The long haul #4: Tainan

As we gradually make our way through our wish list of places to visit, Tainan was the last of the city destinations (for now… the list keeps changing all the time). While it doesn’t exactly trigger the radar of tourism hotspots in Taiwan, there is a lot to see in Tainan, especially for history enthusiasts! The local government is also working to make English the ‘second official language’ of Tainan, and a list of “English Friendly” businesses was given to us when we checked into our hotel!

The city is roughly divided into two sections: Tainan proper and the Anping District, where they keep all the history. Tainan itself is one of the prettier cities we’ve visited, but it isn’t easy to get around in. Plans for a metrorail were abandoned due to lack of funding and the shuttle buses just aren’t quite able to provide the same blissful feeling of ease and comfort as the underground systems in Taipei and Kaoshiung. However, we highly recommend Anping as an interesting, tourist friendly and easy-to-get-around place. Now on to the highlight reel:

We arrived in Tainan late on Saturday morning and made a bee-line for Anping. The shuttle buses do a fine job in this respect. Getting to Anping was really straightforward, and as the whole area is one sprawling tourist attraction, even getting off at the wrong stop is easily remedied on foot.  We started out at the Old Tait & Co. Merchant House, a former Dutch colonial era building, which has been converted into a museum about the history of Anping (essentially a long list colonisations by different countries). The old house is right next to one of the most famous attractions in the area, the Anping Tree House, a huge, abandoned warehouse which has been almost totally overgrown by Banyan trees, to the point where some areas are more tree than building.

Having explored the alien horror movie-esque Tree House, we began strolling along the pretty cobbled street towards the other sites in the area. This led us down a long narrow street lined with street food stalls of every description. As Tainan is a port city, there is a lot of seafood to be found! One of the first things we tried was a mountain of brightly coloured shaved ice, in various fruity flavours. There were also a dozen or so people handing out free samples of prawn crackers, not unlike the ones we remember getting at Chinese restaurants when we were children. We also found some mysterious spiral shaped fried pastry things which were stuffed with green onion – mysterious yet absolutely delicious – and some coriander peanut brittle, a famous creation in the area. Tragically, we did not buy any of the famous brown sugar cake, but we watched a few demonstrations of the unique cooking methods and tried a small sample, which was also delicious!

Our next stop was the Anping Fort, also called Fort Zeelandia. The fort was originally built by Dutch settlers to watch over the merchant houses in Anping. It was then taken over by Chinese settlers and then by the Japanese settlers. There is a watch tower in the fort which you can climb up to look out over the city, and a portion of the massive original outer wall still stands, and the combination of different architectural styles makes the whole area very pretty to walk around in, even if you aren’t into the history.

Close to the fort is a temple to Mazu – one of many tributes to the goddess who protects sailors. The temple itself was very beautiful, with all the usual levels of detail and bright colours, but outside the temple was an special treat: Sun Wu Kong the trickster god, dancing around, collecting money to fund his next trip into the underworld (maybe). Of course we gave him some money, and in return he taught me the art of balance, which I suck at! From the temple, we continued our meandering until we found ourselves in a beautiful park under a giant statue of Mazu, looking out over the harbour. It felt like we had walked into a diorama for some utopian future project. Children were flying kites and chasing bubbles, dogs were playing together, young couples were having picnics, all under the smiling gaze of  Mazu.

Naturally, we followed this up by stopping to look at a naval destroyer anchored in the port. You can actually go onto the ship to look around, but by this time our feet were tired and so we just sat in its shadow and ate our lunch.

Our last stop in Anping was the Eternal Golden Fortress. This military fort was commissioned by the Chinese rulers and built by a French architect to defend against pirates and other sea-based threats. The fort is surrounded by a moat with only one way in and out, through a big archway which opens into the former training grounds, now a big grassy courtyard. This isn’t the kind of place you can spend hours, but it is interesting to look at the old canons and see how the fort was designed for visibility over the sea and defensibility (defendability?).

Having made our way back to Tainan, we checked into our hotel and then set out to find some dinner. Our plan had been to head for the Garden Night Market (not actually a garden), but on the way we found ourselves very near to Shenggong street, a walking district which now hosts trendy craft shops and liberal arts students with old fashioned cameras and asymmetrical haircuts. Here we found a lovely restaurant/bar/cafe/shop thing, run by a young Burmese couple. First of all, the shop was called Do Right Coffee and Green Kitchen, which sounded like a win right off the bat. The style of the shop was casual and homey, with the cafe and bar in the front, and if you are looking for food you simply go to the kitchen at the back, see what the chef is cooking and choose what you want. All the food is vegan, and there is a fridge of eco-friendly craft beers from around the world, as well as a really interesting menu of coffees and teas. We did eventually get to the night market too, which despite not being in a garden, was a surprisingly pleasant experience. Normally, I hate night markets because of the sheer volume of people in a confined space, but the Garden Night Market has multiple entrances and exits, wider pathways and loops around on itself a number of times, creating a good flow of people and preventing that claustrophobic feeling that other night markets have.

We may have over done the walking a little because the next day we both felt distinctly tired and just a little bit grouchy, but we had things to see! Outside of Anping, sight-seeing requires a little more effort as points of interest are much further apart, and the shuttle buses are a lot less helpful here! One of the main things to see in the Chihkan Tower, also known as Fort Provintia (yep, another fort. The Dutch settlers were a little obsessive). This fort was meant to connect this part of Tainan with the Anping district to strengthen Dutch influence in Taiwan, except that it was also captured by the Chinese settlers, and the story continues! The building is now a temple to the god of learning and is often visited by students about to write important exams.

The largest and more famous Grand Mazu Temple was closed for renovations, so we weren’t able to visit it, but this did give us more time to explore another walking district where we tried Thai milk tea (green tea with condensed milk, yum!), waited in a long queue outside a famous ice cream shop but eventually gave up, and bought some cute Studio Ghibli figures. From here, we visited the Blueprint Culture and Creative Park, a small stretch of old street which has been closed off and turned into a very pretty boutique shopping district, with striking murals on the walls, and a cool mix of modern  art and old architecture.

Our final stop, before our legs gave out, was the Tainan Confucian Temple, the oldest temple to Confucius in Taiwan. It’s one of the most famous temples in Taiwan too, and is right next door to a former martial arts academy built during Japanese occupation, which is now not open to the public, but still very beautiful to look at.

Although Tainan was not the most convenient city to visit, it was definitely worth it. If you are a history buff like Brendan, Anping is like Christmas town, and if you can get the hang of the buses, or don’t mind spending the money on taxis, Tainan itself is a lovely city to be in. It’s quieter than Taipei, but doesn’t have that massive, sprawling, overwhelming feeling of Kaoshiung. Also, the push to make English ubiquitous could make it a fantastic tourist location in the near future!

Sidequest to strawberries: Dahu Township

We have been surprisingly busy over the first two months of the New Year, and this is the first report back from our many missions around Taiwan. The early part of the year is a time full of events, most notably the Chinese New Year period. In amongst all of that, though, is a small side adventure we went on.

North of Taichung, in Miaoli county, is a strawberry farming hotspot that produces a bounty every year. The farms in the area grow strawberries that can get really big, and it’s a popular activity to go and pick your own. From what we’ve heard and read, the best time to go is considered to be February and March, and so we squeezed in a trip up that way before the chance slipped by.

Getting to Miaoli county is the easy part, with many trains heading up to Miaoli Station every day, we had our pick of local and express trains. From there, we needed a bus up to the rural Dahu township. The bus station is hard to miss, and with only a few bus routes from there it was much less difficult to get a bus than we’d anticipated. All it meant was waiting in the slightly windy bus terminal for ours to arrive, and then we were on our way up into the scenic mountains.

The township of Dahu is pretty small, with most of the activity happening at the Dahu Winelands Resort, marked out by an unmissably big strawberry statue. From there everything was strawberry themed. EVERYTHING. In the market and stores you can get strawberry and marshmellow skewers, strawberry pork sausages, strawberry wines, vodkas, and even whiskys. Even the trashcans are strawberry shaped.

Singing the Beatles, we made off to the strawberry fields that stretch (almost) forever outwards from the resort. The fields immediately surrounding the market were quite busy and already starting to look less fruitful, so we wandered around until we found a quieter farm. Each farm site has some baskets and scissors available, and we were directed to the fields to start collecting. Some fields are off limits, to prevent over-harvesting, but regardless of this we were able to harvest a lot of strawberries without getting in anyone’s way. You pay by weight at the end of your picking session, so it’s really up to you how heavily laden your basket should be by the end of the day.

After picking our berries and having them weighed, we wandered the market trying the various strawberry-related things on sale. The weather was windy and quite cold by Taiwan standards, so we gave the ice-cream a skip in favour of sampling the insides-warming strawberry whisky and wine.

One thing that I have to mention is the frustratingly inflexible Taiwanese market salesperson attitude to special offers. It doesn’t really seem to matter if you want or need to take the special offer. If there are three options, say strawberry wine, vodka, and whisky, and there is a specific combo special, you can stand on your head and yell that you don’t want the special offer, as that’s all you can get. Mainly, I think it is a language barrier problem. We talked in circles in the conversational equivalent of Sisyphus’s punishment.

Seller: “There is a special offer. You can take two of number 3 and one of number 2 for discount.”
Us: “But we only want one number 1, and one number 3.”
She thinks for a moment, considering our bizzare refusal of the generous deal.
Seller: “Ok, for you. There is a special offer. You can take two of number 3 and one of number 2 for discount.”
Us: “But we don’t want the vodka. We want the whisky and the wine. Number 3 and number 1 only.”
She ponders again, placing a hand first on the wine, then the whisky.
Seller
: “Ok.” She pauses. “There is a special offer. You can take two of number 3 and one of number 2 for discount.”

After an eternity, the sun seeming to set, rise, and start setting again, we wound up paying and leaving, with two of number 3, one of number 2, and not even one bottle of strawberry wine. Whether they had run out, and only had the display taster bottle left is a mystery our Chinese skills can never solve.

Compass Festival 2016

Last weekend we headed back to Taichung to visit the Compass International Food and Music Festival (or Compass Fest). We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but as it only happens once a year, we thought it was the kind of opportunity you shouldn’t waste.

It was hosted in a public park area called Calligraphy Greenway; a really pretty stretch of grass, partly sandwiched between enormous office blocks and busy main roads. On this day, it was all set up with red and white striped tents, filled with food from all over the world. Just from memory, I recall seeing German food, Russian food, Indian food, Mexican food, and even a good old boerewors roll stand! There was also ice cream, candied popcorn, jewellery, clothing, beer, crafts, wine, champagne, sangria, and any other drink you could imagine for sale. There was also a magician, and a couple of buskers to watch in between browsing stalls, and eating food.

To be honest, the music was not particularly amazing. One of the acts was apparently quite famous among the ex-pat crowd, but we were not especially blown away. But as we were there quite early we probably only saw the openers, and the later bands may have been much better! There was certainly a long line up of performers, with a great mix of foreign and local groups. However, the food was great and it was lovely to do something different for the day.