there again, part i
There was a period of time in my childhood where I would spent almost every year-end holiday in Taiwan, for about four to six weeks. These are not holidays in the usual sense - we weren't there to sight-see, we were there so that my mum, who is Taiwanese, could go back to Tainan City (in the south), the place she considers home, to spend time with her siblings. Consequently, I have been to Tainan and Taipei many times, but I have seen very little.
Now that we are older, our trips to Taiwan are fewer and further in between, but with my loving aunts and uncles no longer fretting over whether we'll get lost and kidnapped off the streets, my sisters and I see a little more of Taiwan each time.
The Tainan of my childhood was all about scooter rides to the markets so that my mum could buy breakfast and whatever she needs to whip up mouth-watering lunches and dinners for her family (she is the best cook of the lot). Afternoon adventures were about going to the park at National Cheng Kung University (where my dad studied and met my mum) or the park near the Confucius Temple and chasing my siblings and cousins around until we were red in the face and hoarse of voice. There was always a great place to grab dessert after - warm mochi rolled in a fragrant mix of ground peanuts, sesame seeds and sugar; shaved ice covered with red beans, boiled peanuts, chewy rice balls, and a lot of sweet things I can never quite remember. Everything is set to the cacaphony of scooters zipping up and down the streets, and the warm, friendly accents of the Taiwanese.
As an adult, I appreciate many of the same things, especially food-wise. The dessert shops are still around. So are the pan-fried buns filled with beef, broth and chives. The "bowl rice cakes" - rice cakes with pork steamed in little bowls. The stalls that sell you bowls of clear broth made from fat, sweet clams, slices of ginger, and chunks of milkfish (milkfish is a very big deal in Tainan). Steamed glutinous rice cooked with pork, dried scallops, mushrooms and topped with crab.
And now, I also appreciate the little things that make Tainan a charming place to visit. At first sight, Tainan City appears to be a depressing collection of grimy, unattractive 80s'-era buildings and dusty shops, indistinguishable from any other Taiwanese township. But its back alleys, some of which have been preserved, make for charming walks. Near the Confucius Temple is Fuzhong Street, which is lined with trees and lovely little cafes and a little restaurant that sells what is essentially instantly noodles topped with perfectly poached eggs. I have also gotten very lost in some old streets off Hai'an Road, the names of which I am, erm, unable to recall. In many ways, Tainan reminds me of a less touristy, sleepier version of Hanoi.
Venture a bit further to Anping (a 20-minute drive), and you get fresher air, and a somewhat different feel from Tainan City. You can get some amazing fried chive dumplings (filled with chives, rice noodles, a bit of minced meat and mushrooms), and munch on them while they're still warm as you cross the street to the Anping Treehouse, which is essentially an old warehouse belong to a British trading company that has been taken over by banyan trees. On a breezy fall weekday, there is no place more pleasant than wandering through the grounds. Plus, the cafe on site is a branch of a very famous soft-serve shop in Tainan City, which sells one flavour of soft-serve a day, depending on whatever ingredients are available. When we went, we got the red tea (essentially black tea) flavour, which nearly set off tears of joy - who in Taiwan doesn't recognise those bright red packs of 麥香红茶?
Anping also has lovely old streets to lost yourself in if you ditch the touristy parts of the district. This excellent blog about Tainan has a good post on them.
Is Tainan a must-see for tourists? For me, the appeal of Tainan is largely personal, rooted in happy childhood memories. But if you're the type with the patience to tease out a place's hidden charms (especially the food!), it should make for a pleasant visit.
A post on Taipei to come.