Monday, December 29, 2008

Day 2: Wandering through Wanhua

Breakfast at TS Hotel was just the way we liked it: rice porridge with a buffet spread of homecooked dishes to go with it. Stirfried vegetables, chai por (preserved radish) omelette, minced pork, pork floss - all lovingly prepared by an "aunty" who fussed over all of us. While rice porridge may not be everyone's cup of tea, it was just the thing we needed to get us off to a good start for the day, bearing in mind that the rest of our meals were most likely going to be oily rich street food with not a shred of fresh veggie in sight.

the spread

Outside, the skies were relatively clear. Indeed, temperatures hovered around 20 degrees the whole day which was good weather for walking around.

Right outside the hotel, we spotted this:

I could teach here!

We first went to the Ximending MRT station, to purchase the Taiwanese stored value card known as the Youka. There, we were helped by an eager English-speaking Taiwanese young man who must have been a volunteer of sorts; he appeared to have been lurking near the ticket machines, lying in wait for bewildered tourists. It seemed odd to have an English-speaking volunteer when there was noticeably a lack of tourists from Western countries. Not that it mattered - with his help, we bought our youka and took our first Taiwanese MRT train.

Before hitting major attractions such as Longshan Temple, we would first drop by Huajiang Waterfowl Park, the first of several birding locations I had in mind. Located along the banks of the Danshui River, getting there entailed a long walk through one of Taipei's oldest districts, the neighbourhood of Wanhua, replete with local sights.

Longshan Elementary School

outside a religious artefact shop

the courtyard of a condominium complex

Walking through the backstreets of Wanhua, I was reminded of what a friend had said about Taipei, that it was not a pretty city by any means and not a particularly attractive one, especially not at first sight. However, it was, according to him, a city that would grow on those who took the time to get to know it better.

It took us a while to find our way to the banks of the Danshui River, not least because a highway was in our way. Finally, when we arrived at the series of parks that flanked that particular waterway, we found the Taiwanese seriously at play.

a friendly game of hoops

Taiwan's national sport

complete with WAGs

We found a good spot for birdwatching but had to wait for some local park users to complete their morning routine.

weekend athletes

what a view!

Huajiang Waterfowl Park was a little gem. It was nice to know that there were parts of Taipei that had been left relatively untouched.

how useful

While there weren't the flocks and flocks of waterfowl I had envisioned, we did spot some ducks, a grey heron, a Chinese bulbul (a lifer!) and a little ringed plover, enough to make me feel that the walk out was worth our efforts.

Then we headed back across Wanhua.

pet shop

betel nut shop


We stopped when we saw this:

congratulatory wreaths

This was the Xuehai Academy, a Qing Dynasty school building and the Gao clan's ancestral shrine. Obviously the Gaos were having a ceremony of sorts.

ceremonial offering or lunch in the making?

a Gao elder, we presume, waiting patiently

Eventually we made our way to Longshan Temple, one of Taiwan's most important temples.

inside the courtyard

Well-known for its architectural splendour, the temple was suitably ornate.

What fascinated us though were the arcane rituals. We watched the ebb and flow of worshippers as they went about their business, invoking the gods and petitioning for help. Although, as Singaporeans, we are no strangers to Taoism and Buddhism, we were happy to note subtle differences in the way things were done.

devotees wore robes

offerings - a familiar sight...

...but not dedicated facilities for washing fruit

It seemed to us that these were not just superficial requests for lottery numbers. The Taiwanese seemed to be a spiritual people.

ritual chanting

saying the Buddhist rosary

divining blocks, or puay as they are known in Singapore, at work

a direct line to the gods?

In the vicinity of Longshan Temple, there were numerous businesses providing related services and supplies.

tapestry being created

religious paraphanelia

at reasonable prices too!

religious laundry

As we made our way back towards Ximending, we were pleased to chance across two much smaller and quieter temples, which after the liveliness of Longshan Temple, were a pleasant contrast.

the facade of Qingshan Temple

guardians of the altar

piece de resistance

the altar

above the altar

what's with the eyebrows

three gods in a row

an offering

Door God Left

Door God Right

one last look at the roof

at Qingshui Temple - three gods, one packet drink

prosperity candles, I believe

another Door God

At that time, we had no idea that these temples were more than 100 years old or that they were significant because the deities worshipped within were responsible for warding off pestilence and other evils. That didn't stop us though from enjoying these very Taiwanese expressions of faith.

channeling serenity

Then it was back to Ximending for a spot of lunch and 21st century obsessions. We headed for Shi Zi Ting (Crossroads Pavilion?), a shop specialising in duck noodles and noodle soup.

Shi Zi Ting

duck meat (NT$120/S$6)

bee hoon soup (NT$50/S$2.50)

We had us a bowl of bee hoon soup each and a plate of duck to share. We liked the duck, although we thought the person doing the chopping and slicing could have been more skillful. There was more "shrapnel" than we cared for. The bee hoon was excellent - very fine noodles in clear stock, with lean meat to top it off.

Right outside the Shi Zi Ting was one of those "frog laying eggs" stalls.

qing wa xia dan

It sold drinks such as Taiwanese-style lemonade laced with bits of jelly that looked like, what else, frog's eggs. The "eggs" reminded us of passion fruit seeds. We opted for a cup with aiyu, the soft jelly dessert that is uniquely Taiwanese (NT$30/S$1.50) - very refreshing indeed.

After lunch, we hung around Ximending for some shopping and sightseeing.

Taiwanese serial in the making?

Taiwan Tourism Board mural?

edible but are these animal, mineral or vegetable?

doggy couture

a new ad at that time

We were beginning to recognise some "fixtures":

paper silhouettes on demand

blind er-hu player with trusty companion

hehe, now which of the ba xian (Eight Immortals) is this?!

permanently parked outside a cafe

Of course there was the shopping, including our some of our favourite brands, Japanese or otherwise:

HM was on a make-up spree though, Japanese and Korean drugstore make-up lines being both available and reasonably priced.

HM spent much time at this and other personal care stores

The afternoon proved productive. We returned to the hotel with two t-shirts, one sweater, and a pair of boots, from the Eslite Shopping Centre, and some make-up, but not before being "robbed". HM had just stepped out of one of these make-up stores with a bunch of receipts in her hand, when some woman ran up to her, snatched her receipts and ran away, leaving her bemused.

After a short rest back at the hotel, we went to Taipei Main Station to collect our train tickets to Hualien which I had reserved online prior to arriving in Taiwan. The process was pain-free and at NT$800 (S$40) for a return ticket, not a bad deal at all.

We went back to Wanhua for dinner at one of Taipei's most established night markets.

Huaxi Night Market

crowded with tourists, local and otherwise

Once notorious for the sale, slaughter and saute-ing of exotic creatures, Huaxi Night Market was more mellow than we expected. Sure, there were still several restaurants hocking snake meat, but most of the animals we saw were more docile than that.

aieee, animal wearing animal print

Batcat taking a nap

There were many food options.

from "exotic" food like feet of fowl...

to pastries like "scholar" cake...

even steak restaurants

We had our eye on something else though.


soup in the making

the people behind the food

We had ourselves a bowl of soup and a plate of omelette, for NT$120 (S$6).

peppery and yummy with cilantro

Taiwanese style

The oysters were delicious, but we did miss the crunchy savoury bits that characterise Singapore style orh jian.

Next, we decided to try lu rou fan (rice with minced stewed pork) and pai gu mian (pork rib noodles). Lu rou fan in particular looked appetising. It was certainly ubiquitous; every street corner in Ximending and Wanhua seemed to have a stall selling it.

this shop sold both

We chose a shop that seemed popular.


We shared two items:

pai gu mian (pork rib noodles)

lu rou fan (rice with stewed minced pork)

For one bowl of each, the bill came up to NT$195 (S$9.75). The pai gu mian was tasty - redolent with Chinese five spice - but we preferred the beef noodles we had had the day before, especially the texture of the noodles. I loved the lu rou fan with the little bits of pork fat making the rice ever so fragrant.

Then we found room for two small snacks, some corn and...

hu jiao bing aka pepper pastry

one for NT$35 (S$1.75)

These were flaky pastries filled with meat in a peppery sauce. Spicy and intensely savoury, they were just the thing for a cool winter night.

We ended our repast with something sweet - a cup of almond "tea", really a drink made with almond powder, for NT$30 (S$1.50).

On our way back, we swung past the Longshan Temple. By night, the temple offered a different experience. There was an air of quiet mystery.

Then it was bedtime for us. It had been a day of tradition and custom. We had an outing to look forward to, something quite different.

Ximending by night

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