Taiwan Day 13: My Luck to Visit Bayan Village (Now Closed to Outsiders)

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Crisp reflection at Bayan Village

A delicate layer of stratus clouds shrouded the skies above and reflected its image on the stagnant waters beneath, as subtle smoke piped continuously from the few homes in the quiet and unassuming village. Bayan village, indisputably beautiful, was an unknown gem in the Yangmingshan territory, distinct for its terraced fields running alongside mountains and its unique natural hot springs and waterfalls that provide so-called healing elements to the human skin. When word got out of the area, the village’s popularity grew and unpleasant hordes of tourists poured in daily, overwhelming the 20 inhabitants who were once accustomed to merely the sounds of nature.  We are all too familiar with the consequences of tourism, and indeed the inhabitants agreed to prohibit visitors to their village for issues reached unacceptable levels, including destruction of crops and use of the paths as restrooms. Despite my streak of misfortune in life, I fortunately experienced Bayan village 3 months before its unforeseen closure, and when I returned to the states, I spoke non-stop of Bayan, promising my brother that I would take him soon, only to hear it had closed….


My Experience: 

Access to the village was highly challenging for it is located in a conspicuous area in Yangmingshan, with few signs indicating its location and limited parking spaces nearby. Billy parked his sedan in a desolate spot and we were prepared to cross the street when an old man with a white undershirt and blue massage sandals approached us, requesting money in exchange for the parking spot. Turned out if the villagers were to be disturbed, they might as well make a little profit. We gave the man 30 NT and walked past a couple homes with washboards in a creek, food laid out drying in the sun, and vegetables growing profusely in garden patches. There was a miniature path of stone, hand-laid out over running waters and another local man simply sitting on a boulder, collecting an entrance fee in a bowl for the terraced fields/ sky reflection view. Imposing mountains fringed our surrounding and a murky body of water situated amid was an optimum canvas for the sky’s reflection. The sight was a thing of wonder, and luckily I had come on an unpopular day and time where masses of tourists were nowhere to be found, so all was far too serene.

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Smoke from a chimney

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View

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Large boulders in the water

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Intense reflection

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Not a model at all

Nearby the exit, an elderly woman sat underneath a rickety straw roof, showing off her vegetables and fruit, freshly picked this morning and grown traditionally by hand. Billy told me that her food was phenomenal and home-y, so we strolled over and bought two steamed corn and tea eggs, both scalding hot as I juggled them between my hands. Piping hot juice splattered all over as I bit into the sweet, succulent corn, and I rapidly continued to eat because the pain was worth each decadent bite. As we nibbled on the flavorsome tea egg to prevent mouth burns, we walked along steep, zig-zagged paths, enclosed by towering bamboo stalks and shrubs on either sides that forbid any breeze. The demanding trek to the hot springs required great stamina and at the half-way point, I wondered if I’d ever make it as I slowly but surely progressed down winding and deteriorating stone steps. But then my eyes glistened at the sight of flat land ahead of us (a huge relief from the prior tedious path) that was accompanied by a behemoth fumarole, filling the atmosphere with pastel yellow, sulfuric clouds. Based on intuition, it seemed we were approaching our destination soon, and indeed there was only an additional half mile descending down a serpentine path until the hot springs.

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Within the mountains

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Smoke from underground

Very highly likely there was an easier access to the hot springs, but Billy and I entered from a threatening path as we nimbly hopped from jagged stone to stone down hill, avoiding the steaming, cloudy water beneath us. Masses of steam engorged our bodies, obscuring our view ahead, and we weren’t sure if we could withstand the fumes, but a miracle occurred when we reached the bottom and regained our sights.

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Our dangerous path to enter the springs

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Clear water from the waterfalls

I witnessed a fictitious image with varieties of different sized natural springs and melanin-rich individuals bathing in the streaming water, soaking in the sun’s and water’s nutrients. The pale blue, almost grey, hot spring water was too hot for comfort, but it came in contact with crystal clear water from a waterfall nearby to form the optimal temperature for humans to enjoy a dip. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a swimsuit so I was semi- crestfallen, but I got to dip most of my legs into the pools and relish the setting, the people, and the sounds. And since Bayan village is no longer open, all that occurred on this day remains in my memories and in my photos. And I know I’ll read back on this blog whenever I need to recall the allure of this place.

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Cooling down next to a waterfall

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Cloudy hot spring waters

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Venturing

 

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 12: Beitou Thermal Valley and the Best Braised Pork Rice Ever

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“Hell’s Valley”

On this day, I was handed over to my other cousin, Billy, for a weekends’ worth of excitement. The motive of me being “handed over” was so that I could reunite with every single Taiwanese cousin while they took me on memorable road trips to their favorite destinations that embodies what they love about their country.

Billy drove from Bali (in Taiwan, not Indonesia) to pick me up from Kevin’s urban apartment, and when his aging, maroon Honda pulled up I enthusiastically greeted him and dumped my luggage in the trunk. Unlike Kevin, he didn’t ask me where I wanted to go- he knew immediately where to take me, and soon we were on our way to Beitou Hot Springs. The Beitou area consists of natural hot springs that continually emits steam, and some are open to people while others reach temperatures of 100 °C and are off-limits. We first visited the Hot Springs Museum which was an original bathhouse built long ago by the Japanese in European style so the inside had Victorian columns and baths but tatami rooms as well. Because the Japanese are extremely orderly and clean, we had to remove our shoes in the museum and put on slippers to keep the interior spotless.

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Hot Springs Museum

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A tatami in the museum

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We then headed out towards the Geothermal Valley, also dubbed “Hell’s Valley”, a bright emerald-colored body of water that is 90 °C, so very little life sustains in the water. The weather was already hot enough, but once near the edge of the Valley, the sweltering heat reached my skin and I began to sweat all over, especially on my neck where my long hair dangled freely. I felt audacious standing so near, knowing that a slight mishap could result in my death, but the uncanny Valley was quite mystical as subtle clouds of opaque steam arose and idled marginally above the still, emerald water. We wandered past other hot springs in the human-tolerable range, but all were rather empty because who would be in their right mind to step in a hot springs in tropical, Taiwanese, Summer weather?

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An eerie Geothermal Valley

It was around noon when Billy told me of a fantastic “restaurant” that specializes in  braised pork rice (lu rou fan) and I was so down because braised pork rice is the perfect combination of carbs, fat, and salt, and I never turn down a braised pork rice offer. There was one minor issue with which he wasn’t exactly sure where and what the place was called, so we scoured around the Beitou area, driving through random roads as he tried to recall of the place in his head. We then arrived at a random, dingy and dilapidated building with a variety of food stands, clothing stores, and medicine shops on the inside. The interior had little electricity (and certainly no A/C), and was mostly lit up by windows on the walls and ceilings for sunlight to enter. Peculiarly, the place was congested with people mostly eating lunch or buying fresh fruits, meats, or seafood from the tiny vendors scattered across each floor. On a side note, the scene was chaotic, unsanitary, and dismal, but a scene like this is very typical of Taiwan so it didn’t bother me for I was accustomed to it. Billy and I sauntered around each floor, past multiple butchers, scanning from corner to corner to find The “restaurant”, but his frustrated complexion indicated that it was nowhere nearby. Eventually, he gave up and we sat down at another braised pork rice restaurant which he described as “not as good”. He wandered off to see what people were eating, when he ran back exuberantly and yelled “I found it!!” I stood up so abruptly that I experienced a minor whiplash, but proceeded on to follow Billy, who was now very much ahead of me.

The restaurant (a food stand really), called 矮仔財滷肉飯  was in a relatively depressing corner, however the food stand was not depressing at all. The chefs frantically sauteed and washed dishes as a line of forty something people waiting to order watched and an additional forty something people sat eating. I headed to the back of the line, which spiraled down a staircase where the food stand unfortunately was no longer in sight. Thirty five minutes had passed until we got to the front of the line, where Billy ordered several dishes but sadly had to switch a few orders since many of their dishes were sold out. But no worries because whatever we ordered turned out to be SOME OF THE BEST FOOD I HAVE EVER PUT IN MY MOUTH. I seriously don’t even know how to explain how scrumptious the food was, like does a 1000/10 tell you how tasty the food was? or the term “better than sex?” (whatttt) Yes, it was THAT amazing.

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Braised pork rice

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Very traditional Taiwanese meal

We ordered two bowls of braised pork rice which on top of the meat, the chef had additionally included ample amounts of gelatinous skin and fat, and I think that was the wow factor of the dish. I’ve had hundreds of braised pork rice bowls in my life and I’ve never tasted a memorable one until this one. We also got 2.) a tofu chunk braised in the pork juices, so if the tofu is tasting like the braised pork, it’s got to be great, 3.) kongxincai (water spinach), sauteed and drenched in the pork marinade with meat chunks (Oh my lord so good), 4.) pork and winter melon soup (perhaps the best soup I’ve ever had. It was meaty but not oily at all- how do you do that?), and 5.) fatty pork slices with red sauce. The rice, tofu, and water spinach dishes all had the braised pork sauce, but they all had their own distinct flavors, which stumps me. And the soup, oh my, do not even get me started on the soup; it tasted nothing like the braised pork sauce, it had a special flavor that I cannot fathom either. As a food fanatic, I believe that a restaurant’s food is good when you can’t decipher what the ingredients are because you can’t imitate it at home. Thus, you’ll keep coming back to the restaurant to eat it. I now know that in the future anytime I visit Taiwan, I will ask to come back here to eat. I encourage you all to put this restaurant “矮仔財滷肉飯” on your bucket list!!

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 10: An Entire Road Trip Packed in One Day ft. Spirited Away’s Movie Inspiration Location

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Crowded nightlife at Jiufen

Hopefully “Spirited Away” caught your attention, or if you are unaware of its existence, it is possibly the best animated film in history directed by world renown, Hayao Miyazaki. Indeed we visited its movie inspiration location, but prior to visiting the location, we visited two other magnificent places, which is why by 11 PM of today, my feet had blisters, my legs were shaking, and my clothes reeked of sweat. My cousins and I packed an entire road trip into 14 hours and crazy would be an understatement of our adventure. Without further ado, here is the tale of Taiwan Day 10.

At around 9 AM, my older cousin, Kevin, picked me up from Taipei city and I was so delighted because I had not seen him in six years. He looked pretty much the same, but I know I looked taller, older, and more mature than my 12 year old self. I hopped into shotgun and we conversed nonstop during our drive to Taipei train station to pick up my two other older cousins, Kiwi and Villea, (These are their real names, but uncommon English names are prevalent in Taiwan), who I have not seen in 7 years, and they pretty much looked the same as well.

“Where would you like to go?” Kevin asked me.

Yikes, I’m the foreigner, and I didn’t know much of the area, but based on Google Search “Taipei attractions” I saw a beautiful location called Yangmingshan National Park so I asked to go there. And indeed he swerved his miniature car towards North and drove 45 minutes up sinuous roads until we saw a parking lot and awkwardly maneuvered to squeeze into a tight spot. We hiked down to Qingtiangang, a grassland within the mountains with cotton ball-esque clouds hovering not too far above your head and Japanese shorthorn grazing tranquilly. The shorthorns wandered around freely and thankfully all the visitors respected them, as nobody hollered and ran towards them, took selfie stick photos, or tried to pet them. Several people laid on the grass, wrote in their journals, read a book, or enjoyed a picnic while others had large cameras, snapping photos of the stunning scenery. My cousins and I simply walked along the trails and eventually sat down to converse and listen to the running waters nearby in the midst of fog and comfortable 70 degree weather.

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Two Japanese shorthorn resting

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Qingtiangang

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Typical jump photo

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Japanese shorthorn grazing

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Got a photo with it!

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Xiaoyoukeng

Afterwards, we hiked two miles to Xiaoyoukeng, a fumarole that spews sulphur gas from underground, filling the atmosphere with a rotten egg smell. Large clouds of gas constantly piped up from underground and the surrounding rock was stained yellow as we could feel the increased temperature nearby on our skin. Thus after a morning of spectacular views, we headed East towards Yehliu Geopark, on behalf of my request. The Queen’s Head formation at Yehliu was always shown in Taiwan brochures and travel videos, so I decided it was about time that I go. I expected a large desolate land with unique rock formations in the middle of nowhere, but to my disappointment, the area was highly developed with apartment buildings, stores, and a gaudy aquarium with dolphin shows. The plethora of billboards with vibrant colors just didn’t suit the monotonous yet enchanting colors of the Geopark. Then within the geopark, bold red, painted lines with the words “Do Not Cross” were drawn all along the borders of rocks, wrecking the nature of the rocks. And even with the garish bold line, people kept jumping across the lines to take pictures and touch the unique rock formations as park rangers indignantly hollered at them to back off. It was such a pathetic site, and it vexes me that humans have such little respect for nature.

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The famous, Queen’s Head

Despite what I said above, if you ignore what the humans had done and focus on the rock formations, you begin to wonder how the earth does wondrous things such as forming such spectacular oddities. The rock formations remain a mystery to this day and the park seemed a little eerie because it really looked as if aliens had come millions of years ago to mold the rock figures.

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The mushroom rocks

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The coast

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More mushroom rocks

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The Candle rocks

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The Candle rocks

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The pedestrian bridge

After walking through multiple shapes of rocks, my cousin suggested we end our day at Jiufen, an old street in the Northern mountainous area of Taipei, aka the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s vision in Spirited Away. I felt a yearning to experience this old street, and when we arrived at its exceptionally narrow entrance, I was ready to enter a mesmerizing world. It was 6 PM and the sky remained bright, but once I forced myself into the horde of people, my surrounding suddenly became dim, chit-chat filled my ears, and a conglomeration of food scents reached my nose. It was a Saturday night so there was absolutely no leeway on the paths as everybody slowly, but gradually took baby steps to move the traffic. There were countless number of vendors selling handmade jewelry, purses, egg rolls, musical instruments, passion fruit jam, glutinous balls, literally anything you can name! I took my time, looking at all the fascinating little shops, and then reentered the sluggish crowd to continue moving along the paths. As we dawdled along the path, I heard Chinese spoken infrequently and instead it seemed as if only Japanese was being spoken. Suddenly, three bulky camera crew men, an elder man, and a tall, slim, and well-dressed lady unexpectedly walked through us all as many people behind me began to take photos of the woman. She was speaking Japanese, and it looked like she was doing a travel TV show, but I had no clue who she was, perhaps someone famous? And to this day, I keep wondering if I had bumped into a Japanese celebrity.

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Crowded pathways

The night gradually approached as the sky dimmed drastically when we decided to dine at Zhang Ji Traditional Fish Balls, a simple restaurant specializing in handmade fish ball and noodle soup. There was an awfully long line of people waiting to be seated indicating that the food served was probably exceptional, and indeed when we were finally seated, the food was exceptional! Despite being stuffed from dinner, there were two more things that were a “must try” at Jiufen, so we exited the restaurant and headed up to find Lai Ah Puo Yu Yuan shop that serves sweet potato, green tea, and taro glutinous rice balls in a brown sugar ice mixture or brown sugar hot soup, topped with adzuki and green beans for 40 NT a bowl (approx. $1.30). Customers have the option between brown sugar ice or soup, but because the Summer days were hot, we ordered 3 bowls, all with ice. Because I grew up accustomed to eating glutinous products, the bowl of soup tasted phenomenal and not weird to me at all, but if foreigners visit Jiufen, I highly recommend trying this odd-sounding dessert because it is truly something you’ve never tasted before.

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Taro, sweet potato, and green tea glutinous balls

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Zhang Ji Traditional Fish Balls

If you have made it this far, I want to thank you!! I am almost done, but not quite yet…

The time was 8:30 PM and the sun was close to setting so everybody in the vicinity enthusiastically waited for the entire Jiufen area to light up its red lanterns and bring the “Spirited Away” essence to life. As each red lantern gradually lit up, all that could be heard were peoples “oohs and ahhs” and the moment was truly indescribable as people rushed out of restaurants to see the views, crowds stopped moving to take pictures, and everyone was appreciating the night life with Taiwan’s mountains and oceans in the background. I find it so difficult to describe the atmosphere at that moment, but it seemed like there was a charm placed on Jiufen; it looked like we were all characters in a utopia.

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Jiufen at night

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Overview of nightlife at Jiufen, PC: reddit

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View from Jiufen

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The sun sets

Finally, it was time to leave the utopia for we were all exasperated and were ready to dive onto a fluffy bed and pillow to relax. Because of the mobs of people, we estimated it would take about 30 minutes to exit the old street so we headed towards the original path we had taken and wandered through the crowds to exit. On our way back, we quickly stopped at the Ah Lan Hakka Glutinous Rice Cake vendor to purchase some glutinous rice cakes stuffed with sweet red bean or savory dried preserved vegetables at 10 NT per cake.

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Ah Lan Hakka Glutinous Cake

Miraculously, we located our car at 10 PM, piled in, and passed out during the hour drive back to Taipei Main City, except for Kevin, who unfortunately was the designated driver. I remember very little of what else occurred that night, but all I know was that it was a glorious day and Taiwan never ceases to amaze me. I probably wouldn’t recommend touching down on 3 locations in one day, but if you are crazy like we are, go for it 🙂

-Jamie

 

 

Taiwan Day 7: Lihpao Land and My Bikini Tale

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Thunder mountain water ride

On a sunlit day where human skin roasted and charred, we drove to Lihpao Land, an amusement and water park in Taichung. The massive theme park is segregated into wet and dry, but with the temperature in the 100s, the dry section was eerily deserted because a hot scar from the metal machines didn’t sound too fancy. Nevertheless, we visited the dry after the wet because we’re dauntless people.

Once we had gotten into the water park, I put on a bandeau-like bikini that zipped in the front. No big deal, right? Actually it was a big deal, and a terrible mistake on my part for several reasons; one being I was horrendously out of shape but more importantly, I was in a more conservative country, in a water park, full of children in one pieces with frills, swim caps, and aqua shoes. Aqua shoes were not required, but swim caps were, so with my bikini on, I meticulously stuffed every single baby hair under the tight-fitting cap, and it was a miracle when the cap finally went over my awfully large, round head. With the top extremely wide, my head takes the shape of an upside down triangle, so while everyone else seemed to function properly with their swim caps, the latex hugged my cranium so tightly, pulling my eyes upwards, and I felt I was going to faint. As I looked into the mirror, the exceptionally unflattering figure staring back at me was cringe-worthy. With my colossal, latex-wrapped head, beer belly, and muffin top, all packed into a teeny bikini, I looked like an unfortunate, rebellious monk. I broke into laughter and took several photos to document the hot mess I was, but I confidently walked out, forgot my looks, and simply had fun. As we went on every attraction through the park, people clearly stared and judged at me for my improper outfit, and I wholeheartedly wished I could lash out at them, but I thankfully kept my composure. Although I did see a few other locals in bikinis, I believe mine looked the most inappropriate since I’m just a tad bustier.

The main attraction at the water park was the “Big Wave” which is constructed to imitate a beach, as a machine generates mountainous waves, sweeping people off their feet. As I waited for the wave to come, I realized I had been in this same exact spot in the big wave 10 years ago, so a rush of anticipation struck me to relive the moment. As hundreds of people eagerly counted down for the wave, my stomach drastically dropped, and instantly the wave worked its way from front to back. When it hit me, I was lifted a couple feet off the ground, and I felt bodies pile on top of me as my swim cap and goggles were knocked off my head. The scene appeared to be an apocalypse where zombie-like bodies were battered by vigorous waves, but once this wave died down, everyone cheered and reordered themselves for the next wave to come. The best part of the big wave is the variability of wave strength, for you may get hit with a weak wave once and then a forceful wave next. Of course we all want to be blessed by that gargantuan, powerhouse wave that causes you to lose your accessories, or even your swim top.

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The big wave

When we had been pummeled enough, we changed into T-shirts and shorts and enjoyed cheap grilled squid, savory egg pancakes, and braised pork rice from the food stands. We took a much needed break and trekked through the heat to the dry, amusement portion of the park.

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Braised pork rice with pickled cucumbers

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Egg pancake

Similar to a horror movie, the amusement park seemed deserted as employees stood by each attraction, on their phones, waiting for a single visitor to go on their ride. There was an aviation coaster, high above us, propelling in circles with just one lonely rider among thirty empty seats. There were no screams and laughter as you would typically hear in an amusement park, but just sounds of silence and the seldom running engine from one ride. We decided to go onto the aviation coaster, which we walked up to and within seconds were buckled and up in the air. The world was spinning rapidly as I gradually rose up into the air with the centripetal force acting upon my body. Scanning below, I saw the deserted scenery, but was also able to see the water park, far off into the distance, crowded with miniature ant people having the time of their lives. With so few people, we were able to knock out most of the daunting and exhilarating rides within a short amount of time. Our invigorating day had come to an end, with our skin three shades darker and our stomachs one pound lighter. As difficult as it was, we gratefully waved Lihpao Land goodbye and swore we would return soon.

 

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 6: I Made It on the News!

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Tossing the Chinese yoyo

The only time that I’ll ever be famous was the day local Miaoli reporters flocked to the elementary school with their load of technical equipment, ready to interview the principal along with its fellow volunteers, such as me. We had known the day before that the reporters would come, so we prepared a simple medley of talents for the camera. I felt composed knowing that the reporters were coming, but the moment I saw the white van roll up in the parking lot with three people hauling out massive tripods, video recorders, and a box of microphones and audio devices, my composure escaped my insides and was replaced with queasiness.

The schoolchildren upstairs had been sweeping floors and tidying up the classrooms since the first bell, when suddenly from below I heard thumping footsteps and echoes of children repeatedly hollering, ” 他們到了! 他們到了!” (They are here!) To keep all procedures organized, the principal, calm yet assertive, spoke on the intercom for all students to gather in the foyer and instantly all the schoolchildren frantically raced each other, competing who could sit down criss-crossed applesauce first. When the children had arranged themselves in columns by grade, the principal spoke with authority, “Today is the day, and we are so thankful for our volunteer teachers here. The local reporters have come and are ready to report all that has gone on in the past week at our school. We have been preparing for this for a couple of days so try your best and just have fun! All the yo-yo kids, head downstairs first and let’s attempt the “dragon”!” While the yo-yo kids set up on the grass, me and my fellow volunteer mates were approached by the reporters, who set up audio microphones on our backs and told us to write our Chinese names on a sheet of paper. Having the cameraman clip the audio box onto the back of my jeans and guide the wire to the back of my neck was tremendously awesome. I was about to be on Taiwanese News! Who would’ve imagined my first time on television would be in a foreign country?

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Elementary schoolkids

After I was set up, I waited to be interviewed. My stomach felt empty because I didn’t know what type of questions the reporter would ask and I had to respond in Chinese, which I am quite good at, but having to spontaneously respond on the first try on camera was frightening. In my head, I predicted some simple questions she could possibly ask, so I repeatedly rehearsed my responses in my head until I was called on. The double emotions of excitement and nervousness was overwhelming, but I confidently greeted the reporter and stood in an area of good lighting. She instructed me to speak loudly and about 2 inches away from the microphone and within seconds, my two minutes of fame began.

Initially, the reporter asked me elementary questions which thankfully I had rehearsed in my head, but I was at the highest extent of nervousness that I even had to ensure I wouldn’t butcher my Chinese name. Eighteen years I have lived with this name and even such pressure could’ve caused me to forget. More advanced questions were thrown at me and the camera was fast and rolling, but surprisingly, I briskly soared past them one by one, and by the end of two minutes, I had only stuttered once. I felt proud at the moment. Public speaking was never my forte and I personally know of my low self-esteem, but the girl that would appear on the Miaoli News later tonight would be someone of full confidence.

But my fame did not end there. I eagerly moved on to the patch of grass where the children were warming up their master yo-yo skills, and boy was I an amateur among the kids, but I had picked up Chinese yo-yo quickly in the past few days so I agreed to join the yo-yo squad on camera. The first trick performed was the “dragon”, which is great for cameras because it shows teamwork, unity, the Miaoli elementary school as one. It took only the second try for the yo-yo to smoothly move down the line of ten people, from one persons string to the next, and the toss back reached great heights and was successfully caught. We all happily cheered and we, as a school, truly were one in unity. Following the “dragon”, we performed toss ups, around the leg, spider web, and throw and catch. I performed around the leg, which can be perpetual for the ultimate yo-yo guru, but as a non-guru I was currently at 21 loops, when everyone, including the reporter and cameramen, gathered around and loudly chanted the counts in unison. I had reached 40 loops when I saw my yo-yo wobble in which I tried to straighten, but once I hit 43, my yo-yo tumbled off and rolled away on the grass. Everybody joyously hollered, clapped, and laughed and I put on a broad smile because 43 was a great number for a dilettante like me.

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On the Miaoli news

After the yo-yo portion was recorded, I was approached for a second interview on how I was so talented on the Chinese yo-yo, which, umm… I honestly wasn’t, but because I am an American who had just picked up the sport, it was pretty impressive. They then moved on to the Chinese top acts, which I had no place in because I actually had zero talent in Chinese top.  An hour had passed as I watched these little town children, flawlessly execute impressive top tricks, only wishing I was as skilled as they were. Performance can be exhausting, thus when the medley concluded with one last top trick, a lunch of fried oyster mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots with Kewpie mayonnaise, bitter melon with salted egg, and leafy vegetables was served for all the hungry performers. All plates were later emptied of their food, and classes resumed as usual.

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Dinner

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 5: Biking and Local Night Market

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Takoyaki

On a relaxed morning, one of the school’s teacher drove her van up to the elementary school, handed us Taiwanese egg pancakes and soy milk for breakfast, and told us to wear tennis shoes and comfortable clothes for we were going on a bike ride. I quickly threw on a quick-dry shirt to fight off the scorching sun and sloppily tied my shoe laces. During our car ride, we obnoxiously sang Zootopia’s “Try Everything”, a catchy song that soon became annoying from overplaying on the radio. We arrived at our destination unknown, Houli Bikeway, which is an old railway that has now become roads, miles long for bikers only.

Among a selection of hundreds of bicycles, I selected one with a squishy seat that was also low enough for my rather short legs. Nobody wore helmets, so I placed my snapback on my head, giving just the feel of protection. We rode for about two hours, through an array of scenery that was all so breathtaking, and the most spectacular aspect about the bikeway was that within two hours, we saw farms, wineries, rushing river waters, industrial sites, and tunnels. It was all one pathway, but we saw much more than just one view, it was like riding through the city and countryside. For heat relief, there was an extended tunnel, dim with only a few lights installed, that was about 10 °C cooler than the outside. As I rode rapidly, a cool breeze glided through my hair and shirt to dry the sweat off my neck and armpits. The cool breeze was too good on my skin that I sped up to increase the breeze, only to crash on the bike in front of me and foolishly tumble onto the side of the tunnel. People nearby quickly hopped off their bikes to aid me, but truthfully I wanted to be left alone and get up on my own because I was too embarrassed from my unpleasant fall. Nonetheless, I thanked the unnecessary crowd of people around me and brushed off the bloody scrapes on the palms of my hands and knees. We rode back to the starting point of the trail, where the bike owners offered large bowls of chilled grass jelly soup (black gelatin in brown sugar water), which we thankfully devoured.

On the bridge

Taking a break on the bridge

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Biking in the tunnel

On the hour ride back to the school, nobody sang and instead snores were heard. For dinner, we drove 30 minutes to the Miaoli night market at around 8 PM, which was packed with only Miaoli residents because this night market is the only one in the vicinity. It is also so local and lowkey that it only runs on Saturdays, unlike all other night markets which operate every night. Due to this “rare” event, the night market was crowded with hungry locals and I instantly saw around ten students from the elementary school, accompanied by their family members. As if I were a celebrity, multiple schoolchildren charged towards me, yelling my name, and gave me hugs. Of course, I was introduced to several parents, and as I shook their hands, I peeped several strangers nearby with faces wondering who I was and why I was receiving such great attention. When all attention died down, I straightaway knew what I wanted to eat: stinky tofu, O-a zhen (a gooey oyster, egg pancake doused in red sauce), and takoyaki (octopus balls). These three dishes are the epitome of Taiwanese street food, and have been my favorite dishes ever since I was 8 years old. I purchased all three for an unbelievable price of 110 yuan (approximately $3.50), showing just how cheap Asian street food is. Spending only $3.50 felt too little, so the last thing I did was go on mini go carts, operated by the family of one of the school’s children. A tiny enclosed area was available for go-kart riders so I only got to drive in small circles, but the throwback of being a child was well worth 30 yuan. The night ended all in smiles at the night market and our wallets just slightly lighter.

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Stinky tofu and preserved cabbage

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Traditional street food

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Miaoli night market

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Preparation of oyster pancake

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Night market go kart

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 4: Trying Hakka Food

food, travel
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Fried pork with pomegranate

Food served at the elementary school was relatively the same throughout the weeks. There was usually a broth-based soup with leafy vegetables and meatball pieces, white rice, and tempura-fried vegetables. I was grateful for the school cook, a friend of the principal, who came daily at around 11 AM to prepare sufficient amounts of savory food to feed the mouths of all 50 people at the school. However, on a Saturday, I was treated to a lavish meal of traditional Hakka food. Miaoli is the only county in Taiwan that is predominantly Hakka people, a group of Han Chinese people who came from Hakka-speaking areas in South China. Since my first visit to Taiwan when I was just 9,  I heard of the Hakka culture, but I never really fathomed what it truly was, but here I am 12 years later, immersed in the culture, ready to sample the delicacies of Hakka cuisine. Hakka food tends to be salty and spicy, extremely bold in flavor because Hakka migrants toiled lengthy days under the intense sun farming, resulting in salt content loss in the body so food intake regains the salt.

We entered a semi-fancy restaurant, decorated with strawberry wallpaper about 25 minutes away from the school. The locals recommended 1.) the Hakka stir fry (Xiao Tsao), a traditional dish composed of dry tofu, preserved meats, peppers, and green onions, 2.) Dragonfruit pork, fried pieces of pork topped with dragonfruit jam, and 3.) water lily (shui lian), crisp straw-like vegetable strands sauteed with garlic and peppers. Devouring the food, yet still showing class, I went through 3 bowls of white rice, pairing with the 3 dishes. And no, 3 bowls of white rice is not an exaggeration; the dishes were extremely palatable and salty that it was necessary to pair the dishes with rice. The tanginess from the preserved meats paired so well with the relatively bland dry tofu and the sweet dragonfruit jam complimented the crispy pork skin. And lastly, the lightness of the water lily vegetables toned down the two other salty dishes.

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Sauteed water lily

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Hakka stir fry

Thirty minutes passed, and we all held our hands to our stomachs, gently rubbing our food babies. Each plate was clear of food and the looks on our faces indicated we needed a nice nap after our feast. Indeed, we all plopped on our beds and napped for a good 2 hours until a few school children banged on our doors and politely hollered at us to venture with them. We totally could use some exercise after today’s fine eats so we agreed, quickly got dressed, and headed out. We took an insanely steep and winding path up the mountains that was later alongside running waters downhill. The three energetic schoolchildren sang, ran, and gently pushed each other while I and the other teens were red in the face and lethargic as hell. Clearly, I was getting old. We reached the highest point of the pathway, where only one house resided. It was a polished, wooden house that seemed too nice to belong in the area. The house overlooked a vast part of the town and was surrounded by greens and tall trees. I assume because of the kids’ loud chatter, a 50 something year old man walked out the wooden doors and greeted us so kindly, asking where we were from, and cordially invited us to the back for some tea and snacks. Smoke arose from his grill, where charred bamboo lay, chickens ran around the backyard, feeding on bamboo scraps, and a beautiful german shepherd rest on the grass, eyeing the children frantically chasing the poor chickens. Everything about the house was so homey and down-to-earth with its all wood furniture and calligraphy on the walls. It was absolutely beautiful. The man told us that the house is actually a Bed & Breakfast but not many people come, so he and his wife (both now retired) just relax in nature and have no future plans apart from that.

 

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Polaroid

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Large wild beetle

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Chickens snack on bamboo scraps

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Chickens on the road

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Miaoli mountain views

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Miaoli mountain views

We said goodbye to the kind man and his chickens and walked the steep, winding roads to return to the elementary school. Our feet were sore and our bodies were covered in sweat so we took our showers and had movie night in our little hostel.

-Jamie

Taiwan Day 2: Arrival in Miaoli

travel

 

Taiwan is a miniature sweet potato-shaped country, that takes only 5 hours to travel from the most Southern to Northern tip. Thus, my grandfather always said “you can see the sun rise in the North, drive down and back up Taiwan and make it in time to see the sunset in the same spot you began at.” It is a magnificent country, with mountains to your left and the sea to your right, and I had realized that my previous trips to Taiwan were mainly focused in the North, where popular cities like Taipei are located. I had actually never gone past Hsinchu, which is less than a quarter on the way down South, and in that case, there were so many aspects of Taiwan I had never encountered before. There was so much more than Taipei 101, and so I rode a bus to Miaoli, a Northwestern county of Taiwan that is known mainly for providing strawberries for the entire country, along with its betel nut trees. This county is known for being one of the poorer counties in Taiwan, but don’t get me wrong, there is still a downtown with businesses and development. It’s a farming county though, and I stayed at the rural part, where I rode an hour in the back of a truck, up the mountains, away from civilization, to a school where clouds shrouded the rooftop. Instantaneously, I fell in love with this less-than-spectacular place, but that is what I love. Nothing materialistic. Just a life of simplicity.

I was immediately greeted by a soldier who was serving at the elementary school as part of his military duty. He kindly escorted me to the principal’s office as I tensed up slightly at the thought of having to put my Chinese skills to the ultimate test. Unlike Taipei, the English proficiency level here was much lower, for education is not as strictly enforced as it is in the city. As I sat down on a chair, the principal and a few other ladies began to chat with me, graciously serving me decadent fried sweet potatoes and eggplant in five spice powder along with celery and meatball soup. With these lovely people still strangers to me, I politely placed the foods in my mouth and chewed slowly when 5 minutes passed and the principal stated, “Please don’t be shy. You are our guest and you have only eaten so little!” I took her words to heart as I gobbled up half the platter of fried sweet potatoes and eggplant, and mind you, this platter was gigantic, about the size of an XXL pizza. After a superb meal and learning about life in this rural area, I settled my belongings down in my room and was very pleasantly surprised at how nice the amenities were. Obviously nothing fancy; I was just pleased to see an air conditioner and available wi-fi (these are luxuries that I did not expect to have). There was an outside living room with a TV and a mini kitchen equipped with a convection oven, a stove, a sink, and a microwave. I honestly could not believe how much was provided, and I couldn’t contain my excitement!

Full of joy, I spent the rest of the day wandering around the neighborhood, approached by vicious wild dogs and stares from people who wondered who this stranger could be. A few kids played tag in the corn fields as their parents, dark from the blazing sun, tend to their crops. My thighs began to burn as there was no flat land. River water was flowing, cranes were picking at rice crops, and the sense of serenity around me was pleasing. No electronic device in sight. This is spectacular. If only more people could enjoy what nature has given, rather than spending a majority of life, double tapping or sending “streak” snaps.

-Jamie

Sweet Soft Taro-Filled Flatbread

food

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My previous post of the savory pork filled pancake looks somewhat similar to this taro-filled flatbread, but they have completely different textures and different flavors, one being savory and one being sweet. This is a bing, where the dough on the outside is semi-crispy whilst the inside is soft and fluffy. It’s kind of a mix between a pancake and a flatbread, but there is really no English word to accurately describe what a “bing” is. Bings are typically seen in China and Taiwan, being sold as a street food, and are commonly stuffed with red bean paste, sesame paste, or custard. I have rarely seen taro paste in these types of bing, but taro is used in sweet breads, mooncakes, and pastries, so stuffing the taro in this bing was a great idea! So without further ado, I present you my recipe to this delicacy:

Ingredients

For the dough:

  • 2 c. all purpose flour
  • 3/4 c. warm milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsp. cold coconut oil or any solid fat
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 c. sugar

For the filling:

  • 500 g. taro
  • 1/3 c. sugar
  • 1/3 c. any flavorless oil

Instructions:

  1. In a small bowl combine yeast, sugar, and warm milk and set aside for 10 min, until the mixture becomes bubbly.
  2. In a large bowl combine flour and salt. Pour the yeast mixture into the flour and add the egg and coconut oil. Combine w/ hand or in a stand up mixer w/ dough hook for 10 min. until the dough is smooth and even. Cover with a damp cloth and place in a warm environment for 30 min.
  3. Meanwhile, cut the taro root into chunks and steam until soft (around 20 min). Place the taro chunks into a food processor and process with sugar and oil. The taro paste should become smooth and pasty, easy to spread.
  4. On a floured surface, roll out the dough into a log and cut into 12 equal parts and roll them into balls. Let the balls sit for 10 min.
  5. For each ball, roll out into flat circle and paste about 1 tbsp. or more taro paste on the inside and pinch the middle. Place the pinched middles on the bottom and flatten the dough or roll with a rolling pin into a circular shape.
  6. In a pan on medium heat, place the flatbreads in without oil- I fit 3 or 4 into each batch and place the lid on. Cook for about 7 min on each side until they are brown. After cooking each side, just flip back and forth to ensure the dough is cooked evenly. You can add a little bit of coconut oil while pan-frying if you would like.
  7. Place the flatbreads on the cooling rack for about 3 min and enjoy them while hot!

I hope you enjoy making and eating these flatbreads! I couldn’t help myself and right after I made my batch of 12 flatbreads, I devoured 3 of them. (devouring 3 at once is not a good idea and I do not recommend it!!)

-Jamie

3 Ingredient Raw Vegan Brownies w/ Almond Chocolate Ganache

food, healthy

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Eating Raw was something I always chose to steer clear of, like if you give me zucchini noodles, please cook them…

Because of this, I didn’t like to try raw recipes because I would always prefer the cooked version. However, I recently made raw vegan brownies and they’re superbly delicious along with many other adjectives: vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, you name it! The natural sweetness comes from dates, which is a key ingredient in healthy and vegan cooking and baking. Then, the base is ground almonds (almond flour), which is gluten-free, and contains monounsaturated fat which helps to prevent cardiovascular diseases. This swap makes the brownies raw because you can eat almond flour, but you must heat all-purpose flour before it can be eaten. Lastly, the chocolate-y goodness comes from cocoa powder, which is low in fat and calories as compared to actual chocolate. I then topped the brownies with an almond butter ganache, and I’m just like, “What’s not to love  about this dessert?”

3 Ingredient Raw Vegan Brownies w/ almond  chocolate ganache (yields 6 large brownies)

Ingredients:

For brownies

  • 1 c. almond flour
  • 10 pitted dates (I used medjool but any type works)
  • 1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tbsp almond milk or water to make batter stick together better (optional)

For ganache

  • 2 tbsp. almond milk
  • 1/4 c. dark chocolate chips
  • 1 tbsp almond butter + more for drizzle

Instructions:

  1. Throw dates into a blender and blend until the mixture resembles caramel.
  2. Combine almond flour and cocoa together in a large bowl.
  3. Add all the date mixture in and combine/kneed with your hand. Add some type of liquid (I used almond milk) if the batter is not coming together enough or if you like gooier brownies. (The reason I added a liquid was because the dates acts as the binding agent, but during my first try, I used enough dates to bind the brownies together and they were too sweet. So I cut back on the dates and simply used a different binding agent.
  4. Place the mixture into a square pan lined with parchment paper and press down until brownies are about 1 in. thick. Place in the fridge for about 5 min.
  5. In a small bowl, microwave almond milk for 30 seconds.
  6. Add the chocolate chips and almond butter and let the bowl sit for about a minute. After a minute, stir with a spoon until a ganache is formed.
  7. Take the brownies out of the fridge and pour ganache on. Place brownies in the fridge for about 10 min. or until ganache is cooled.
  8. Take the brownies out and drizzle with microwaved (makes it easier to drizzle) almond butter.

Seriously, these brownies are too good. TRY THEM. You won’t regret it.

-Jamie