Maolin Purple Butterfly Valley

On January 31st, we met with Emily’s aunt to tour the Maolin Butterfly Trail and the nearby aboriginal villages. I was not expecting much out of that day, partly because I was not at all enthused about driving an hour just to see butterflies. I turned out to be absolutely wrong because the butterflies were amazing, the aboriginal town was beautiful, and breathing fresh air was a cleansing change from the smog of Kaohsiung.

Our drive to Maolin took us through fields of rice patties (pictured above), pineapples, bananas, tomatoes, mangos, papaya, and even fish/shrimp farms.

We started the trip at her aunt’s house where she made us both a pour over using locally grown coffee beans. The beans are cultivated in the mountains by the local Rukai aboriginals. Emily’s aunt has been studying how to grow, roast, and prepare coffee for over a decade, and now acts as a pro bono consultant to the locals who want to grow and sell coffee beans for a living.

She buys raw beans from her aboriginal friends, and does the fermenting, drying, roasting, and grinding for her small coffee business. On weekends, she operates a coffee brewing stall outside the Butterfly Restaurant/Bakery for the tourists that come through the area.

From the Butterfly Restaurant, we walked towards the self guided Butterfly Trail and started to hear a hum of chatter in the distance. When we made the corner, we came up to a large group of children flailing nets too large for them to handle. There were butterfly guides/instructors under umbrella nets handling the butterflies and teaching the children about the Maolin purple crow butterflies.

Elementary school students get a 3-4 week winter break from mid-January to early February. These kids are spending their time off on a field trip to learn about the purple crow butterflies.
The trail leads you on a brick lined path where you’ll catch a view of the nearby town.
This town is part of an aboriginal reserve where the Rukai are in control of the land rights. Taiwan is composed of 16 recognized ethnic groups that occupy most of the eastern side of the island.

We finished the short trail loop and continued onwards to explore the rest of the mountainous region. I never knew butterfly watching was something I would find enjoyable. Perhaps a sign of aging.

As we walked across the Duonagao suspension bridge, Emily’s aunt described the way of life of the local aboriginals who worshipped snakes. In Rukai folklore, there is a story of a girl who liked to eat snakes and as a result, was banished from the community. Hoping her husband would follow her, she left snake carvings in the rock so he could find her. We would later see decorative carvings around the area resembling the original petroglyph that tells the story (see photograph below).

Hunger began to set in so we drove to the next aboriginal village of Duona to have lunch. We ate aboriginal food and had a delicious serving of Aiyu jelly in a hibiscus lime syrup. We liked it so much we bought a bag of dried Aiyu seeds so we could try to make it ourselves at home.

The village of Duona is a reserved settlement for the Rukai aboriginals. Businesses are run to attract local tourism in order to draw income for the people. Locals sell fruits and vegetables gathered from the mountains as well as crops they cultivate on their property.

I noticed these red bushes growing in many family gardens and was surprised to learn that they were indigenous quinoa plants. Quinoa grows easily in the hot and humid climate of Taiwan.

After lunch, a friendly stray dog began to follow us as we strolled through the village. Emily’s aunt pointed out the edible herbs, leaves, and flowers (for tea) that she sometimes forages. I’m finally starting to catch on that she really used to work as a tour guide for the area because she seems to know everyone in the community.

The day continued with more sight seeing around snake head mountain and dragon head mountain. As the sun was beginning to set, we finished our guided tour with a meal at a traditional hakka noodle shop, 美濃美食家鄉味.

Monkey Watching and Ferrying to Cijin Island

On Monday, January 29th, we spent the day exploring Shoushan National Nature Park
(壽山國家自然公園) located to the west of the city. There are trails, small beaches, scenic lookouts, temples, and historic landmarks. It’s also a natural habitat for monkeys, poisonous snakes, squirrels, and stray dogs.

This is a small beach on the west side of the university, called Sizihwan Scenic Area 西子灣風景區. Unfortunately, you cannot swim here and there is a guard patrolling the beach to enforce it.
Along the breakwaters of the harbour located south of the beach, you’ll find locals fishing even though its prohibited.  There is a gate you need to climb in order to reach this area, but nobody seems to be enforcing this.

From the beach, we walked towards the Liberal Arts campus and found a trail that runs behind the university. Along this trail, you’ll most definitely spot a few rock monkeys which are native to the area and are known to be aggressive if they suspect you have food. If they hear the sound of plastic bags, they are not shy to take the whole bag from you.

 

We followed the trail south towards the Kaohsiung Martyrs’ Shrine where there is a scenic lookout of the city and harbour. It was a foggy day with light showers though I’m sure some of the haze is from the smog.

Just south of the Martyr’s Shrine, you’ll find yourself in the Hamasen area (哈瑪星), part of the Gushan District. The name, Hamasen, is Japanese for ‘beach railway line’ and it reflects the period of Japanese occupation in Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. The Japanese had built this location to be the intersecting point of the city’s harbour and railway line. It was used to export commodities from all over Taiwan back to Japan. Tropical fruits such as bananas and mangos were kept in the nearby warehouses waiting to be loaded on ships. You  can pick up an English map here to explore the area.

We walked towards the Gushan Ferry Point to take a short 10 minute ferry ride to Cijin IslandMany families like to take a day trip to Cijin Island on the weekends so if you don’t like crowds, try to go on the weekdays.
Located a block away from the ferry terminal is this famous shaved ice shop called 渡船頭海之冰. They are famous for their kitchen sink sized bowl of shaved ice that you can order which will feed more than 10.
This is a typical taiwanese shaved ice dessert which consists of a mountain of shaved ice (finer than a snow cone), a brown sugar syrup, and homemade toppings such as red beans, green beans, soft peanuts, taro root, tapioca, and herbal jellies. One of my favourite things to eat when I visit. The ones you find outside the country just won’t be the same as it will usually be made with canned ingredients.

Arriving on Cijin Island

Along the northwest side of Cijin Island is a long stretch of beach with a small section of surfable waves. You can see all the surfers crowded together on this tiny stretch of ocean. We talked to one of the surfers who rents his boards from this shop (look for the one with a bar) in the north end of the island at a rate of $300 NT per half day ($10.20 USD). I think we’ll try and go back on a warmer day.
This is a view on the north end of the island right where the breakwater begins.
There is a lighthouse with a great view for watching cargo ships enter the Kaohsiung harbour.
Once you step off the ferry, continue walking on Miao Qian Road (廟前) and you will find yourself in the Cijin Old Street (旗津老街) which is filled with food and souvenir vendors.
This is the most bazaar taiwanese snack, a savoury peanut ice cream burrito (花生卷冰淇淋). It starts with a thin wheat crepe, shaved salty peanut brittle (large block pictured top), cilantro (why?), taro ice cream, more peanut brittle, and rolled into a burrito. I was not hungry or adventurous enough that day to try it. Saving it for another occasion.
Here is a family run street vendor selling fried fish cake with a slice of boiled egg inside. Fish cakes of all shapes, types (of fish), and preparations are common in Taiwanese cuisine because fish is abundant.
Tomato is eaten like a fruit after a meal or in the afternoon. This vendor serves it with a thick, sweetened soy sauce, ginger puree, and dried plum powder.
Here’s a grandma selling a popular snack of chewy malt sugar (maltose) sandwiched between ritz crackers.

Fo Guang Shan Buddist Shrine

Our next destination in Kaohsiung is the famous Buddhist Shrine on Fo Guang Shan. It is certainly worth a visit even if you’re not Buddhist to see the 40 meter tall bronze statue on the top of the hill. I later learned that the Taiwanese people are mostly Buddhist and Taoists with a small fraction being Christian. I believe the Christian religion was brought in by the Portuguese and the Dutch during their colonization in the 17th century.

A bus departs from Zuoying station every half hour to Fo Guang Shan so we didn’t worry much about buying tickets in advance. You just need to use your handy iPass card to pay the $70 NT ($2.33 USD) fare as you board the bus. The 35-min ride took us through many pineapple farms and made a single stop at the E-DA outlet mall. We weren’t interested in seeing more American brand names so we stayed on the bus to our final destination.

When we arrived at the temple, we promptly took an English map and started walking through the grounds. Following the map, we snaked through all the points of interest and learned what we could with the English pamphlet in hand. Free paper envelopes of tea and water was available around the site, so you don’t need to worry about feeling dehydrated. The monks there were all very friendly and greeted us as we walked by.

Sitting at the top of the hill stands 480 mini Buddha statues placed around the main Great Buddha. It is claimed to be the tallest Buddha in South East Asia and can be seen from kilometres away.

Emily and I eventually arrived at the main shrine where everyone is asked to remove their shoes before stepping inside. As we walked in, a monk handed each of us a flower to use as an offering to the three Buddahs. We watched some of the elderly people make their prayers, so we followed their lead. The room was large, airy, and felt quite comfortable to be inside. Everyone spoke in hushed voices as we walked around the room taking in the sights. We were told no photography is allowed in the shrine, so I didn’t capture any images of the interior. You can find pictures here and on their official page.

The gate to the main shine of Fo Guang Shan leads you through a peaceful terrace before reaching the temple. The walk was especially nice with a light breeze on a well kept ground.
Inside the main shrine are the Sakyamuni Buddha, Medicine Buddha and the Amitabha Buddha. Visitors must take off your shoes before entering the building. The resident monks hand out a small flower you can use as an offering to Buddha prior to making your prayer. Emily and I did our best to follow what others were doing so we didn’t look too foolish when we were in front of the altar.
The Fo Guang Shan museum/memorial centre was closed on Tuesday, so we were turned away when we tried to make our way there. You can see there is another golden statue of a Buddha peaking out between the buildings. We managed to catch a glimpse of the museum/memorial centre from the temple.

If you find yourself feeling a bit hungry from all that zen, you can have a nice vegetarian meal at the pilgrims lodge. The room is set up with a series of chafing dishes where you put together your own plate of food. I’ve been told that payment is optional, but the lady behind the counter made it sound like the minimum we should consider is $100 NT per person.

Anyone who makes the pilgrimage to the temple can help themselves to a vegetarian meal at the pilgrims lodge.

Taiwanese Street Food

After a few days in Taiwan, we noticed that most kitchens of restaurants are placed on the sidewalk while the seating area is usually inside the building. This strange set up is because the seating area needs to be air conditioned in the summer when it is hot and humid outside. It also means that walking on the sidewalk involves navigating through uneven steps, kitchen equipment, chairs and tables, and servers carrying hot food to their customers.

In Taiwan, there often isn’t a clear divide between residential, retail, and business buildings. It’s very common to run a family business on the street level and live upstairs. Some families use the sidewalk in front of their home as an extended living room. I’m not sure if the sidewalk is considered private property but it feels like we’re intruding into a family dinner or after work gathering sometimes.

This produce vendor set up the dollar store equivalent for vegetables, with every basket priced at $35 NT ($1.20 USD). Note that most vendors will have their products displayed on a table.
Here’s a quiet alleyway where most of the shops are closed. These nondescript metal garage doors are ubiquitous to the streets of Taiwan. You never know if there is a luxury home or popular food vendor behind it.
We walked through the Nanhua Night Market during the daytime looking for a late lunch and found some good places inside.

While eating in Taiwan, we found that pork was a common ingredient in many dishes, most often appearing as a minced meat sauce. Taiwanese meat sauce is made with chopped or minced fatty pork, sun dried shallots that have been fried, soy sauce, and five spice. The flavour, sweetness, and richness vary by region and depend on its application. It’s most often served on rice (肉燥飯) but can appear in many other forms.

A recurring texture in foods in Taiwan is a chewy texture, which they call ‘QQ’. People here enjoy this texture very much and it’s evidenced by the popular drink, bubble tea (珍珠奶茶) which was invented in Taiwan during the 80’s. This street vendor is selling fried sweet potato balls which have a chewy texture that comes from making a dough of mashed sweet potato, potato flour and tapioca flour.

From the Nanhua Market, we walked about a half hour west, across the Love River to the Pier-2 Art Center. It’s an area of abandoned industrial warehouses that have been converted to galleries, small music venues, and many gift shops featuring local artists. On the weekend, there are additional outdoor tents put up by small crafters and food producers. We came here specifically to visit the Sunny Hills cafe.

Travelling to Kaohsiung 高雄市, Taiwan

On Thursday January 25th, we prepared for our flight to Taiwan departing from Vancouver. Instead of buying gifts for family and friends, we spent the past 3 days baking cookies and cooking caramels.

Here’s the assortment of cookies we made for gifts on our upcoming trip to Taiwan.
This is my almost full carry-on bag filled with some of the more delicate cookies.
After 3 movies, 2 hot meals, a couple short naps, we arrived in Taipei after a 12 hour flight. We collected our checked baggage, passed customs, and took a 20 minute metro ride from the airport to the Taoyuan HSR (high speed rail) station. The trip on the HSR was a little under 2 hours and took us to our final destination of Kaohsiung, the second largest city in the country. After arriving in Kaohsiung, we took another half hour metro ride to get to my grandparents’ home.

Getting around the City

Nelson woke up before dawn the following day and went for a walk around our neighbourhood in the Sanduo Shopping District (三多商圈站). Although it’s the winter season here, we found it very comfortable with temperatures ranging from 15°C (60°F) to 25°C (77°F) and little rain. It’s the perfect time to take a walking tour of the city as it’s near impossible to do so in the summertime when humidity is almost 80% and temperatures hover around 30°C (86°F).

An overcast morning along the Kaohsiung harbour. From this viewpoint, 85 Sky Tower (85大樓) can be seen on the left and the Kaohsiung Exhibition Centre (高雄展覽館) in the middle (white bulbous building). Pictured above is the light rail that runs in a loop around the city. It’s not fully completed and only a part of the line began operating a few months ago.

We immediately noticed the polluted air and majority of people wearing face masks on the streets. We learned that the air quality is actually worst in the winter time due to the strong winds that bring in pollution from China. It’s further compounded by emissions from the heavy industries situated mostly in the south of the country, as well as the millions of motorbikes and cars.

In an effort to reduce smog in the city, the government has reduced public transit fares for 3 months. Right now, the light rail and bus lines are free while the underground metro lines are free during rush hour to encourage the use of public transit.

Breakfast in Taiwan

In the mornings, we like to walk around our neighbourhood and get breakfast from street side vendors. These vendors have a simple, mobile kitchen setup that usually involves a propane tank and they appear for only a few hours (7am – 10am) and promptly pack up and move after the morning commuter traffic dies down. Common breakfast foods include pan-fried dumplings, egg pancakes, steamed buns and baked savoury pastries.

This is our favourite street vendor to get breakfast, located at the corner of 三多三路 and 文橫三路 every weekday morning until 11am or sold out. You can see them sitting on little plastic stools on the sidewalk, wrapping cabbage and chinese chive dumplings on foldable tables while grandma is in charge of cooking them. The makeshift kitchen you see pictured above is actually the back of a small truck. $40 NT ($1.35 USD) for 12 dumplings.
Here is a pork belly bun (割包) which can be eaten for breakfast or as a snack. The standard is a soft steamed bun filled with pickled mustard greens, a sprinkle of powdered peanut and sugar, five spice stewed pork belly,  cucumbers and cilantro. $50 NT ($1.7 USD)
A very common breakfast item is this egg pancake (蛋餅), $20 NT or $0.68 USD. It can be served in a roll or scrambled like this. It’s a simple dish of eggs on a pancake batter made from a blend of potato and bread flour, green onions, and served with a sweet chilli sauce. This one is from a popular stand called 阿姨蛋餅 near the Gushan Ferry Pier.
Here’s a type of pan-fried dumpling (韭菜盒子) filled with chives, mushrooms, and vermicelli. I don’t think dumpling is the right word because they are usually the size of your hand. They are more comparable to an empanada in its shape, texture, and ratio of fillings.
This restaurant, 手工傳統早餐燒餅 only serves breakfast until 11am. I really enjoyed watching how the flaky sesame flatbreads (燒餅) are made (top right). He starts with a yeasted dough that is rolled out, folded over 4 times, rested a few minutes and repeated, all the while layering with lard (presumably), topped with sesame seeds and finally baked in a deck oven. The final product is flaky and crisp, with nutty aromas of toasted sesame.
All breakfast items range from $15 NT ($0.50 USD) to $30 NT ($1 USD). We arrived at 10:30am only to find a few items still available. I will definitely come back earlier another day to try their steamed buns and pan fried dumplings.
Pictured on the top left is their sesame flatbread sandwich (燒餅, $30NT or $1 USD) which is opened and filled with scrambled eggs and a savoury fried donut (油條) pictured on the left. The sesame flatbread was really good, I would come back for this but order it without the fried donut as it was excessively greasy for breakfast. We enjoyed this with some soy milk (豆漿) and an egg pancake (both items $15 NT or $0.50 USD).