Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sundaes are for Eating

[Note: Long post ahead! You have been warned.]

But Sundays in Taiwan are for sightseeing, and this past Sunday had been carefully planned for me by my work family. My co-worker Shawn had printed out the HSR (high speed rail) schedule for me, and we had arranged to meet in Taipei at Din Tai Fung for lunch at noon. Since I would need to take a cab from the train station to the restaurant, he carefully printed out the name of the restaurant and its location over a picture of it so there could be no mistake.

The front desk at the hotel called a cab for me. It’s stunning how fast a cab arrives there; it usually takes les than five minutes. The cab ride took me through some of the newest part of the city. In a place as humid as Taiwan, any building that’s a few years old starts growing things, so a building has to be truly new (or recently sandblasted) to look clean. I couldn’t take a lot of pictures from the speeding cab, but here is one unfinished building:

The train station itself looks like sculpture. I took a picture of it before I realized what it was.

Once inside the station, I was trying to buy a ticket from one of the automated machines but was confused by having to have a PIN for a credit card. One of the terminal employees gently guided me to the line that was staffed by employees so I could buy my ticket there. I had my ticket about fifteen minutes before my train arrived, so I had plenty of time to make it upstairs to the platform. I have to give them props: three minutes before the stated time, it pulled in.

Incidentally, before I tell you about my train ride, have I told you about the main mode of transportation in Taiwan? Let me show you the parking lot outside the train station. Note the ratio of cars to motorcycles (scooters):

Now I can feel free to tell you a story about how dumb I am. Remember how I had so much time before the train came? Now go back up and look at the picture of where I’m standing when the train pulls in. I’m standing by car 9, according to the picture. Now, if I had an ounce of sense, I would have checked my ticket BEFORE the train pulled in so I could see that I had a reserved seat in car 3. A very nice window seat – seat 13A, in fact. But no, I was standing by car 9 when the train pulled in for its very brief stop in Hsinchu; there was no time to run up to car 3. So I sat in car 9 in an aisle seat (no window seats were available. So smart. Not.

When I got to Taipei, the train station was so chaotic that it took me a few minutes to figure out which way was the exit to the outside world. The HSR connects to the regular train network in Taipei, so most people were going straight from one train to another. I couldn’t just follow people, which is what I usually do when I’m lost: follow the herd!

I finally made my way outside and found the line of taxis waiting for riders. I handed the driver the sheet that my co-worker had carefully prepared. He grunted, “Oh, Din Tai Fung” and sped off. It brought back such memories of riding in a cab in Manhattan! Lane stripes were merely a suggestion, and at one point I seriously thought he was going to run over a motorcyclist (scooter to you U.S. folks). He veered just enough left to miss it by a handbreadth, but I could have shook hands with the rider easily.

So what’s next to Din Tai Fung? Go ahead, guess. You’ll never guess!

Din Tai Fung is a very popular restaurant, so we did a little people watching while we waited for our table. Shawn asked if I could tell the difference between Japanese tourists and Taiwanese natives, and of course I could not. He said the tourists tend to dress more neatly. I’m not sure that helped me pick out one group from the other, but it was interesting.

The restaurant gave a whole new meaning to organized chaos. Workers hurried in every direction during our entire visit. It was an amazing scene. As soon as we were seated, a waiter brought me a sling, almost the size and shape of a high chair in the U.S., except with a cloth sling instead of a wooden seat. This was for my purse and camera case. Once I had deposited my things, she covered the sling with a cloth napkin and slid it under the table. Very nice, and it kept my things off the floor.

Shawn ordered several different kinds of steamed dumplings for us: pork, pork with vegetables, and shrimp. We also had fried rice, veggies with tofu, and steamed red bean dumplings for dessert. All the dumplings look more or less alike so I won’t bore you with all the pictures, but here is what we ate.

Pork and veggie dumplings:

Veggies and tofu:

Pork dumplings:

Before we left the restaurant, I excused myself to the ladies’ room. First, I would have thought that a restaurant of that size and popularity would have more than three stalls. Secondly, I had never experienced a Japanese style bidet before. And that’s all I have to say about that!

We walked several blocks to Shawn’s car, during which time I saw about fourteen 7-11s and six Starbuck’s. Not really, but I did see at least three 7-11s – they really are everywhere. I also saw a lot of great clothes shopping and joked about doing some shopping. Shawn, being the gallant guy he is, offered to let me do so, but I assured him I was kidding. Those who know me well could tell him how much I’m really not a shopper! Although I’d love to find something uniquely Asian to bring home for myself; I haven’t really done that yet. I’ve found things for my family but not really for myself. Figures, huh?

Naturally, I’ve gone off track. When we got near the car, I noticed this unnaturally tall building. Of course it was Taipei 101. And of course I got a picture.

Closer to the car was another beautiful building, which Shawn said was a memorial building (I should have taken notes on the details of that one – I don’t remember more than that now – my bad!).

Once in the car, we found out just what a challenge it is to find a parking place near the National Palace Museum on a Sunday afternoon. We ended up waiting in a line for a paid parking lot that was fairly close to the museum. Each car had to wait for someone to leave because the lot was completely full. We had fun making jokes and cheering on the people leaving the museum to come move their cars out of “our” parking lot so we could park and go in. It turned out to be a 20 or 30 minute wait for four or five cars!

Walking up to the museum, Shawn took a picture of me with the building in the background:

And this is one of a pair of lions “guarding” the VERY long stairway up to the museum.

In the museum, it’s apparently not OK to take pictures, which I found out right after I took this one. Perhaps I would have found something more interesting to waste my one picture on if I’d known! Or knowing me, I would have just kept my camera in its case like a good girl. In any case, this is the one picture I took inside:

I heard from more than one person that the mountain behind the museum is used for storage of all the items that the museum could possibly display. There are supposedly so many that even if the museum changed every display once a month, it would take something like twelve years to go through everything they have. It’s a big museum – that’s a lot of stuff!

Toward the museum’s closing hour, Shawn and I made our way to the gift shop, where I picked out some souvenirs for people back home. We then met up with a crowd (see if you can keep up): my manager, his wife and daughter, her sister and son, and her mother. Shawn also called his girlfriend, and we all met at a Thai restaurant for dinner.

I wish I could show you pictures of the stunning array of food that was served, but to be honest, I didn’t want to be a dork and pull out my camera at this nice restaurant with my boss’s entire family in attendance, so I didn’t. I should have written everything down so I’d remember, but of course I’ve slept since then. I know there were shrimp cakes with a sweet sauce, fried and steamed rice, mini fried chicken skewers with sauce, some sort of lettuce cooked in sauce, a bunch of grilled stuff that came out on a fajita-type skillet, and mango juice to drink. That’s all I’m remembering right now, but I know there were at least four or five other dishes that I’m not remembering. For dessert we all had ice with fresh fruit and tapioca (a version of the same thing I had at the street market). I’m told that Thai food here isn’t as spicy as in the U.S., and I really only got one spicy mouthful. It was all delicious, and everyone there was so lovely to me, as everyone in Taiwan has been. Even the children were sweetly well-behaved. My manager’s daughter is so cute; I’m not sure she had ever seen a redhead. Her eyes were large when she met me, and she kept giving me shy little waves. What a sweetheart! Of course, since I have boys (and teenagers at that), I tend to have a bit of a soft spot for little girls.

After dinner, Shawn and his girlfriend and I headed to the train station. They were trying as hard as they could to get me there in time for the 8:30 train back to Hsinchu, since the next one wasn’t until 9:30. Unfortunately, we couldn’t bend time and space, and I missed the 8:30 by about five minutes. Shawn showed me to the platform, and they went on their way.

At that point, a wandering train station employee found me and decided I shouldn’t be on the platform that early. After a strained conversation in very broken English, he decided to send me back to the lobby on the elevator; there was apparently no other way to get me there. Unfortunately, when I stepped off the elevator, the employee waiting at the other end couldn’t understand why I was there and kept trying to put me back on the elevator. I got pretty frustrated trying to communicate with her, especially as she was dealing with people coming off the elevator while she was trying to talk to me, so at one point I just walked off in search of a restroom (which I’d told her at least four times I wanted). When she discovered a few seconds later that I’d walked off I thought she might tackle me. She put me back on the elevator quite firmly, and I sighed and wondered what the man back on the platform would say. Unbeknownst to me, there were THREE floors, not just two, and she was sending me to the one where I hadn’t been yet. And there was a restroom – yay!

I’ve already told the story about the trip back on the train, so I won’t go into that again. Once I got back to Hsinchu, I walked around the station a little until I found the exit where the cabs wait. Shawn had written the name of my hotel in Chinese script so that I could be sure to make it home OK (so thoughtful!). I found a cabbie and handed it to her, and we were off. I was so glad to be almost “home”; I was so tired. I didn’t even pay attention when the driver went about a block too far, until she pulled over. Then I motioned behind us to show her where the hotel was. Apparently smacking yourself on the forehead is universal – that’s exactly what she did. Then she turned around, delivered me back to my hotel, and dropped the extra charges (probably more than she should have). Even more than I was glad not to have to walk the block back, I was laughing when she dropped me off. It was a fun end to a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime day.


Cindy said...

So with all the Starbucks there...do they serve the tea you've come to love so much? What about the rest of their menu - is it like it is here, or completely different? I know you're not much of a coffee drinker, so you may not even know, but I'm just curious.

The sea of motorcyles was interesting. Watch out - with $5 per gallon gas, the US might look like that soon.

Sounds like Shawn took very good care of you. I'm glad he wrote down the hotel name for you; that was very thoughtful.

Lisa said...

I know Starbucks here does not serve bubble tea and that their prices are similar, but I only know because I've asked -- I haven't gone to one. I just see them everywhere. Coffee here is as popular as in the U.S.

I've wonderd if we will soon see motorcycles like Taiwan has (even if the larger variety since many of our roads have higher speed limits). Several people have told me that the pollution is terrible here, and I see a lot of people wearing masks outside for that reason.

Yes, Shawn -- and everyone else -- has taken very good care of me. They are fabulous hosts. I hope if they come to the U.S. I can live up to their example!

Viina said...

you look wonderfull mom.