Monday, March 31, 2014

Taiwan Travelogue: Geothermal Valley Beitou

Geothermal Valley is the top attraction in the Beitou area; with its emerald jade sulphuric waters and the thick clouds of steam rising from the boiling waters from this volcanic crater tucked away as part of the town's pride.
The picture of thick mist enveloping the area as a result of the rising steam from the high temperature (at the boiling temperature of 100 degrees Celsius) may seem like a scene from a fantasy world; yet this is a truly amazing work of nature, leaving many awestruck following a visit to this magical place.
The place was also once, during the colonial rule of the Japanese, known as one of the top eight natural beauties in Taiwan.

The hot water flowing downstream and everywhere in the town

Even the drains outside the park is filled with boiling water

It was a surreal experience, and it was as though my vision has blurred with the thick mist engulfing the entire area. It seemed like I have stepped into a different dimension or world, where it seemed so magical yet mystical at the same time. While it was really breathtaking to witness the works of nature  in the form of the rising steam, it was also eerie at the same time to see so much that it almost seemed like the whole place was enveloped by the thick clouds rising from the heat of the emerald green or jaded waters of the spring below.

Jade Spring Valley, as the Geothermal Valley is also known is attributed to the mesmerizing tones of the waters from the high content of the sulphuric mineral-based in the spring. This rare phenomenon, or the mineral based of sulphuric content in the spring water can only be found in two places in the world; here in Beitou and the other in Akita, Japan.
While the colors and the misty scene can be alluring and hypnotizing, the pungent odor from the high sulphuric content acts like an agent to knock one to consciousness as fills the air with its unpleasant smell.

The thick misty state which can overcome the entire atmosphere and the high temperatures of the waters also earned the valley its other notorious nickname of the Hell Valley, or the Valley of Death. Perhaps it was the heat which brought it in close comparison to the underworld, or perhaps it was also due to the number of tragic and fatal incidents which have occurred in this area.
Yes, sadly, this may be a scenic and natural wonder but there have been deaths or unpleasant incidents which have occurred here.
According to the locals, there was a man who have reportedly fell into the water by accident and ended up being cooked/boiled to his death here.
This led to tighter security measures being implemented here; with the authorities putting up signs and fences to prevent anyone from being in too close proximity to the extremely hot waters flowing in the spring.

Scary stories aside, the Geothermal Valley still strikes me as a natural wonder and is indeed an eye-opening experience (yes, I could still keep my eyes open while wandering through the thick mist of steam).

Many are spotted with umbrellas and even rain ponchos; even mask wearing while enjoying the scenes unfolding in action in this valley.

This is indeed an amazing work of nature, and a must-visit for anyone who is in the town of Beitou.
The Geothermal Valley, is indeed, a natural depiction of nature at one of her best here.

Taiwan Travelogue: Exploring Beitou

Beitou district (北投區), as its name suggests, is located in the northern region of Taipei (Bei  means north in Chinese) and is synonymous with two things; the beautiful nature and the hot springs. Beitou is easily accessible by train or bus; and one can choose to alight at the Beitou station or the XinBeitou station, which is a relatively newer area.
XinBeitou is pretty much a newer version (or face) of Beitou; the keyword here being Xin, as in new, which forms the other younger establishment of the district.

Beitou is known for the years of history and her existence for more than a century; filled with the many stories and local population which formed the original area coverage of Beitou or what is more fondly referred to as the old Beitou. It is not uncommon to see many older buildings from the early eras still preserved in the area, and old Beitou seems to be a town still stuck in the past.
XinBeitou(New Beitou), on the other hand is a relatively newer area; and encompasses from the area of the MRT Station and Qinshui Park which was developed into somewhat of a hot springs recreational area, filled with hot springs resorts and tourism over the years from its early beginnings during the Japanese era (1895-1945).

The hot springs is the trademark of XinBeitou; with the rising steam from the sulphuric waters forming the misty air, taking away the attention from its other less celebrated fame of being one of Taipei's largest red light districts.

With the many things lining up to the name of Beitou, it is no wonder this place has flourished as a popular tourist attraction over the years though mostly due to the hot springs which has drawn locals and returning tourists from nearby countries such as Hong Kong, China, and Korea.
Seems like the sulphuric odor and the misty air from the steamy waters did little to quell the attraction; but rather, attracted the tourists more although it was not the case with the origins of the town.

As the story goes, the natives or rather the early aboriginal inhabitants of the area found the appearance of the sulphur and the continuous steam rising from the streams filling the air everywhere more mystical than pleasing to the sights that they associated it with works of the witches. In fact, the whole area, was referred to as a Witch's Cauldron; with the pungent smell of sulphur and the constant rising steam which is similar to a spell or potion in the making, thus earning it the name of 'paktaaw' in the aboriginal language - meaning "witch". Over the years, the term was revolutionized/sinicized into today's Beitou.

The original plan was to visit the famous Yangmingshan National Park, but due to the bad weather, we just lingered around the Beitou area where we had more time exploring the town and taking pictures along the way.

It was a beautiful and rather peaceful place; filled with scenic and picturesque wonders of nature along our walk. It helped that the weather on that day was perfect for tours on foot; as it was cool and cloudy (which was the reason it dampened our visit to Yangmingshan), but we still enjoyed the scenic tour of Beitou.

There are many who can be seen enjoying the moderately warm waters for free; as they soaked their feet into these water flowing downstream.

There are two museums in Beitou; if you are interested:-

Beitou Hot Springs Museum
This was once a public bath; during the Japanese occupation and the design of the building is uniquely inspired by both the European infused with the Japanese culture at that time.

Ketagalan Cultural Center
This center is dedicated as a tribute to the aboriginal natives and the culture of this area; and is a modernized 10-storeys high building. It is hard to miss along the way.

To be continued...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Taiwan Travelogue: Traditional Sour Dough Bread in Shilin

There is always a reason for a crowd, and more over so if there is a long queue.
It is a concept embedded in our minds for as long as we can remember, and it does not matter if you are a local or a traveler, the same rule applies. We are taught to be inquisitive (but not to an annoying extent to pry into personal business), but generally, we do have that desire to-know and that helped us to get to many places; or moving to that next level in life as we learn along the way when we asked the why, how, when, what, who and where in many stages of our lives.
It is just a way of life, and though curiosity does kills the cat, there are times when curiosity could help to lead to the discovery of something new; a lesson learnt.
This was how we came to discover an interesting shop facing the streets near Shilin Night Market.

As we were heading home after our adventure in Shilin Night Market, we passed by brightly lit shophouses located in the vicinity of the area and we spotted a long queue forming before a shop.
Curious, we took a closer look to check out the reason behind the hype.
(Everything is interesting when you're a tourist, and if there is a queue somewhere, there must be something good, or the opposite).

In the midst of my excitement, I may have overlooked to check the name of the shop, but I think I did capture a small sign on the left hand side (though partially blocked by the person standing there), that there is a mere mention of Old Zhang (translated from the Chinese characters there).
At closer look, this is a shop selling sourdough bread; Old Zhang Sourdough Bread, perhaps?

The menu displayed at the top corner of the shop

The interesting part about this shop is not just in the obvious retro form it seem to be in but also, the whole process of the making of the sourdough bread is performed before everyone in a very traditional way. It seems to me that this is a family-run business, as everyone sloughed and toiled, rushing to make batch after batch of sourdough bread to cater to the hungry demands of the customers waiting in line.

I loved scenes like these; and to see for myself the art of making traditional food.
The keyword here being traditional; as these are priceless these days, with the rapid process of modernization and development where we are getting lost in the needs of technology and constant improvement that we have probably lost touch with what was probably part of the early history/days bringing us today.
It can be a rather nostalgic journey but it is still a comforting thought that there are still many, though rare, who are still doing things the old way despite the existence of machinery and improvised technology which could speed up the processing time. I guess it is not the same, and that some things just need to be done the old way; especially when it comes to traditional food like these.
Yes, some things can be replaced but there is just something about that classic taste in the tender process of the making (especially when it comes to food) where that personal touch, passion, and emotions, not to mention the varying pressure from the hands from different individuals which simply cannot be programmed or taught to a machine. It is just as simple as that, and while the trade of manual labor may be slowly taking a back seat, there are still many who are looking out to relive that old tastes from yesterday, and that alone, is more than enough motivation for the experts to continue the trade for as long as they could.

Just like this shop; Old Zhang, where the folks can be seen hard at work, grueling at each of their own task; be it pounding the dough, setting the stove, rotating the trays for baking, all under the watchful and admiring eyes of the eager customers waiting in line.

A glimpse of the sourdough breads; freshly baked and running out fast with the amount of orders from the crowd.
Most of the customers actually order in numbers of tens and above, and if you wanted certain flavors despite it running out, you would need to wait for another 20-30 minutes for the next batch to be ready.

Red Bean was really popular; and they have already run out by the time it was our turn and we had already waited for almost half an hour, so we just grabbed whatever they have.

Their signature flavor; or rather the original, was the Sourdough Green Onion Bread.
There was another version, in the little cakes, but we got the bread version.

The Pepper Pork Sourdough Bread

Hopefully we still get to see old trades like these everywhere in the world; as these are really makes the whole exploration really memorable and meaningful.

Keep it up, Old Zhang (or Lao Zhang in Chinese), this is a priceless and precious trade and should be sustained for generations to come, and I am sure many agree with me~
Finding this shop adds to the enriching part of my trip, despite the fact that I waited in a long line along the corridors for these sourdoughs, still the concept of the shop provides that little window into their process and that itself, kept the customers in check to wait patiently for their rewards.

Suddenly, it seems that it's worth the wait :-)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Taiwan Travelogue: Eating in Shilin

Street food seems to be the rage among the locals; as I have seen food stalls and peddlers almost everywhere I went, and it goes without saying that when you are in one of the largest night markets in the city; Shilin Night Market, you are bound to be greeted by (more) food varieties all beckoning to unsuspecting tourists and locals from their counters.
Whether you are one who loves stall-hopping and loading yourself with the 'little' eats along the way (while unaware of the secret additional calories piling, but when you're traveling, who cares?) or if you are one who likes sitting down proper to a meal, there is something for everyone in this night market.

There are many to choose from in this night market, but the top eats? I have checked the list of recommended things to eat in Shilin Night Market.

Things to Eat/Drink

Lemon Aiyu Jelly (檸檬愛玉) is supposedly famous or a favorite among the local Taiwanese; though it originated from my very own country (lol!)
I am a fan, and there were a couple of stalls selling this, so it was a breeze finding this citrusy flavor; the Lemon Aiyu is the original flavor by the way, teamed with the fruit jelly.
There are other flavors available too; as the vendors get creative with their product marketing techniques.

What can I say? Well, I think I have tasted better versions back in my own country as the jelly was rather meager in portion and it was a little diluted. It seems to be the same everywhere I went, a bummer as I really love this drink.

I can testify that almost all the stalls serve the same quality; as I gave it the benefit of the doubt and checked out another stall, with another cup of this, and yes, I still conclude that I get better quality back at home.

Taiwanese sausages are just about the other which is found almost everywhere and they seems to be the favorite finger food/snack among the locals.

Deep fried food are the other common sight; from deep fried chicken (spiced or marinated/salted chicken), to deep fried squids, octopus, fish cakes, and the list goes.
You want it, they will deep fry it.

We ventured into the Food court; in the complex, and it was a brightly lit world down there though there are no signs leading to the end of the action taking place in this enclosed area as compared to the open air night market out there.
In fact, if anything more, it seemed like the place was even more bustling and as noisy as outside (the air space would be much better outside in the open though).
This is just the stalls on the streets outside being brought together into a closed complex; and in a squarish parameter of organization.

Fried Oyster (Or Chien) - (蚵仔煎) is a much raved about Taiwanese favorite; in fact, the locals love oysters with everything.
(There is also the Oyster Noodles which is recommended to try in Taiwan, but we didn't get to trying that.)

The fried oyster is a batter of egg omelette with corn starch fried together with oysters; and can be pretty much termed as an oyster omelette.

I would say that again, the fried oyster back home tastes much better and our Or Chien is just as famous too! ;-)

Seafood Noodles, was quite a satisfying attempt though; as there was a generous amount of seafood included along with the rice noodles.

These are shellfish; or rather, Sea Snails. Also known as Bali tong in my country, my hubby just wanted to try these out. (yeah, he tried it, not me. I may be a seafood fan, but I am not an adventurous one, and I will stick to my usual fare of fish, prawns, and crabs, thank you very much).

Fish Balls in soup; this is one thing that I really enjoyed while in Taiwan (similar to Hong Kong).
Somehow their fish balls are really way much better than what we have (not that ours is that bad either), but I just loved their fish balls which is just so tasty and full of the fishy flavor.

Other food to try in Shilin Night Market would be as follows:-
Peanut Candy (花生糖)
Fried Buns (生煎包)
"Small Bun wrapped in Large Bun"(大餅包小餅)
Stinky Tofu (sorry, not my cup of tea, or tofu) (臭豆腐)
Pearl Milk Tea (珍珠奶茶)
Oyster Noodles/Vermicelli (蚵仔麵線)

More scenes from the food stalls:-

If you are a food lover, you will get around to try as much as you can stuff into your stomach.
As a precaution, I would still like to remind you to be careful with street food, though traveling, hygiene and the quality of the food serving area should still never be compromised.
After all, what could be worse when a trip is spoilt with an upset tummy?

Shilin Night Market has a lot to offer; and I am not saying that it is not advisable to try out the street food but just practice caution and of course, common sense, when hopping from one stall to another, and putting different types of food into your tummies. If you have a tummy that can weather almost anything, you will not have a problem but if your regular eating style does not include such a varied menu, then it would just be good to play it safe and careful when picking out your choices.

I am not a regular with street food, but I did get to enjoy some of the local tastes and flavor; and besides feasting on the food, I think I got quite a treat with the sights too; a motion picture?
Nah, I would say more of a light animation with a little light action and reality kick to it!

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