Friday, September 19, 2008

My First Tour...


At first I thought it was OK.

Then I though it wasn’t that great.

But it turned out FANTASTIC!


Day 1, Saturday 16 Aug

Arriving in Taoyuan Airport on the 16th of August at 3+pm, I was disappointed. Well, anyone would agree that if you’ve been to Singapore’s airport, the other airports that are not top 10 on the list would be a let down. So I’d have to say I wasn’t surprised.

The tour guide was waiting for us at the arrival gates so it wasn’t too hard spotting her. We waited for the others to arrive.

>> Dum di dum...

Once everyone was present, our 8 days tour of Taiwan started. We boarded the tour bus with large comfy seats and headed to our first stop – a Fruit Farm in Tao Yuan.

>> Our first sights of Taiwan

Unfortunately, most fruits weren’t in season, so we ended up visiting a tomato farm, which had a nice grocery shop selling Taiwan snacks. It was there I fell in love with tomato juice. I’ve never liked tomato juice from the carton…a very weird tomato sauce taste made into a drink…YUCK.

But this! This tomato juice was different. It was just like drinking pure tomatoes! It was heaven. You could taste the fresh tomatoes, feel the crushed seeds, and drink the sweetest juice ever! YUM!

>> Taiwan products galore...

We also walked the farm – tomato-less farm. They were not fruiting yet. But apart from tomatoes, there was some weird other fruits...bittergourd?? Not sure.

>>Ouch ouch ouch

>> Where's the toms?

>> Bittergourd vs Tomato Juice

After finishing that delicious tomato juice, we couldn’t resist buying the large tom toms (my lingo, aka cherry tomatoes).

>> Buying tom toms

We then proceeded to Taoyuan Night Market for dinner, where I experienced my first many things! My first night market experience was…interesting. Clothes shops mixed with food shops, smelly food beside yummy ones…

>> My First Night Market

I tried my first actual Taiwan sausage 香腸 in Taiwan. Not that I’ve never eaten a Taiwan sausage before, but I’ve never eaten the actual one in Taiwan. It was YUMMMMMM as I had anticipated.

>> Authentic...

It started raining so we bought our first Taiwan umbrella, and then we ran for shelter in a food stall. I wanted to try the famous stir-fried cuttlefish 生炒花枝 but it ended up coming in a weird tasting soup form. Everyone else (the locals) drank their soup till the bowl was empty, while we struggled swallowing the thick tasteless/ weird tasting soup. We thought their oyster omelette 蚵仔煎 would be YUM as everyone said it would be, but we found the weird pink sauce they drench over the omelette to be a little off-putting.

>> Totally weird with a capital H

We continued walking around in the slight drizzle, looking but not buying the clothes or shoes. Our aim was to eat. We bought fried chicken with mango mayo which was quite good (apart from the mango mayo as I’m not a fan of mayo in the first place). And we also ate some desserts…well EK bought 2 bowls, being ambitious, but it wasn’t really fantastic. He just wanted to try their bean curd with peanut soup and the other was jelly with bean curd. We didn’t finish it. Of course, EK bought his favourite yam milk tea. Technically I bought it for him, but I just assumed all Taiwan drinks came with pearls! Turned out his drink was without pearls. Oh well, he isn’t crazy over pearls so it was good. It was good he says. I bought a lemon honey drink (no pearls too – NEVER ASSUME), which turned out good too. Not fantastic, but good.

>> Chicken, no pearls...

And we didn’t let the stinky tofu 臭豆腐 off the hook. We had to give it a go…though I wish we didn’t. We bought it on our way out of the night market, and ate it at the assembly point as we waited for the others to gather at 7pm. I could hardly swallow my first bite! I had to gulp down almost the whole cup of my drink in order to swallow it. EK on the other hand managed to eat 2 of the 5 pieces of tofu before he threw the rest away! Well done to us!

>> It's not called stinky for nothing!

Next, we set off to Tashee Resort 大溪别馆 in Tao Yuan to spend our first night in Taiwan. It’s a 5 star resort, with many guest facilities, such as heated pools, spa, gym, games room, golf course, etc. That night, we got dressed in our bathing suit, but didn’t end up getting into the pools because we felt absolutely bloated. Instead, we explored the resort, visiting the gym to take a look at the facilities, followed by the arcade, and ended up sitting on a couch reading newspaper and eating this really milky ice cream. I only took a couple of licks while EK polished it off.

>> Relax and Indulge...

That marked our first day in Taiwan...

Day 2, Sunday 17 Aug

Bright and early, we ate our first breakfast in Taiwan. The resort prepared a good breakfast buffet spread for us, with Western and Asian choices.

>> Our first breakfast...

After breakfast, we took the opportunity to get a picture with our hotel and our tour bus, before returning to our rooms to prepare to check out.

>> Hot toes and bums...

We boarded the bus for Chuifen 九份 , a former gold mining town located on the northeast coast of Taiwan.

>> Wheels on the bus goes round and round...

Our tour bus could only take us up to the mountain so far, so we had to board a public bus to take us up this steep and winding road, till we finally reached the town of Chuifen.

>> My first Taiwan public bus experience

I love Chuifen and its little winding streets that seemed to go on forever. With food and snack shops located on both sides, walking through Chuifen’s street was an experience that was fun and interesting!

Our first stop was a local snacks shop, where we shopped for endless snacks to bring back to our friends and family in Singapore.

>> Shopaholic strikes!

After that, we broke off from the group in exploration. Our first stop – FISHBALLS! We were told that the fishballs at Chuifen is YUM, so we had to try a bowl of fishball soup and their dry noodles.


We also spotted malt candy lollipops for NT$20. YUM. Greedy me grabbed a “Xiao Ding Dang” shaped lollipop!

>> Lollipop lollipop oh lolly lolly lolly…

Next, another shop caught our attention. They were selling ice cream topped with peanuts wrapped in popiah skin! It was amazing! We loved it, especially on a hot day walking along the crowded streets of Chuifen, an ice cream was most welcomed.

>> Noble award to the person who came up with popiah + ice cream!

Along the way, we saw people eating these interesting spiral thingys on a stick, which looked so amazingly delicious, I was determined to find it! We finally did and I bought 1 stick. It was basically a potato sliced in a continuous spiral, deep fried like potato chips, and flavoured with spices of curry, garlic, chicken, chives. IT WAS SOOOOO GOOOD!

>> EK wanted seconds…

We grew thirsty and bought ourselves fresh watermelon juice! Their juices are just so amazing! Juicy and delicious, just like eating the fruit itself! I’ve never tasted anything like that before!

We approached a nice opening and took in the scenery that was around us. We were so high up on a mountain, you’d never imagine a street like this exists in such a place!

>> Smile for the camera...

Turning around and about to leave the designated look-out, we spotted yummy fried quail eggs on a stick! Being greedy and in need of a cholesterol boost, we bought a stick to share, and balanced the guilt by buying a box of sweet pink guava from the shop beside it!

>> Cholesterol, bring it on!

Time was running out so we didn’t explore any further, but the street further down looked a little too quiet, so we decided we wouldn’t miss much and turned back. We wanted to take another route back, but the street looked uninteresting to us, basically not much shops, so we decided to go back the same way we came.

>> The street we skipped

Along the way, we met this cute old man (I think he was Japanese). He noticed EK’s big camera, and he seemed like another camera fanatic. With minimum English, he asked us if he could take a photo of us, with his camera, and we agreed. EK then asked if we could take a photo of him with his camera, and he went along as well. I was informed later on that his camera was Leica…apparently another very expensive SLR on the market.

>> I think he should be quite handsome when he's younger...

On our way back, we bought cuttlefish, deep fried mushrooms and another bowl of fishball soup at another seemingly popular shop with pictures of famous Taiwan celebrities visiting this store. However, I felt the fishballs were not as nice as the one we had earlier.

>>Shrooms and balls!

We met up with the already waiting group and when the remaining 4 arrived, we left Chuifen for Ilan 宜蘭.

Heading towards Ilan, we went through Hsueshan Tunnel 雪山隧道.

>> The longest tunnel in Taiwan

At Ilan, we visited the National Centre for Traditional Arts 国立传统艺术中心. As it was a Sunday and school holidays were around the corner, there were many families (dogs included – Taiwanese are such dog lovers). We watched a wedding performance (the cast were dressed in animal outfits), but soon grew bored and decided to explore the shops.

The shops were interesting, all the stuff were hand crafted, from amazing leather formed animals to handmade Chinese calligraphy brushes. There were also experts on set, demonstrating the crafting of these products. There were also hands on projects, where families could do their own artwork, such as mosaic photo frames, or engraving on leather.

>> The National Centre for Traditional Arts in summary

We left at around 3+pm to the train station to catch a scenic train-ride to Hualien 花蓮. We had to give the bus driver a headstart as he was ferrying our luggages to our next destination, while we took the faster mode of transport – a train.

>> At the station

Given about 45 minutes waiting time before our train departed, we explored the town of Ilan. They didn’t have many shops to browse (a scooter rental shop, mini-marts, Taiwan tourist snacks and souvenir shops, lingerie shop, McDonalds), but EK had a very yummy bubble milk tea at a franchise store by the name Ching Shin Fu Chuan Tea Station 清心福全冷饮站. He said the texture was so much smoother than Singapore’s milk tea as they blended it very well. Also, it was more milky. YUCK!

>> Bubble

>> Tea

The train ride to Hualien was nice. The sea was on my left, and the sun was setting. We were sitting in a different cabin from the rest of the group. SNAP SNAP SNAP went EK’s camera as we documented our first train ride in Taiwan.

>> Before Boarding...snap snap snap

>> On board...snap snap snap

We arrived in Hualien to find our bus waiting for us at around 6+pm in the evening. It was completely dark! The sun in Taiwan sets really early! We headed back to the hotel for dinner catered by Chan Brothers and we discovered all about tour food and Taiwanese culture.

They love bringing all the plates of food at once, even if the table is full, they will find a place to put the plate (i.e. stack on top), which we found disgusting. The first plate was egg omelet. Goodness, we didn’t come all this way to have an omelet! The food wasn’t great at all. Also, by looks of the hotel restaurant, we were skeptical about the room’s condition.

However, we were pleasantly surprised that the rooms were nice and clean, better than what we had expected. We didn’t stay in the room long as the night was young. With the advice of the concierge, we grabbed a cab and headed into town. The cab driver was very friendly, eager to introduce us to Hualien.

>> Our first sights of Hualien

After alighting, we walked around the lighted streets of shops and food. We browsed through clothes shops. I saw this cool clothes shop called Knight’s Bridge. It’s a Taiwan brand, but the clothes had a very British prep-school style, loads of plaits, and the logo, similar to a school crest was found on most outfits. Though I loved the clothes, but I didn’t think I would wear them and they weren’t cheap!

>> Shopaholic at work

We also shopped at other stores, where I bought a demin vest and a black mini skirt dungaree.

EK also bought bubble tea again, making friends with the store person after chatting about his camera.

>> Our friend behind the counter

>> Evidence of my work

We continued to walk around, and found the ice shavings shop that the cab driver told us about, but we didn’t feel like queuing so we gave it a miss. We hunted for the xiao long pau shop but couldn’t find it and miraculously found ourselves back at the bubble tea shop. We asked for directions and proceeded to hunt down the xiao long pau store. After asking a couple more people along the way, we spotted the queue. We jumped into the queue and lined up obediently.

>> What Singaporeans do best...queuing

Little did we know that if we were eating there, we didn’t need to queue!!! BAH. After queuing for 10 minutes, we finally had the sense to ask! We bought 10 xiao long paus for only NT$5 each and 1 basket of zhen jiaos (which they said was nice too).

>> CHEAP!!

The xiao long paus were not what we expected, different from Singapore’s and not that soupy, but it was yum nevertheless. The zhen jiaos were also different! Pau like and huge, but tasty. We struggled to finish it, but of course we did. It was good.

>> Greedy Gluttons!

After a filling supper, the shops were closing (11pm) and we rushed to browse those that were still open. I only ended up buying a belt, but that was good for me. We also heard about another night market in Hualien, which mainly sold food, so on our way back to our hotel, we told the cab driver to take a detour to that night market to take a look at the scene. But we were so full, we decided not to alight and headed back to the hotel for our much needed sleep.