Monday, January 02, 2012

Auld Acquaintance

A big reason that motivated me to come to Taiwan (because let's be honest, who goes to Taiwan?) was to see my friend Steve. We had met six years ago when I was travelling in western China and have stayed in touch ever since. One of the advantages, and also disadvantages, of a travelling life is that you end up having friends all over the world, however you rarely get to see them. Luckily with the wonders of the internet it is possible to easily keep in touch. But if I am at all close then I will certainly make the effort to meet up.

My view for New Year's Eve. Impeccable view of the fireworks from Taipei 101.

Taipei's main claim to fame is the Taipei101 skyscraper, which, at just over 500m, was the tallest building in the world for six years until it was superseded by the Burj Khalifa. (Funnily enough when I went to Kuala Lumpur back in 2005 I visited the Petronas Towers which had themselves just been dethroned by Taipei 101 as the tallest building in the world - it seems that I'm continually going after number 2 when it comes to tall buildings. As a further aside Taipei 101 is no longer going to be very special as there are currently nine buildings under construction, of which five in China, that will surpass it.) Thanks to Steve and some of his friends who happen to live close by, I got to see it in its best light as the epicentre of Taipei's New Year fireworks display.

Instead Taipei was, for me, as much a culinary voyage as anything else. With a local guide I was able to find, understand, and try a whole host of comestible concoctions that I would otherwise have unwittingly passed by. Every Taiwanese will insist you try stinky tofu. And although it is widely available on mainland China, here in Taiwan they like to claim it as their own. It certainly lives up to its name and even if you don't know what it looks like you will always be easily able to find the stalls selling it in any market. I can't say I was won over by the taste (much less the smell) although it is nowhere near as bad as you might expect. Nevertheless I preferred some of the more esoteric fare on offer. Admittedly shark is rather tasteless and needs a decent dipping sauce, but the oyster omelette, pork brain soup, hundred-year eggs and slightly alcoholic soup with sweet, sesame dumplings were all supremely scrumptious.

One of the odder delicacies on offer in Taipei: pork brain soup (even many Taiwanese I have spoken to have not tried it). Actually it is pretty good, with a subtle, creamy taste.

My eating done, I thought it better to expiate my sensory sins and head to Longshan temple, the city's main place of worship (luckily eastern religions don't really go in for sin and self-mortification). The difference between mainland China and Taiwan was most palpable here. The temple seems more alive, vibrant and welcoming and there was far more hustle and bustle than in any temple I had been to on the mainland, where they feel more like museum pieces or attractions. Here people were thronging the courtyards, waving incense sticks around, offering food oblations and burning sacrificial money. Just a great place to sit for a few hours and people-watch and perhaps take a few photographs without feeling self-conscious or intrusive.

I enjoy just sitting in a temple and watching all the people come and do their thing. Young and old, men and women, rich and poor; all come, either briefly to light a few joss sticks, quickly bow and be off again, or stay for a more lengthy bite of spirituality.

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