Taipei Taiwan

Many, many years ago I used to teach summer writing classes for the Center for Academic Precocity. The students were 8th-12th graders who spent four weeks with me practicing their writing and reading. At the end of each summer session I had conferences with the parents to talk about student progress. My favorite and most memorable conference was with a parent who called at our pre-arranged time and said, “This is Rose’s mother. I’m calling from Taipei Taiwan.”

She said it with equal emphasis on all syllables: Dot Dot Dot Dot. Tai Pei Tai Wan.

That staccato phrase stuck in my head and in my lexicon. John and I would repeat it to each other to evoke an immediate laugh. “Where are you?” I’d ask when he called sometimes in between meetings.

“Tai Pei Tai Wan.”

So when our opportunity to visit Taipei Taiwan came, we jumped at the chance. Though our plans were changed from the original (we would have been on the Phoenix Sister Cities Delegation had it not been cancelled) we were really looking forward to visiting this city.

I wrote this post round-up style and list the 15 most wonderful things we did in Tai Pei Tai Wan.

1. Din Tai Fung–we read so much about it and honestly passed about 10 other Din Tai Fung locations without stepping in, because we really wanted to try the one in Taipei! We arrived famished. We left on stretchers. Nearly. In fact the folks at the table next to us kept pointing and laughing every time a new dish came to our table, which soon became too crowded for even one more dish. We ate like we had never eaten before. Ever.

2. Hotel Eclat–I won’t lie. I wanted to stay at the W but it was for some reason $250 a night more than any other hotel in town for the period we were visiting. Hotel Eclat is a little boutique hotel that got great reviews, and it was super cute and well located. I especially loved the free mini bar, Nespresso machine in the room, and delicious breakfast each morning on delightful china.

3. Fujin Street–I’m not sure where John read about this area, but when we asked the folks at the hotel about it they had never heard of it. It is truly the new “hipster” street. Lots of coffee shops, high design home decorating stores, and even jewelry shops. We really enjoyed a stroll about the area.

4. Taipei Fine Arts Museum–We quite enjoyed the wide variety of exhibits: from a whimsical feature on “food” to a room transformed into a field of flowers.

5. National Palace Museum–Okay lots of really important historical artifacts and the porcelain was in itself worth the trip! We did wait in line to see the Jade Cabbage and the Jade Pork Belly, and while they were fascinating, by the end of our visit I felt like I had been tenderized by the 30K tour group members shoving up against my rear. This museum was so crowded I felt like they should have sold Xanax at the gift shop.

6. Four Beasts–We really enjoyed our hike through the four beasts. We loved it so much we kept going and ended up all the way across town. Some slippery steps, but well maintained and lots to see. Great views of the city.

7. Addiction Aquatic Development–So, I will admit that we spent most of the day walking around, and walked way out of our way to get to this place, so when we arrived and found out that there are no chairs and we would eat standing up I nearly cried. But I took a deep breath and decided to deal. Then we got the menus, which had no English at all. I nearly had a tantrum, until the young, friendly waiter brought me a beer the size of my head and assured us he’d feed us well. So we put our trust in him, and man were we happy with the results. Delicious seafood, sushi, soup. Really one of our best meals in Taipei.

8. Dongmen Market–This is a sweet but small market near the metro stop just past the Memorial. Not touristy at all, and mostly full of Taiwanese over 60. We enjoyed our tour about.

9. CiangKai Shek Memorial–Here is a memorial that screams Taiwan! A truly grand scale. Really beautiful buildings and grounds.

10. The Botanical Garden–We visited Singapore before Taipei, and therefore it is completely unfair to review The Botanical Garden with the memory of the Botanic Garden in my mind (any Singaporean cabbie worth his salt will point out they DO NOT use the al). While we had a nice stroll and enjoyed seeing families together, there were several ponds that had been drained and the vegetation was just not very inspirational.

11. National Museum of History–We enjoyed reading so much information about the long history of Taiwan. Might have been a bit heavy on the scrolls. But we returned on day two to buy a painting from the gift shop.

12. Museum of Contemporary Art–I understand that with small museums (and Contemporary museums especially) exhibitions can be hit or miss. But I was so glad we had trekked to this little gem because there was an absolute maniac genius artist on display, A Tale of Two Cities – Kuo Wei-kuo Exhibition: Gardens of Spirits. The paintings were floor to ceiling surrealistic whimsical images of the artist in various gardens with animals and fish and foliage. It was one of the most beautiful and fascinating exhibitions I have seen in a while.

13. Taipei 101–Shopping Mall. Very tall.

14. Shihlin Night Market–To be honest, it was the last night of our trip and we had managed to do so much we could easily have grabbed a quick meal near the hotel. But we took a deep breath and decided to go to Shihlin Night Market and weren’t we glad we did! Yes it was very crowded but it was orderly. There were a wide variety of stands and we found a basement eatery where we had a wonderful meal cooked on a hot plate in front of us.

15. Taipei Metro. We took one taxi in Taipei. And decided we wouldn’t do that again. The Metro is so much faster. It’s clean. It’s polite. It covers great distances in short amounts of time. Every time we got off the subway and looked at a map, someone would approach us and say “Do you need some help?”

Overall our impression of Tai Pei Tai Wan was, They’re Doing It Right!

 


Hong Kong

I have wanted to go to Hong Kong for a very long time. I’ve seen it in pictures, movies, TV shows, and I have heard about it in stories. So when we were making changes to our Asia trip, we decided to stop in Hong Kong for a couple nights between Singapore and Taipei.

I had expected an exotic experience–one filled with a little intrigue, a little history, and maybe even a little challenge. But wouldn’t you know we got off the plane, took some money from the ATM, went to the taxi stand, and when I handed the attendant the card I had carefully printed out with the Chinese name of our hotel, he shook his head at me and said “Where are you going?” and I answered “Hotel Icon.”

Thanks, Imperialism!

The taxi ride was a longish one. There were two large bridges to cross. The landscape was communist-industrial. There were high rise apartments by the twenties. It was raining.

We arrived at Hotel ICON and were pleased with the lobby. We had a nice view of the harbor. I liked the high design of the room–the bathroom had a rounded door that slid closed. And a new trend, that would repeat itself in Taipei, was the free minibar. I immediately helped myself to a Pelligrino.

We were tired from the Taxi-Flight-Taxi already but we decided to head to the Kowloon Promenade. Only problem was, it was cold. It was so cold, in fact, that we decided to end our walk early and go straight to the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which was very quiet. In fact, we were thirsty and looking for a sip of water but even their cafe was closed down. While the collection as a whole was on the slim side for one of the world’s largest cities, I’m so glad we went if only to see the amazing wood sculptures by Tong King-sum.

After a tour of the museum, it really was time to get a meal. John found out about a great Dim Sum restaurant near us so we hopped in a cab not confident we would be able to communicate where we wanted to go. But again the driver took us straight to our desired spot. Tim Ho Wan was authentic and delicious and I will think about their outstanding buns for years to come.

From there we were experiencing a difference of opinion. John wanted to walk to the Temple Street Night Market. I wanted to cab it to the Ozone Bar at the Ritz Carlton. So as is often the case with a couple who has been together almost 22 years, we compromised. We walked to the market first then we cabbed it to the Ozone Bar. Since it was my idea, it’s easy for me to say that the Ozone Bar was more fun. While the market had lively shoppers, hawkers, and trinkets, the Ozone Bar had tasty beverages and a killer view. All in all, we could not go wrong.

Ozone Bar is billed as the highest bar in the world since it is on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carlton. Our drinks cost ten million dollars each. They were tasty and big and delicious and worth every cent for the view. We sat outside and it was bone-chillingly cold. Too bad! I was surprised how friendly the staff was given that I hadn’t packed for freezing temps and ended up in an outfit straight out of a Saved By the Bell episode. Those folks didn’t even look at my clothes! They were so nice and treated us like we deserved to be there. I enjoyed it.

We cabbed it back to Hotel ICON, where they had already re-stocked the free mini bar, and we fell asleep.

On Day Two in Hong Kong we woke early and took the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong proper. What a beautiful ride. The weather was still terrible, but we could see the skyline and the mountain behind it. Our first stop was to take the tram up to Victoria Peak. It was a fun ride, but once up top it was cold, windy, and full of tourists. So we came back down and headed to Hong Kong Park, Graham Street Market, and Man Mo Temple. We weren’t very hungry so we just had a plate of chips at an English pub called The Globe, and then we were tired but we didn’t feel like taking the Ferry back since we wanted to eat dinner at Ho Lee Fuk in Soho.

This is how I know I found the right man. I said, I need to lie down so let’s get a massage. He said, “Yeah!” So we found a great spot called Ten Feet Tall to get a 90 minute massage where we rested and prepared for a lovely meal.

We did enjoy our dinner very much. We stuck around in Soho just so we could hit the door at 6 pm since we had heard it was hard to get a table. The place was empty, so we got our table and started ordering. We had the hibachi, The BBQ Pork, octopus, and cauliflower. It was a delicious meal. Then we took the ferry back to Kowloon where our mini bar had already been re-stocked AGAIN.

Three cheers for Hong Kong.


Free Falling, Singapore: Days Two and Three

Day Two

Sunday morning we got up very early and had a lot of water and a little coffee and started preparing for our race. I was interested that with Singapore road races, directors fix the course start and finish then calculate distance later. We were about to run The Green Corridor Run, a 10.5K. While at the race I saw T-shirts with such random distances like 5.67 or 4.78. It’s a country of PR’s I guess.

We cabbed it to the start where we picked up our packets and asked if we could get a picture at the start before everyone queued up. We had about 30 minutes to go and it was already so terribly hot. A drone flew overhead taking pictures as the crowd lined up. The race was along an old railway track so it would be narrow and crowded the whole way, despite the four wave start. When the start gun sounded it was about 85 degrees with about 95 percent humidity. We were so hot! I couldn’t get my heart rate under 168 so I just put my head down.

At mile five a man ahead of me tripped several times in a row–it looked choreographed. I took note and lifted my feet higher. But sure enough in just a few moments I totally bit it. Fell right onto my barely recovered knee and my other knee and my hands. Got totally torn up and dirty and bloody. Several people stopped to help me but I was so embarrassed I just hopped up and finished the race. I found John and we tried to get a cab but there were really none anywhere. We ended up going to a gas station where an off-duty cabbie who was picking up his wife from a church next door took us half an hour our of his way. Again, such a kindness.

It was time for food. Sweet cabbie and his wife dropped us at the Maxwell Food Court. We had seen this on Anthony Bourdain so we wanted to try to chicken rice at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. The queue wrapped around the back of the building. I don’t know what they do to this chicken and I don’t care. I just want it to get into my mouth now. I have never had such delicious, tender, juicy chicken in my life. If I lived in Singapore I would eat this every day. We got a few other items from some of the Hawker stands, then we crossed over to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. We enjoyed a very quick look around before cabbing it back to the hotel for a shower and a little relaxation by the pool. I have to say that heat took it out of us, so we grabbed an IPA at Brewerkz just around the corner from the hotel. It was nice to sit on the patio and do some people watching. The beer was adequate but the menu was terribly pedestrian and we were exhausted. So we went back to the hotel, ordered some delicious room service, and went to sleep.

Day Three

Not wanting to waste another minute, we planned an itinerary for the day that would allow us to check off several boxes, some of which we missed the day before because we had been so exhausted. Our first stop was the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which was perhaps my favorite sight in Singapore. We had so much fun strolling through the gardens, watching people do their Tai Chi and their Yoga and their boot camp, seeing the turtles and the monitor lizards in the pond. What a beautiful asset to the city of Singapore.

From there we cabbed it to the Singapore Art Museum, which wasn’t quite open yet, so we tucked into a shop nearby to have a coffee and toast, then we walked down to Raffles Hotel to wander the lobby and take in the history. Back at the museum, we saw some fascinating exhibits, including the winners of the APB Foundation Signature Art Prize 2014. My favorite was by Pakistan artist Farida Batool called Kahani Eik Shehr Ki (Story of a City). It was a Lenticular Print that wrapped around three walls of the room, and as you walked alongside the images you seemed to follow a woman walking along the streets of Lahore, Pakistan. It was fascinating! I was also pleased to see an art-text response project that asked contemporary authors to reply to artworks. The very first one I saw was a writer I teach in my own classes: Robin Hemley. That was such a fun connection! I posted his piece on Facebook and he responded that he had not even seen it at the museum yet so it was nice that I had been there.

From there we wandered back down to the river to Clarke Quay, where I planned to put some of my Dad’s ashes. Since he passed in 2009 I always take a pinch of his ashes to each new country I visit to thank him for instilling me with a love of travel. We walked around and had a look at the restaurants and shops but they were all closed. We went right to the river, where there were some steps down to the water. I walked down with the ashes to drop a pinch. So, I couldn’t tell as I walked down that the last step was covered in slippery moss, and before I knew it I had fallen into the Singapore River! John didn’t even notice at first. Luckily I was able to get back out but I was soaking wet and let’s say more than worried about the less than hygienic nature of the water. I was so startled and upset, not only since I really hurt myself and could have hurt myself even more, but also because it was my second major fall in Singapore, and my third major fall in two months. I was totally scraped up and bleeding from both of my elbows and I was dripping wet.

We had a ton more sights to see so I tried to pull it together. I found a bathroom and soaped my scrapes. We stopped and bought some new clothes so we could carry on. My main concern was “why do I keep falling?” and John and I talked through it and I realized that my eyesight has been terrible and I think it’s a depth perception problem exacerbated by an astigmatism. I haven’t been able to find contacts or glasses that fix it. So okay fine. We’ll deal with that later.

We motored on to Lau Pa Sat, a really special food court. My Malaysian friend Suhara made me promise to get some malay food and so we stopped in specifically to try some. I ordered Laksa. I can’t even tell you how delicious it was. The Laksa was so good I don’t ever need to eat another thing in my life. I’m going to have to find a recipe when we get home.

We still needed to try some Indian food so we went to Little India. I’m so glad we made it a point to stop here. Took a cab for about $10 and they dropped us off right in front of the market, where we sampled some naan, chicken tikka, and saag. We loved looking through the saris and floral arrangements. It’s a real great experience and so different from the rest of the city. We wandered around but got a little tired, so we cabbed it back to the hotel for a rest before dinner.

While we really wanted to try an Asian Fusion restaurant called Wild Rocket, it was closed on Mondays so we made reservations for a tasting at Ding Dong. It was fun, but the food was really disappointing. First off, we ordered a “Feed Me” menu where they pick the items and they brought mostly the least expensive items, like edamame. And the food was not that flavorful. So while it was a fun night, it was not a slam dunk for me. We cabbed it back to the hotel for a good sleep before our early flight to Hong Kong in the morning.

 


Day One in Singapore

Here let me try to even begin to describe how wonderful our trip was. I’ll start by saying it went off without a hitch, which is saying a ton for a trip that involved 10 airports, nine airplanes, three hotels, four art museums, 30+ restaurants, 20+ taxi cabs, three countries, and one 10K race in only 11 days. There were so many moving parts that could have thrown us off. But we were really lucky that absolutely everything worked.

One thing I want to say about our trip is that we planned our city visits in an interesting order: ascending in population (Singapore at #68 in the world with 5,155,000, Hong Kong at #45 with 7,106,000, Taipei at #35 with 8,338,000). And also descending in English speakers: everyone in Singapore spoke English and all signs were in English. In Hong Kong signs were in Chinese first but always had English translations. In Taipei some signs had English translations (but not all) and many of the older population had no English words. We figured that because of the languages our trip would go from easy to hard, but more on that later.

I need to break this down into a list because we managed to do so much.

Day One
We arrived in Singapore after 36 hours of flying. That is embarrassing, since I usually would never book a trip that way, but it had to be done because our Sister Cities trip was cancelled and our new plan was to get to Singapore in time for the race. So we had to jig and jag our flight schedules to get down to Singapore from Taipei. We arrived at the Four Seasons at 8 am, and everyone there was so friendly and made it their immediate goal to get us horizontal! They upgraded us to a premium room that was ready right away, and whisked our bags up and encouraged us to get some rest.

Instead, we showered and headed around the corner to a famous coffee shop, Killiney Kopitiam, where we ordered something we didn’t understand then sat at a table with an aging Singaporean couple who immediately explained how to eat our food correctly, then gave us a long list of ideas of what to do for the rest of the day. This was the first in a long line of kindnesses shown to us.

Next we wandered down Orchard Road, which is lined with chichi shops that don’t interest me much–I much prefer to shop from local artisans. But it was fun to look in the windows.

We strolled over to Emerald Hill to see the beautiful colonial buildings that are mostly occupied by ex-pats who tuck into the street to walk their little mop-dogs.

On our way to the Natioanl Museum, we passed the School of the Arts Singapore. It was a beautifully designed building, and there were students spilling onto the front steps. It brought back such lovely memories of my days at Cincinnati School for Creative and Performing Arts.

After that we walked to the National Museum, where there was an informative display about the Japanese occupation during WWII. I had no idea how over-prepared the Japanese were to occupy countries like Singapore. There was a graphic that compared the Japanese forces to Allied forces and the Allies had no chance! It was often 60 to 1 and the Japanese pretty much walked in and took names. We saw a lot of images of the camps where the Japanese imprisoned the British and Singapore people. And then of course there was the payback when the Singaporians deported the Japanese. Very informative exhibit.

From there, John wanted to visit a small bespoke tailor shop near Boat Quay that was supposed to sell great Panama Hats. Before leaving Phoenix, John had his biannual trip to the dermatologist and still had several raw skin sores from having pre-cancerous areas frozen off, so he wanted to get a cool hat to protect those sensitive parts. So we went to Kevin Seah, which was the neatest little shop I’ve been to in a while! He had a selection of Panama hats designed by a Canadian ex-pat hand-made in Ecuador, the home of Panama Hats. How’s that for global? John got a really cool hat that he wears very well.

Kevin’s shop did not have the box the hat came in so we cabbed it over to Hat of Cain, where we met Bill Cain, who designs all the hats, and he gave is a great hat box to protect the hat on the rest of our journey.

From there we cabbed it to Long Beach Seafood to have some famous chili crab and delicious octopus. That was a meal to remember! Very messy but delicious.

From there we cabbed it to Marina Bay Sands to have a cocktail at the Skypark. It was so fun to look out on the city. I’ve determined that the best job in the world would be “Architect in Singapore.” Man I think they might all be a little insane. What strange structures no matter where you look! But it was fun. We loved the view and the staff was super friendly even though I thought they might be snooty since we weren’t staying at the hotel.

From there we walked to Gardens by the Bay, a Dr. Suessical type park. This place was a bit too Disney for me. Not very interesting for adult types, so we strolled down to the harbor and watched some of the ferries and listened to a jazz band warm up for a festival that was taking place later in the day.

Next we went to LeVel33 to enjoy the view and try a house-brewed IPA. It was beautiful. And it was delicious.

Once again hopping a cab, we headed back to the hotel to clean up and head to dinner. We decided to take it easy and just walk up the street to the Food Opera at Ion Orchard. How aptly named! It was singing in both sound and sense. We had a lovely meal.

Then it was back to the hotel where we, as you might imagine, crashed out.

 

 


Spring Break 2015

I’ve been talking with students this week and many of them are doing super cool things for spring break. One student is doing a solo hike on the Arizona Trail from Superior to Oracle. Another is celebrating her wedding anniversary in Sedona. Another is going camping in the Chiricahua mountains. Another is going to Oahu, where John and I went for Spring Break last year, so I sent her all my TripAdvisor reviews and hope to hear a thorough report on how all the spots are holding up.

John and I are doing something super cool too. We had planned to serve on the Delegation of the Phoenix Sister Cities to Taipei Taiwan, and had paid our downpayment and got a smoking deal on flights. Then the trip got canceled. Since much of the fun of being on the Delegation is to meet city officials and attend meetings and tours with local arts and business leaders, we worried we might not have enough to do in Taipei for 11 days. So John found a race to run in Singapore, and some restaurants to try in Hong Kong. I picked some great hotels to try in each city. We’ll be in Singapore three nights, Hong Kong two, and Taipei three. And we made a list of about 15 places to visit in each city. We’ll see how much we can fit in!

Perhaps more importantly, I picked my books to read on the trip. Got my iPad loaded and ready to go. I’m not sure how much of a dent I’ll make reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and A Simple Heart in the original French, but I like to spend a few minutes a day on those since we’ll be in France later this year and I don’t want to embarrass myself with my 19 year old Bachelor’s Degree.

I’m really looking forward to reading Enon by Paul Harding since we’re interviewing him for Issue 15 of Superstition Review and I loved his novel Tinkers. We’re also interviewing Robin Black and Ramona Ausubel, and my Interview Editors wrote such wonderful questions about those books that I can’t wait to get caught up on them as well.

I hope you have a lovely Spring Break too, and may it involve good travels, good books, good food, and good rest.