From my quarantine hotel room, I could see the 捷運(Taipei metro), the busy neighborhood basketball court, and the distant mountain temples, which I tried to capture in my unfinished sketch. This view from the 18th floor of Aloft Beitou became very familiar to me during these 8 days. Since I couldn’t experience Taiwan at all, the only thing that made me feel like I was on the other side of the world was the constant rain. This is because summer in Taipei is 季風(monsoon season). During my taxi ride out of quarantine, I asked the taxi driver when it would stop raining so much, and he had responded, “it only rains May, June, July, and August” — conveniently naming the only four months that I will be here this summer.
Located in Taipei on the border between 松山 (Songshan) and 中山 (Zhongshan) district, our apartment came fully furnished with 2 bedrooms, 2 full bathrooms, and a kitchen. During the morning and noon-time, there are vendors nearby that sell a variety of fresh produce and street food. Compared to other CET students, we live in a more residential and suburban area, but anything that you could want is within a 5-10 minute walk: metro/bus station, convenience store, boba, grocery store, park, bakery, etc.
My suitemates and I visited Taipei 101, Taiwan’s tallest skyscraper (top left in the photo). Inside, we had dinner with other CET friends at 鼎泰豐 (din tai feng), a famous Taiwanese restaurant chain known for its Michelin-star rated 小籠包 (xiao long bao) and it definitely did not disappoint. The area surrounding Taipei 101 is also a very modern shopping district (resembling Times Square), with largely western-based brands and luxury stores. Everything is definitely overpriced, but I did try a very delicious 黑芝麻糊(black sesame dessert soup). On Sunday, my suitemate and I also visited the church located on the 4th floor of Taipei 101.
I was surprised to find how large 台大 (NTU’s campus) is, given that it is in the center of a city. There are wide streets lined with palm trees, rows of tennis/volleyball/basketball courts, and people of all ages walking around campus. On our commute to the NTU Chinese Language Department, we passed by 醉月湖 (drunken moon lake), which is home to many species of birds and blooming lilies. I learned that 醉月湖 was formerly severely polluted and unsuitable for aquatic life, and it was revived by NTU’s biomanipulation project lasting from 2011 – 2019. NTU is also close to a shopping district and 公館夜市 (Gongguan night market), which I visited for a 手抓餅 (pancake) and waited in line for 10 minutes for 炸地瓜球 (fried sweet potato balls). Both were extremely affordable (70 NTD total / less than 3 USD) and very delicious.
Without a doubt, the best part of Taiwan’s summer is fresh, juicy, sweet, flavorful, and yummy tropical fruit. Mangoes of multiple varieties, java apples, lychee, melon, papaya, and guava are all to die for. While food is so much more affordable in Taipei, I’ve found that the price of fruit is similar to that in the US, although slightly cheaper. At the same time, the quality of fruit is so much better in Taipei that it is still worth the price. I’m really excited to try buddha’s head/sugar apple, starfruit, and passion fruit. Most grocery stores sell fruit, and it’s easy to find street vendors in the city that do for cheaper. On our way to the metro station, there is a street vendor that sells whole 榴蓮 (durians). I haven’t had the courage to try one yet, but if you want to try durian, it won’t be hard to find— you can smell it from half a block away.
Late at night, aside from street food and bubble tea vendors, there are also arcades in shopping districts. These small stalls are filled with cute, themed claw machines and pinball games. Luckily, it’s hard to spend that much money since it costs only 10 NTD / 0.35 USD to play either game. By the end of a few rounds of the 彈珠機 (Taiwanese pinball machines), we still hadn’t figured out the rules of the dinosaur pinball, but we were arcade-rich. My Mandarin teacher had told us that these machines were quite in style when she was younger.
After class on a rainy day, we visited the 中正紀念堂 (Chiang Kai-shek Memorial). I was curious to learn about the Taiwanese perception of this controversial leader in history, but unfortunately, most of the exhibit was in Chinese with little or no English translations. Despite not being able to understand most of the exhibit, I did surprisingly find honest information about the uglier sides of Chiang Kai-shek’s reign, including his cruel use of the death penalty. We also had an entertaining time learning about Chiang Kai-shek’s love life— especially Soong Mei-ling, who lived an incredibly interesting life. The memorial building serves a multi-purpose function as it houses multiple art exhibits, ranging from the local elementary school children’s art to Chinese-calligraphy-inspired modern ink art. I’ve also been told that people hold protests at the memorial square, a fitting use given its cultural and historical significance.
On another day after class, we hiked 象山 (elephant mountain). Since it was a Thursday afternoon, the trail was mostly empty, with local grandpas sprinting up the mountain faster than we could walk up it. It’s also located at the end of the red metro line and incredibly easy to commute to. After our hike, we had Taipei’s most famous 金峰魯肉飯 (Jin Feng Lu Rou Fan), which is restaurant famous for its braised pork and it was possibly the most satisfying meal I’ve had since coming here. I also had a 鳳梨酥 (pineapple cake) from 一之軒 bakery, which I actually thought was better than the famous Chia Te 鳳梨酥— it was more tart and dense in the filling, with a better filling to pastry ratio. I’d have to try again to confirm that thought though.
On Saturday, my friends and I took a day trip to 九份 (Jiufen), a popular tourist seaside-town nestled in the mountains. We wandered around in 九份老街 (Jiufen old street), overwhelmed by the many cute souvenir shops and 小吃 (street food) options. Being the tourists that we were, we visited 阿妹茶樓 (A-Mei Tea House). 阿妹茶樓 is famous for its kung fu tea and Japanese-style architecture rumored to be the inspiration behind Spirited Away. Along with our Oolong tea (which we learned how to brew ourselves), we had green bean cake, brown sugar mochi, preserved plum, and sesame crackers.
After tea, we went back to 九份老街, getting a bite from every stall. Since 九分 is a tourist destination, almost every stall featured a traditional Taiwanese dish or snack. We tried 郵局前油蔥粿 , 芋圓， 魚丸湯, and more. One of my favorites was the 花生捲冰淇淋 (peanut ice cream roll). Once you order it, the vendor uses a knife scrape a large cube of candied peanuts, creating crunchy peanut shavings. The ice cream itself is taro flavored, like shaved ice in texture. The vendor then wraps the taro ice cream, fresh cilantro, and candied peanuts in a 潤餅皮 (thin wrapper) — a perfect combination.