Destinations

AsiaDestinationsMusingsSoutheast AsiaThailand

When travel becomes lacklustre

DSCN2707

It isn’t often that I feel dissatisfied after a trip, but a recent 5-day one to Khao Lak had wrong written on it from the very start. I’d planned to dive in the Similan Islands, taking advantage of the early diving season, but a sinus-infection (along with a doctor’s warning not to do it) meant that I was on the verge of cancelling the entire trip, only to go ahead the last minute.

The hotel I was in was overwhelmingly stocked with Germans; my room had a variety of insects and bees in it and the deck chairs reserved the whole damn day with towels on them, while their owners remained conspicuously absent.

I ended up diving only for a day in Koh Tachai, and on impulse, feeling lost after having a free day, booked a day trip with a dodgy operator that to white-water raft (the most fun I had in ages) with everything else such as the flying fox and the waterfall being better forgotten in the Phang-Nga province. Touted as a 200m flying ride, the reality was 10 times shorter – a 20 metre zip across a small stream. The ‘jungle walk’ to the waterfall ended up as mere steps to a small escarpment over which water tumbled over. The Gullfoss experience was it not. What was weirder even was the German/Serbian family who hawked their Bitcoin ventures to me after the white-water rafting trip when it all sounded suspiciously like an Internet scam.

My waterproof camera fell apart, as did my waterproof bag, so I had awful photos, as I had sopping wet things that weren’t supposed to get wet.

I plied the stretch of the whole Nang Thong township by foot so many times that I got quite sick of it. I tried spending the day at the pool doing nothing and got so bored that I felt guilty for feeling that way when obviously the rest of the world had other real problems to worry about.

When it was time to leave, the closed roads at the bottle-neck choke at the Phuket checkpoint because of a bicycle race meant I nearly didn’t make my flight back.

Perhaps it was the experience of being alone in a place where the Travel Companion had been with me before, but this time, I’m almost tempted to say that maybe I should have obeyed my first instinct…to not go on this trip.

The burning question here really is: is it really possible to have gone on a trip, spent all that money on it, and not be excited about it as you thought you were going to be? That in itself, is a revelation because I always expect to enjoy myself on a vacation, learn some new things, though this time in Khao Lak seemed to be proving otherwise. The fact was, it was lacklustre, most un-instagrammable, for want of a better word and it was an experience I was loathed to write about because a blog post about travel is supposed to be one that gushes about the unforgettable sights and smells of that new place you’re exploring.

But it’s out here now, the admission that travel can be simply underwhelming. It’s just an experience I’d rather not repeat though who controls this?

read more
DestinationsMiddle EastQatar

Dweebs in Doha

IMG_6522

Doha reminds me of Dubai a decade or so ago: a city expanding and changing at a frenetic rate as migrant workers and expatriates flock here to construct its lofty ambitions in the dust and sand. It’s also a hard city to love, with horrendous traffic and red lights that last up to 3 minutes and a plethora of dust pollution swirling at your feet each time you walk. I found myself mostly ignored by men and tried not to feel insulted that many of those who walked around in thobe dishdashas—whether working in the souq or the museum—chose to speak over me and directly to TC instead, when gender separation is clearly important here.

As a city under construction, Doha thoroughly modern, with artificial sights and a ton of shopping malls to keep its expatriates happy as they work their way through their contracts, yet with a dire record of human rights and labour laws—termed by the media as modern slavery especially when it comes to the treatment of migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent or even sub-saharan Africa—in this sharia-legislated country. It’s hard work, after all, prepping a city for the 2022 World cup, as construction on the stadium and the metro barrels full steam ahead. But the extremes here are jarring, to be honest. The exploitation of the ‘lower classes’ in contrast to the excess and opulence of the wealthy, all within the strict rules of Islamic laws—they took a while to get used to frankly, after having come straight from Tbilisi, a city that’s still building itself from the ruins of communism.

Thankfully, February in Doha is still considered a ‘winter month’, so temperatures were actually beautifully balmy at about 16-22 degrees celsius and the infamous desert heat hadn’t yet returned. We arrived on short-term visitor visas in Doha for 2 days and learned that taxis are pretty much the norm here, as we went to and fro from our hotel at the Sports Roundabout. Taxis are plentiful, though not necessarily always cheap, given the bad traffic jams here. Karwa taxis would be Doha’s default mode of transportation apart from buses, although there’s a subtle tipping culture here that we aren’t quite used to given the appalling wages that these workers actually earn. We added about 5-10 rials to each cab fare, then about 20% more to restaurant bills, then felt thoroughly frustrated because it was something else yet to remember, which be solved by simply adding service charge and government tax to the total bill. It was also surprising to learn that most places to eat were either found in hotel lobbies or shopping malls that do play a large role in pastime activities for expatriates.

In Doha itself, there’re just a few fixed things to see: the Museum of Islamic Art which does have an impressive collection of artefacts, a stroll through part of the 5 km-long Corniche and the Dhows floating on the banks, the atmospheric Souq Waqif if you can ignore the treatment of the poor animals on sale in a certain part of it and the adjoining Falcon Souq, and perhaps the West Bay financial district if a glittering skyline is what you look for.

As we took our last taxi ride through the lit columns framing the expressway that led to Hamad International airport, I asked myself this question: is it a place that I’m willing to return to? Unfortunately, I can’t quite say yes.

read more
AccommodationDestinationsFoodGeorgiaHealth and SafetyItineraryPlanningThe Caucasus

Tbilisi for the Uninitiated

IMG_5681

The Caucasus is a region I had absolutely no clue about, except that it is where Europe and Asia converge, and where ancient man, as anthropologists and linguists posit, first walked out of Africa and into this part of the world. Georgia seemed like the logical choice when I planned this trip, along with Azerbaijan or Armenia. Time and costs narrowed it down to only Georgia and well, Doha, given the logical stopover that Qatar Airways offered. The Travel Companion (TC) bought his tickets separately a few weeks later after suddenly deciding that he wanted to come and truth be told, I was glad for his company. Georgians are hyper-social creatures; no one eats alone and a foreign woman going at everything alone would make it doubly odd—after the wary but blatant stares I kept receiving, I’d say TC helped in some ways to make me feel less like a specimen under a microscope.

We were only in Tbilisi for about a week and with this limited amount of time, day tours seemed like the most logical option. Even so, there was so much we couldn’t cover without a car. I decided on this post simply to make planning somewhat easier for idiots like me who bumbled about and probably made tons of mistakes getting around. But I’m hoping this will be a useful source of information for anyone planning a short, compact stay that wouldn’t take too much out of you.

How we got around

By taxi

This was our primary mode of transport. A taxi is pretty much any guy with his own car and a lit sign that says ‘Taxi’. Completely unregulated, you simply haggle for a fare before you hop in. We’ve taken a few through Tbilisi, using fingers and body language to negotiate and the taxi drivers typically range from grumpy to grumpier. Saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in Georgian helps a lot. The general rule I’ve learnt is that a trip around the city centre should cost no more than 5 GEL, which anything outside can be anything between 7 and 10 GEL. The airport is a completely different story though, so be prepared for inflated prices that would cost about 35-40 GEL, be it a taxi, a hotel car, or a pre-arranged driver from one of the tour companies.

By metro

Tbilisi has just 2 metro lines, tunnelled so deep into the ground that you can probably develop claustrophobia and vertigo just by riding the long, long escalators. The Avlabari and Rustaveli stations have long, long ones that take at least 2 minutes to clear them all, which can be a horrifyingly unpleasant experience. Built in the Soviet era, they retain that grim, bleak look that made me wonder if Tbilisi really left that bit of their past behind yet. 1 GEL takes you anywhere, for a single trip. 2 GEL for the reusable Metro card, which can be returned at a ticket office after showing your passport.

Bus & Marshrutka

We didn’t try this at all, finding the Georgian script and the general lack of English rather daunting. There are designated routes and stops for buses, but only designated route for Marshrutkas, which pretty much stop wherever people want to get down. But there are numbers on these little yellow things and there’s also a website explaining the routes, but there’s only Georgian on it.

Where we stayed

Hotel Piazza

Just a couple metres off Avlabari metro and in the heart of the old Armenian district, the location and its breakfast are pretty much the hotel’s perks. The staff were lovely and incredibly accommodating. In their 24-hour shifts, I think we bothered them the most with questions and odd requests and all of them had no problems with what we asked for. But it was impossible to open our room window without getting a fragrant whiff of the constant cigarette smoke that swirled around the ashtray just outside. Workmen came on the third day and worked till late at night and tons of (loud) tourists who were mostly Russian came back drunk and loud late at night—clearly not the best thing we could have hoped for when we were already so much in need of uninterrupted sleep. Breakfast started at 9 am (!), so early-risers, you’re straight out of luck if you want to start out early for your day trips.

Automated/self-service laundromats were impossible to find, but the hotel did laundry for us for 5 Gel/kilo, and it was amazing how much we actually spent washing our dirty clothes.

Tours we did

Free Tbilisi walking tour

At noon every day at Freedom square, there’ll be a guide who will walk you around the city for about 3 or so hours, explaining Tbilisi’s and Georgia’s history. These guides survive on tips, so give what you think they deserve.

Colour Tour Georgia

We booked 2 tours with them—one into the Kazbegi mountains and the other into the Kakheti wine region. Both tours were very different in their own ways and the driver/guide are always accommodating to what you want to do on the way. Another driver/guide we considered was Makho (sourced from Tripadvisor), who has a Facebook page. Colour Tour’s slightly lower costs won out in the end.

Culinary Backstreets

Trust Paul Rimple to take you around. If anything, you’ll get an expat’s view of Georgia and Tbilisi but he has been living in Tbilisi for so long that he’s practically one of the Georgians. Paul’s interesting stories help make the hours fly past, and you get to sample all the food he shows you in the Deserter’s Bazaar.

Places we ate at

It’s difficult to find bad Georgian food really, or we’ve been incredibly lucky for most part, to get what we wanted. We normally try to stick to local cuisine as much as we can, so there’s quite a bit of Georgian food where we’re concerned. It’s easy, however, to overload on Khachapuri and Khinkali, and then feel a little sick for a while as the cheese and meat start to take root.

You can eat cheaply, if you rely on fried food, or bread with cheese from the numerous bakeries (Tone) that could be found around the city.

The smoking ban in enclosed places hasn’t reached Georgia, so cigarette smoke in restaurants can be a problem if you’re particularly sensitive to it, as I am. Some of the places listed below do have a view over the old city; others don’t.

These are the places we visited and they’re mostly around Avlabari or the old town which we could easily reach on foot.

Pasanauri
Oat gallery & Art café 144-stairs (right below the Cable cars, but do not use the path leading up to the Fortress for it. It’s through one of the tiny backlanes called Gomi)
Ezo
Culinarium Khasheria
Saamo (Avlabari, near the Trinity church)
Zakhar Zakharich
Vino Underground
Café Flowers

A place we were recommended but didn’t make it: Machakhela, Organique Josper Bar, g.Vino

Other things we did on our own

Gulo Thermal spa

One of the best and worst decisions I could have ever made. The hammam experience was really not bad—steam from the sulphur baths helped unclog my nose and pores—though it was overpriced, with, well, rather bad service. Be prepared to face a chaotic mess at the reception as Gulo the proprietress attempts to sort out your reservation or walk-in booking with minimal English. I tried making a booking through Facebook and ended up with a heated argument between Gulo and someone called Zura when Zura didn’t manage to get my reservation down with Gulo at all. We had to wait an hour for a larger bath to be available—no apologies made—and was doubly charged until we managed to convince an English-speaking ‘bather’ that we’d already paid for our 15-minute massage and scrub, which in truth, was shoddily completed in about 5 minutes.

Visiting all the churches

See Orthodox Christianity in full swing, marvel at the richness of Christian Iconography and look at faded frescoes that are centuries-old. Walk the crumbling battlements of fortresses, step on stones that have weathered conquerers and enemies and soak in the haunting melodies of the liturgies. We walked up the Narikala Fortress (1 GEL brings you straight up there from the other side of the river) and it was a relatively easy climb and a good way to see the city in the setting sun.

Medical emergencies

I’m sort of embarrassed to say that a skin condition forced me into a private emergency clinic off the Medical University Metro stop late one night. MediClub Georgia has staff who are English-speaking, though I was tended to by residents who triaged their patients before handing them over to the main doctor on duty. Never having been in an emergency ward, I spent most of my time waiting, feeling both curiosity and dread at the somewhat dated setup, then wondering how much it was going to cost me. I got prescribed strong antibiotics in the end, something I couldn’t get on my own in a pharmacy.

read more
DestinationsFoodGeorgiaThe Caucasus

Wine Education

IMG_6317

I was just along for the ride to Kakheti, the richest and most fertile part of Georgia that lies in the shadow of the magnificent Caucasus range. The wine tour that we did with Colour Tour Georgia (and with Gvantsa and Tazo) was more for TC than me, but the journey into the mountains and into Telavi – Kakheti’s old capital – was just as scenic as the one to Kazbegi.

Wine tasting was limited to 2 large producers: Shumi and Khareba and both companies are impressive in their own ways. Shumi takes advantage of micro-climates in Georgia, producing wine from different regions where terroir helps shape it flavours and taste. Khareba’s sprawling compound , on the other hand, consists of a lovely park, and an 8-km-long underground, converted tunnel beneath the Greater Caucasus that houses wines of all sorts.

Archaeological excavations seem to suggest that Georgia has produced wine from 8000 B.C., long before the empires rose and fell, or so says the tiny Shumi winery museum in Tsinandali. The traditional method of fermenting wine in a Qveri – a large, roundish terracotta clay vessel buried in the ground – is still practised in villages today and for some large wineries, Qveri wines now make up the premium range of their collection. As we learnt, Qveri wines produce deep, dark colours as opposed to the European way of fermentation and in particular, white wines turn out a deep amber colour; red wines turn out nearly black. Both have strange but stronger aromas and are typically very dry – TC is better suited to sorting them out than I can – but generally, the difference is rather stark.

And that’s saying something when all I smell is typically sour socks and the sharp burn of alcohol. Just sipping a Qveri’s bitter dryness just made me cringe.

Georgians are understandably, proud of their wine heritage and their enthusiasm about wine shines through every time they talk about it. There’re never-ending jokes of course, about Georgian men’s ability to imbibe 3-litres of wine each when the occasion calls for it and the correlation to their stomach sizes. No one ever makes a toast with beer – it’s considered inferior to wine – and since every family in villages practically own their own vineyard for their own wine consumption. With a wine culture that’s accessible to the common (and poor) man, it’s unsurprising that people don’t tend to get snobby about wines here.

read more
DestinationsFoodGeorgiaThe Caucasus

Food, wine and revolution

IMG_6063

The long road to democracy, a squeaky-clean police force (thanks to a reality show called ‘Police’ to restore its standing in the eyes of the public and a concerted effort to clamp down corruption) and a booming tourist industry that almost everyone is happy to capitalise on pretty much characterises what I saw in Tbilisi – and perhaps to a lesser extent, the whole of Georgia. The Tbilisi of today is a far cry of Tbilisi in 2002, at least according to Paul Rimple, one of the authors and guides for Culinary Backstreets, the food tour company with which TC and I signed up to get a feel of the local area.

A native Californian who’d been a chef, a blues musician and is now a journalist in Tbilisi after spending some time in Poland, Paul made it clear from the start that he wasn’t a tour guide, but rather, someone who knew the city and wanted to share the places he loved with visitors.

That was perfectly fine with us, being in a city where it was hard getting around without knowing Georgian. Our day started on a winter morning in the old town and after shaking hands with Paul, who stopped to tell us about his own experience living through the end of Eduard Shevardnadze era to the Rose Revolution and finally to what Georgia has become today.

We made stops at a tone bakery, a wine/cheese/cha-cha shop just next to the Sioni Cathedral and then hopped into a taxi to elbow our way through the Deserter’s Bazaar (or the Dezertirebi), a chaotic, boisterous place that hawks the freshest fruits, vegetables, spices, oils, nuts, piglets (dead) and well, pretty much everything else, named as such because army deserters sold weapons here in the early part of the 1920s. Today, you’re more likely to be faced with anonymous plastic bottles filled with what could be honey, sunflower oil or any other unnamed liquid rather than guns and toothless old crones (who look alarmingly like the old witches in fairytales) hustling you to buy their cheeses.

This is Paul’s favourite place and he has been called insane for that, but it’s clear he’s on very familiar terms with the shopkeepers there, stopping to greet people while doing his grocery shopping as we followed in his wake, buying the things he bought and then sitting down for handmade Khinkali (dumplings) at Zakhar Zakharich. Other several hole in the wall-type shops we made pit-stops included a Georgian wine/cheese shop whose owner went to the only English-speaking school in Georgia, as his Soviet-sympathetic father had probably expected his son to be an interpreter for the KGB. But said son grew up to make cheese and wine instead, which probably puts him in a better position now than ever, if he does indeed get to retain his license to make blue cheese.

TC and Paul sampled 7 different types of wine at Vino Underground, the most interesting being the amber-coloured ones that were fermented traditionally in the ground in large earthenware vessels called Qveri(s) for about 6 months or more, a process which produces very dry, deep-coloured liquids with unusual aromas. And finally, we headed a few blocks down and around to Ezo, an organic restaurant that’s focused on putting quality food on the table – cooked just the way a Georgian’s mother/aunt/granny does it, supposedly – sourced through sustainable farming methods and fair-trade deals.

Through Paul’s stories, it was easier through learn about the radical facelift that Tbilisi had undergone, some pieces of Georgia’s history finally falling into place after he filled in the gaps for us, but others remained frustratingly out of reach. Replete with wine and fantastic Georgian food, we walked dazedly back to Sioni Cathedral through backstreets that we would never have ventured on our own, never quite getting over the fact that Georgia – and its inhabitants – still remain quite a mystery apart from what the history books say.

read more
DestinationsGeorgiaThe Caucasus

The bride who hides her face

IMG_5886

“Hello, my friend!” Tazo our driver greeted us with such enthusiasm that it was impossible not to like him at first sight. As we found out throughout the day, he knows a smattering of English, ending every sentence with ‘my friend’. His driving skills are unparalleled, so much so that we had a headache by the end of the day trip into the Caucasus mountains.

The road out of Tbilisi is scenic, but absolute shite in many places. There are many times though, when the landscape alone makes it worth it and this is possibly one of those times.

The Georgian military highway is the only route out of Tbilisi into Russia and Azerbaijan, and follows the route of traders and invaders throughout the centuries through the high Caucasus. Touted as one of the most scenic – but dangerous drives – in the world, it’s easy to see why: harsh winters have reduced parts of the road to nothing more than potholes and the narrow width along hairpin turns would faze any driver.

But it’s also unbelievably gorgeous as it winds through isolated villages paralleling the Zhinvali Reservoir, the Ananuri Fortress, and the Gudauri ski resort near the highest point of the road called the Jvari pass before descending into Kazbegi, where most tourist journeys end, in the small village of Stepantsminda.

From then on, it’s a matter of playing Russian roulette (with not quite the same stakes) with the weather, to see if Gergeti Trinity church is accessible from Stepantsminda. Winter and heavy snowfall rule that option out almost immediately, despite the sunny skies, impassable even for 4WD vehicles which are normally used for that 6km trek uphill. TC and I had hoped to hike up, but that was pretty much a negative.

Kvintsa, our guide with Colour Tour Georgia, says Kazbegi is likened to a bride who shyly hides her face from visitors as it’s often shrouded in fog and clouds. Our disappointment and desperation must have been obvious, because the guide suggested that we could visit a neighbouring church on the other side of the mountain but we chose not to in the end, opting to see Gergeti church from the terrace of the very posh Kazbegi Rooms hotel.

Then it was back through the same road to Tbilisi – but with a stopover at a supermarket in Gudauri for lunch. Gvantsa and Tazo were brutally accommodating, eschewing their own proper meals that made us feel quite bad about it.

TC, however, slept most of his way through the journey, prompting concerned stares from everyone.

read more
DestinationsGeorgiaThe Caucasus

In the heart of the Caucasus

IMG_5701

The locals call their land Saqartvelo, whereas everyone else calls it ‘Georgia’, a place (and many men thereafter) named after its patron Saint. For the longest time, it has been a country shrouded in shadowy myths (for me at least), lumped in with the rest of the Soviet states and forgotten about, until the Travel Companion (TC) bought a bottle of Georgian wine years ago.

My research into the place started in earnest then. I looked into their ancient language – a part of me imagines this is how Proto-Indo European might have sounded like -, the wine, the gorgeous churches, the mountains, the fabled hospitality of the people…and I was sold.

A few days into this trip, well, let’s just say that reality is a little more sobering. Avlabari, the site of old Tbilisi where the hotel is, is oddly chaotic and I’ve never gotten so many wary, distrustful stares from people and that’s not because I have unshaven armpits.

Georgia has always been the pawn of a larger power or another, tussled among those who warred over its ancient, fertile soil. War, or at least some kind of conflict has plagued its borders every few years, the latest being the looming spectre of a revived Russia seeking to inch past its borders. Consequently, there’s always a long story made of facts (and some entertaining fiction about saints and sinners) that every guide will enthusiastically tell of their colourful history, though getting their personal opinions of their conquering powers and the recent political situation is equivalent to pulling teeth.

Tbilisi is on its own, a huge contradiction but a proud survivor of its turbulent past: a beautiful mixture of architecture (best seen in the carvings on the balconies in the old quarter), a blend of old and modern, centuries-old Orthodox churches, bordered at times by grim, industrial-looking Soviet architecture on both sides of the Mtkvari River.

The guide that we had in the free walking tour of Tbilisi exemplified this quirk in his anachronistic dressing that belonged better in Dickensian or Victorian England. He took us around the old city, explained about the family network of Georgians as seen in the sharing of balconies/terraces, walked us through the sulphur baths, the Siony church, Freedom square and gave us a taste of Churchkhela (Georgian traditional candy made of nuts dipped in a sweet wine roux and left to dry out).

But there is as always, much more to the country than just its capital. I couldn’t wait to find out.

read more
AsiaDestinationsIndonesiaSoutheast Asia

Adventure prone

FHD0335

Waking up at 4 am is a hellish experience I wouldn’t ever want to wish on anyone. But the Travel Companion and I did it, in my 4th iteration of what has so far been an annual pilgrimage to Bali, that has now gotten past just scuba diving off the east coast of Bali and off Nusa Penida.

I had a great time on Christmas with Jan and Markus (just the 3 of us, it seemed), since tourist numbers are madly erratic for this period. But perhaps what made it worth it as always, was the accidental conversations I fall into during these journeys. Jan and I spoke at length about conceptual art, the European far-right, losing face and how stupid people can get on the way back to Sanur, while TC got badly sunburnt in the meantime.

But that was only the start of the trip. Blame my growing thirst for adventure.

Thus far, I’ve done a dive off the drifty little islands off Padang Bai (Mimpang and Tepekong), gone off-roading on a Buggy/quad bike tour off the villages past Ubud and recklessly decided to up the ante and head far north for canyoning.

“Do not hesitate,” Adrien (the Icopro instructor) said. And he’s right. It gets worse when you think and re-think the angle of the jump, the probability of hitting your head on the rocks.

I ended up lobbing off the edge, 8 metres into a deep pool, and straight on my arse like a demented cannonball into the water.

Add that embarrassing thing to sliding down slippery rocks, zip-lining partway down and rappelling off waterfalls…and I found myself having an absolutely brilliant time while at it, then wished I’d chosen to do a full day of it. The Kalimudah part of the Kerenkali Canyon in the mountainous north of Bali (Git Git) is the most technical of the parts which the TC and I had signed up for with Bali Adventure and Spirit, and the hellish experience of waking up at 4am just to make this journey from Sanur more than made up for the adrenaline rush and the thrill that came from working the stunning scenery and getting dunked straight into ice-cold water. TC, who couldn’t even swim, was so enthused and challenged by the entire experience that swim classes are finally, finally on the cards.

Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t in 2 minds about this when we first started out—straight out of a furious thunderstorm in Sanur to rain that persistently didn’t let up until about 8 am after we finished breakfast in Gigit. We went past numerous lazy dogs, endless rice plantations and cloud-covered misty mountains framed by rows of corn and coconut trees. The drive back had worse traffic, but bluer skies and colourful towns where tourists don’t seem to register much on the locals’ quotidian.

But it was mostly filled with memories of the hard kick of the water up my nose, the thrill of the slides and the pull of the abseil rope, as well as the exhaustion that crept in slowly as the day wore on.

My canonying-initiation card will proudly stay in my wallet for now.

read more
AsiaDestinationsFoodTaiwan

Beyond the culinary

img_5567

The crowds and the smells always indicate that something food-related is near. Well, it’s certainly true of the legendary night markets in Taipei – there’re 14 of them at least, some lesser known to the tourists which locals frequent – that are noisy, bustling affairs of smoke, dirt and well, some delicious finds.

img_5579

img_5437

We managed only 3 here and if the plan was to eat our way through the streets lined with stores and persistent sellers, there’s really only so much I could stomach when it comes to fried chicken, bubble tea and starchy oyster omelette, let alone consecutive days of this stuff. More traditional dishes do tend to be under represented at such places though – not that it’s a bad thing – though I could hardly say that a Taiwanese night market showcases the best of Taiwanese dishes.

But food here in general, has a lot to offer and can be sublime, especially if one understands the smaller shops with Chinese-only signboard, menu and order sheet. Otherwise, it’s back to pointing at a picture (if there’s one), then raising your fingers for quantity and hoping you’ve been understood.

img_5497

img_5511

img_5612

Beyond food (and it’s difficult to get past that), I struggled to see under the veneer of commercialism and the glitzy, glamorous buildings that have sprung up in the city centre. The older generation seems to anchor the place still; much of the architecture in the older parts of Taipei date from the Chiang Kai-Shek era that used to house his followers who thought they’d found a temporary home in Taiwan but never left in the end.

img_5594

There is much yet to be discovered: the eastern but near-inaccessible coast, the far south or even the natural mountainous landscape that beguiles so many people. Instead, there were spaces that I peeked into: the pulsating, hip young district of Ximen, a hike up Elephant Mountain in the heart of Taipei, taking a Youbike rental up and down the Keelung River, going to the hilly, Maokong village to hike and sample tea.

But I’m strangely happy with taking it slowly for once.

read more
AsiaDestinationsFoodItineraryTaiwan

Taipei Eats: A food tour

img_5337

It’s difficult to know where to begin with the mind-boggling food of Taiwan but one thing I knew when I planned this trip was that it would be near impossible to get around to the places the locals like without having an English-speaking local to bring us around.

Going with Taipei Eats for a few hours of walking and eating traditional Taiwanese dishes was a god-send, as was the lovely guide Jean who took us through the maze of streets and wet markets – and straight into the heart of Taipei where shops could be holes in the wall with untranslated menus. The philosophy of Taipei Eats, as Jean explained, has been to choose places where everything is handmade (with an artisan vibe at times) with a specialisation in a particular dish.

f11. Hulin wet market (Yongchun Station)

Fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat in their rawest (and hopefully freshest) form. A few paces down, there’s thousand-layer scallion cake, a thick slab of bread with green onions and sesame baked in a tandoor-like oven.

2. Songshan Gua Bao

No. 179
Songshan Rd
Xinyi District

Variations of this particular bun – filled with pork belly, preserved mustard greens then topped with coriander and peanut powder – can be found in countries like Malaysia, Singapore and China. Jean insists that this is one of the most popular stops in the tour and it’s not hard to see why.

f2

An optional stop was to a betel nut stand, where blue-collar workers flock to for a quick stop to get their hit of stimulant when their energy starts flagging. It stains the lips and teeth crimson while providing a rush and a numbing effect – something I’d passed over.

f3

3. Raw stinky tofu

No.2, Alley 3
Lane 120, Yongji Rd
Xinyi District

Sweet wintermelon tea rarely does anything to counter the raw sewage smell of the fermented tofu, which comes in 3 levels of fermentation (10, 12 and 13). Fermented way longer than what is sold in the night market, it’s the only shop in Taiwan to offer raw, fermented tofu (of the stinkiest level) and for that, it’s famous in its own right. It’s also a shot of probiotics, so keep that in mind that it’s probably good for the stomach though not for the taste buds.

4. Cold Sesame Noodles

No.105
Yongji Rd
Xinyi District

We each got served small portions of wheat noodles drenched in sesame sauce and fresh cucumber with a miso-based soup of meatballs, tofu and egg. After the lingering taste of stinky tofu, this was a culinary reprieve.

f4

 5. Kao-Chi

Eslite Spectrum Songyan
No.88 Yanchang Road
Xinyi District

I particularly loved this stop because of the artistic atmosphere of Songshan Cultural and Creative space, where this branch of Kao-Chi is located. Perhaps as much as I loved the Xiaolongbao (dumplings made with pork and gelatine which melts when steamed).

6. Wu Pao Chun Bakery

Eslite Spectrum Songyan
No.88 Yanchang Road
Xinyi District

Ubiquitous in Taiwan, pineapple cakes have a shortcrust-like pastry with sweet pineapple filling, though the fillings differ from bakery to bakery. With only 2 stores in Taiwan (1 in Taipei and another in Kaohsiung), Wo Pao Chun’s famed master Boulanger’s makes pineapple cakes that people queue for. We came out with boxes of them, then lugged them around for the rest of the tour.

7. Bei Men Fung Li Bing

No.9 Alley 33
Lane 216 Section 4
Zhongxiao E Rd

The owners who set up this shaved ice shop hail from Yilan, where the sherbet (or the shaved ice dessert) is just made out of water, sugar and extracts. Done traditionally, there’s even a notice in the shop that states they’d never do a franchise just to keep the quality.

read more
1 2 3 20
Page 1 of 20

Pin It on Pinterest