The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 2

The next morning I’m back at Taipei Main Station with a small overnight bag. I grab a milk tea from the 7-Eleven and head across the check-board patterned discourse to the ticket counters. I buy a ticket for a local train to Riufang. From this town I can catch a bus or take a taxi to Jiufen. I head underground and try to figure out the way to my platform. I pass a stand selling Taiwanese lunch boxes which I’m keen to try – I made a mental note to remember this place after my return trip. I find my platform and the train arrives a few minutes later. It’s a local, therefore a little older and grubbier than the MRT, but perfectly comfortable.

“This is the one.” An American voice stands out amongst the Taiwanese chatter as I board, whether it be Mandarin or other dialects. I look left to see an auburn haired woman slightly out of breath, followed by a man carrying a travellers rucksack.

“If we had to wait for the next one, it would be okay,” he says.

The woman sweeps her long hair back, bites her lip a little and sighs. She looks agitated.

“Yes, Kevin, I just -”

“I know. It’s okay. Relax.”

They look around for free seats and spot some at the opposite end of the carriage, their voices fading as they walk away.

I should be working on my latest article for EAT (detailing the historical significance of kimchi) but instead I put my headphones on and listen to some David Bowie while looking out at the scenery. We leave a series of grey high rise buildings behind and enter green mountainous countryside. The train passes a few derelict looking train stations. We arrive at the fairly small and slightly shabby looking Riufang station forty minutes later. I spot the American sounding couple leaving the train quickly and walking with purpose. They look like they knew what they’re doing so I follow them until I get caught up in a line. An efficient looking woman in a black uniform cap is taking tickets. The couple have already handed in their tickets and I soon loose sight of them.

There’s a taxi rank to my left when I leave the station, but I’m sure I can find the bus stop easily so walk directly ahead. I’m starting to get quite hungry and the small barbecue stalls selling mystery meat along the road aren’t helping, but I should probably wait until I meet Naomi and her friend. There’s no sign of the bus station, so I promptly turn and see an English looking middle aged couple walking towards me – a balding man dressed in a white polo top and shorts and a woman with a short mousy hair. Both are carrying overnight backpacks.

“Excuse me! Is this way to the bus stop, do you know?” The woman asks in a southern English accent.

“Doesn’t look like it,” I reply. “Think we’ve both made the same mistake.”

“Oh dear! It’s getting too hot for this! Michael, taxi?”

It doesn’t feel that hot to me, but their backpacks do look quite heavy.

“Yeah, go on then,” says Michael, wiping his brow. “Where are you off too, Jiufen? Come, jump in the taxi with us!

I agree and we return to the taxi rank together. “You’re English? Where are you from?” The woman asks.

“Winchester originally, and you?”

“Oh, lovely! We’re from Weybridge. Not too far really. What brings you here?”

“The food, mostly.”

The man chuckles but the woman interjects. “Oh you like it? It doesn’t all agree with me I’m afraid. I hope there are some foreign restaurants in Jiufen. A nice pasta place maybe.”

Given the tiny size of Jiufen and much of it’s popularity stemming from it’s traditional delicacies, I fear she will be disappointed.

“I’m sure it will lovely to look around either way,” she continues. “One of the crew called it the Pearl of Taiwan. The Positano of the East! And Positano is absolutely beautiful.”

“Yes, but you won’t be getting your spaghetti marinara so easily here, Pauline. We’re mostly excited about the gold museum, anyway,” Michael says. “Jiufen, please!” He speaks a little too slowly and clearly to a driver waiting outside his car. We all step in.

“Yes!” says Pauline excitedly. “Now THAT should be fascinating.  Will be hard to beat the one in Cape Town, though. Gold of Africa.” She gasps. “Wow, that was dazzling. And that jewellery museum in Hong Kong…” Her eyes light up at the thought.

We tell the taxi driver the names of our respective hotels which turn out to be quite close to each other. I find out a little about the couple during the ten minute journey through bumpy roads and past ramshackle isolated buildings. They’re on a cruise through northern Asia and their previous stop was Hong Kong. They have only a few days in Taiwan before moving on. The road begins to wind around coastal cliff edges and a stunning blue sea is visible as we ascend steeply.

“Oh, wow,” says Pauline softly, looking out the taxi window. “Isn’t that pretty!”

It certainly is. We pass an ornate orange tiled temple set into the cliff side and the narrow road curves to the left. Michael seems a little more concerned with how fast our taxi is going. My hotel is first as we pass by a police station.  I give Pauline my share of the taxi fare and and thank them.

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“Hope to see you around the town!” Michael calls out from the taxi as I leave.

My hotel is set against another cliff. I wander into the main entrance of the hotel and enter a lobby with a small office area and a few dining tables to the left. Two old men chatter away while eating at a corner table.

“Greg?” A voice asks tentatively.

I turn around to see a tall blonde woman. Naomi is naturally stunning, with the same piercing blue eyes her brother has.

“I’m Naomi,” She says, shaking my hand warmly. “Josh said if you spot an English silver fox, you’ve got your man. Well, I haven’t heard you speak, but it’s pretty obvious!”

A thin, unassuming girl stands shyly just behind Naomi.

“This is Cindy. I bet she’ll have a lot to say to you about your food blog!”

Cindy doesn’t look like she has anything to say at all. She shakes my hand delicately and gives me the faintest hint of a smile.

“Are you hungry, Greg?” Naomi asks.

“It’s all I’ve been thinking about out for the last hour. Come to think of it, It’s generally all I think about.”

“Well, of course, with your website!” She laughs. “So this place does breakfast, I know it’s nearly lunchtime but they can still make you up something, I asked. But let’s get you checked in first, I’m getting ahead of myself here, sorry.”

“Okay,” I agree, amused at her enthusiastic manner. “I’ll just check in quickly. What are you up to now? Please don’t wait on my behalf if you have somewhere to be.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry about that. We’re heading to Jinguashi later so you should definitely join! It’s the next town over. Cindy says it’s really worth the visit.”

Cindy just nods.

“Sounds good to me,” I reply.

“Great!” She claps a little.

I walk over to the counter where an older woman is looking through paperwork. She looks up and I say hello. Instead of replying to me she yells loudly in Mandarin towards the kitchen. A young woman pops her head around the kitchen door and replies. Cindy then steps forward and speaks to the two of them, the old woman nodding and the girl disappearing into the kitchen again.

“She was asking her daughter to help check you in,” Cindy explains, speaking to me for the first time. “Because the daughter can speak English. But I said it’s okay because I can help. You should show the old lady your passport.”

I retrieve my passport from a secure back compartment in my bag and a few minutes later I’m checked in, walking up a large wooden staircase to my room.

“You’re 205?” Naomi asks. “We’re 201, just down the hall. The rooms are very cute.”

As we climb the staircase I notice a display cabinet full of various knick-knacks – ornaments from around the world and an assortment of movie posters. The landing is home to a shelf with about 15 teddy bears of different sizes and shapes.

“Interesting style,” I comment.

“Bit of a mish-mash, right? I like it though,” replies Naomi.

As we reach the door of 205 Cindy and Naomi stop.

“We’ll leave you to it! Why don’t we meet in the lobby in a hour and we’ll walk together the bus stop? Jinguashi is just a ten minute ride away. Then later on we can explore Old Street, right Cindy?”

“Yes,” Cindy agrees. “There are many things to look at in Old Street. But now it’s very busy. So we can go to Jinguashi and maybe the street will be less crowded when we come back.” She speaks very matter-of-factly. The manner of the two girls is quite a contrast.

I thank them and enter my room. It’s large and airy with a view of the ocean across the road. I take a quick shower before heading down to the dining area. The owner’s daughter is cleaning away the old men’s dishes who have now left.

“Hello, can I still get something to eat or is it too late?” I usually become very self aware at these moments about my lack of foreign language skills and the Westerner’s expectation that everyone understands English. In this case however, I know that the daughter can understand me.

“It’s fine, please, sit,” she gestures. “I’ll prepare you a plate. Taiwanese breakfast.”

I thank her with a big smile – I’ve been wanting to try a traditional breakfast. She returns shortly with a tray full of various items, explaining to me what they are. There’s a deep fried stick of dough called youtiao, an egg crepe roll called dan bing, a turnip cake – buo gao and a bowl of warm soybean milk.

“What’s your name?” I ask as I begin eating.

“I’m Winnie.”

“Winnie, would you mind if I mention you on my website? I have a food website where I write about different meals when I travel. It would be nice to mention your name and the breakfast here briefly, seeing as it’s homemade by yourself. And it’s really delicious.”

Winnie blushes a little. “Oh, okay, it’s fine. I’m glad you like it. I really enjoy cooking and sharing traditional Taiwanese foods with visitors. I also like to make a lot of cakes and candies. It’s fun to experiment! I would love to leave Jiufen and go to a good cookery school. But it’s hard. I have to support my family here.” She sighs. “Is this your first time in Jiufen?”

“Yes. I haven’t seen anything yet apart from the beautiful ocean views and this hotel.”

“Oh, you have many foods to try here then for your website.”

“Any recommendations?”

“The taro balls of course, it’s very famous here in Jiufen. You can find so many other snacks and things to try, though. You must go to the tea houses, too.”

“Any in particular?”

“There are big ones like A Mei but also some very good ones closer to this hotel. There is one I really like. It is called Daydreams and Tea. Your Taiwanese friend mentioned it already, actually. She must know about it.” She looks very pensive as she says this.

“Oh, okay, I’ll remember it. How long have you and your parents had this hotel, Winnie?”

“About ten years now. My parents had a small shop near Old Street before that. But this is a bit better, I think. We really struggled with that shop.”

“It’s certainly a great location here.”

Winnie agrees before going back to the kitchen. I finish my meal and Naomi and Cindy appear shortly after. I notice Winnie staring at Cindy curiously from the kitchen doorway.

As we walk out a couple walk in, and I clock the auburn hair immediately. It’s the couple from the train. Like before, the woman appears very determined and walks up to the counter with purpose. The three of us take a left until we came to a steep stone stairway cut into the cliff.

“We can go this way,” says Cindy.

“You’re the boss,” replies Naomi. “You know this place.”

“So you used to live here, Cindy?” I ask.

“No. But I spent a lot of time here when I was at University in Taipei.”

She says nothing more so I turn to Naomi as we climb the staircase and ask how they know each other.

“Cindy is working as a nanny in Rochester. The kids she looks after were getting some professional photos taken one day at a studio I was working at. We started chatting and when I realised she was Taiwanese I told her all about my upcoming trip here! We hung out a few times before I flew over. She’s just back now for a couple of weeks visiting friends and family.”

We reach a street with a large viewing platform to our left jutting out towards the ocean. Several tourists are taking pictures with selfie sticks.

We cross the road and there’s another stairway up.

“Sorry, one more,” says Cindy. “But this street has some nice shops and cafes. My favourite cafe is along here.” We climb once more and this stairway takes us to a far busier street next to a large 7-Eleven (naturally) with people pouring into what looks like a narrow alleyway on our right.

‘That’s the start of Old Street,” Cindy points out. “See? So busy.”

“Wow. That is paaaacked tight,” says Naomi. “Good idea to hold back on that one, Cindy.”

We turn left and wait at a bus stop below another observation deck, many tourists moving around above us. Once we’re on the next bus I ask about Jinguashi.

“Do you know about the gold mining history?” Cindy asks me. I shake my head and she begins to tell me how the small town is known for it’s gold and copper mines. I remember Michael and Pauline mentioning a gold museum earlier. “When the Japanese ruled here it was one of the biggest copper mines in the world,” she explains. “You can still see all the old mining tunnels there. We will go to a waterfall called the golden waterfall. All the metals from the river make it this interesting colour. I think you will enjoy taking a photo there.”

“Thank you, Cindy. It must be so nice for you to visit this area again. Do you like America?”

“It’s okay. I’ve been there just one year. Before that, I was a nanny in Sweden. Three years. It was wonderful there.” As she talks her hand fiddles with a necklace underneath her white blouse.

“I’d love to go to Sweden,” I remark.

“It’s so beautiful. I had a really good relationship with my employer in Sweden. He died just two months ago. It’s so sad… ” She continues to play with her necklace. I can’t quite make it out with the blouse covering, but it looks like a pearl necklace. “USA employer is just okay. Maybe it’s time to come back to Taiwan forever soon…”

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Our winding journey ends and we exit the bus. The golden waterfall in front of us is not huge, but definitely eye catching with it’s unusual colour. There are a few tourists taking pictures and among them I notice Michael and Pauline. They spot me too, and look a little surprised, turning to each other and murmuring.

“Didn’t take long to bump into you two again!” I say as I walk towards them.

“Hi Greg! So pretty, isn’t it?” We’re stopping here and then off to the gold museum. Are you here with friends?” Pauline says, looking over at Naomi and Cindy.

“New friends,” I reply. “Friends of a friend, you could say.”

“Ahh… very interesting.” She certainly seems interested, her eyes still on Naomi and Cindy.

“I better go join them actually, rude of me to wonder off when Cindy is showing me around!”

Michael and Pauline look at each other as if something has been confirmed. They’re acting a little strangely so I say goodbye and leave them to it, although they look like they want to talk more. Naomi, Cindy and I take a few pictures before moving on to explore some of the old mining tunnels. We spend an hour walking around, at which point I realise I should really get back to the hotel and work on my kimchi article. We agree to meet up in the hotel lobby later in the afternoon.

“Bring your stomach,” Cindy recommends. “Many things for you to try.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I always do.”

*

A few hours later I wait for Naomi in the hotel lobby. Cindy left earlier to spend time at her favourite cafe, so we’ll meet her at the entrance to Old Street. I make a little small talk with Winnie who is tidying up the dining area.

“Some people were asking about your friend. Cindy,” Winnie tells me. “They asked me if she is staying here. They were very eager to know. Maybe you tell Cindy?”

“Oh, sure. What were their names?”

“They didn’t want to tell me. It was a couple. An American woman and American-Taiwanese man. The girl had kind of red hair. So if you tell that to your friend maybe she will know who they are. She’s probably in that cafe again.” Winnie sounds distinctly unimpressed by Cindy’s frequent trips to Daydreams and Tea, which seeing as they don’t know each other is a little odd.

The couple from the train… They walked right past us earlier. Why didn’t they stop Cindy then? Do they not know what she looks like? Why do they want to know about her whereabouts then? The woman was on some kind of mission, and appeared quite stressed about it. The man seemed to be there more for support. What has Cindy got to do with this?

“Thank you, Winnie. I’ll pass it on.”

Naomi arrives and we climb the stairways up to the entrance of Old Street. We talk a little about Naomi and Josh’s modelling experiences in Taiwan as we climb. Naomi reiterates how well they are looked after at Bangka Models compared to other foreign models and their agencies.

“They found Josh an excellent billboard booking for this week. Too bad he couldn’t come join us. But he doesn’t like the Taiwanese food too much and we’re about to go eat everything Jiufen has to offer… so maybe for the best!”

We look for Cindy once we reach the top of the stairs. I see a glimpse of auburn in front of me and spot the mystery couple outside the 7-Eleven. What’s going on with these two?

“Kevin, I want to get some use. Let’s go in here,” the woman says. They enter the convenience store and I wonder what she means by ‘get some use’, but Naomi distracts my train of thought by excitedly pointing out some Spirited Away soft toys on sale in nearby shop.

“Ooh, so cute!” Naomi cries. “I must buy a No-Face before we leave!”

We meet Cindy and enter the narrow Old Street, food stalls and shops packed tight all the way down. Cindy begins to point out various snacks that are either her personal favourites, or popular choices with locals and tourists alike. The street is still quite busy. There are tour groups all over the place. I feel sorry for the poor guides trying to hustle their groups through. Sleeping dogs lie near the entrance ways to shops or in the shops themselves. The shops are full of souvenirs, packaged sweets, handbags and small ocarinas which seem to be everywhere. Cindy informs me that Jiufen is well known for the wind-instruments and they make great souvenirs. We lose Naomi for a minute who gets caught up in an expensive leather goods shop, eyeing up various items. When she catches up we stop outside a stall selling gelatinous translucent dumplings with a red centre – Cindy refers to them as red meat dumplings. Now that we’ve spent a little time together, she’s definitely becoming friendlier. She seemed somewhat wary of me earlier in the day.

“You must try these and then soon we’ll have some fish balls in soup… Then definitely we’ll buy some taro and sweet potato balls and also a kind of peanut and ice cream roll…”

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One hour and plenty of food pictures later, we’re all fit to burst.

“Well you’re certainly living up to your website name… I’m feeling pretty wonderstuffed myself right now,” says Naomi.

“Let’s stop at a cafe,” Cindy suggests. Naomi and I agree (walking is hard after all those snacks) and we stop at the first bubble tea cafe we come across and take a seat.

“We will go to a proper tea house too, of course,” Cindy says after we order three taro bubble teas.

“Ooh, yes!” Naomi exclaims. “I want to go to the Spirited Away one! And Greg, are you just going to stay tonight or should we book you in another night at the hotel? I’m going back to Taipei on Thursday. Cindy will probably stay a while longer.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I reply. “Cindy, you have some friends here you’re catching up with, right?” Cindy just nods. “I think I will stay another night. I’ll talk to Winnie when we get back to the hotel.” Our bubble teas arrive, vibrant purple with plenty of black tapioca balls visible at the bottom. Cindy reaches into her handbag and pulls out a container full of small yellow spheres. She puts a spoonful of them into her drink and stirs.

“What are those, Cindy?” I ask.

“They’re popping pearls. Little balls with juice inside. You can add them to bubble tea. These ones are mango and they’re my favourite.”

“I’ve seen you carrying those around since we arrived, you must really love them!” Naomi chimes in.

“I take them everywhere. Here, try some.” She offers me and Naomi a spoonful. I start drinking, sucking up tapioca pearls and popping pearls with my straw. The tapioca balls are chewy and the popping pearls burst in my mouth, the mango flavour strong and sweet. By the time we finish our teas it’s dark outside and Old Street has taken on a new appearance with all the red lanterns lit up, strung along both sides of the street. It really does feel whimsical, and we walk at a leisurely pace until we reach the famous A Mei Tea House. It’s completely packed so we go for a beer at a nearby bar instead.

“We can try again tomorrow, hopefully it’ll be a bit quieter,” suggests Cindy.

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After a couple of beers I leave Cindy and Naomi to it and make my way back to the hotel. I arrange an extra night’s stay with Winnie before going to my room. I manage to finish off my EAT article and email it in. My phone beeps with a new message as I click send. It’s Josh.

Tired of my sister yet? Hope you’re having fun!

We message back and forth for a while before I decide to call it a night. I realise I completely forgot to mention the mystery couple to Cindy so I’ll pass it on in the morning. I’m curious to find out what they want, and if Cindy doesn’t know who they are then I’m sure she will be too.

© Intrigue Inn

 

The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 1

I stand cautiously above a staircase on Taipei Main Station’s ground floor, like a nervous swimmer about to dive into the deep end for the first time. The labyrinthine confusion of passageways one floor below me that make up the principal metro, train and bus hub of Taipei present a daunting challenge. I’m tempted to procrastinate by exploring the station’s food court one floor above, but I don’t really have time. I can’t help it. I generally end up following my nose. It’s lead me all the way from England to Taiwan, after all. But I can’t imagine I’ll find any hunched over grandmothers cooking up a generations old recipe on the floor above. It’s probably all franchise restaurants, and that generally goes against the content of my website, Wanderstuffed. 

Around me there are a few scattered food stalls selling fruit, mochi and souvenirs, as well as a 7-Eleven of course – they’re ubiquitous in Taiwan. Close by is an ice cream stand and the young man working it has spotted my hesitation and wondering eye and flashes me a smile that I can’t resist. I head over and buy a black sesame soft serve from him. It’s the second time I’ve tried black sesame ice cream and I can’t get enough of it. No more stalling, though. I need to get going. One last smile from the soft serve man and then down I go.

I manage to find the MRT blue line after a long underground walk and laugh aloud as I realise my destination, Ximen, is only one stop away. Well, I’m here now. I swipe a Hello Kitty themed transit card through the turnstiles and stand in line for my metro before boarding a shiny carriage. The Ximen-ding district is an entertainment area full of shops, restaurants and bars. Sounds like there’ll be plenty to explore until my tour of a night market later this evening.

Minutes later, I exit the Ximen station and find myself surrounded by high rise neon and crowds of people. I make my way across the street and walk into an area with a series of market stalls selling clothes on both sides of the street. A large red octagonal building in front catches my attention. I walk around it and come across a group of open air bars. A string of fairy lights has been placed around the outdoor area of the bar nearest me. Below the lights, a svelte waiter bounces away disinterestedly after taking an order from a man alone at a table. I look up and notice the bar is called G Bar. Aha! I’ve stumbled upon a gay district. It’s definitely refreshing to accidentally walk into an area of openly gay establishments – that certainly wasn’t the case with my previous stop, Korea. Taiwan is known to be more open minded towards homosexuality than many of it’s Asian counterparts, with the constitutional court ruling in favour of same sex marriage last year.

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I walk in and the bouncy waiter offers me the drinks menu, an electro-lounge version of Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long playing softly as I enter.

“Go for the Zhujiang beers, they’re not bad. And it’s two for one,” the man who has just been served tells me in an American accent from his table nearby.

I smile and glance over the menu quickly. “Oh, I’ll just have one of these non-alcoholic cocktails… A Virgin Mary, please.” The waiter nods and bounces away.

“Interesting choice. Laying off the alcohol this evening?” The American asks.

“Ah, my love of food is enough of a vice to be getting on with,” I tell him. “So I rarely drink.”

“Very sensible of you.”

I take a look at the man properly and almost do a double take. He has alarmingly symmetrical looks, very model-like. He looks to be in his late twenties. A good ten years younger than me, at least.

“Feel free to take a seat,” he says, motioning to the three empty chairs at his table. I have no reason not to, especially not with those looks, so I join him.

“Foodie, then?” He asks.

“I suppose. It’s what I’m here for.”

“Oh, more pleasure than business?”

“Both, actually. My business is food. Or writing about it, should I say. I have a website, Wanderstuffed. It’s a glorified food blog really, but I’m lucky enough to be able to live off it these days.”

“Wow, that’s nice. Wanderstuffed? Let’s see… ” He flicks through his smartphone, brings up the website and scrolls through a couple of pages. “Oh, this looks good. Professional! Lot’s of… people stories?”

I nod and smile. “I like to focus on the people behind the food almost as much as the food itself. Provide some background info, a bit of history and context. A lot of my time travelling has been spent interacting with the people who cook or own the restaurants I eat at. That doesn’t just enrich my experience as a traveller, but hopefully the reader’s experience too.”

“Very neat,” he says, as my drink arrives. “I’m Josh, by the way.” He holds out his hand.

“Greg,” I say, shaking it. “Nice to meet you. What are you up to in Taiwan?”

“I’ve been working here a while. Six months nearly.”

“Teaching?”

“Oh no, I’m with a modelling agency.”

“Of course,” I laugh. “That does not surprise me.”

“What surprises me is how you can drink that stuff,” he says, pointing at my mocktail. “I mean, individually I like Tabasco and I like Worcestershire sauce. But with liquid ketchup? No m’aam. Guess you grow to like it? I could say that for a for a few Taiwanese dishes.”

“If you’re beginning a debate on Taiwanese food, well, I could settle into this chair for the night.”

“Oh really? And what’s your favourite?”

“Well, I’ve only been here for a couple of days. Had the most amazing beef noodle soup yesterday at a tiny, inconspicuous restaurant. The owner is taking me around the nearby night market a bit later, actually. We ended up talking for quite a while.”

“For the website? Or for your own interests?” He laughs.

“Ah, he has a certain charm… he’s just a genuine, humble man dedicated to his restaurant. So, where do you stay for work? Does the agency provide you with a place for yourself?” I ask.

“They do. Small place about five minutes from here. Close to Lungshan temple. The agency arranged it. It’s not too bad, save for the occasional flying cockroach. It only happened once,” he adds, noting my expression. “And luckily it flew into my sister’s face, not mine!”

“That’s… horrendous. Your sister is here with you also?”

“Yes, she’s working with the agency, too. We came over together.”

“Really? Good genes,” I comment.

“Oh, we’re nothing too special in the States, but over here our look goes over well. Blue eyes. Blonde.”

“And it’s been a good experience?”

“Yeah, absolutely. Ready to go home soon but I’ll miss this place after a while I expect.”

“Where’s home?”

“Rochester. Ever been to the US?”

“A couple of times. I’m keen to do a big road trip.”

“Brits always tell me that. Well, I’m glad. At least you want to visit! Some people are so anti-US right now they look at vacationing elsewhere.” He finishes his drink and as he does I recognise Stevie Nicks’ carefree vocals on a remix of Dreams. Fleetwood Mac are one my favourite bands and generally remixes don’t do any of their songs justice, but this is really well done – not overproduced.

“What’s up?” Josh asks after ordering another Zhujiang.

“I just really like this remix. Never heard it before.”

He nods and holds up a finger indicating I should wait, takes his phone from his pocket and after clicking on something holds it up on the air. It’s an app to recognise music, one of those things I would never think to download but really should.

“There we go… what’s your number? I’ll message you the name of it.”

Oh, I see. Smart.

I give him my number and we chat a bit more about our jobs and impressions of Taipei, before I realise I have to meet Freddy soon. I thank Josh for the conversation and settle up my bill.

“I actually have to meet my sister for dinner,” Josh says.  You’re going to Ningxia, right?”

“Yeah, near Zongshan station.”

“Right. My sister and I are eating around Zhongshan so if you want another beer, or Virgin Mary should I say, you have my number now. Feel free to message me!”

“Okay, great. I’m planning to visit Jiufen tomorrow but no need for an early night I suppose.” Josh seems quite direct, and I like that.

“Oh, no way! My sister is going there tomorrow for a night or two. She’s meeting a friend there. I should ask her if she has any tips. Her friend knows Jiufen well.”

“That sounds great, I appreciate it! It’s a bit of a last minute decision so I need to find accommodation if I want to stay the night. I’ve heard so much about how charming it is at night with all the lanterns lit up.”

“Me too. I’ve not been. But I know it inspired the setting of some anime movie…”

Spirited Away, I believe.”

“That’s the one. Alright Greg, maybe catch you later!”

*

It doesn’t take me long to walk to Ningxia night market. I spot Freddy’s square face and black rimmed glasses amongst a throng of people eager to get their hands on various street foods. He greets me with a small nod and a firm handshake.

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“You are always dressed so smart!” Freddy Kuo remarks. It’s true. I usually like to dress in a well-ironed shirt and chino combo, even when I’m being a tourist. “I hope you are hungry,” he says. There’s a lot to eat here. It’s not big like Shillin market – that’s the biggest and most famous. But many locals like to come here and enjoy oyster omelette or taro cake.” Freddy speaks very good English, in part due to personal studies and also his regular visits to stay with his sister now living in Melbourne. He told me many details about his close family yesterday, which I made notes on to use for my article about his restaurant, Kuo Noodles. Freddy is Han Chinese, but considers himself completely Taiwanese. His father identifies as both Taiwanese and Chinese having come to Taiwan at the age of seven, along with roughly two million other Han Chinese immigrants after the Chinese civil war.

I listened carefully to what he had to say about beef noodle soup, a Taiwanese staple. The Taiwanese style of beef noodle soup – using red braised beef, is made especially tender using ingredients including sherry and star anise. This style became popular with Han Chinese veterans who had fled to Taiwan. I imagine recipes shared between close knit communities, being adapted using different local ingredients to what they were used to. Freddy’s father had learnt the recipe from his veteran father and he and his wife set up Kuo Noodles in the seventies. With nearly forty years using a tried and tested method, slight perfections being made every so often, no wonder I was still craving the soup 24 hours later. The restaurant does offer a few other items including pan fried buns and pork noodle dishes, but the main attraction is the soup. Two options are available – spicy and regular. I opted for the spicy soup, deep red in colour with fresh noodles and generous chucks of beef  falling apart in my mouth the second I began chewing. Freddy’s mother came over with a small version of the regular soup just so I could compare. The restaurant itself is small and nondescript. The best ones often are. The only indication of happy customers is a board on the wall near the counter with around 40 photos of worldwide travellers and Taiwanese celebrities who had paid a visit, all smiling alongside Freddy or his mother.

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Freddy and I walk past stands selling clothes and mobile phone covers, the traffic and noise increasing as we enter the main strip. It’s a compact market with stalls and and sit down eateries.

“We can sit down, if you want,” Freddy tells me, speaking a little louder as we become part of the crowd. We pass stalls serving beef noodle soup, squid on a stick and glazed fruit, strong aromas filling the air. Freddy points to a small eatery. “This one has my favourite oyster omelette. Shall we try it?” I agree and let him lead the way.

Five minutes later, our omelettes hit the table, filled with oysters, scallions and other vegetables covered in a sauce that Freddy tells me is mainly ketchup, soy sauce and vinegar. We start eating and suddenly I hear a commotion behind me. I turn around to see a small fight happening, looks like it’s between a customer and a stall owner.

“Oh… that’s not so usual. Sorry for you to see that,” Freddy tells me, concerned. I tell him not to worry. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen often in Taiwan. Maybe it’s gangsters…” He wonders.

“In public?”

He nods. “Most people in Taiwan don’t come into contact with the gangsters unless they owe money – maybe gambling issues, or if it’s for prostitution. Otherwise you don’t see them, ever. Maybe the stall owner became involved with something?”

The fight breaks up after a few minutes and the crowd dissipates. We finish our omelettes and continue to explore, Freddy sharing more info on his background and grandparents as we walk, of which I take a mental note. After some fermented bean curd (which Freddy warns me is not popular amongst foreigners but I love) and taro waffles we finish the tour. I thank Freddy and promise him I’ll be making another trip to Kuo Noodles before I leave Taiwan. The night is still young so I message Josh who isn’t too far away.

*

I meet Josh at a cocktail bar along Zhongshan North Road, roughly halfway in-between the market and my hotel.

“Hey, I bought you a non alcoholic one,” he says as he greets me at the bar, his blue eyes dazzling. I thank him and we take a seat.

“I was thinking,” he says, “There are some interesting themed restaurants around here, you know? Would they work on your site? There’s a restaurant in Ximen where everything is served in toilet bowels. I wonder what your readers would make of that…”

“No way,” I shake my head. “A mention maybe, but no need to go to a novelty restaurant that’s likely more style over substance. Is a soup served in a pretend toilet bowl actually going to taste good or is it all just for the quirky Instagram moment?” I pause for a second, hearing myself speak. “Pretentious?”

Josh shrugs. “Probably just your age,” he laughs.

I give him a mock scandalised look. I’ve just turned 40 and I think I dealt with it extremely well, so I’m not bothered.

“I showed your website to Naomi – my sister,” Josh says. “I didn’t realise how popular it was when looking closer!”

“Ah, it’s taken a while to build up.”

“Very detailed articles, as you said. I like how informative they are. Different to what the bloggers normally write.”

“Yeah, I didn’t really want to go down that flashy graphics  ‘top ten things to eat in Taipei’ route that seems pretty en vogue.”

“That’ll be you age again,” he teases, taking a swig of beer. “Just kidding,” he adds as I raise an eyebrow. “You’re right, that is the style of the social media friendly blogs. But hey, you took a different approach and look how it turned out! All those hits! Don’t you love it when a gamble pays off?”

“Well, thanks. I’ve been lucky. It was noticed by a researcher for EAT – big food mag in the UK. Bit hipster. But some interesting reads. They offered me a monthly write up, full page. That lead to a weekly column on Miriam Romaine’s travel food website, which was really, really amazing and now it all supports each other, I suppose.”

“I’m impressed. You need to try the soup dumplings here. The xiaolongbao. I gotta be careful, actually. My agency won’t be impressed if I start ballooning due to too many of those.”

“They’re quite strict?”

“They are, but I won’t complain. They look after Naomi and I well, and that security is something other Americans modelling here with different agencies haven’t had, from what I’ve heard.”

“They get shafted? With pay?”

“Yeah, mostly. Promise of big work, magazines and billboards, but ends up being really shady. Contracts not adhered to. Or models not reading what they sign a lot of the time. That’s a problem, too. We read everything through very carefully. I think this should lead to big things!” He says it confidently, but I can tell he has his fingers figuratively crossed.

“That’s a pity. Oh well, I’m glad it’s worked out for you. Well, look at you. I can see how you’d do well here. And those Taiwanese men must be all over you.”

“It’s been a good time…. I admit,” he laughs. “Listen, I spoke to my sister about Jiufen. Her friend could be a real asset to your website if you plan on writing about the place. She knows the town and I’m sure she could help out with food recommendations. You should definitely meet up with them. You wanted to stay the night right?” I nod. “Great, well I asked Naomi to check if there’s any room left at their hotel so we’ll see what she says. Her friend has been there for a couple of days already. Catching up with old acquaintances I believe.”

“Oh, you really didn’t have to do that.”

“No problem. You wouldn’t mind? I assumed you would be keen to network but you don’t have to meet up with them. Even if you stay at the same hotel!”

“No, no, that sounds great!”

I’m always keen to network and meet new people. It really adds to not just my personal experience but to Wanderstuffed also. As Josh says, this friend could be very helpful. It crosses my mind that spending time with the sister of a man I’ve just met and was certainly attracted to might be a little strange, but spending my time in Jiufen with a little company would be nice.

Josh checks his phone and smiles. “You’re in luck. There’s availability at their hotel. 1900 NTD for the night. Should I confirm?”

“Yes, that would be fine, go ahead. Please thank your sister.”

“I will. Put a pic of Naomi on your site as a thank you. She’ll love the free publicity,” he jokes. “Shame I can’t come now, but not worth skipping on my bookings for the next couple of days. They’re paying well. Maybe I can come join later in the evening, I’ll see how tired I am.”

We chat a little longer, with increased levels of flirting and a few more jabs at my age, until I check my watch and realise I should head home. We say goodbye and I put my earphones in and listen to the Fleetwood Mac remix Josh found for me as I walk back to my hotel.

 

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