Taiwan, april 2017

Moisture repellant

A woman sits at the street side, staring dreamily into the distance. In between us are five glass containers. In each container sits a brightly coloured toad. “Pet or food?” I ask with a poker face. After all, you have to take everything into account in this country. And fair is fair: we have been looking forward to the exotic food in Taiwan for months, solemnly promising each other to taste everything that is considered a delicacy over here. Even if it has too many slimy threads on it or smells like chemical warfare. Or if we suspect an insectoid origin – ha! Made in Taiwan! Either way, when all is said and done, we have to be tough and sink our teeth into one of those thick slimy toads. “Pet,” the toad lady replies. As we walk on – heavily relieved – I wonder if I have given her an idea.

A few days ago, we flew from Amsterdam to Taipei. Never before has a long flight been so comfortable. It helps that it was a direct connection, and that we had the trusted KLM service, with nice food and good movies. And of course, it was nice that our daughter slept for almost the entire flight. Normally, to put it mildly, she is not the sleep-through kind of girl; at home, we raise the flag when she has an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Reminder to ourselves: schedule a mortgage interview to buy a Boeing 747. Sleep is SO important.

But then the orderly KLM bubble gives way to the chaos of the streets of Taipei. We pick up our rental car, a Toyota Yaris. An automatic – though it is not automatic enough to prevent us from driving in the wrong gear for the first two days. Hence why it guzzled petrol and grumbled so much. But this traffic! The first thing you notice is that all the cars have blacked-out windows. Gone is the eye contact. And gone is the corrective middle finger. Or it must be that you receive one yourself, from a scooter rider who accidentally cuts you off. Because the second thing you notice are the scooters. There are lots of them, and sometimes a whole family is on them, including small children and pets. Furthermore: traffic rules are optional, pedestrian crossings decorative. And traffic lights are, at best, noncommittal advice to reduce speed. The only real rule in traffic is that you are only responsible for what happens in front of you. That does save a lot of attention; you can ignore half the traffic.

While the children and yours truly sleep away our jet lag on Sunday morning, Ellen explores the streets of Zhongli and snacks on some dumplings from a street corner shop. She comes across a group of elderly folk doing tai chi and other gymnastic tricks in the open air at six in the morning. A senior citizens’ boot camp we would call it; Asians are good at it. I think it’s a beautiful phenomenon. Not that I object to the fitgirls (m/f) who increasingly dominate the street scene at home. But a bit more diversity in terms of age is not a bad thing.


If you look at the map through your eyelashes, Taiwan is egg-shaped and is the roughly the size of the Netherlands. A mountain ridge runs through the centre, from north to south. That is why most people do a circular drive if you want to visit both sides of the island. So that is exactly our plan: we will drive down the west and back up the east coast in a fortnight.

After shaking off the worst part of our jet lag in Zhongli, we drive to Lukang. On the way, we pay a brief but powerful visit to Lion’s Head Mountain, a mountain with a temple complex built against it with lots of impressive carvings. Like all recent holidays, we booked most of our accommodation through airbnb. This is a great way to experience people’s homes. In Lukang, we are Wendy’s guests. She runs a lunch shop on the ground floor of her house. A few stairs up, the four of us sleep in a large room. And somewhere in between, she herself lives with her husband and a couple of young children. When you’re then invited to join them for an evening meal, you automatically find yourself in the slightly awkward but, more importantly, fun twilight zone between dining in a restaurant and dining with friends. There is a lovable chaos; the kids crawl over each other like ants. This is the reassuring proof-by-example that Asians don’t have it all under control either, despite all our prejudices about Tiger-moms and about the discipline and obedience imposed on them here.

Lukang is also where we feast on our first street food. Taiwan excels in this: the famous night markets, but also the ordinary street restaurants. In appearance, they are often nothing more than a fluorescent-lit garage box, but you can enjoy great food for a few euros. Early in the morning, we sit on plastic stools enjoying our breakfast: soup with glutinous balls. I just write it down as it is written on the menu. There’s a chance you’ll feel like gagging at this point, but the taste is top notch. In the evening, we eat oyster omelettes – I say superfood – accompanied by a big bottle of Taiwanese beer. We share, of course, because knocking down half litres of beer on your own is an overrated activity in my opinion. And I consider 0.6L bottles to be a family pack. For dessert, we order bubble tea at a specialised bubble tea shop. Visually, bubble tea is reminiscent of a milkshake, which is delicious. Full of confidence, we answer eighty-five multiple-choice questions. “Cold or hot?” is the only question we understand. We must have taken a wrong turn somewhere in this bonfire of questions. The result is unpalatable. Not only that: at the bottom of the drink are gel balls that shoot into your straw while drinking. I have had countless anxiety dreams over the past few months, about earthquakes, hurricanes, and dengue fever; I now realise that the chances of dying in Taiwan due to one of those sticky gel balls shooting down your throat are by far the highest. Death-by-bubble tea, it sounds pathetic. But it also gives a sense of control. We tip the cup into the bin. We survived our first bubble tea!

Sun Moon Lake

From Lukang, it’s an hour’s drive to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village. This is the ideal stopover before we head for our cottage at Sun Moon Lake. It is more like a combo between an open-air museum and an amusement park. So, both dancing aborigines and a roller coaster. In other words, something for everyone. And: something for not everyone. Tessel doesn’t like it. She tries to pull my arm out of its socket every time we are within an actor’s action radius. And I myself – sitting next to Teun in the roller coaster – experience that my balance organ has lost its flexibility. After these upsetting experiences, we set our sights on the white-water ride. That’s fun for everyone. The four of us sit in the front row of the boat. Behind us are a bunch of Taiwanese teenagers, three rows deep. Each and every one of them is wrapped from head to toe in plastic, except for a small breathing hole. Asians are not into exuberant body language, but I am sure they are internally gloating that we are going to act as their water shield here. But ha! They have ruled out my shirt. The technical shirt I grabbed from the shelves at our local supermarket just before the holiday. If one thing has stuck out from the impressive list of specs – apart from the fact that the fabric is coffee-treated – it is that my shirt is moisture-repellent. In short, “the water won’t catch me” is the dominant mindset as we are launched towards the water table. A moment later, I know the meaning of moisture-repellent: one (1) drop of water that falls on your shirt will simply roll off. However, if you get half of the South China Sea poured upon you, you still get soaking wet.

We leave the amusement park and head for our nearby cottage. Somewhat disoriented, we drive up and down mountain roads until Tessel triggers an IMV alarm. IMV: I Must Vomit. Every parent knows that this will leave five seconds to conjure up a plastic bag, which we miraculously manage. Moments later, Teun also starts vomiting. And then it becomes clear that finding a bag is one thing, vomiting into it and not next to it is quite a different matter. Anyway. We realise that some people have children that will vomit as soon as you take off the handbrake; in this respect we are lucky.

A helpful neighbour arranges for host Erik to navigate us to the cottage on his scooter. And this cottage gets the maximum score from us. It looks immaculate, has good beds and a nice bath, it is nice and spacious, and every morning there is a picnic basket with breakfast on the veranda. At night, the frogs in the pond make a racket. Which, in turn, is quite atmospheric.

During the day, we drive around Sun Moon Lake. It is raining but we make the best of it. We visit Shuishe village, and the Wen-Wu temple located by the lake. And we take a short walk to the Tsen Pagoda. Chiang Kai Shek had it built for his mother – a great opportunity to teach our children about dictatorial traits and motherly love. In Ida Thao, also known as Sun Moon Lake Village, we are surprised to find that from almost every shop Pachelbel’s famous canon is pinging. Closer inspection reveals where the sound comes from: miniature wooden fairground rides which are for sale everywhere here.


From Sun Moon Lake, it is quite a long drive to Meishan. The route goes through the mountains and the views along the way should be fantastic – on a clear day, that is. All we see are clouds and drizzle. Our hotel in Meishan, the Ren Tea Gardens, looks deserted. The door to the lobby is half-open, but there is no one in sight. Not even when we politely but loudly report that there are good people at the door. I call the reception’s mobile number and get someone on the line who doesn’t speak a word of English. He manages to make it clear to me, don’t ask me how, that he is going to find someone who does speak English. That someone calls me a few minutes later. He does indeed speak a lot better no English. He explains to me that someone will arrive shortly to take care of us. And so it happens. Why am I telling you all this? First, of course, because of the wise life lessons you can draw from this incident – that you can overcome barriers as long as you really want to, and so on. Secondly, because after such a lukewarm reception, you don’t expect to find yourself yodelling Dolly Parton’s oeuvre that same evening at the insistence of the hotel management. Yet that is exactly what happens. After a short walk along the tea fields and a futile search for fireflies, we find ourselves in the lobby. There, dinner is served. While the hostess puts about six local specialities on the table, her husband pulls out numero seven: a bottle of rice wine. It packs a punch; it is definitely more like whisky than wine. A couple at the table next to us get the same treatment. We start talking. They are from Taipei; she is a teacher; he is an engineer. He had something to do with the submarines that The Netherlands wanted to supply to Taiwan, to the anger of China. What exactly, that is lost as the karaoke system warms up in the background. And so, a few moments later, we find ourselves with a microphone in our hands. Islands in the stream, that is what we are. The hostess seems to think we can sing – another talent. Her husband, an elderly man, makes the party even wilder. He can whistle ear-splittingly loud on his fingers, much to the amusement of our kids. It gets more and more boozy. Oh yeah, the kids are still here too. Shouldn’t they be in bed or something? Meanwhile, the host is busy making tea, playing a complicated game with pots, pans and a gas burner. He invites us to sample it. In this way, switching from rice wine to tea, he prevents things from completely spiralling out of control.

Dulan and Ruisui

The next day we have a long drive ahead of us. Via the southern tip, we head to Taiwan’s east coast. On the way, we visit the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum. It is Taiwan’s largest Buddhist monastery, which is also the headquarters of the Fo Guang Shan movement. In appearance, it reminds us of American mega-churches: strongly focused on popularisation and modernisation of the faith, and not averse to a bit of commerce. There is a vegetarian restaurant where we eat delicious truffle dumplings.

大姆灣 is our hostess in Dulan. She just got married, but her husband still lives somewhere else. Together with her parents, she already lives in a brand-new beach villa. Her very elderly father sits in front of the TV in the living room; he once was a shipbuilder, but his mental abilities are increasingly failing him. Mother and daughter have invited us for drinks at the kitchen table. The ladies are very complimentary: they think yours truly is thirty-two and Ellen a fashion model. Both equally bizarre, of course! (Although? I once was. Ellen wasn’t.) Dulan is a surf spot, it is the territory of hip dudes and babes. As an alleged young god and super model, we can safely call this our natural habitat. Incidentally, we also thought 大姆灣 and her mother were 10 to 15 years younger. So maybe it’s just the fresh sea air. An expensive bottle of wine is opened, and snacks arrive on the table, including home-harvested seaweed and a jar of pickled mini peppers (note to self: try them at home).

All in all, this is a place to relax and to eat tortilla and other tapas at Cape Café Paradise, a seaside eatery. And to body-surf on the high waves and lose your sunglasses in the process, and then stroll endlessly along the beach in the naive hope that the surf will bring your glasses back. In downtown Dulan, we eat original Italian pizza made by a Swiss chef and we eat okonomaki – Japanese pancake – in the old sugar factory. And, in line with our new hipster status, we drink café lattes and iced coffees at the Moonlight Inn cum gallery on top of the hill.

After saying goodbye on Sunday, we drive north towards Ruisui. On the way, we hike along the Walami trail. After a pit stop amidst the rice fields, we walk into the forest. We cross a river via a large suspension bridge. In front of us, a woman is crying with fear of heights. It doesn’t go that far with us but I can kind of empathise with her. All in all, this hike is the ideal prelude to an overnight stay at the hot spring hotel in Ruisui. It is not a luxury spa, on the contrary, it all looks a bit chipped, but the essentials are there: hot water from a spring. Several pools of varying temperatures have been laid out under a corrugated iron roof. Lazily, we simmer away time here. Complete relaxation glimmers on the horizon. The only thing keeping us from it is that there are some uninvited guests crawling and flying around. My entomological knowledge falls short of naming them, but a fact is that Tessel no longer has the nerve to walk. I have to lift her from tub to tub. Until she no longer even trusts the bathwater itself. This is too much for a girl who already thinks the smallest fruit fly is a scary spider. Time to go to bed.

Taroko Gorge and Ping Xi

Our last destination before Taipei is Taroko. On the way there, we swim at a small waterfall. And we have lunch in Hualien, at a restaurant specialising in dumplings. The bamboo steamer trays are piled up high and customers queue in large numbers. And rightly so. This restaurant is famous, we read afterwards in our travel guide.

Onward to the Taroko Sialin Coffee Farm Homestay. We are welcomed by Boya and Lisa, a middle-aged couple. In terms of hospitality, they are hard to match. Boya regularly shuttles to and from the train station to pick up and drop off guests. Lisa puts a breakfast on the table in the morning that would give the average Instagram foodie an inferiority complex. Of course, she pours a cup of coffee with it from beans they personally grow, dry and roast – how local do you want it? In the evening, Boya gives a tour of Taroko, his native village. Taroko or Truku is also the name of the aboriginal people Boya descends from. You can hear that he was a history teacher. He tells us in depth about his childhood, poverty, and oppression by the Japanese and Han Chinese. His wife is Han Chinese, so their marriage was far from obvious. Through perseverance – and through a song he wrote especially for his sweetheart – her parents eventually gave in, and he was able to marry her after all. It doesn’t stop there. Once home, Boya sits down behind the piano and accompanies his wife as she sings the song in question for us, followed by two encores.

Not far from our homestay is the Taroko Gorge in the National Park of the same name. It is a spectacular area, and we are clearly not the only ones who think so; we occasionally find ourselves in traffic jams. By car, we visit the Swallow Grotto and the Tunnel of Nine Turns. After lunch in Bulowan – dumplings, we can’t get enough of them – we venture on a 4km circular hike to the Baiyang Waterfall. The route starts with a dark tunnel. Luckily, we have a torch with us, one of those with a built-in GPS and SIM card and all sorts of games on it. A sign at the end of the tunnel warns us of wasps, poisonous snakes and falling rocks during the rest of the hike. In reality, it’s not all that exciting – though you’ll probably think otherwise when your health is actually threatened by a snake or a falling rock. Nothing as abstract as a risk and nothing as concrete as a block of granite on your head. Anyway. At least the reward at the end of the trail is far from abstract: lots of falling water.

The next day, we drive to Ping Xi. To our right, behind steep cliffs lies the ocean. After a while, the surroundings become more urban; you can tell we are approaching Taipei. In Ping Li, a few kilometres before Ping Xi, we see countless lanterns floating in the air. It is an ancient custom, originally intended to warn villagers of the arrival of enemies. Once a year, there is a big festival centred around this tradition. In recent years, these lanterns have become a daily phenomenon, duly noted. It is a madhouse. A few hundred people stand on and along the railway tracks. For a small fee, you buy a lantern from a stall. You have a choice of different colours, entirely depending on the kind of wishes you want to put on it. Because that’s step two: paint your most ardent desires on it with a brush. Are you going for love, a shiny career, health, popularity, pure joy or a combination package? It’s all possible; it’s like a vending machine. Step three, of course, is the launch. Besides fulfilling your big wishes, you at least hope your lantern rises nice and high and doesn’t incidentally set a house on fire. Meanwhile, you also hope that no train runs you over. After all, we are all standing between the railway tracks. “Take care train is coming,” reads a sign. And indeed, a train is coming. It is moving at walking pace because the station is nearby. Everyone neatly moves aside before taking their places between the tracks again. A tourist trap? Definitely. And a bit of a misstep too. Apart from the fire risk, all those lanterns end up somewhere in the wider area. We are now participating in that. The fact that almost only local tourists come to see them makes it seem less bad; apparently it is part of the local culture. Very responsible to immerse yourself in it – right? However, if I replace lanterns with bullfights, I do feel that this is not true.

Ping Xi is a bit uneventful. Despite the tourist buzz, it takes a lot of effort to find something to eat, let alone something that tastes good. That’s a novelty in Taiwan. The evening is saved by an insider tip: fireflies can be seen along the road at the edge of town. Earlier, in Meishan, we had failed to see them; here, this is more than compensated. Once you’ve spotted one, you quickly see a lot of them. Wow, how beautiful!


After a night in a mosquito-infested flat, the battle against the second law of thermodynamics, better known in the normal human world as repacking our suitcases, begins. The rental car must be returned today, minus the Lego bricks, smelly socks and T-shirts and other objects that have claimed their own place in the car over the past two weeks. When we are finished packing and cleaning, we drive to the capital, via Taipei Zoo. The zoo is set against a hill. A cable car takes us to the top. While there, we visit a food market and the Zhinn Temple before slowly descending through the zoo. We search in vain for lions, get caught up in the panda madness and then return our car in the centre of Taipei. After a short search, we find our accommodation for the last two nights, a small but superb flat in the middle of the city.

If there’s one thing you don’t want to miss out on in Taipei, it’s the night markets. Think of it as a running buffet of several kilometres in length. A few minutes from our flat is the Raohe night market, and a taxi ride away is the Ningxia night market. It’s very crowded, but that’s never really a problem in Asia. Moreover, it’s all about the food, and it’s so good! How about roasted pleurotis eryngii – oyster mushroom – or steak strips cooked with a gas burner? Our favourites are wafer-thin slimy dough bags filled with prawns, and tropical fruit smoothies. Of course, we also try stinky tofu. I think I speak for everyone when I say it sounds super gross. And I would be a snob if I claimed now that it is nevertheless a delicacy. But hey. Blue cheese took twenty-five years to win me over. Give its soy sister some time to do so.

Of course, we also go to the Taipei101 – the world’s tallest tower between 2004 and 2007. The lift up is ominously touted as “life-changing” but thankfully that is not really the case. Besides the impressive views and a hard-to-avoid jade collection, my eye is particularly drawn to the shock absorber: a 660-tonne spherical mass suspended at the top of the building. This pendulum keeps the tower in check during storms and earthquakes. A recording from the security camera shows how the thing danced back and forth during a recent earthquake – at the very moment a group of tourists were being briefed on how it works. If anything is life-changing it is this “tuned mass damper”; without this device, those tourists would not have lived to talk about it.

Our children have their personal requests in Taipei. For months they have been looking forward to it. Dressed in identical yellow Pikachu T-shirts, they are now sitting in the back seat of the taxi. We are on our way to the Modern Toilet Restaurant, Teun’s choice. As the name suggests, this restaurant is infused with the “toilet” theme in every detail. So we don’t sit on chairs but on toilet bowls. And the food is served in miniature toilets. Even your drink can be served in style. I quote, “All beverages could add 50 NTD to upgrade container to a urinal to go”. Tessel’s choice is the Hello Kitty Café, a pastel-coloured children’s paradise with waitresses that have just walked out of a doll’s house and a sugary menu that will crack your enamels before you’ve even ordered anything. Exactly as we expected. The only surprising thing is the clientèle: there are several childless couples dining here.

A few streets away from the Hello Kitty Café is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (so we discover when we get out of the taxi there the next day; apparently our inner google maps doesn’t quite work in Taipei yet). Although Kitty and Kai-shek have quite different backgrounds, they rival each other in personality. In the Main Chamber of the Memorial Hall, a life-size statue of Taiwan’s former leader looks down at us. More or less by chance, we witness the changing of the guard there. What I find fucked-up about this kind of ceremony is that after half an hour of staring at uniforms marching back and forth, you still don’t know if the guard has actually changed. It could just be that those original guards have taken their places again.

At the end of the day, we board the plane for a direct overnight flight to Schiphol Airport.

We are home. From the waste-paper bin, I fish out the packaging of my technical shirt. What turns out to be the case? I totally made up that moisture-repellent stuff. The fact that a few drops beaded off the shirt must have been a placebo effect. What the packaging does say: anti-allergic, anti-bacterial, breathable, UV-protective, four-way stretch (?) and on the flip side comfortable, soft, thin & light – “it feels like you have nothing on”. It is beginning to look very much like someone has sold me the emperor’s new clothes.