Sunday, 20 August 2017

spirited away in jiufen, and houtong cat village

Adorable cat loaf in the dreamy mountain town of Jiufen (九份).

For our last week in Taiwan, we found ourselves back in Taipei again. We spent most of our time exploring different parts of the city, but we set aside one special day for a combined trip to Jiufen mountain town and Houtong cat village, as these two tourist destinations are very close together.

Jiufen town.

There are entrenched rumours that Jiufen is the inspiration for the setting of the famous Japanese animation film Spirited Away, though Hayao Miyazaki himself has debunked this during an interview with Taiwanese media. Regardless of whether this real-life town has any influence on fictional Spirited Away, though, if you are familiar with the movie, it could be a fun exercise to see if you spot any resemblances!

A photo I took from the bus window of the route scenery leading up to Jiufen.

We took a bus up. This is a great way to get there, especially if you sit on the left hand side of the bus - as you get closer to Jiufen, the scenery is truly breathtaking at points. During those moments, sitting on a bus on a winding road and looking out the windows at mountains punctuated with mist, it really felt like we were about to enter into a magical world.

The winding roads of Jiufen.

After reaching our destination, we found our way to Jiufen Old Street area, which is very crowded and touristy. I think it would have been a more enchanting environment if it wasn't quite so busy, but eh, what can you do?

Still, in between squeezing our way around everyone else, we did stumble upon this delicious, interesting Taiwanese concoction - peanut ice cream roll! 

A delightful icy treat from the A-Zhu/A-Jou peanut ice cream roll stall (阿珠雪在燒) in Jiufen, 40 NTD.

This unusual street food dessert consists of a thin wrapper similar to a crepe or a spring roll skin, a layer of grated peanut brittle, two scoops of taro or pineapple ice cream, and most intriguingly, a sprinkling of coriander leaves. You can omit this last bit, but I found it to be a surprisingly pleasant element in this treat, so don't be afraid of how strange it may seem!

A scrumptious peanut ice cream roll with taro ice cream, peanut candy shavings, and - surprise! - cilantro/coriander leaves.

After eating the delicious ice cream roll, we escaped to more peaceful surroundings. A walk around the neighbourhood yielded cute discoveries such as the "Don't Want Work Studio", which sells handmade furniture, secondhand goods, and other stuff. It also offers accommodation.

I hear you, pal.

We met a cat. Actually, we met a few. Here's one of them!

A cat in Jiufen.

We didn't find a lot of things to do in Jiufen, so we ended up spending about one and a half hours here. Still, it is a lovely and charming place, and I am glad we went, even if it didn't occupy us for long!

More Jiufen views.

If I recall correctly, to get to our next destination, Houtong Cat Village, we caught a bus from Jiufen to Ruifang railway station, where we then caught a train to Houtong station. It's a short ride on both the bus and the train, about five minutes each.

Before we caught our train at Ruifang station, we had a decently tasty lunch at a little shop nearby. Not sure how to translate the name of the place, but basically something like "Crispy Ribs Noodles Fast Food Cart".

So, Simon had their eponymous crispy ribs noodle soup.

Crispy ribs noodle soup at 快餐車排骨酥麵 near the Ruifang train station (瑞芳火車站), 60 NTD.

I had the wonton soup.

Wonton soup (餛飩湯), 40 NTD.

Then we got on the train and it wasn't long before we arrived at Houtong Cat Village!

A cat sculpture at Houtong Cat Village (猴硐貓村).

One of the first things I saw upon arrival was this bakery shop.

Annie's Bakery (艾妮西點).

I wasn't hungry after just having had lunch, but I couldn't resist getting myself a cat-shaped pineapple cake. This black version has had charcoal powder added, you can get regular ones too. If you're not familiar with Taiwanese pineapple cakes, they're basically like cookies with a pineapple jam filling.

Taiwanese pineapple cake (猴硐貓咪鳳梨酥), charcoal cat version.

And then it was time for us to go full-blown cat-crazy mode!

Adorable tabby cat on a scooter!

And cats really are everywhere.

Cat on the rooftop... seeing double?

Is Houtong Cat Village touristy? Of course. But there are plenty of wide-open spaces, so it rarely feels crowded.

A fellow tourist taking pictures of cats at Houtong Cat Village.

And it is one of the nicest touristy places I've ever been to. It seems to me that tourists are even being particularly patient and pleasant than usual over here. It's like everyone is thinking... "We're all cat-lovers here so we're basically one big family! Yay cats! Love to everyone!!"

A sweet kitty chilling out.

Also, even though everyone comes here for the cats, Houtong village actually has very pretty scenery. What a bonus!

The scenery in Houtong Cat Village.

The cats seem oblivious to it, though.

Cat licking itself.

"Scenery? What scenery? Just shut up and pat me."

A rather distinguished-looking tuxedo cat.

While you're here, don't forget to look up, because cats love hanging out in high places...

A cat on top of a shop.

And you wouldn't want to miss out on these cute sightings...

Cat amongst mountains.

Would you?

This cat had the cutest face!

Watched out for the cat-themed art, too.

Cartoon cat railway master at Houtong Cat Village.

They're interspersed throughout the village...

A cat with a heart.

And they're cute and fun and colourful.

A cat mural.

Oh, yeah, and the architecture here can be quite interesting, too.

Little houses in Houtong Cat Village.

But at the end of the day, it's all about the cats.

An old cat having a siesta.

So there you go...

Doesn't this one just look so elegant?

We ended up spending about two hours at Houtong Cat Village just strolling around. It was wonderful, we were entertained by cat sightings the entire time, and it was easy to get up close and personal with many of them for pictures and pats, as you can see.

Cheeky cat.

Needless to say, our excursion to Jiufen and Houtong Cat Village was a roaring (or should I say purring?) success! If you like village settings and friendly cats, give this Taipei day trip idea a go!

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Monday, 31 July 2017

jiji line: a journey into old taiwan

Checheng (車埕) on a misty morning - our first stop on our Jiji line day trip (集集線一日遊).

One of the things that really stood out in Taiwan was the hospitality we experienced here. In Puli (埔里), our guesthouse is run by a husband-and-wife team. The husband has a day job aside from the guesthouse business, and he would drop us off at convenient spots on his way to work in the early mornings, to help give us a kick-start to our sight-seeing!

In fact, it is thanks to him that we even discovered the magic of the Jiji railway line (集集線) at all. After a day at Sun Moon Lake, we had another day free to do whatever we wanted, and he enthusiastically suggested that we should check out the little towns and villages along the Jiji line. "You'll get to see the Taiwan of 40 years ago," he said.

Not sure where this picture was taken... possibly either Yuanquan (源泉), Zhuoshui (濁水) or Longquan (龍泉).

As you may know, I am a nostalgic person at heart, and have a soft spot for the old-school stuff, so that totally sold me. I can say that I'm so happy we took his advice - our adventures exploring the gorgeous little rural townships along the Jiji line was one of the best bits of our Taiwan trip!

Also, during one of our train rides, we met two friendly Indonesian guys, who were picking betel nuts for a living. We had a nice chat with them, and shared a giggle about how scantily clad the betel nut beauties can be in Taiwan!

A couple of cats hanging out at Jiji Station (集集車站).

I have to admit that some of the places we visited kind of just blurred together for me. It takes some random luck, I think - I'm sure every town has their interesting aspects, but you don't always find them unless you know where to go!

A household/hardware shop in Shuili Township (水里鄉).

One place I do remember very well, however, is Ershui. We spent the most time there, and I certainly took more photos there than anywhere else that day.

Ershui Township (二水鄉) in Changhua County (彰化縣).

Here, you see charming little shops that really do look like they probably haven't changed much in several decades. I can't help but wonder if this old man has been running this business since he was a young chap. Imagine!

A traditional Chinese medicine shop in Ershui Township (二水鄉).

The look and feel of the architecture here totally brings me back to my childhood.

A sweet blue shop/house in Ershui.

Completely by accident, we stumbled upon this fabulously quaint residential area with the cutest, tiniest houses ever. Look how they're only a little bit taller than Simon! It was pure delight. If I didn't already adore Ershui before, I was definitely totally in love at this point.

The most adorable tiny houses in Ershui.

Then, after a few more twist and turns...

A cool alleyway.

We found this century-old soy sauce factory, which our guesthouse host had told us about. I was very pleased that we managed to track it down!

The old San Yi-Quan soy sauce shop (三義泉和德醬油店) in Ershui.

This soy sauce business has been running for at least three generations, and they still use the traditional method of fermenting the soy sauce in earthen vats under the warmth of the sun in the middle of their courtyard. This brewing process can take up to six months to complete. They only open one vat each month, and each vat yields about twenty bottles of soy sauce, so this is precious commodity. I would have loved to purchase a bottle while we were there, but alas, they didn't seem to be open that day. I was glad that we got a glimpse of their operations, at least!

Brewing/fermenting soy sauce the traditional way.

After our stroll around town, we stopped by a restaurant to grab some lunch.

We actually ate at the little shop on the side with the blue and white covers (阿明火燒麵隔壁的店).

The menu had items such as tofu soup for as cheap as 10 NTD, and the most expensive thing was still only 40 NTD for a century egg tofu dish.

The menu had cheap and cheerful fare.

Simon had the minced pork rice, which was not bad at all.

Minced pork rice (肉燥饭), 25 NTD.

And I was happy with my short rice noodle soup.

Short and thick rice noodles in a soup (米苔目), 25 NTD.

Without a question, our Jiji line expedition surpassed my expectations, and I couldn't have thought of a better way to spend a day - kudos to our guesthouse host for this wonderful recommendation! The charms of bygone eras are evident on this great little railway route - I truly felt like I'd gone back in time during this journey. So if you're ever in central Taiwan, seriously consider checking out the Jiji railway line and its stops - truly, there are hidden gems lying within worth uncovering.

Traversing the streets of Ershui.

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

a stay in puli; a day trip to sun moon lake

Views of Sun Moon Lake (日月潭).

After traversing the east coast and southwest coast of Taiwan, it was time to head to central Taiwan. The main draw there is the famous Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County, of course, and we decided to stay in the nearby Puli Township as a base for our sightseeing.

Dumplings from an unknown shop in Puli, Nantou ( 埔里鎮,南投縣).

We spent two days and three nights here, and we would spend our days outside of Puli - the first day visiting Sun Moon Lake, which I'll get to in a moment, and the second day exploring the Jiji Railway Line, a wonderfully charming escapade that I look forward to sharing with you in my next post.

Our nights are spent in Puli, and every night, without fail, we would get bubble tea from Mr. Wish. The drinks are delectable, and the staff there are so friendly. I don't think they get foreigners at their shop very often, as they seemed quite enthusiastic about Simon's presence.

We loved getting drinks from the Mr. Wish bubble tea shop in Puli.

It goes without saying that we visited the night market in Puli. It is here that we got a glimpse of a totally unexpected scene in these backwaters of Taiwan.

You get charming sights, such as children playing the magnetic rubber duck fishing game. Cute, tame, and innocent so far, right?

Innocent fun and games at Puli night market (埔里夜市).

And then... we couldn't believe our eyes when we saw this. I can only describe it as some kind of strange, medieval cruelty.

So, you know those claw machines where you put in a coin and try to grab a toy and drop it down a chute? Well, this is similar, but instead of a claw, players control a disk, which they use to try to scoop up an actual live fish from the water in the claustrophobic tank and plonk into the chute, thereby winning themselves a prize. The poor tormented fish are clearly distressed and I feel so bad for them - this is next level insane and disturbing stuff.

Last I heard, the Taiwanese media found out about this fishy arcade game and have reported it on the news with an appropriately disapproving tone. I can't find any further updates in regards to whether it has since been shut down or not, but you'd hope so! Or if they could covert the setup so that it uses fake toy fish instead, that would turn it from a horrible game to an agreeable one.

Catching live fish arcade game (撈活魚遊戲機).

But I do want to say that while this is an awful thing, it doesn't define Puli. There are many nice things about this town, and other than this crazy atrocity, the rest of the night market was perfectly pleasant, and we did our usual thing of walking around and purchasing whatever took our fancy.

A stall selling deep-fried mushrooms and tofu.

I've mentioned before that the Taiwanese love their deep-fried food, and here's another example of how they're very adept in this arena. That's a graceful little cluster of deep-fried mushrooms!

I think these are deep-fried golden oyster mushrooms / pleurotus citrinopileatus (珊瑚菇).

The deep-fried tofu is also fantastic. These are appetizing snacks for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, that's for sure!

Delicious deep-fried tofu.

And for the main course, sizzling noodles with steak and egg on a hot plate. So hearty, so satisfying.

Sizzling steak and egg and noodles.

For dessert, I stopped by this stall that sells douhua (soft tofu in sweet syrup) and tangyuan (glutinous rice balls in sweet syrup). It also offers aiyu jelly, tapioca pearls, red bean soup, and green bean soup.

Dessert stall. Yeah!

I opted for the sweet potato tangyuan, and it was really lovely. The tangyuan had a bouncy chewy texture and sweet gentle flavour. I liked it a lot.

A simple yet exquisite cold dessert of sweet potato tangyuan (冰地瓜湯圓) with beans, 35 NTD.

For one of the nights, we did the rare thing of venturing outside of the night market for dinner. We stumbled upon this steamboat or hotpot restaurant (called O God in English, though their website address is oldgod.com.tw), and figured we'd give it a go.

It was an enjoyable hands-on experience as we each get our own little pots to cook our selected menu items at our table.

This is the seafood hotpot, I think, though as you can see, other than the fish, clams and prawns on the side, it has other bits and bobs in it as well.

Hotpot exhibit one, from O God spicy hotpot restaurant (老先覺麻辣窯燒鍋).

And this, if I recall correctly, is the pork hotpot.

O God hotpot exhibit two.

And that's all for our time in Puli. Now we move on to our visit to Sun Moon Lake!

You can take the bus from Puli to Sun Moon Lake; it takes about 40 minutes to get there. Not too shabby!

The scenery here is indeed pretty.

The loveliness of Sun Moon Lake in full force here.

I will say that not all parts of Sun Moon Lake is as tranquil as it might appear in my photos. The fact is, this is a popular tourist destination, and you get tour buses offloading what can be overwhelming buckets of tourists at various points in the area.

However, all you have to do is take some initiative to get off the beaten track, and it's not too difficult to get away from the crowds at all if you want to.

A quiet aboriginal village in the Sun Moon Lake precinct.

We found our peaceful place in this sweet and sleepy little aboriginal village.

An older man relaxing outside his home.

And the best thing was, this adorable dog came up to us while we were taking a break on a bench in the village, so obviously we lavished him (her?) with loving attention and yeah, we gave a bit of our food as well. Look at that cute face! You just can't say no to a face like that. It's impossible.

How can you resist this doglet?

I can't remember where we saw this winsome cat sign, but anyway, I'm sharing it here.

Careful! Cat comes and goes. (小心! 貓出沒).

We eventually made our way back to a busier part of Sun Moon Lake, the street market area.

Thao's/Shao's Authentic Grilled Wild Boar Skewers  (邵族正宗烤山豬肉串), 1 stick for 35 NTD, 3 for 100 NTD.

When I saw this stall selling grilled wild boar skewers, I knew it was something I had to get. I have had wild boar only a few times in my life, it really is a treat. Here, the wild boar meat had been marinated in a sweet-savoury sauce, and the end result is a very tasty skewer.

A grilled wild boar kabob.

Sun Moon Lake is a picturesque attraction for sure. It didn't quite knock our socks off, but admittedly we didn't get there in time for sunrise, and we didn't stay for sunset, either. Moreover, while we hopped on the shuttle boat, we didn't take the cable car ride, which probably would have been quite awesome. It's also supposed to be good for cycling and hiking. Thus, there is definitely a lot of potential here that we didn't completely seize. So, for those of you who are curious about Sun Moon Lake, perhaps when you go, you can try out some of the activities we neglected - and I'd love to hear you report back on your experience!

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