Toronto, Canada, but it was my first stamp in my first passport. Turns out, it was a trip of many firsts, as that was also when I had my very first bubble tea. Before I left for Toronto, Steph had told me about this drink she used to get when she was in university from a shop called Bubble Tease (how much do you want to bet that it was the pun that first got her through the door?): a sweet tea-based concoction that came in lots of different flavors—from lychee to green apple—and had tapioca pearls (or jellies, or both!) at the bottom. I’d never heard of it, but was game to give it a shot.
After one cup I was hooked.
My senior year of high school, one of the art teachers offered an Introduction to Photography course. Due to my already-on-record overachieving, I had completed most of the courses that I needed to apply for university and was scrambling to find enough courses so I could take the requisite minimum number; I figured that photography would be fun. Unfortunately, so did most of the artsy kids attending my school and the instructor wound up having to give priority to kids who had already taken a certain number of art course (which, as a music geek, I had not) and I was shut out. I wound up taking Intro to Computer Science instead, which probably wound up being more useful over the next 15 years…
But I never forgot about my thwarted photography dreams.
If I had to describe the temples of Taiwan in one word, that word would be “sensory”. The kaleidoscope of color, paintings and carvings, the hazy plumes of fragrant incense offerings, the clattering of fortune sticks tossed repeatedly by those souls seeking guidance from the gods offered as counterpoint to the melodic chanting that is piped through hidden speakers… all of these unite to push your neurons into overdrive, their firing rate resembling that of a Morse code message on speed. Make no mistake about it: Taiwanese temples are a gluttonous feast for your senses and I would argue that there is no better place in all of Taiwan to stuff yourself silly on them than Tainan.
It never fails to amaze me how the act of travel can so dramatically reshape the framework of your entire world, so quickly and so decisively.
We loved every second of our time in Taipei, invigorated by the urban environment and the bustle of busy people living their busy lives, but it also felt safe, like a place we once called home, and we could ultimately only take comfort in that state of being for so long before the unceasing call to adventure beckoned us out into the unknown once more.
If I have one piece of advice for you when visiting Taiwan it’s this: don’t drink the tap water.
Having spent months in Asia, Tony & I have become accustomed to giving water that doesn’t come out of a bottle wide berth. Yes, we purchased and packed a steripen, but truth be told, we rarely use it; generally the only time we risk water that comes from a faucet is when we brush our teeth.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, food was the primary motivating factor behind our unanticipated jaunt to Taiwan. Upon our arrival, we set out to conquer as much of Taipei’s food scene with our mission simply being “eat all the things”. Given the crazy amount of food that we consumed at Taipei’s various night markets, I wouldn’t blame you if you assumed that this is where we did all of our eating and that our mission was a success… Of course, while it’s true that you can dine like royalty at Taipei’s night markets and we definitely overindulged at every single one, there are other “can’t miss” dining experiences to be had and we were determined to explore those as well.
One of the benefits of long-term travel is that it gives you a chance to really get to know the places you visit, to delve beneath the surface and uncover some of the sights and experiences that you would probably breeze right by if you were on the strict timeframe of a conventional holiday. In our previous life, Tony only received 10 measly paid vacation days per year, so it’s unlikely that—had we splurged on a trip to Taiwan—we would have spent 9 full days in its capital city. But with more time on our side, we were able to really get stuck right in and explore to our heart’s content.
I like to think I’m a morning person, but the reality is that I always have been, and always will be, a night owl. My parents tell me that even when I was a toddler, I’d stay up late into the evening with my dad, sitting by his side watching late night television with him long after I should have drifted off to the Land of Nod. Tony is pretty much the same and back in Nashville we’d look forward to the weekends when we could stay up late watching movies or playing video games without having to worry about getting up for work the next day. You’d think that given our proclivities that our Big Trip would be nothing but late nights, but, well, we’re both 30 now and we’ve found that in our old age we value getting a full 8 hours of shut-eye in order to make the most of our waking hours and whichever city they happen to find us in. As we’re not really club or bar people (you’re shocked, I know), most nights we’ve been in bed embarrassingly early.
The thing you can never account for when you are sitting at home planning your Round The World trip is the novelty factor of attractions. Or to be more precise, how quickly that novelty factor will wear off once you’re actually off the couch and out in the world. When you’re stuck in a cubicle and in front of your computer and your window into the world is comprised largely of travel blogs and guidebooks, EVERYTHING sounds fascinating and breathtaking and utterly unique. You star every cave and mountain pilgrimage, and highlight every set of ruins and temples in every city you plan to visit; your dreams are as big as the world itself and all you have stretching out in front of you is endless reserves of time.