Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Day 1: First Impressions

our first sight of Taiwan

29 November 2008 - we landed at Taoyuan International Airport at 5 p.m. in the evening. The temperature outside was 18 degrees celsius. Not too cold at all which was just what we had been hoping for.

To be honest, if we had had our way, we would have landed at Tokyo's Narita Airport instead. We had had a wonderful time in Tokyo just six months before and would have loved to return for a second visit, but we weren't ready for sub-ten degrees temperatures. Taiwan was the inspired (we hoped) compromise - a little further south, a little warmer, and by all accounts, a little like Tokyo. (I would also discover eventually that Taiwan was reputedly a birder's paradise, being preferred wintering grounds for birds from further north - score!)

the Kuokuang bus ticket counter next to the Freego one

Back at the airport, we chose to take the Freego (Feigou) bus downtown. For NT$140 (S$7), we were deposited practically at the doorstep of our hotel in Ximending.

TS Hotel was highly rated on the Tripadvisor forum and was a big hit with Singaporeans. We usually try to avoid our fellow countrymen when travelling, especially when they're in large herds. TS Hotel however had several things going for it.

The hotel was in Ximending, a centrally located neighbourhood that came recommended for its vibrancy and good food options. Moreover, the hotel was on the fringe of the busy area, close enough to the action and yet not swamped by it. The staff were apparently very friendly and helpful which we thought might prove useful given our not so expert Mandarin skills. Last but not least, the hotel was very reasonably priced - NT$2380/S$119 per night for our "suite", cheap enough for us to keep our room at TS Hotel while away on overnight stays (at more luxurious hotels, I might add) without feeling too much of a pinch.

the aesthetics were a little, uh, cheena

suite, so got sofa

As it turned out, our "suite" wasn't too shabby. Sure, it wasn't a looker, and there was a lingering smell of cigarette smoke, but it was reasonably comfortable and not too small.

Having freshened up, we hit the streets in search of, what else, food, Taiwanese beef noodles specifically. Thanks to the wondeful folks at Tripadvisor's Taiwan forum, we had a name and a location in hand, Taoyuan Jie Beef Noodles stall, plus detailed instructions on how to find the stall which displayed no signboard.



big bowl of preserved vegetables and condiments to dress our bowls with

a bowl of qingtang (clear soup) noodles

a bowl of hongshao (braised) noodles

The noodles were delicious. We preferred the qingtang version for its subtler taste, the hongshao being a little too robust for our liking. Nevertheless, the ribsticking wheat noodles and the rich broth made for a satisfying meal, just the thing to eat in cool weather.

After dinner, we meandered our way from Taoyuan Jie back to the main shopping area, taking in the sights and sounds of Ximending. At first glance, Ximending did in fact remind us of Shibuya, catering as it did mostly to the young and trendy.

wow really

the latest in shoe fashion

That wasn't all of course. There were shops catering to other clientele.

"designer" togs for...

... "designer" dogs!

We could tell that this was a society crazy about animals.

waiting patiently for Daddy

lived the good life, no doubt

It was an entertaining stroll, to say the least, but we knew we were merely scratching the surface of what there was to discover.

sketches for sale

It didn't take us long to figure out the big difference between Taipei and Tokyo - the amount of street food available! Where, in Tokyo, eating while walking around was clearly a no-no, here, people were eating everywhere and there was lots to eat. We like!

the Ximending branch of the famous A Chung Mian Xian (wheat vermicelli)

those noodles must be good!

jianbao (dumplings)

the sign reads "frog laying eggs" - intriguing

What was on sale was typically and undeniably Taiwanese. Even the 7-11 had local delicacies for sale.

lu dan (stewed eggs)

Unfortunately, we were too stuffed to take advantage of the smorgasboard. We only found room for a little dessert (li xian bing or iced salted pear, for NT$40/S$2) and a nightcap.

a quintessentially Taiwanese concept - a tea station

honey oolong tea, for NT$35 (S$1.75)

One wonderful thing about these tea shops, we discovered, was that we could request for a specific amount of sweetness in our drinks. This particular chain had a 12-point system in place! These people take their tea seriously...

Then it was time for bed.

our home for the next nine days