Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Instead of a Caffeine Kick, Try Curdled Soy Milk in the Morning (Roads & Kingdoms)

A few days before Dr. Tsai Ing-wen took the oath of office to become Taiwan’s first woman president - and the first female national leader in Asia who wasn’t the widow, daughter or sister of a previous leader - I went back to Kaohsiung to witness the scattering of a friend’s ashes.

A decade earlier, he’d told us he wanted his remains sprinkled in the shade of a huge banyan tree that overlooks the harbor. He eventually passed after years of ill health, some of which could be attributed to bad habits when younger. En route to the ceremony, I made a slightly dubious lifestyle choice of my own. I detoured to a breakfast establishment famous in Taiwan’s second city for adulterated soy milk. Once hailed as a protein-rich, low-calorie alternative to cow’s milk, unfermented soy products like soy milk are now linked to health problems including hypothyroidism, kidney stones, and male infertility. And if that isn’t bad enough, at Guo Mao Lai Lai the beverage is best enjoyed when it’s slathered with oily condiments and salty toppings.

But it’s fresh, meaning the beans are soaked the evening before, steamed before sunrise, blended, then pressed through a cheesecloth. Drunk hot and neat, just-made soy milk is quite unlike - and quite a bit stronger than - its bottled, refrigerated supermarket counterpart. For first-timers, the experience is akin to trying coffee prepared by a good barista after a lifetime of drinking instant. But raw soy milk isn’t to everyone’s taste, so many Taiwanese stir in sugar. In Mandarin Chinese, the non-sugared variant is called xian doujiang (鹹豆漿). This means “salty soy milk,” but at Guo Mao Lai Lai, only the finest of palates can detect brackishness beneath the various pungencies...

To read the second half of this story, go here. I first visited Guo Mao Lai Lai when researching this article, thanks an entry in this excellent blog.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Taiwan, an Undiscovered Retirement Destination

Few Americans consider Taiwan when planning their retirement, but those who've moved here aren't shy about naming the reasons they're staying: A welcoming society; high-quality yet inexpensive medical care; efficient transportation; and a fascinating diversity of urban and natural landscapes.  

If safety is a criterion, Taiwan is an excellent bet. In early 2015, US magazine Presscave rated Taiwan as the second-safest country in the world, behind Iceland. Taiwan is densely populated, and this means housing isn't cheap in Taipei and other big cities. Apartments are small by North American standards, but if – like me – you're the kind of person who prefers short hikes, bike rides and exploring ancient shrines to the “Great Indoors,” you won't be at home very much.

The cost of living drops dramatically when you reach the south of the island. In Tainan, it's possible to rent a well-located apartment suitable for a couple for US$400 per month. You'll need the air-conditioning that's standard between June and September, but you may never use your kitchen, as tasty meals can be had on every street corner for US$3. Getting proficient with chopsticks takes some practice, but soon enough you'll have a favorite beef-noodles eatery, and know who makes the best papaya milkshakes in your neighborhood.  

Tainan was Taiwan's capital for over two centuries until 1885. It's a treasure-house of Dutch-built forts (the Europeans came in 1624 and were kicked out in 1663), Taoist and Buddhist temples, and architectural landmarks left behind by the Japanese, who ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. Very few of these attractions charge admission. Notwithstanding its living-museum personality, Tainan – like every Taiwanese city – is thoroughly wired. High-speed internet allows folks living here to keep up with loved ones, or clients, in every corner of the world. And it helps blunt an inconvenient truth: Outside Taipei, not much English is spoken. That said, the kind of expatriate who thrives here treats the language barrier as a two-pronged opportunity. 

Firstly, it forces you to learn a bit of Taiwan's official language, Mandarin Chinese. Learning the numbers in Mandarin isn't difficult, and comes in very useful when shopping in neighborhood morning markets for superb local mangoes, pineapples and guavas. Secondly, many Taiwanese hope to improve their English, and they're willing to pay for tutoring. While it's true that many language schools prefer younger teachers, older Americans who look respectable and get along well with the locals will soon find themselves asked: “Could you teach me English?” Tutoring work pays at least US$18 per hour. Not all foreign residents are allowed to work, but if you speak with a clear, standard American accent, doors will open for you. 

There's more good news on the language front. Most doctors, especially those in major medical centers like Tainan's world-class National Chengkung University Hospital, have taken courses in the US and speak excellent English. English-speaking dentists aren't hard to find. Products in supermarkets and drugstores are almost always labeled in English as well as Chinese script. At airports and train stations, you'll find visitor centers where helpful English-speakers will plug any gaps in your knowledge of local transportation systems or tourist attractions.

Taiwan's proximity to Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong – together with visa-free entry rules which allow Americans, Canadians and most other Westerners to stay 90 days each time, no questions asked so long as they hold an air or sea ticket out – make the country an excellent base for anyone itching to explore Asia at an unhurried pace. 

I wrote and got paid for this article by a US website, but they've yet to publish it. They told me it's OK to post it on this blog first... so here it is. I took both photos in Greater Kaohsiung. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Pounding the Pavements of Old Taiwan (En Voyage)

Getting around Taiwan is exceptionally easy. In addition to the bullet trains which zip between Taipei and Kaohsiung, domestic flights to the east coast and outlying islands, commuter and rapid-transit trains, there are hundreds of bus routes. Visitors who want greater freedom can rent a car, a motorcycle, or a bike.

There’s also walking. Nowadays, humanity’s original means of transportation isn’t much favored by people making their way to work, school, or a place where they can have fun. This is especially understandable in Taiwan’s warm, wet summers. Yet more and more tourists - both domestic and international - are eschewing the tour bus, and opting to explore parts of the island on foot.

Ambulation makes total sense in the old heart of Tainan, Taipei’s Wanhua District, and much of Lugang. These places were settled long before the invention of the motor car. Until well into Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), ordinary people walked everywhere, while the wealthy traveled in sedan chairs carried by servants. Despite the best efforts of modernizing mayors, each place retains fascinating alleyways impenetrable to those who won’t get out of their cars.  

As part of a broad shift toward what Europeans call “slow travel” - but Taiwanese often label LOHAS (meaning “lifestyles of health and sustainability”) - walking tours are catching on in Taiwan, thanks in part to three organizations which take it upon themselves to organize regular, short-distance pedestrian excursions that free of charge.

One of these operates in Tainan, which even now is sometimes called Fucheng, or “government city.” This honorific acknowledges that, for more than two centuries until 1887, Tainan served as Taiwan’s administrative capital. In terms of current economic and political importance, it ranks behind Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Taichung. But many people find it the most interesting of Taiwan’s major cities, thanks to a stupendous density of historical and cultural attractions. A local idiom, “there's a major temple every five steps, a minor shrine every three,” is hardly an exaggeration. 

As a service to those who want to give the city’s captivating neighborhoods in the attention they deserve, Tainan City Government has thrown its weight behind a project called My Tainan Tour. This pairs knowledgeable, bilingual Tainan natives with small groups of tourists eager to dig a little deeper into local history and culture

Tourists heading to Taipei have a range of options. Some are offered by Like It Formosa, which describes itself as “an independent organization committed to promoting Taiwan and facilitating intercultural exchange.” Their guides are young, and bi- or trilingual. One of Like It Formosa’s most popular walkabouts is the Historic Tour held each Sunday. This kicks off at Longshan Temple in Wanhua, a famous house of worship in a grittily authentic part of the capital. There, the guides explain aspects of Taiwanese folk religion (“males should enter a sacred site left foot first; females should enter right foot first”) before moving onto the restored old street known as Bopiliao [pictured here]. 

The next two stops both date from the Japanese era. After a look at Ximending’s Red House, and a few words about its intriguing shape and varied history, it’s on to the Office of the President. The latter was completed in 1919. The tour culminates at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, three hours and 4.5km later. Like It Formosa’s Facebook page lists other Taipei tours, including a pub crawl, a LGBT-themed walk, and a look around history-rich Dadaocheng. There’s also a hike up Elephant Mountain, timed to enjoy the setting sun and superb nighttime views of Taipei 101.

Tour Me Away covers some of the same ground. Their Old Town Taipei expedition, however, also stops by Zhongshan Hall, a concert venue which embodies the dramatic twists and turns of Taiwan’s history in the 20th century. This Spanish-Islamic style building, completed in 1936, was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Japanese Emperor Hirohito. It was here in 1945 that the Japanese civilian authorities and armed forces in Taiwan signed an instrument of surrender. Soon afterward, it was renamed “Zhongshan” in honor of Sun Zhongshan, aka Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Nationalist Republic of China.  

Tour Me Away’s Taipei Chill Out Tour roams through Taipei’s Flower Market and along nearby roads including Yongkang Street. Two of Asia’s most famous xiaolongbao (soup-filled steamed dumplings) restaurants are located here, as are several other excellent eating options...

To read the complete article, click on this link to the online version of the magazine.