Notes from Taipei, Taiwan

Monday, October 1, 2018 Taipei, Taiwan

Over the summer, I found myself flying to Taipei from China for a short four day trip since one of my closest college friends, Karen, was also visiting to Taiwan around the same time. It was a chance to catch up and explore another city together since a lot of our adventures revolve around food so it was only natural that our Taipei trip centered on food.

Inside of Taipei 101

Get in my belly: 

Xiao Long Bao at Ding Tai Fung
I once walked through a blizzard in the dead of January winter with Karen to get some xiao long bao (soup dumplings) so my dedication to XLB is real. I went to the well-known Ding Tai Fung in Taipei to get some xiao long bao. Although there are Ding Tai Fung branches in the US, I've heard that the Taipei one is still the best.  The folds in Ding Tai Fun xiao long bad are intricate and the soup was so fresh tasting. I miss them. 

Fan tuan (rice balls): In college, the Taiwanese student club used to have these Taiwanese rice ball making events and I’d go with Karen. I’d always end up with a malformed (but delicious) rice ball that she’d laugh at (for the record, I still make malformed rice balls). Taipei has a ton of places that make fan tuan in front of you and they're cheap. I love fan tuan with soy milk (not the American Silk kind, the Asian kind that tastes bean-y) in the mornings. There are so many different variations of fan tuan but my favorite is pork chop with you tiao and egg.

Jiufen: Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away in Real Life

Jiufen is a mountainous region that’s an hour’s bus ride from Taipei and it’s the real-life inspiration for the movie Miyazaki's Spirited Away. Narrow shops selling food and knicknacks line a path that goes up into the mountains. I had some Taiwanese foods including ba-wan (a translucent dumpling with a savory meat filling), fresh fish balls and lots of iced drinks to deal with the oppressive summer heat. It’s a really unique place to go to, especially if you’re a Miyazaki fan. There are endless stalls integrated on the mountain with beautiful views of the sea. There are so many different stalls selling handmade goods and I bought cute socks and nut snacks as gifts. There's a bus that goes to Jiufen (Route 1062; Keelung)  from Taipei with fare that's less than $5USD (can be paid with EasyCard) at the time of this writing. There are people who ask tourists if they want to take a private car over but it's cheaper and probably less shady to just take the bus. 

Fried Squid: Ximending + Night Markets 
One of my earlier memories of Karen after meeting her is that we were in the mailroom building trying to work on a biology lab but we somehow ended up talking about how great fried squid is and it was in that moment that I knew she was a quality person. Food is how we bonded and continue to bond. Ximending was then put onto the map and we were there the night that I landed in Taipei. Fried squid is truly the best (grilled squid is also really good). We also went to a night market on another day and surprise, I got some more squid. Night markets are a must though I can’t say stinky tofu is! I really am not a fan of the smell. Mango shaved ice is also a must and Smoothie House in Taipei (featured on CNN) does it well. The mango is fresh, juicy and sweet.


Traditional Chinese versus Simplified:
I learned simplified Chinese in Chinese school and sometimes I can do some educated guessing with traditional characters when I do recognize characters but generally, I prefer to get by with English. I was on the bus from the Taoyuan Taipei airport heading towards Songshan airport so we could take the MRT trains when I asked Karen what character 車 was. She told me it was “che” and  I responded with, “What? Car? That’s not how it looks in simplified. It's like 车”, digging out my phone and writing it.  Chinese is confusing and sometimes I can't tell if I know the character or if it just looks different in traditional Chinese.

MRT: Taipei’s metro system is super convenient, clean and orderly. People are lined up neatly on the escalators and the waiting area behind the barriers at the station in neat lines. My friend got me an EasyCard (think MetroCard that activates by tapping to the sensor) that I topped off every time it needed to be filled. It was also great because it comes with a ticket discount.  I appreciated the English announcements and the signage in the stations too because my Chinese, especially traditional Chinese, is rusty.

A quick note on expenses and easy ways to save money:
-Stay with friends and use public transit: I stayed with Karen’s family who have an apartment in Taipei (Thanks, Karen!)  and we traveled by bus/MRT.  Get an EasyCard to save on public transit tickets plus it's super convenient.
-Combine trips in the area: I was already in China so I booked a direct flight to Taipei after using SkyScanner. For this trip specifically, it was worth it to do a direct flight instead of having layovers that were 5+ hours apart and at inconvenient times. Taiwan has 90-day visa free agreement with the US so that was really convenient since I had one less paperwork to do.
-Check your cell phone plan before you go abroad: I was also able to use my T-Mobile plan abroad (it comes with included free data/text in most foreign countries), so I didn't have to deal with figuring out foreign travel plan. However, a lot of places in Taipei have free Wi-Fi including the metro system and often times the buses as well.

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