I am a member of Couchsurfing.com. While I have used it to get information, I have never used it to actually stay at someone’s house or to meet someone. The first person I’ve met on from Couchsurfing was Ruby, who agreed to show me around Taipei on National Day. (October 10)
The flag of the Republic of China
This is the story of that very interesting day….
The primary festivities were supposed to take place at the Peace Park in Taipei. I was told to get there early, about 7am, so I got up really early just to make sure I was able to find my way there on time. The Peace Park is on the metro line so it isn’t hard to get to, but I hadn’t used the Taipei metro at that time, and the park was in walking distance of my hostel, so I figured I’d just walk.
Bad move. I ended up far away from where I was supposed to be and eventually had to take the metro just to get back to where I started. I did get to the Peace Park finally, but I was late so I figured I had missed Ruby. I had no idea what she looked like, so I figured I had screwed up and should just make the best of it.
I had no idea what was going on at the park. Police were everywhere. Not only were the police there, but they were loaded for bear. They had the riot gear out, trailers designed to deploy razor wire barricades, large steel barricades with barbed wire, and rocket launchers. Yes, rocket launchers.
Police at National Day celebration
Bus loads of kids from local high schools were showing up. Everyone was dress in similar school jogging suits. Being the only white guy in the area, I got lots of kids that would wave at me in the bus or try to practice their English with me (“Where you from? You like Taiwan? Do you like the Yankees?” See my Taiwan McDonald’s post for why the Yankees are popular in Taiwan…)
Being “the white guy” paid off as Ruby eventually found me wandering around with my camera. She didn’t know what was going on with all the police either. There was supposed to be some sort of parade/performace with all the high school kids. From what I could gather, there were protests last year so this year the police went way out of their way to have a strong show of force. The missile launchers were there as a sort of show of force to China.
We kept waiting around for something to happen, but nothing ever did. A bigger crowd showed up, including quite a few German tourists, some Boy Scouts, and a guy walking around with a sign giving out free hugs. (guess who got questioned by the Police…)
We eventually decided to leave as nothing was really happening. Ruby helped me through the process of getting a card for the Metro and we went to the Metro mall inside the Taipei Main Train Station. In particular we went to a restaurant called Din Tai Fung, which specialized in steamed dumplings. They had a window where you could see them making the dumplings. It sort of reminded me of an upscale Chinese version of Denny’s.
Steamed dumplings are not something new to me, but I did learn the proper way to eat them. I had always just grabbed them with chopsticks and put it into my mouth. I was shown how to put it on a spoon and add ginger with vinegar or soy sauce on top. We also had some other dishes as you can see from the photos.
After we were finished eating, it was still pretty early, so she took me to a city outside of Taipei near the coast, Jiou-Fen.
This is a bean soup and a dessert
The trip there was about an hour via train and bus. The city was a just a small town was some temples. It was where a lot of people from the city would come on their days off. Because it was National Day, there were a fair number of people there.
It was also raining. It has been overcast or raining my entire time in Taipei up until the last few days I was there. It was the leftovers of the typhoon which passed by a a few days before I arrived. The area we walked around was partially covered, so I only had to occasionally jump between awnings to avoid getting wet.
The market was sort of a day equivalent of the night markets in Taipei. Lots of food vendors, lots of souvenirs, lots of things to cater to tourist (mostly from Taiwan. I don’t really seeing any westerners there).
I got the impression that this was the “keepin it real” part of Taiwan. I’ve eaten at tons of Chinese restaurants in my life, but I have never seen many of the foods offered here. Stinky tofu, pies with meat and tapioca, and something that I don’t know the proper name of, that I can only describe as bean soup dessert.
Stinky tofu does indeed stink. It has a smell very similar to that of a strong blue cheese. It isn’t as bad as a Limburger, but it’s pretty strong. The taste is just like tofu, which is to say there really isn’t much taste to it at all. The stuff we had was fried, but I saw it served other ways as well.
Fish ball vendor in Jiou-Fen
The bean soup dessert really wierded me out. It didn’t taste bad, it was just a very different combination of tastes that what I normally expect when eating bean soup. For starters, it was literally bean soup. It was full of beans and sweet potatoes. As if you purchased a bag of beans to make a bean soup. Second, The sweetness didn’t come from the sweet potatoes either. This was very sweet. Like they dumped a bag of sugar into a pot of bean soup. Also, it was also served hot. I had the simultaneous sensation of eating a hot soup for desert and sugary beans. It was very odd. I ate everything, but I couldn’t really finish off the broth. Hot, sugary, bean water didn’t appeal to me.
On the way back to Taipei City, we stopped and checked out some of the local souviner places and had dinner at a local restaurant which was near the hostel I was staying at. When you are in a place where you don`t know the language, it is easy to eat street food but much harder to eat at proper sit down restaurants. With street food, you just point at what you want, but if it is a legit restaurant, you have to read from a menu. Having Ruby there to order made the entire process easy.
The goal for the evening was to go and catch the National Day fireworks display. We managed to get out of the restaurant, take the metro, get on a shuttle bus and made it to the harbor where the fireworks were being displayed, just in time. The street in front of the harbor was packed with people. It looked like Times Square on New Years Eve.
I have no photos of what happened this evening. I was carrying around my camera in my camera bag and I wasn`t able to take it out. I had planned on taking photos of the fireworks, and I brought my tripod along so I could shoot it, but if I had taken the camera out it probably would have been destroyed.
Dried fish vendor
I need to describe the set up where everyone was taken to view the fireworks. The harbor, where all the shuttle busses dropped everyone off, is surrounded by a very high wall. The wall goes down the length of the river, so there is no way to really go over or around it. There was however a gate and a small area on the other side of the gate near the river.
The fireworks were being set off on the other side of the river. This means that the wall prevented pretty much everyone who was there on the street from seeing them.
Oh, and the Chinese really like fireworks…..
We eventually worked our way op to the harbor wall, which was right at the point where the entire street of people was trying to get to. The crush of everyone trying to see the fireworks was to the point where I felt I was going to have the wind crushed out of me. Little kids were screaming and it was near impossible for their parents to get them out. I kept having headlines from the 1979 Cincinnati Who concert flashing in my head.
This is literally the only time on my trip where I felt like I was in any sort of danger. When you are in a crowd like that, there isn’t much you can do. You can’t run. You can’t walk. Eventually a flow of people moving the opposite direction opened up and Ruby and I got out that way. It was really crazy.
My day began with a failed parade and a show of Taiwanese police and military force and ended with fireworks show that could have ended up in a mass trampling, and in between, lots of Chinese food.
I’d really like to thank Ruby for showing me a side of Taipei I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It was a helluva day…