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!

Daytrippers #4: Sun Moon Lake

Yesterday we finally got a chance to get way out of Changhua! We took a drive with some Taiwanese friends up to Nantou county’s famous landmark, Sun Moon Lake. About and hour and a half out of Changhua we passed the green covered mountains of Nantou and followed along a striking river until we reached the lake.

To our South African eyes such a huge natural body of water was really amazing – nearly eight square kilometers of water is not something we see much of in our arid home country!  The lake is a popular spot for sightseeing, and it’s not hard to see why.

We arrived just after lunch time on a grey day, but the weather had done little to deter the cyclists and sightseers who, like us, were looking to grab a boat and see what the lake has to offer. With our arms stamped to show our day pass for the ferries, we waited for the first boat out from the wooden wharves. The ferries all had a tour guide who gave details in Chinese, and our friends translated a few bits of what was being said for us.

The lake’s area is home to the Thao aboriginal people, and many of the shops, statues, and murals around the lake tell the story of its original discovery, as Thao hunters were led to the lake while hunting a white deer. In the middle of the lake there is a tiny island with a statue in honour of this story. In fact, all around the lake there are bits of history and culture, with a statue of the lake’s guardian goddess looking over it from high on a hill, and a number of temples on the lake’s shores.

Our first stop was to get a quick snack, in the form of some famous tea eggs, after our first ferry ride. Snacks in hand we were about to start exploring when a sudden downpour chased everyone under the limited cover for a few minutes. Hoping to get umbrellas in the market, and feeling a bit washed out, we took the gap in the rain to head back for the next ferry. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones with that idea and the ferry was full, leaving us waiting at the front of the queue for the next one. A second downpour caught us completely in the open, but we were saved from a soaking by  classic Taiwanese hospitality. All along the wharf, those with umbrellas offered some cover to the rest, and a kind couple helped the four of us huddle up under one of their umbrellas until the next ferry.

No discussion of any sightseeing in Taiwan is complete without talking about food. Our second stop on the trip was the street market, where we were given samples to try of all sorts of food. Following the repeated advice about Taiwanese food and long queues, we joined a wait to try the area’s famous black tea stall, and it was definitely worth the wait (although I skipped on some of it to get umbrellas in case of another downpour). We also tried sticky rice on bamboo, one with honey glazing and the other coated with salt. Both options were delicious and the perfect snack for wandering the market.

As night fell we decided to head home, leaving both of us wanting to come back and do a more thorough exploration of all that the beautiful lake has to offer, and to try out more of the food at the market!

Daytrippers #2 & 3: Taichung

We’ve been crazy busy lately, so the blog has been very quiet, but we’re finally back with a long a post about our adventure in Taichung. For context: Taichung is the third biggest city in Taiwan, and the nearest big city to Changhua (about 15 minutes by train). It’s also an easy place to get around because the BRT (bus rapid transit) is free if you have an Easy Card, and a lot of people speak pretty good English there. For Moon Festival, the celebration of the harvest moon, everyone got a 4-day weekend. We had originally planned to spend one day in Taichung, but we ended up going back the next day just to finish looking at the Natural Science Museum and botanical gardens.

(As a side note, due to camera troubles most of our photos were taken with our phones and will probably look pretty rubbish on a big screen. Apologies in advance!)

Our first day started with our usual Chinese lesson, at Taichung Station at 9am, where our teacher helped us plan our day – which buses to catch and from where, what order to do things in, and where to find a good place to eat. Lunch was our first priority after our lesson, so we headed to Yizhong St, street food central. The whole road is lined with wall-to-wall food and drink stalls of every description, interspersed with things like shoe shops and toy shops. Some food stalls were quite traditional, selling stinky tofu (which we have yet to pluck up the courage to try), fried rice, and dumplings. Others sold toasted sandwiches, hotdogs, ice-cream bread rolls and shrimp balls. After a bit of wandering we decided on jacket potatoes stuffed with broccoli and cheese sauce, and raspberry and lemon tea, and set off for Taichung Park to eat it.

Taichung Park is beautiful. Despite being surrounded by skyscrapers and busy roads, the park grounds are big and green enough that you can almost forget you are in a city. The park was created during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and it’s one of the oldest in Taiwan. It is also famous for the Lake Heart Pavilion, which was built in honour of the Japanese Prince’s visit to Taichung in 1908. The pavilion sits in the middle of a man-made lake filled with ducks, geese, ENORMOUS koi, and dozens of terrapins, all of which will fight over any snacks thrown into the water. The park also has a number of pretty little pagodas and interesting sculptures, like a giant mirrored goat, built in 2014 (a goat year in the Chinese zodiac). There are also squirrels which are fairly tame and will take food out of your hands, despite the signs saying “do not feed the wildlife”. The wildlife clearly has other ideas!

Our next stop was the Natural Science Museum. The museum has constant displays on evolution, dinosaurs, human development and the body, Chinese and Taiwanese culture, and global environments – the standard museum fare. There is a big focus on interactive displays, even if it’s just pressing a button to illuminate points on a map, which makes the museum good fun. For the most part there are English info boards for everything, but some areas, like the Chinese culture hall, have none at all. Even so, the displays are very interesting, and if you know anything at all about other human cultures it’s fairly easy to work out that this is a traditional cutting tool, and that’s some kind of idol. The dinosaur exhibit is a particular highlight because of the excellent animatronics, and the section on Taiwanese aboriginal people is very interesting and contains some beautiful dioramas.

When we were there, the museum had a special exhibit on the human brain. It was excellently put together, with areas explaining the structure of the brain, the function of the brain, how the brain interprets sensory cues to make sense of the world, brain disease, social behaviours, and learning. Again, it was all very interactive, with displays on optical illusions and chambers to test your hearing and eyesight, among other things. The info boards suggest that there is almost always a special display of some kind, but didn’t say how frequently they change over.

The museum is on the same grounds as the Space Centre and the botanical garden, so naturally we went to check those out too. The Space Centre was not quite as impressive as the museum. The first floor probably would have been very interesting if we understood Chinese, but it was all about semiconductors and their use in solar energy. The second floor was dedicated to the celestial bodies: sun, moon, stars and planets. We watched a video about the destruction of Mars’s atmosphere, read about moon cycles, compared relative gravity of the moon, Earth and Jupiter, and learnt about how the stars have changed position since the Greek Zodiac was created. Unfortunately the third and fourth floor exhibits were under construction at the time, so we didn’t get to see what they had to offer. While the Space Centre is dwarfed by the museum next door, it is good fun and has some really interesting facts to offer, and it only adds NT$20 (R10) onto your ticket price.

The botanical garden was our last stop for the day. Contrary to what you’d expect, the major part of the garden is in a massive modern green house. But it isn’t so much a garden, as a well manicured tropical forest, complete with a man-made waterfall, part of which falls from the roof of the building. The whole thing is beautiful and lush and very peaceful as you are shut off from the noise outside. At the bottom of the garden is an aquarium full of the scariest fish I have ever seen, next to a cafe and a very nice gift shop. The garden is not particularly large, but we spent about 15 minutes walking around, stopping to look at flowers or watch the water falling from the roof. There are a few benches where you can stop and rest your feet too. It’s a lovely escape from the city, and if you enjoy nature and greenery, it is also only an extra NT$20.

You could probably do everything we did in one day if you got an early start, but we specifically didn’t want to rush through anything and with the luxury of a long weekend we were under very little pressure. Taichung is a lovely city, with corridors of trees alongside some of the roads, and modern sculptures dotted around. There are also many restaurants and cafes, of multiple nationalities, ranging from Indian and Mexican, through various east Asian cuisines, to McDonald’s and Starbucks if you’re craving something familiar. We even stopped in for some Haagen-Dazs ice-cream while we waited for the bus. It’s also so easy to get to from Changhua, and easy to get around, so you can have the convenience of big city life, without having to live in a big city! Suits me just fine!

Markets

Like many Asian countries, street markets are a big part of Taiwanese life. While you can buy all your food from a grocery store on any day of the week, the markets are a cornucopia of variety: fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, meat, bedding, clothes, shoes and underwear, as well as street food stalls, tea shops and snacks like nuts and dried fruit.

In Changhua, there are two notable markets that we have encountered (so far). The morning market on Changshou St (and surrounds) is particularly good for fresh produce. It suffers from being on the street and so vehicle traffic competes with pedestrian traffic, making it a bit difficult and dangerous to navigate, but the sprawling lines of stalls and stands means you can virtually never see the whole market. Prices are generally excellent, but we’ve found that smaller stalls will give you a much better deal than larger stalls, because they value their reputation and customer relationships more. However, “tourist prices” can be a problem, so we try to only shop at stall where the prices are clearly displayed. Learning to understand numbers in Chinese has been helpful too, as people will generally warm to you quite quickly if you have even a smattering of Chinese! Haggling is an acceptable practice at markets, but it requires a level of confidence neither of us has in English, let alone Chinese. Complimenting a store keeper on a good price is also a good thing to do, but it can take a while to work out what a “good price” is.

The Night Market on Yong’an St is even listen on Google Maps as a point of interest. This market is more like a fair in many ways.There are carnival style games where you can win prizes, stalls selling cheap electronics and factory shop clothes and even pop-up pet shops. Most of the food stalls sell snack food or ready made meals, ranging from sushi, to sweet potato chips, to western style braised steak. We are slightly cautious here, because there are a number of stalls selling traditional dishes such as offal and blood sausages, and it’s not always immediately obvious what anything is. If you don’t like crowded places, then the Night Market is not ideal because you are obliged to move with the flow of people, unless you are stopping to buy. There is very little space for standing around if you are indecisive, and all of the seating area seems to belong to specific stalls, so if you aren’t eating their food you don’t seem to be able to sit there. The stall owners are very friendly on the whole and will try to explain their products to you as best as possible, and if you are confused of indecisive they often see it as their own fault. Again, you can haggle prices, but the market is quite loud, so it can be difficult to hear. Once you get familiar with the market it becomes easy to get a routine going, because the stalls are fairly consistent week-after-week, so if you are going to be in Changhua for a while, it can become a real feature of your Thursday nights!