Thursday, March 31, 2016

Gourmet burgers with Taiwanese characteristics

I'm not a food blogger, and many international visitors to Taiwan tell me they want to try as many local dishes and delicacies as possible. So why am I writing about burgers served in a swanky hotel? Because W Taipei has put a fresh and distinctly Taiwanese spin on this Western staple: The hotel's Woobar and kitchen table (no part of the latter restaurant's name is capitalized, it seems) now offer what they call a DIY Burgerand among the protein options are local pulled black pork, three-cup chicken, and stinky tofu. 
As someone who adores the deep-fried, crunchy variant of stinky tofu, I felt compelled to go for the soy option. When this arrived at my table – in a charcoal bun, topped with coleslaw, bacon, a Portabella mushroom, and Swiss cheese – the first surprise was the smell. There wasn't any. Usually when I eat stinky tofu, I'm surrounded by what I regard as a mouth-watering bouquet even before I take a seat. (Non-fans might describe it as a nauseating stench.) This is because, in a night market, the tofu is fried or stewed in full view. W Taipei's burgers are, of course, cooked and plated in a kitchen the other side of at least one door. That said, as soon as I cut into the burger, I could detect the familiar aroma. For some stinky-tofu addicts, the flavour might not be strong enough, but I enjoyed both the mild taste and the crumbly texture. 

I dug out the toppings and tried each in isolation. The slaw was especially good. If I go back, I'll likely try kim chi; in Taiwanese night markets, stinky tofu is often served with zesty pickled cabbage. And rather than beer-battered onion rings, I'd go for a salad on the side. There are too many options to list all of them here: Eight proteins, 20 toppings (you can choose up to three), eight cheeses, seven types of bun, 14 different sauces, nine side dishes, plus a few other options (notably pan-seared rouge duck foie gras) for which you need to pay extra. The basic set is NTD385 plus 10% service charge; this includes a soft drink. 

W Taipei is within walking distance of Taipei City Hall MRT Station on the Blue Line, and thus in the same part of the capital as Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and Songshan Cultural and Creative Park.  

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Two wheels are often better than four

There are at least four reasons for Taiwan's bicycling renaissance. Firstly, now that two-day weekends are the norm, Taiwanese have more free time than ever before. Secondly, as in other parts of the world where eating well and being sedentary is the default lifestyle, many citizens are concerned about their waistlines. 

The third reason is that good, affordable bicycles for all demographics are available. Taiwan has long been a major manufacturer of bicycles. In recent years, as labour and other costs have risen, local bike makers like Giant and Merida have moved up market. Their efforts to produce high-quality bicycles and bike accessories have met with great success. In 2014, Taiwan exported almost US$2.8 billion worth of complete bikes and bicycle components. 
Finally, the government has done its bit. The authorities pro-bicycle initiatives have come in for some criticism, but at least taking bikes on trains is now easier. In both Taipei and Kaohsiung, bike enthusiasts can take their 'iron horses' (鐵馬, which is how many Taiwanese refer to their bicycles) on certain MRT trains, opening up those metropolises and their hinterlands for exploration. Assisting cyclists with tea and drinking water, as well as directions, has been added to the police’s duties. 

International interest in Taiwan as a cycling destination has been building, thanks to magazine articles, TV reports, and at least one movie.  The 2014 romance Nanpu (Riding the Breeze has inspired some moviegoers to bike around Tamsui, Jiufen, and other places featured in this Taiwanese-Japanese co-production. 

Anyone touring Taiwan during the summer is likely to run into clusters of cyclists going all the way around the island. The total distance depends on the precise route, but is often over 1,200km. Huandao (環島, 'round the island') bike journeys have become both a rite of passage and an expression of Taiwanese identity. While it's possible to camp in many places, some riders prefer to travel light, carrying nothing other than a change of clothing and money to buy accommodation and food. 

Bike-rental businesses are boon for both foreign tourists and Taiwanese. Giant Bicycles’ rental operation can supply bikes and other items suitable even for tall Westerners; these can be collected at one location and returned at another - perfect for those on short visits to Taiwan who wish to bike from, say, Hualien to Taitung. 

Both cities face the Pacific Ocean in Taiwan’s unspoiled east, and nowhere are the often-quoted words of Giant’s founder, King Liu (劉金標) - 'Driving is too fast. Walking is too slow. Riding is the best way to enjoy the most beautiful scenes of life' - more apt. Liu, who was born in 1934, still cycles every day.

It's just about possible for a fit, dedicated cyclist to see both coastal and high-altitude marvels in a single day. The distance from Dapeng Bay on the southwest coast to Wutai, a stunningly scenic township deep in the mountains, is just 65km, but involves ascending to 1,000m above sea level. Even steeper climbs exist: Taiwan's toughest bike challenge is undoubtedly the 'King of the Mountains' route, from the shores of the Pacific to an altitude of 3,275m within Taroko National Park (where the photo above was taken; its from Wikimedia Commons). This webpage has a detailed description of the ups and downs of the 105km-long KOM route; it's a regular highway and thus open to cyclists every day of the year, unless there's a blockage caused by a landslide

Experienced bikers say that, before starting any long downhill sections, it's a good idea to lower saddle, to reduce the risk of going over the handlebars in the event of a sudden stop. And it goes without saying that cyclists should always wear helmets - Taiwan's roads, unfortunately, aren't as safe as the Netherlands'. In the countryside, aggressive dogs are sometimes a problem.

If this talk of high mountains and long distances is off putting, be reassured that one needn't be an Olympic-level athlete to enjoy cycling in Taiwan. There are plenty of family-friendly bicycle trails suitable for those who haven't been on a bike since childhood. Two of the most attractive are in Greater Taichung; known as the Houfeng and Dongfeng bike paths, they can be completed in a single day.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Avoiding crowds when touring Taiwan

Over at, my friend Ralph Jennings gives some sound advice for places (and categories of places) visitors to Taiwan should avoid if they dislike crowds, going beyond the obvious duo of night markets and temple festivals. He’s right in saying that around Yongkang Street (a foodie neighbourhood that’s become so popular the authorities have begun deleting any mention of it from official guides) and Taipei Main Station, there are always huge numbers of people, and finding a spot to sit down and have a relaxing coffee isn't easy. However, if you head into the capital’s backstreets, it isn’t difficult to find cafes where you can enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. Digital nomads are good at sniffing out such places.

I’ve never been to Yangmingshan National Park during flower season or when the cherry blossoms are out, and I’ve no intention of going. At weekends and on public holidays, the traffic in and out - not to mention the queues for buses and the lack of seats once you’re one - is bad enough. Yet in the middle of the week, the park is wonderful; get a copy of Richard Saunders’ book if you plan to do any serious exploring. 

I’m not the only person who believes the allure of Kenting National Park is often overstated. The beaches aren’t that great, and the accommodation is overpriced. Go to Taitung, or the indigenous communities in the mountains of Pingtung, instead.
Number four on his list is the Danshui boardwalk on weekend afternoons. In my opinion, Danshui’s history always makes it worth visiting, and it’s near enough to Taipei you can leave the moment you feel bored. It’s not even necessary to return to the capital the way you came. If time allows, you can set off on a loop around the north coast, as I explain in this article.

Jennings finishes up with a warning anyone thinking of going to Taitung or Hualien should heed. Between Friday afternoon and late Sunday night, eastbound trains are often booked solid. To get tickets, try at least a week in advance. Go midweek if you can, because both the Kaohsiung-Taitung and Taipei-Hualien railroads provide varied and always interesting views.

Among places I’d add to the list: The Pingxi Branch Railway during the summer; the old heart of Anping on sunny weekends; and pretty much everywhere during the Lunar New Year holidays.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Praying for Fertility: The Baogong Stone

Dajia (大甲), now part of Greater Taichung, is synonymous with the cult of Mazu, the sea goddess revered by the Fujianese migrants who arrived in this region in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their principal house of worship is Jenn Lann Temple, founded in 1732. 

Of course, humans were living in Dajia long before those settlers arrived. It's said the toponym Dajia derives from the name of the lowland aboriginal tribe that once dominated the area, the Taokas (道卡斯). Like Taiwan’s other indigenous groups, the Taokas were of Austronesian origin and spoke a language very different to Mandarin or Taiwanese, but somewhat similar to the Maori tongues of New Zealand. As a distinct tribe, they disappeared long ago, but some of their culture lives on in certain local traditions. 

One location where the influence of aboriginal beliefs on local religious practices is still apparent is on the outskirts of Dajia, in Waipu District’s Xincuo (外埔區新厝). There, childless couples hoping for a baby pray to a 30cm-high rock known as the Baogong Stone (包公石). This object of veneration has a crudely phallic appearance, but - if you look closely- you’ll notice what could be eyes and other facial features. 

Until 2010, the stone was kept in a land-god shrine. Because its apparent ability to cure infertility was drawing a lot of media coverage, there were fears it could be stolen. (From time to time, efficacious icons are snatched from Taiwanese temples.) It was thus moved to its current location, the front room of a private home in the neighbourhood. The family who look after the stone keep a list of couples who report pregnancies after coming here, and the stone is credited with three or four successes per month. 

Taiwan's birthrate is no longer the lowest in the world, but it remains well below replacement level. 

A couple's chances of conceiving are greater, it's claimed, if both visit and pray to the Baogong Stone. If only one can attend, he or she should bring some of his/her spouse's clothing, and rub the garments on the stone's tip. When telling a friend about this place, he asked: "Would rubbing underwear against the stone work better than, say, a sweater?"

It's a good question, and I wish I knew the answer.