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Things I Won’t Miss About Taipei

I’ve already made my list of things that I’ll miss about Taipei after I depart–the most important of which would be the friends I’ve made. This city certainly isn’t all bad. While this city has been a decent place to live while I’ve been here, there are certainly reasons I want to get away.

Let’s get some of the small stuff out of the way first. Obviously, I could do with out the noise created by all the ill-maintained motorbikes (I welcome the day that they’re all replaced by Gogoro). Also, the awful drivers who don’t care that they create dangerous situations–at least in Vietnam the poor driving habits are more consistent.

Air pollution is another good reason to get out. Taiwan is better than some other nearby nations, but my lungs will be happy to move to cleaner air.

There’s also the weather. I can’t step outside for more than five minutes in August without bursting into flames.

There are other things I won’t miss about Taipei that would require further explanation.

Wasting Space

A common complaint around Taipei is that extremely slow walkers can take up entire sidewalks–it doesn’t matter how many people or how wide the sidewalk either. There are sidewalks in my neighborhood that can accommodate three people, but one person who walks slower than a snail will inevitably occupy the entire space and not allow anyone to pass in either direction.

Of course, the space on sidewalks is littered in many places with illegally parked motorbikes, and sometimes cars. At least it isn’t as bad as in Tainan (I didn’t take photos of the ones in Taipei).

Tainan Sidewalk

Most sidewalks looked like this, but worse in Tainan

There are also plenty of people who take up unnecessary space at libraries and cafes. There are many days I go to the National Library near my apartment to write only to find that the desks are occupied by people sleeping or who have simply left their belongings and gone for a walk.

These people will leave laptops and other electronics on the desk for hours. In any other country, their stuff would get stolen and everyone would blame the victim. There are also signs at the desks that say you shouldn’t leave your seat for more than an hour, which is still excessive.

I have taken seats at which someone has only left their belongings. When they return and say, “Excuse me, that’s my seat.” I respond with “You haven’t been here for more than two hours. It’s not your seat anymore.” I hope these people get it through their thick skulls that they shouldn’t be inconsiderate.

Taiwanese Food

While night markets can be fun and the availability of some non-Taiwanese food is plentiful around the city, overall I’m not a fan of Taiwanese cuisine. I’m sure more than a few people will chastise me for this, but it needs to be explained.

I consider most Taiwanese food as bland. More than that, it relies on gooey textures that I find repulsive (I didn’t like mochi in Japan or toppokki in Korea either). And much of the food is sweet. And people can shut up about how much they love stinky tofu–it’s a foul odor and it’s still bland tofu.

taipei street food

Nothing special from a street vendor

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good foods in Taiwan. I like beef noodle soup, three cup chicken, and xiaolongbao. However, there is little in Taiwan that I would ever crave. In almost three years, I have had ONE meal here that made me say, “Wow, that’s amazing,” and it certainly wasn’t at Din Tai Fung. The best Taiwanese meal I had was a roasted chicken restaurant in Jiaoxi–it ranked up there with the fried chicken I had in my neighborhood in Seoul.

Also, I’m fairly certain I’m the only person in Taiwan who loathes bubble tea. I don’t like sweetened tea and I certainly don’t want gelatinous globs in it.taipei night market

Before anyone starts ranting about the quality of American food with references to fast food, you can shut up too. I don’t eat fast food. I rarely eat a burger unless it’s guaranteed to be a really good one. I happen to prefer the food from every other country I’ve visited to that of Taiwan.

Company Management and Culture

Taiwan is resource rich but management poor. This doesn’t mean that everything that goes on here is of poor quality, but it does mean that there is a lot of room for improvement and the reason that improvements don’t come is because management gets in the way of progress.

Many Taiwanese companies demand loyalty from employees, but they also pay paltry wages. Managers often complain about the lack of qualified employees and why so many talented Taiwanese move abroad. They blame the government and society for their ills. They should take a look in the mirror.

I went to an interview and was told that the company has had two people in this position in the last six months. When I mentioned the salary I wanted, I was told it was far too high (the company wanted someone for about $25,000 per year). Gee, I wonder why that company couldn’t find a suitable candidate.taipei 101 xiangshan

As my friend and former coworker noted, many companies reward mediocrity while putting pressure on high performers. If you do more than the bare minimum, you will always be expected to do that without any incentives or increased salary. Meanwhile, your coworker who slacks off will be seen as a model employee because he/she does exactly what is expected despite the poor quality. This is especially true of employees who have been with a company a long time–if someone new comes along and performs better in the same job, the older employee will still be given more money and possibly a promotion.

I had another coworker who said Taiwan doesn’t attract the more repulsive expats as other East/Southeast Asian countries, but it also doesn’t attract the best qualified either. You won’t find as many entrepreneurs heading for Taiwan to start a business–they’re more likely to go to China or somewhere else.

I’m sure I’ll encounter plenty that I can complain about when I return to the US. Corporate culture isn’t much better in the US with companies attempting to pay the lowest possible salaries, but I’m sure there are companies that recognize the differences in quality.

Taipei Bar Prices

Alright, this is not something that I should complain about considering how many times I’ve gone out for drink in Manhattan. But considering the cost of living in Taipei, bars are ridiculously expensive. I understand that the cost of running a bar is high and there are a lot of taxes on alcohol (beer in particular), but the prices can be outrageous.

Redpoint TaiPA

How much did I spend on this beer?

When the median salary in Taipei is just over NT$40,000 (US$1323) per month and the minimum wage isn’t even US$5 per hour, it’s a luxury to have a drink. While I made significantly more than the median salary, I wasn’t willing to pay more than US$10 for a drink, even I was only having one or two for the evening. I can get the same quality of drinks for less in Manhattan.

Fortunately, I managed to find some bars that were less expensive–and those are the places I went to  more often.

Is it really that bad?

The positive of Taipei still outweighs the negative in these cases, though the work environment was definitely a drag on the desire to stay long term. And considering the friends I’ve made here, there’s a decent chance I’ll return to visit and see a few sights that I missed during my time here.

What I’ll Miss About Taipei

It’s almost time for me to depart the city I’ve called temporary home for almost three years. Taipei has been a decent place to live, though there have been some bumps in the road and inconveniences. Overall, my time in Taipei has been mostly positive, though I’ll have another post on things I won’t miss about the city.taipei 101

Accommodation

During my time in Taipei, I have lived in four places–one long-term hostel and three apartments. I’ve looked at plenty of other places to live as well.

My first apartment was through Airbnb, and that host did not mention that the neighborhood is known as the high-end prostitution district. It was a shock when I arrived, but the apartment was quiet and comfortable enough for my three months. I had looked at moving to northern Taipei as well as a place just south of where I’m living now, but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of moving considering the prices would be the same anyway.

The long-term hostel was not a place I’d recommend. I lived there for far too long as I awaited news on a new job that didn’t come. I wasn’t sure where I’d want to live, so I remained in the private room in the hostel for NT$10,000/month. I knew I could find a cheaper place with roommates, but I didn’t want to be locked into a long-term lease at the time. In that room, the bed was uncomfortable and the walls were so thin I could hear every footstep.

taipei apartment

You can’t tell how poor the construction is from this photo

My first leased apartment was an illegal two-bedroom rooftop for NT$17,000. My friend came to stay for a few months and split rent, which was certainly helpful. But that apartment was falling apart. It didn’t help that the landlord thought that he was “doing a favor” when fixing or replacing broken things in the apartment. He didn’t seem to understand the landlord-tenant relationship.

Then there’s the place I’ve lived for about a year and a half. When I complained about the rooftop apartment, my friend Tom asked if I’d like to rent his extra room. The rent was the same as that rooftop but utilities weren’t included. Of course, I’d only have to pay half. Plus, I got to live with Tom’s two dogs.

Cheap rent, a friendly roommate, and two lovable dogs. That sold me. Plus our landlady is nice and gets things fixed when needed. Of course, we sometimes need to use a bit of translation as she doesn’t speak English.

tom's dogs

Who wouldn’t love these dogs? Zenko (left) and Yazhou (right)

I will miss this apartment. I’ll definitely miss the dogs. Sorry, Tom, but I’m sure you understand.

The downside to accommodations in Taipei is that the buildings are not well constructed. There’s no insulation and some electrical installations (mainly air conditioners) are half-assed. There are also far too many disgusting places for rent–I’ve come across landlords who just don’t maintain the apartments. I’ve seen photos posted on the main Chinese-language rental site that look like horror movie sets.

I think I got lucky with this last apartment.

Healthcare

This is an obvious one, especially as the US government seeks to undo everything the previous administration did to improve healthcare. I’m not saying that the Affordable Care Act was actually good, but it was at least a small step forward. Ever since I graduated college, I’ve found that the US healthcare system is absurdly expensive and inefficient.

After living in Taiwan, which has national healthcare, I’ve found that the US healthcare system downright sucks. This is why Taiwan is one of the top expat destinations. If I go to the doctor here for a blood test, I pay NT$150 ($5), and it includes three months of medication. The last time I went to the doctor, she overprescribed my medication so I’ll go home with six months worth of medication that I won’t need to buy at about $30/month in the US.

If I want to see a dentist, it’s another $5. Even without insurance (because I have gone to have a checkup when I wasn’t insured), medical care is reasonable. The only problem in healthcare here is eye doctors–it’s not covered by insurance. The first time I got new glasses here the shop messed up the prescription and the glasses…twice. It was still much cheaper than back home.

Public Transportation

Another easy one. I’m used to the New York subway system, the PATH, and NJ Transit. I’ve also taken Amtrak. I have nightmares about returning to all that.

The Taipei MRT system is wonderful and efficient. It goes almost everywhere I want. It can get crowded and some people are rude when they try to get on the train before people exit (I’ve gotten in the habit of elbowing people on my way off the train), but it’s still clean and comfortable. It’s also really cheap.

taipei riverside park

Riding a public bike along the riverside park

The buses are also pretty good. I live a long walk from the MRT station, so sometimes the buses are more convenient and cheaper. As long as I check the time of the next bus, I might be able to catch it instead of walking in the rain or unbearable humidity to the MRT station.

Then there are the wonderful YouBikes. They’re everywhere. And unlike the CitiBike in New York and Jersey City, there’s no membership fee. It’s just pay as you ride. Of course, if you don’t know where the YouBike stations are, it could get complicated, but there’s an app for that.

YouBike

The cheapest way to get around Taipei

There is room for improvement with the YouBike system, but it’s better than anything I’ve seen before. Of course, when I return home I’ll have my bike and won’t need to worry about bike share programs.

Hiking

I love hiking and Taipei makes that easy. There are a lot of hiking trails within the city and even more just outside. When I get back to New Jersey, I’ll have to drive somewhere to find a decent hike.

I’ve taken a few of the hikes numerous times, particularly Elephant Mountain while I was training to run up Taipei 101. I also enjoyed the views from Mt. Hemei in Xindian; it was even better because fewer people take that hike.

yangmingshan national park

The from a rainy hike in Yangmingshan National Park

My biggest regret in Taiwan is that I didn’t get to the central mountains. Every time I attempted to plan a trip, something went wrong and prevented me from going. It’s also not easy to get to those mountains via public transporation.

Friends

How could I not mention the people I’ve met during my time here? It wasn’t easy to start as most people I met were here temporarily. Then I got a job with odd hours and couldn’t meet people as easily. But I managed to make a few good friends here in Taipei.

Those I’ve kept around me have been helpful and kind, willing to share stories while wandering the city and enjoying a meal. And some of them even joined me on a some hikes in the city.

I hope the friends I’ve made here will be able to visit me in the US.

Survival Guide: Taipei Now Available

It’s time to announce the release the Booze, Food, Travel Survival Guide: Taipei, which is now available on Amazon. You can pick up your Kindle or paperback copy (for those of you who don’t have ebook reader).taipei travel guide

This travel guide was published way behind schedule, but that’s probably better because many of the places I had wanted to include in the guide closed and others opened (not quite as bad as when I published my Taiwan craft beer article for Scoot and two bars mentioned immediately closed). After almost three years I have seen plenty of businesses disappear while others have replaced them. Discovery of smaller destinations around Taipei have come slowly over time, especially as I have worked full time during much of my time here. But I was able to note a few places that some guidebooks might miss.

Mikkeller Taipei

Of course I wrote about some of my favorite bars

After missing my self-set deadlines to publish this book, I realized how important it is to follow a schedule and maintain focus. Over the last few months, I have been able to focus more on writing tasks that are important to me–and I have been able to be more productive, though there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Of course, this Taipei travel guide comes out in time for visitors to prepare for the summer Universiade that begins in mid-August, which I won’t be around to watch. This means that many more tourists will arrive in the city soon and will search for things to do that might not be as popular among the tourist crowds.taipei 101 xiangshan

Although it might be sweltering this summer, I have included a few hiking options other than Elephant Hill for visitors to Taipei. I also added my favorite riverside bike route, though I don’t know how many people will want to ride that far on a YouBike.

YouBike

The cheapest way to get around Taipei

Of course, I included the basics of getting around Taipei with the MRT, buses, taxis, and YouBikes as well as some basic information about health and safety. It’s everything a traveler could need for a trip other than a hotel. And I would be remiss if I didn’t write about the beer and bars around the city and the night markets and the various foods they provide. This may be the only Taipei travel guide that doesn’t recommend Shilin Night Market–I went so far as to tell people to go elsewhere and avoid the awful crowds.

The travel guide is 125 pages in paperback and 90 pages on Kindle. It includes some photos from around the city to entice visitors to see more of Taipei. It was tempting to add more photos throughout the travel guide, but that would’ve made the ebook file too big. Also, with the paperback option from Amazon, it makes the book a little lighter to carry around.

raohe night market

Welcome to Raohe Night Market

Whether you’re planning a trip to Taipei soon or just want to dream about that trip, you can pick up a copy of the Booze, Food, Travel Survival Guide!


I Climbed Taipei 101 and Lived

On May 7, I participated in the Taipei 101 Run Up, a race up 91 floors of Taiwan’s tallest building and the fourth-tallest building in the world. This year’s first place runner was an Australian who finished in 11 minutes 24 seconds, a time that I didn’t even come close to matching. It was the 13th year for the race, which attracted 4,500 participants from 36 countries.taipei 101

My goal wasn’t to finish with a great time, but to simply finish and be able to say I’ve done it.

To put this race in perspective, I paid TWD1,000 (US$33) to climb the 2,046 steps of Taipei 101 when there is an express elevator to the 89th floor observation deck for  TWD600 (US$20). I wanted a t-shirt that says “I paid NT$1,000 to climb Taipei 101 when the elevator was cheaper.”

For those who don’t know, the view from the 91st floor outdoor observation deck isn’t great–you can’t see down because of the building obscuring the view, but you can get a better view from the 89th floor, which I didn’t get to stop on when going back down (via the elevator, of course).

Taipei 101 run up

The race pack with my shirt, bib, and tracking chip

Preparing for the race

I’m not in the best shape. Sure, I go on some long bike rides and hikes, but I’ve never been in great shape. And at 37, I’m a bit past my prime. I’ve never entered a race of any kind before this. But I wasn’t the oldest competitor, nor was I the most out-of-shape. There were plenty of people who looked like they were much worse shape.

I had one month to really prepare for the run from the time I got confirmation that I was signed up. I did not train too hard in the first couple weeks though. Unfortunately, the pay-by-the-hour gym around the corner from my apartment closed back October, so I had to find another way of training. A few months ago, Yonghe District opened a public gym that was only a short (free) YouBike ride away.

xiangshan

Only a short walk up the mountain for this view

I tried out the stair climber machine, but realized that it’s nearly impossible to move quickly and it works the wrong muscles for actually climbing stairs. I focused more on the elliptical with the tension set higher, which was a little closer to climbing stairs.

I also set out to hike a little more in between the rainstorms. The easiest trail to take was Elephant Mountain (locally called Xiangshan), which is really a quick hike straight up the stairs. It’s so quick that I realized I could hike it in nine and a half minutes. I figured this hike is a little less than half of Taipei 101 without the turns in the stairwell.

In my final week of training I hiked it twice (22 minutes for both trips up, plus about 30 minutes going down). Two days before the race, I hiked from Tiger Mountain to Elephant Mountain along the trail that brought me past 9-5 Peak for a total of two hours. I remember that last hike being easier and shorter, but the last time I attempted it I was three years younger.

taipei 101 run up medal

Because race participants are 3rd graders, we all got a participation medal

In between all that there were a few bike rides, including a 27-mile ride to the northwest corner of Taipei at the confluence of the Tamsui and Keelung rivers–the views out that way are beautiful and it is my favorite bike ride in the city.

Starting the Taipei 101 Run Up

I arrived early. My early sign up meant that I had an earlier start time and I had to go through a health and security check around 9 am on the day of the race. Of course, they neglected to put up any signs at the MRT exit pointing to the health check area, which was on the other side of the building. I had to ask multiple people who told me it was just around the corner (that doesn’t mean other side of a building where I’m from).

Taipei 101 run up

Waiting to start the race

Other than that inconvenience, the rest of the time was spent waiting around a trying to stretch a little before the run. Also, I had the chance to drink some water and use the restroom before my group started. I know, it sounds exhilarating.

The actual run

I started out just fine, but the stairs were a little crowded at first–it all thinned out around the 10th floor as people either pulled ahead or began to lag behind. At that point I began wondering what the hell I was doing. “This is only the 10th floor!?” I thought, “This is not going to go well.”

I kept going despite my legs screaming at me to stop. Most of the people in my race group stopped on landings for a breath or at the water stations on every fifth floor (I stopped once for water somewhere around the 70th floor).

taipei 101 run up tattoo

I didn’t get a temporary tattoo

It was around the eighth floor that I noticed one guy who appeared to be in good shape taking two steps at a time at quick pace, and I thought this guy came to race. A few floors later, I saw him stopped in the corner catching his breath as I passed him at my more moderate pace. I never saw him again.

I’ll admit I took a few stops along the way, but I tried to not let my tired legs linger for more than 10 seconds at a time. I caught my breath and continued–I found that a brief break allowed my legs to rest enough for at least another five or so floors.

Taipei 101 observatory

View from the 91st floor observatory

By the time I hit the 80th floor, I felt confident I could make it without any more rests. I was ready to get up to the top and finish the race.

I finally reached the top. I thought my time was better than reality (I guess some of the walk from the start to the stairs and the landings made it a little longer). I thought I had finished in under 25 minutes, but it turned out to be 27 minutes 43 seconds. Either way, it was faster than one step per second, which would’ve put me at 34 minutes.

taipei 101 run up

The crowded finish line

At the 91st floor, I found a large crowd waiting around the finish line and groups taking photos. I didn’t want to get stuck in the crowd and opted for a quick elevator ride back to the lobby (actually it was three separate elevators; seriously, who designed the building to be so inefficient with elevators?).

korean bbq

Mmm…Korean barbecue

After the race, I met up with a few friends for Korean barbecue nearby at Honey Pig. I stuffed myself stupid and had a bit of makgeolli before going home to shower and pass out.

Charity Run for Cambodian Landmine Relief Fund

My friend Sherry and I impulsively signed up to participate in the Taipei 101 Run Up on May 7, and we decided we could use the opportunity to raise money for the Cambodian Landmine Relief Fund (LMRF). I’ve mentioned this organization before as I visited their museum in Siem Reap while on a bike ride.

As the race is 2,046 steps and there are two of us, our goal is to raise a minimum of $2 per step for a total of $4,092. Obviously we hope to raise more than that minimum.

Why Cambodian Landmine Relief Fund?

I suggested the organization and Sherry agreed. I like LMRF because they do more than just remove landmines and unexploded bombs from Cambodia; they also help build schools and provide scholarships for local students.

landmine museum

Collection of landmines recovered by the Landmine Relief Fund

I also know that they have low overhead costs, so more of the donations go to help Cambodians rather than to pay people running the organization. After talking with former US Army Lieutenant Bill Morse at the Landmine Museum, I learned a lot more than I thought I could about Cambodia and the work that needs to be done.

For Americans who want to donate, LMRF is a US-registered non-profit and donations are tax deductible.

Where does the money go?

All funds will go directly to Landmine Relief Fund.

According to the LMRF website:

  • It cost $3 per month to support one child in an RSVP school. This includes a Village iPad (chalkboard), notebooks, and writing utensils.
  • The cost of a school for the Rural School Village program is $5,000 per room.  That includes desks and chalkboards. We usually build 4 or 5 room schools.
  • The cost for a toilet block and water well for the students and village is $1,250 each.
  • The monthly cost of running a demining mission is $20,000.
  • The cost to keep our EOD teams in the field is $6,250 per month per team

What is the Taipei 101 Run Up?

It’s a race up the stairs at Taiwan’s tallest skyscaper. We will run up 2,046 stairs, which doesn’t sound like much, but consider that if we climb one step per second it will take 34 minutes to reach the top. The record for the race is 10 minutes 29 seconds. Neither Sherry nor I plan on coming close to that record. We hope to finish in 30 minutes and not be dead last in the race. We will be racing against 2,998 other individuals, so there’s a good chance some people will be less physically fit than we are.taipei 101 xiangshan

We realize that this run is crazy, but we’re willing to do it (and there will be medical staff at the race).

How can I donate to Landmine Relief Fund?

Go to their website or directly to their PayPal donation page. We are not handling any of the money. I had considered using a third-party website, but they charge high fees to raise money for non-profits. This is the most efficient way to raise money.

You can also send their US office a check if you don’t have PayPal or don’t trust it. Information is on their website.

Please add a note when donating to LMRF that it’s for Matthew and Sherry’s ridiculous run up the stairs (you don’t need to use those exact words, but you can just say its for Taipei 101 Run Up).

What do I get for donating?

You get the satisfaction of knowing that you’ll make a difference in the world. And if you make a significant donation, you can email me at matthew.lubin[at]BoozeFoodTravel.com and I will send you a thank you postcard. Or you can go to the contact page.

So come on and help us reach our goal and support a worthy cause! Donate today!

Joys of Imported Beer in Taipei

While I have focused my writing on the craft beer industry in Taiwan, I haven’t spent much time on the imported beer that’s available in Taipei. As the local craft beer has become more common and easily available, there has been a large increase in imported beers as well.

Thou Shall Nut Pass beer

Thou Shall Nut Pass…I laughed a little when I found this beer

Typically I’d prefer to buy local, but in my time in Taipei, there has been limited variety in local beer–and even limited availability at some bars. Also, as I have noted at other times, even the local craft beer can be expensive ($10 in some cases). There have also been a few instances when I’ve come across an imported beer that I just could not pass up.

Where to find imported beer in Taipei

Some of my favorite places for a good beer include NEN in Zhonghe (technically New Taipei City, which is where I live), Revolver near Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and Way Home near Taipei Arena.

It’s weird recommending my local bar, which is more of a bottle shop, because I don’t want it to get crowded. But then again, I want it to stay in business. It’s a tiny bar along No. 4 Park that has an ever-changing rotation of imported beer. They also have a few local brews and sometimes have a keg or two. It’s a well-lit, comfortable bar and it’s rarely crowded. Plus, this being anywhere outside the good ol’ USA, you can get a beer or three for take-out and go sit in the park on a nice day/evening (the park even has clean public toilets).

beer

Only a section of the shelf at Way Home

Revolver has been my go-to bar since my second stint in Taipei–it is the most popular music venue in the city, though I’ve never seen a show there. They usually have a decent selection of bottles for NT$150-220, which is a decent price in Taiwan. They’ve also had some Founder’s and Pizza Port beers on tap in the last year. I usually leave when Revolver gets too crowded.

I discovered Way Home last year while wandering around. It’s another small bar with a huge selection of beer. They have the largest selection of local beer I’ve seen, but they have plenty more imported beer. The staff is quite helpful and they’ve given me a decent opportunity to practice speaking beer-related Mandarin.

Founder’s Brewing

Last year someone started importing Michigan’s Founder’s Brewing. I was amazed as this is one of the best breweries in the US, and they have never disappointed me. People in Taipei who recognized the brewery went after it full force–it sold out quickly. Fortunately, some bars restocked. Revolver, which I still enjoy despite the crowds, usually has a keg or two.

founder's KBS

My favorite beer

The most surprising moment I had was finding Founder’s KBS at a small beer bar in Guting when I joined a writers’ meetup group. It was about $12, but I didn’t care; I bought one to go and saved it for a while in my fridge. Then I noticed my local beer bar NEN had a few bottles of it for a little less than $10. I bought three. I still have one in the fridge.

For those who don’t know Founder’s KBS (I’m shocked, shocked!), it is my favorite beer. I doubt anything will knock it from its top spot on my list.

Stone Brewing

I’ve been a fan of Stone Brewing for a long time. My friend might disagree as he doesn’t like IPAs and that’s most of what they used to brew. But I’ve always enjoyed their IPAs.

stone beer tasting

A tasting of Stone beers at Beer & Cheese

In addition to the IPAs and a few lighter brews from the company, my local shop carried last year’s Xocoveza. This is Stone’s winter/holiday beer that is supposed to be their take on Mexican hot chocolate; it’s full of chocolate and spices, including coffee, peppers, nutmeg, and a load of other stuff. This is a delicious beer to enjoy, and I bought a few bottles after trying it for the first time. When I visited home for my birthday I had it again on tap. This beer is so good, Beer Advocate gave it 100 points.Stone Xocoveza

Ballast Point Brewing

Another favorite brewery from the US came for a long visit and they brought one of my top 5 beers. Ballast Point Victory at Sea is a rich, smoky vanilla porter that begs to be sipped. I didn’t care that it was brutally hot and humid in Taipei, this beer needs to warm up a bit to fully enjoy the flavor.Ballast Point victory at sea

For the first time I got to try what all my friends had been talking about back home with Ballast Point’s flavored Sculpin IPA. Almost the whole variety was imported, but I was only interested in trying the grapefruit and habanero varieties. Grapefruit and IPA usually goes well, and a brewery as good as Ballast Point hit the mark with this one.

The habanero Sculpin was a different experience. It took me a few sips to decide I like it. The spiciness sneaks up on you and builds in the back of the throat. This is not a beer for everyone. I offered a few people a sip and they thought I was crazy for ordering it. But when I complain that there isn’t enough spicy food in Taiwan, this beer is one way to get my fix.

Moonzen from Hong Kong

I didn’t get to try this beer when I visited Hong Kong, but my friends told me about it–they said it was their favorite of the new breweries. My little local place did it again and brought in the brewery’s full line up. Unfortunately, at NT$250 ($8.25), I don’t really want to buy much of it when there are other, less expensive good beers.

I must admit, however, that the Yama Sichuan Porter is an impressive beer. This is a smoky porter brewed with Sichuan peppercorns–huajiao. The Sichuan peppercorns add a flowery aroma, hence the Chinese name “flower pepper,” and can numb the mouth when used for cooking. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t numb my mouth, but it had a bit of the aromatic peppery flavor to go with a solid porter.Yama Sichuan Porter

This is not a beer I’d drink often, but it’s definitely worthwhile at the right price. RateBeer gave Yama Sichuan Porter a 93.

Mikkeller and To Øl

Taiwan likes its European brews, but it still mostly has the Belgian beers. Mikkeller opened up its own bar on the southern corner of Dihua Street in the historic Dadaocheng neighborhood. It’s a cool place and they have a few only-available-in-Taiwan beers, but it’s a little out of the way for me, plus it’s a bit pricey.Mikkeller

Mikkeller in bottles is still widely available in Taipei–at some bars and a lot more restaurants. If I can’t decide what to get, I usually pick up a bottle because they have so much variety. I’ve only had the same one more than once because I forgot which I’ve had (ok, their Kaffestout I’ve had a few times because it’s excellent). I would have the Chipotle Porter again if I could find it again.

To Øl is a regular collaborator with Mikkeller and some of their beers have now made their way to this island. One of the first I tried here was the Sur Amarillo because I was told it was sour. I would have to say, wow, yeah that’s really sour. It’s not like those Belgian sour ales I was used to drinking at Rabbit Club in Manhattan; this was a powerful, lip-puckering sour flavor. This isn’t a bad thing, though. But I wish I had been prepared for that.

Mr Orange

A very sour beer

There were others that were good but not as memorable. I mostly choose these beers because of the funky label or amusing name, like You Shall Nut Pass stout or Dangerously Close to Stupid double IPA. And then there was the Belgian-style pale ale called Fuck Art – This is Architecture. As a former art student, I could not pass up this beer. It was a lighter pale ale, but it hit the spot when I needed it.

Spray-tan gone wrong beer

Is this beer an homage to Trump?

There are plenty more imported beers around Taiwan, and plenty continue to roll in. I can’t keep up. It’s fun to try all these new brews, but the price of a good beer makes it a luxury here. I’ve started to drink whiskey more often instead as I can go to my local liquor store and get a decent bottle of scotch for about $20.

What are some of your favorite imported beers? Have you seen any that surprised you while living or traveling abroad?

Fighting Crowds at the Taipei Lantern Festival

The Taipei Lantern Festival opened on Feb. 4, and I decided to check it out. I haven’t done anything on Lantern Festival (元宵節) since I lived in China, and back then it mostly entailed eating tangyuan (湯圓), a glutinous rice ball filled with sesame. It was not something I enjoyed eating.

mazu lantern

Cartoon sculpture of Mazu by Wei Zong Cheng

In case you don’t know, Lantern Festival is the 15th day of the lunar year in China/Taiwan. It marks the end of the New Year celebrations (at least that was about when the fireworks stopped when I lived in China) and its origins date back to the Han Dynasty. This year, the holiday falls on Feb. 11, but Taiwan likes to extend its celebrations.

Beimen Lantern Festival

Projections on Beimen

As I had to write an article about Lantern Festival celebrations around Taiwan, I decided I might as well check out at least one of them (the nearest one sounded best). I wasn’t too thrilled about it being held at Ximending as it’s a crowded area filled with tourists and locals shopping–I hadn’t been to this area of Taipei in over a year.

rooster lantern

A young girl holds a rooster lantern

What I expected to see was plenty of traditional lanterns hanging along the streets as well as artistic light displays–I saw some photos of the light installations at the Taichung Lantern Festival and thought Taipei might have something similar. I was disappointed. However, there were some interesting art displays.beimen lantern festival

The only light show I saw was the projection on Beimen (north gate), which was built in 1884, 11 years before Japanese occupation. Fortunately, I managed to get a lot of photos of the projections on the gate as it was the most interesting and least crowded display.beimen lantern festival

The closer I got to Ximending from Beimen, the more crowded the sidewalk became–and it’s a wide sidewalk along that road. At the center of Ximending was the main stage, where a Japanese band was performing (my friend said they were worth seeing). I couldn’t get anywhere near that stage.

Ximending lantern festival

Stage area in Ximending

As I gave up getting closer to the performance, I decided to take a few steps back toward the intersection to check out the art/light displays across the street. Even with the sound system, I couldn’t hear the music over the sound of the traffic that hadn’t been blocked from the area. The city expected 300,000 people to visit the area on the first night and they still allowed traffic to flow as usual!

taipei lantern festival

School lantern displays

It was difficult to cross the street as hundreds of people were bumping into one another in the crosswalk with cars and motorbikes in the cross street. This was absurd. At this point I gave up and headed back toward Beimen on the opposite side of the street.

taipei lantern festival

The street lights and traffic

I found some more fun lantern displays around Zhongshan Hall–it looked like they were all made or designed by local schools. Some were definitely better than others.

taipei lantern festival

Classical music performance behind Zhongshan Hall

There wasn’t much else going on along the walk back to the metro station, so I decided I had had enough. The crowd had drained all my energy (or what little I had for the day). I had finally experienced Lantern Festival in Taipei and I was fine with avoiding it for as long as I remain in Taiwan.

Have you ever attended a crowded event and only been disappointed? What was the event and why was it disappointing?

Is Taiwan Really the Top Expat Destination?

The media has embraced Taiwan’s distinction as the top place to live for expats, according to a survey from InterNations. Of course, local Chinese-language media made a big deal of the ranking because they love surveys (no matter how mundane) that portray Taiwan in a positive light. I’m generally skeptical of surveys that include rankings, like the expat cost of living survey. But was this survey worth all the hype?

For those unfamiliar with InterNations, it’s an online community for expats. Its goal is to provide information and services as well as organize events for expats and locals in cities around the world. This is a profitable website as they charge entry fees for all events (I paid ¥1000 to join a crowded bar meet-up in Tokyo at which I discovered it wasn’t worth the money). I have rarely checked the website since joining and haven’t even updated my city to Taipei.

Roads running through the mountainside at Taroko Gorge

Roads running through the mountainside at Taroko Gorge

As InterNations compiled the survey, mostly members of the site voted (I don’t know if outsiders had to register before voting). And if I’m any indication, not a lot of the members voted. There are other flaws in the survey as pointed out by Taiwan Explorer, who makes some valid points about Taiwan’s ranking. As he’s already evaluated the survey, which the media should have done, there’s no point in me adding to the criticism.

Dragon & Tiger Pagodas

Dragon & Tiger Pagodas in Kaohsiung

Rather than beat the dead horse that is a flawed survey, I can focus on what makes Taiwan (or Taipei, as it is my home) a good destination for expats and what makes it a less desirable home.

Taiwan is affordable

I’ve mentioned this before. It’s the primary reason I moved here. While freelancing and job searching it was a great place to lower my cost of living. I don’t need to have a roommate, but sharing an apartment provides me with a little bit of socialization and even cheaper rent (plus there’s the advantage of having two dogs without all the responsibility). And transportation is cheap–my 35-minute subway ride from the office to home is only 77 cents (minimum fare is 51 cents). Buses are 50 cents, but some can be around $1 when crossing from New Taipei to Taipei.

YouBike

The cheapest way to get around Taipei

Of course, it isn’t all so affordable. Sure, a lot of food here is cheap, but it’s unhealthy. If I want to eat healthy, I need to cook or eat at higher-end restaurants. My grocery bill is probably slightly higher than it was in New Jersey, but it’s not a significant difference. It’s partly because I want to eat healthier. There’s also a lack of mid-end hotels if I want to travel to other parts of Taiwan, which means I’d have to either stay in a hostel or spend more money. But the hotels even out when I factor in the low price of a train ticket.Taipei 101

Taipei is convenient

7-Eleven and FamilyMart are everywhere, sometimes across the street from each other. Hell, I’ve even seen a 7-Eleven across from another 7-Eleven. But that’s not what’s so convenient here. Buses (thanks to the wonderful Taipei Bus app) are fairly easy to navigate. And the MRT system is ridiculously easy. It also helps that a lot of people speak English, making it easier for people who don’t speak Mandarin.

Healthcare

While it is probably not sustainable, the healthcare system is cheap and simple. I pay about $5 to see a doctor or dentist and my prescriptions are free. The downside is waiting at a hospital to see a doctor. Also, because there’s so little money coming into the system, doctors over-prescribe medications to inflate bills to the government. I’ve been given enough pills that I never took.Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Taipei

Safety and friendliness

For a major city, Taipei is safe. Of course, there are incidents and Taiwan has its share of violent crime that rarely gets reported in English-language news. The violent crime is rarely directed at foreigners though. And people in general are willing to talk or help if asked.

Personality

I’m not talking about the overall character of Taiwan. I’ve heard this complaint from multiple expats in Taiwan: people here are flaky. A lot of people are noncommittal when making plans or offering to help out, but that’s not the downside. They’re also consistently late, sometimes by a half hour or more. If you ask where someone is just before a scheduled meeting, they might say, “I’m on my way,” which really means, I should be leaving my apartment in the next 10 minutes or so.

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

This seems to have influenced the expat community as well. I’ve talked to employers who complain about finding reliable employees, e.g. people who are on time and not drunk. People will also make plans and then not follow through. It seems acceptable to cancel plans at the last minute as well.

As one acquaintance mentioned, Taiwan doesn’t attract the worst of the expats in East Asia (alcoholics, sexpats, etc.) but it also doesn’t attract the best (innovators, entrepreneurs).

Language

I mentioned that it’s easy to get around Taipei without speaking Mandarin. The problem with this is that it can make an expat lazy when it comes to learning the language. Unless you’re enrolled in a class, which is why many foreigners come to Taiwan, it’s difficult to sit down and study on your own. Unlike Mainland China, I’m not forced to learn Mandarin to survive, thus eliminating much of the motivation to continue studying.

Taiwan Presidential Office Building

Presidential Office Building

Information

Obtaining information from websites in Taiwan is not as easy as in other places. Other major cities around Asia have publications like Time Out or their own similar magazine (China has That’s [insert region] for a few metro areas). To find event listings in Taiwan, expats have to go through each venue’s Facebook page. I don’t want to like every venue’s Facebook page and would prefer if a venue had its own website. Also, the newspapers here are slow and don’t report enough actual news. To put this in perspective, I started my other site Total Taipei over a year ago and I have since beaten the main English-language media to multiple stories by TWO days. I’ve also published news that never got reported elsewhere in English.

Weather and pollution

This is self-explanatory, but over the last year I’ve experienced some of the worst weather. Summer lasts almost six months and can be brutally hot. Winter is humid, rainy, and chilly (it feels colder because of the humidity and rain). The weather makes it difficult to enjoy outdoor activities. There’s also a lot of pollution–partly blown over from Mainland China but also from all the poorly-maintained motorbikes. Taiwan is making strides to improve pollution, but it still has a long way to go. I’m surprised Taipei isn’t using hybrid/electric/natural gas buses for public transportation.

Eslite mall at Songshan Creative Park

Eslite mall at Songshan Creative Park

Work culture and career advancement

Taiwan inherited a bit of Japanese work culture–long hours and overly formal dress codes (my office doesn’t have casual Friday, we have slightly less formal Friday). It is more laid back than Japan, but it’s still a similar hierarchy of seniority and brown-nosing. Wages have been stagnant for a long time–and for English teachers the wages have actually decreased. Fortunately, the low wages are offset by the low cost of living. I can still manage to save a lot more of my salary than I could in the US.

But how far up the ladder can one climb in Taiwan? It depends on the choice of career, but it’s generally not as high as it would be in say Europe, or even in China or Japan. For an editor like me, there is nowhere to move up. Major publishers and media outlets that pay better wages don’t have offices here or are phasing them out–most media outlets cover Taiwan from Hong Kong.Wulai

Is Taiwan the best expat destination?

Perhaps. For some people this is the perfect destination–low cost of living and low-stress work (for some careers anyway). Any destination will have its positives and negatives–the determining factor is the individual expat’s personality. I’m sure with the right job and people around me, I could enjoy life in almost any country. And even still, I’d find something negative about the place. What’s important is whether the positive outweighs the negative, which in the case of Taiwan I believe does.

Taiwan Craft Beer Update

The best beer is where priests go to drink. For a quart of Ale is a dish for a king.
— William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

It’s been a while since I wrote about the Taiwan craft beer scene. My first time here I only found one craft brewery–North Taiwan Brewing–and bars filled with imports from Belgium. The second time around I began finding new Taiwan craft beers as well as a lot more imports. During that second stay I also managed to write a short article for Scoot’s inflight magazine about a few of the craft beers–unfortunately, they didn’t give me a byline so it looks like my interview subject is the author of the piece.

beer in taipei

The aftermath of the beer tasting and interview for my article

Since my last update on the beer scene in Taipei, the craft brewers have multiplied and refined their recipes.

As I learned from my interview for my article, most of the brewers in Taiwan shared space and contract brewed and bottled, which led to a lot of inconsistency. It explained why I would occasionally get a bottle that tasted awful. Now, most of those same brewers have their own brewing and bottling operations to improve consistency. Of course, this has also increased prices–the local beer is generally about the same price (NT$150-250) as some of the really good imported beers we’ve been getting (recent imports have included Ballast Point and Stone), and that is definitely expensive compared to the cost of living.

belgian beer

Belgian beer was all I could find my first time in Taipei

I found most of the new beers at local bars that have begun stocking them–my new favorite is Way Home, which is a quiet place about a 25-minute walk from my office (though it isn’t open when I get off work at 3:30). There were even more beers at the Taipei Wine & Food expo, though my taste buds were a bit dulled from all the tastings. I did, however, recall trying Pisirian from Hobrew because it was truly unusual. It sets out to be unique with its traditional Chinese herbs as brewing ingredients. This beer tastes like the smell that wafts from a Chinese medicinal tea shop. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend drinking more than one of these occasionally, but it certainly is worth trying (maybe there are health benefits to it as well).

23 Brewing Nelson Saison

23 Brewing Nelson Saison

The more popular microbrews around Taipei are the ones mostly run by American expats–Redpoint, 23 Brewing, and 886 Brewing.

All three have run into consistency problems that seem to have been addressed over the last six months or so. Redpoint’s 台PA used to have an overpowering hops flavor, but the brewer dialed it back to attract more Taiwanese drinkers. 23 Brewing experimented with hoppiness in its beers as well–the pale ale is still quite sharp, but the blonde ale and IPA have mellowed out a bit. While 886 has been the more experimental brewery of the bunch, probably because of its collaborations with Evil Twin, it has had to adjust its recipes as well. It’s brown ale is much better than it used to be.

beer

Only a section of the shelf at Way Home

My only complaint about 886 Brewing is that it’s not as widely available as other craft beer in Taiwan. The brewers also run Beer & Cheese, which is the only bar in Taipei in which I’ve seen their beer. It’s also a rather expensive bar with pints costing NT$250 or more–I can buy a very good beer in Manhattan for less (Blind Tiger comes to mind, especially during happy hour).

But when it comes to high-end Taiwan craft beer, Beer & Cheese isn’t even the most expensive bar. I recently came across ZhangMen Craft Beer Bar in Dongmen. This quaint bar that doesn’t look much different from every other newish beer bar in the so-called up-and-coming neighborhoods around the US charges NT$150-200 for less than half a pint of its own beer. While the rye IPL that I ordered was quite good, it was not worth NT$170. I certainly wasn’t going to shell out NT$320 for a full pint.

55th Street IPA

Not my favorite from 55th Street, but still a good beer

At this point, 23 Brewing is my favorite Taiwanese beer. It is available at more bars around Taipei than other microbrews and the price isn’t outrageous. More importantly, they are gradually expanding their variety. I recently tried their Islander Weisse at Little London–it’s a local take on the traditional Berliner weisse style. The local aspect of the beer is that 23 Brewing uses Taiwanese citrus to give the beer a light and sweet flavor.

While the Islander Weisse is a terrific attempt at playing to local tastes, I still think 55th Street Brewing’s longan amber is the height of localization. It’s not quite my taste, especially if I want to drink more than one, as the dried longan used in the brewing makes the beer just a little too sweet for me. Meanwhile, Taiwan Ale Brewery introduced a coffee amber that’s brewed with longan–the bitterness of the coffee evens out the longan flavor. Of course, the Taiwan Ale beers are more difficult to find, though they appear to be expanding.

Jim & Dad's Dark

This was a tasty beer

On the branding side of Taiwan craft beer, companies still haven’t done much.

I’ve asked people at bars if they like Taiwanese beer, and they respond that they don’t despite drinking one of the local craft beers. A lot of people still don’t associate the local craft beers with Taiwan. Also, most of the beer companies have yet to embrace a more Taiwanese identity, like Jim & Dad’s brewery–it sounds like an organic fruit juice company, but the beer is pretty good. And then there’s Gentlemen’s Ale, which wins the award for most generic branding. The exception to this is Sambar, which is named after the local deer. Their beers also rank as some of the best in Taiwan, though the selection is limited.

There are plenty more beers to enjoy in Taiwan, but not all are worth mentioning. As more breweries and craft beers become available, I’ll most likely need to draft another Taiwan craft beer update.

Have you tried any Taiwan craft beers? What are some of your favorites?

Traveler Review & Giveaway: GPSMyCity App

I don’t like traveling with tour books. I enjoy reading travel guides because they help give me ideas for what to do–for some reason I find them more helpful than browsing websites with similar information (it might have something to do with information overload).xiangshan-panorama

When I was approached by GPSMyCity to host a giveaway for their app, I thought it’d be an opportunity to review what could be a useful travel app to replace those travel guidebooks. In an effort to fully evaluate the app’s usefulness, I decided to download the Taipei guide–I can offer some insight into what tourist sites are recommended at least. Of course, it might’ve been better if I had downloaded the guide for Seoul as I headed there with my parents.

The attraction of an app such as GPSMyCity is that it’s offline and easy to use (though I keep forgetting that the phone’s back button doesn’t work in the app). Unless you’re staying in a place for a month or more, you’re unlikely to have a local SIM card (or in the case of Japan, you’re not able to buy one). There are also plenty of destinations (mainly more developed nations) that don’t offer much in the way of free Wi-Fi, thus limiting travelers’ ability to check maps or information.

Taipei 101 from Sun Yat-sen Park

Taipei 101 from Sun Yat-sen Park

I tried downloading offline maps before traveling to Seoul in April. While the offline map was helpful, especially with GPS, it didn’t have recommendations and required a lot of memory–I immediately deleted it after returning to Taipei.

GPSMyCity requires significantly less memory than offline maps. Of course, the map on the app is low resolution when zooming in–it can be difficult to read but it does use GPS to help guide you through the streets. The other downside to the map is that you can’t search for an address (if you could, I’m sure it’d increase the memory requirement). It does, however, allow you to search by place name, assuming the place is included in the app (odd how so many 7-Elevens are listed but Din Tai Fung isn’t).

The real downside to the app’s map is that it has categories at the top for things like dining, hotels, and nightlife, but very few places come up when choosing the categories (nothing shows up for nightlife). Of course, this may get updated in the future (I hope so). It also lacks an MRT map to help you reach your destination–fortunately, the Taipei MRT system is easy to navigate.

Some of the GPSMyCity walks in Taipei

The app has a nice list of places to visit around Taipei with addresses and short descriptions. It also has a few walking tours–Dadaocheng and Ximending are the only two that make sense in that part. The Art Gallery walk is alright, but could use some improvement. I would assume other cities would have more walking tours. You can also choose your destinations and the app will plot them on the map for you.

Despite lacking clear navigation, GPSMyCity offers a good list of destinations for tourists to plan their trips. This app is geared more toward travelers who prefer reading the highlights to determine an itinerary–most tourist destinations have more detailed info for visitors anyway.Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Taipei

For an update to the Taipei guide, I’d suggest the company add nightlife listings as well as options for biking and hiking trails.

The company’s website has a vast selection of cities you can peruse. If you search through the site, you can see all the sightseeing walks that would be contained in the app. Some of the cities also have travel articles, which are available through iTunes but not for Android.

In addition to GPSMyCity, I would recommend downloading Taipei Bus Tracker. It helps with bus routes and schedules throughout Taipei and New Taipei and even lists YouBike stations. As for traveling to Seoul, I would recommend the Seoul Subway app, which is even used by locals to navigate the enormous web of subway lines.

I wish there was a bike route app

I wish there was a bike route app

One side note on the app — I’m not sure if this is just mine that has a glitch, but every time I open it, it says “verifying download.” The screen stays on for about 20 seconds before the app opens.

Now for the fun part – the giveaway

I’m giving away five codes for readers to download the full version of GPSMyCity for Android and iPhone (you can find all their destinations here). All you have to do is:

  1. Head over to Facebook and like Booze, Food, Travel (if you haven’t already).
  2. Comment on the Facebook post linking to this page–just tell me where you want to go and why.

It’s really simple. I’ll choose five winners (family members are ineligible) on July 15.

Disclaimer: I received a free full version of the GPSMyCity app for Taipei in exchange for writing an objective review and running this giveaway.

Head in the Clouds at Qixingshan

The weather was beautiful in Taipei on Saturday. I planned to wake up early and get out into nature for the day, and headed to Yangmingshan National Park, an area I hadn’t been to since my first time in this city over a year and a half ago.

My previous trek through the national park was brief–I had no idea where to go and had to head back to Taipei to meet a friend earlier than expected. I at least got to hike a little and see the area around the visitor center, which is worth checking out once.

Welcome to Yangmingshan

Welcome to Yangmingshan

This time around I planned a little better–I decided to hike the tallest peak in the Taipei region at Qixing Mountain. Qixingshan, or Seven Star Mountain, is an inactive volcano that still emits plenty of sulfur fumes (who doesn’t love the aroma of rotten eggs while hiking?). The summit reaches 1,120 meters (3,675 ft)–not nearly the highest peak I’ve hiked, but still a decent trek.

After nearly an hour on the bus (it would take longer, but the bus didn’t make all its stops because no one got off and no one wanted to get on either), I got off at Qixingshan bus stop, figuring that was the easiest spot to start from on my trek up the mountain. I was wrong.

Just off the bus

Just off the bus

There was no trailhead near the bus stop. There was a map that indicated I had a long way to walk to get to the trailhead for Qixingshan. It wasn’t far, but the path toward the visitor center to start the hike was cordoned off, possibly due to damage from the most recent typhoon.

Time to start hiking along the bamboo trail

Time to start hiking along the bamboo trail

While the weather in Taipei was beautiful all day–low 80s, not too humid with a cooling breeze–the weather as I stepped off the bus turned to chilly and cloudy. Well, cloudy isn’t quite the right word here as the clouds were around me. I wouldn’t call it fog either. I was just in the clouds in the mountains. And with the strong wind howling, the clouds moved rapidly around me.

Such a beautiful view...

Such a beautiful view…

I contemplated heading back to Taipei for the pleasant weather, but I had already spent an hour traveling and decided I might as well see if the clouds would dissipate (they didn’t). The higher up the mountain I hiked, the thicker the clouds became.

I still found fellow hikers along the way–people as crazy as I was to hike in such conditions. Of course, those people had light rain jackets; I was wearing a t-shirt. While parts of the hike were strenuous, I didn’t so much sweat as I had condensation form on me–the weather conditions, according to the visitor center, were 17°C and 99% humidity.

We reached the peak of Qixingshan

We reached the peak of Qixingshan

I’m sure the views from Qixingshan are beautiful. But I saw nothing. It was difficult to see more than 20 feet ahead.

On the way down, rather than tempt fate and hike to another peak in the clouds, I headed back toward the main visitor center to catch a bus back to Taipei. Unfortunately, the trail splits a few times along the way–and the direction signs do not say anything about the visitor center. This forced me to ask people heading in the opposite direction for some help (that reminds me, I need to study more Chinese).

The way down was much longer than the way up, which certainly isn’t pleasant for the knees. If I had come prepared, I might’ve stopped at the hot springs in Beitou on the way back home so I could relax and recover. Instead, I headed home and climbed six flights of stairs.

The sulfur fumes were strong along this part of the hike

The sulfur fumes were strong along this part of the hike

As the weather cools in Taiwan, I’ll probably plan a few more hikes–there are still some short hikes around the city that I haven’t yet done. There are also hiking groups that take weekend trips to the more challenging mountains in central Taiwan.

Has the weather ever hampered your outdoor activities? And did you still continue with your plans?

Returning to Stable Expat Life

Their baggage
was all in cardboard boxes. The plane was delayed,
the rumor went through the line. We shrugged,
in our hopeless overcoats. Aviation
had never seemed a very natural idea.
-John Updike, Flight to Limbo

I returned to Taipei at the end of July; the sweltering heat and humidity had yet to subside as I arrived at Taoyuan Airport to discover that my luggage hadn’t arrived.

A sign at baggage claim had my seat number listed with a different name next to it—I headed to the EVA Air customer service desk to see what the problem could be. I was informed that my only bag—the suitcase that held all my clothes, toiletries, etc. for my new life in Taiwan—had not made my connecting flight. I had a two-hour layover in San Francisco and United did not transfer my suitcase to my onward flight (never mind that I had to walk across the ENTIRE airport to change planes and I was exhausted because I couldn’t sleep on the Newark-San Francisco flight because of multiple crying children, which added to my bout of jetlag upon arrival in Taipei).Taipei-Street

EVA was kind enough to deliver my suitcase two days later—it took more than 24 hours for United to put it on a flight to Taipei. They also gave me NT$1200 (a little less than US$40) to purchase necessities (United grudgingly offered an apology and said I should request compensation from EVA for United’s failure). I was able to buy a tshirt and underwear at Uniqlo and a cheap towel, deodorant, and toothbrush at the grocery store to help me survive those two days (the towel was most important as I hadn’t showered in 30+ hours). I desperately wanted my shorts from my suitcase as the late-July heat made wearing jeans uncomfortable.

Once I had some clean clothes and a shower, I set out on my adventure to find more permanent accommodations. I knew in desperation I could head back to my previous hostel and save a little money, but I didn’t think it’d be worth the hassle of returning (plus the bed was rather uncomfortable). I managed to find two options rather quickly through a Facebook group. I chose the larger, more expensive apartment in the more convenient neighborhood. We’ll see if I stay long term or break my lease (there’s a clause in it so I can leave early) and search for an upgrade of sorts.

View from my balcony

View from my balcony

Despite some problems with the new apartment (the landlord promised to fix/replace the hot plate a month ago and the washing machine is broken as well), I’ve been happy that it’s the quietest place I’ve been in Taipei (it’s nearly silent in the evening). I also invited a friend from my time in the previous hostel to stay in the extra room so I could save on rent. His friend and business partner even came to live on the couch for a month.

Of course, I haven’t spent that much time doing anything other than sleeping in the apartment since I started working. Not to mention my part-time tutoring to earn a little extra–as I wrote before, the life of an expat is not a permanent vacation. Most of my time has been spent adapting to life in a cubicle farm (what do you mean I have to follow a dress code!?). I realized I haven’t worked in an office in 12 years—that was my first job out of college when I was an assistant editor for a newspaper.

Taipei 101 in the distance from my balcony

Taipei 101 in the distance from my balcony

Adapting to this more stable lifestyle hasn’t been entirely easy, especially since I finished training and now have to work the afternoon-evening shift. It also seems that everyone I’ve known in this city is leaving soon—four friends have either left or are leaving in the next month (and then there are the numerous acquaintances who were only here temporarily to study Chinese–this is a temporary city for many people). I either need to start going out with my coworkers or make new friends in my limited free time.

I’ve also managed to break into the in-flight magazine industry. It’s only a small sidebar article on craft beer in Taiwan, and I have no byline because it was my interview with a beer connoisseur, but it’s still my idea and writing (though it was edited quite a bit for space). You can read it here. I plan to pitch a few more stories before the end of the year to other magazines.

The Pink Panther greeted me near my new office. I have no idea what he was selling.

The Pink Panther greeted me near my new office. I have no idea what he was selling.

Despite the usual hassles and difficulties of starting a new life abroad, it’s the decision I wanted to make. I wouldn’t have been averse to taking a job back home, but I doubt I any job in my field of expertise would pay enough for me to live comfortably. The job I have here in Taipei is a step forward career-wise and affords me the ability to live in relative comfort (although I’m foregoing some comforts in favor of rebuilding my savings for future travels and a new camera). Overall, I think this move was the best decision at this point in my life. Such a move isn’t for everyone–even I have my doubts about it every now and then despite being through it before—but somehow I’ll make it work.

What Do Androids in Taipei Dream of?

“The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

On the final day of the Chinese New Year holiday, I headed to the main shopping area–ATT 4 Fun, which is the large mall that attracts locals and tourists with its shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs. They had plenty of displays set up for the Year of the Sheep. This one had me contemplating the Philip K. Dick classic that was turned into Bladerunner with Harrison Ford.electric-sheep

Seriously, what does this sign really mean? Are these electric sheep? Will I be electrocuted if I pet them? And do Taipei’s androids dream of electric sheep during Chinese New Year?

Happy Year of the Sheep

新年快乐, dear readers! February 19 marked the beginning of the Chinese New Year (as well as other Asian nations’ lunar new year). This is the year of the sheep/goat/ram and it happens to be my year, so I should probably go out and buy some lucky red underwear (seriously, this is a thing in China/Taiwan).

This sheep was a little too fat to fit through the coin at Taipei 101

This sheep was a little too fat to fit through the coin at Taipei 101

I didn’t make any special plans this year–Taipei emptied out for the first few days of the holiday as everyone traveled back to their parents and other relatives. I didn’t see any of the chaos that I witnessed during Spring Festivals past in China. I kind of miss the days of baijiu and beer with a meal that took hours to finish followed by fireworks set off haphazardly by revelers too drunk to be trusted with explosives.

Probably the creepiest sheep I've ever seen

Probably the creepiest sheep I’ve ever seen

I managed to keep some traditions alive this year–I purchased a whole fish and frozen dumplings from Carrefour. The fish is important because the character 鱼 (yú)  has the same pronunciation as 余 (yú), meaning “extra.”

After that I took a YouBike ride out to a wonderful bar called Beer & Cheese. It was a quiet evening at the bar with some really good beer from Evil Twin. I also had the friendliest taxi driver at the end of the night–he was quite happy to talk to a foreigner in Chinese and wished me a happy new year in English as I got into the cab. Somehow even with the New Year surcharge, the cab home was only a little more than the last time I came home from that bar.sheep-travel

In years past, I have eaten the animal for the zodiac year–for year of the rabbit the Sichuan restaurant in Jersey City served spicy rabbit head; they also had an array of eel dishes for year of the snake. But this year was different with a lack of lamb in Taipei. Had I been in mainland China, I would’ve sought out a Xinjiang restaurant for grilled lamb skewers or even a whole roasted lamb like I had for my going-away party years ago.

Lamb kabob vendor at Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang

Lamb kabob vendor at Heavenly Lake in Xinjiang

I wish my friends and family a healthy and prosperous year of the delicious sheep/goat/ram. Wait, that came out wrong. Maybe I need more baijiu and fireworks.

How did you celebrate the Lunar New Year? Did you eat plenty of lamb?

Discovering New Beer in Taiwan

In honor of reaching 500 unique brews on Untappd (I started using the app to log the different beers I drink in August 2012), I should write up another beer post. And my New Year’s resolution is not to reach 1,000, or even make a conscious attempt–I’d rather relax and enjoy my time with or without a new beer.

Last time I was in Taipei, I lamented the lack of local beer. I had found a couple decent beers, but nothing beyond that. When I returned, I was introduced to more local brews that I had either missed or that had finally become available in bars nearby.

Redpoint 台PA

Redpoint 台PA

North Taiwan Brewing, the brewery that I found with a pretty good abbey ale back in April, has a lot more beers. Unfortunately, most of them are fruit beers (I accidentally bought Apparallel Universe and it tasted like medicine). They did come out with a mildly hoppy brew called CHTHONIC. It’s definitely a beer worth trying, but not something I’d go out of my way for (but the label is pretty cool).

The beer has gotten better as I’ve stayed in Taipei longer–one friend introduced me to Redpoint, a beer brewed out in Hsinchu, which is a long, slow train ride west of the city, when I went to visit him and visit the beer haven iBeer. This was one of the better beers in Taiwan–it was a hoppy, but not overpowering, IPA (or I should say 台PA; that character is pronounced “tai”). The brewery also makes Long Dong Lager, which is a decent lager, but nothing special.

At the end of my adventure along Taiwan’s east coast, I tried the most unusual beer in Jiaoxi, a town renowned for its hot springs. At one of the hotel hot springs (I didn’t bother putting my feet in the outdoor pools) was a vendor for Barley Farm Manual Beer. There was not much English, so it was difficult to figure out what the beers were, but one of them claimed to be a green algae brew. It tasted like a Japanese barley tea.

What an odd color for a beer

What an odd color for a beer

Another beer from Hsinchu, which I think is the best beer in Taiwan, is the 886 Brewing’s Magnum PIPA (seriously, why isn’t this brewed in Miami?). I had this beer at my hostel in Wai’ao on a weekend trip along the east coast, north of Hualien. They also make a brown ale that’s light enough to drink all night.

Tom Selleck would be proud

Tom Selleck would be proud

Most recently I tried 55th Street’s amber lager, which was a little on the sweet side because it’s brewed with dried longan (a fruit related to lychees). This was at a new bar in Taipei called Something Ales, which feels more like a cafe than a bar–certainly not a place I’d return to often for the prices they charge.

55th Street Amber with dried longan

55th Street Amber with dried longan

When I headed back to Revolver, a bar that once had a shrine to Mick Jagger (why is it gone!?), near Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, I found another local brew: #23 Brewery. They make a pale ale and a blonde. I happen to think the blonde tastes better as the pale ale is a little bland. I’d certainly have either them again depending on what else was on tap, but the blonde ale would be the preference as it has more flavor.

Steve's Lager

Steve’s Lager

Finally, I met the brewer of a new beer brand–he’s established in Taipei and Wisconsin. Steve’s Kraft Beer is a bit more innovative than the rest in the area. Steve tries to brew his beers with Taiwanese tastes in mind, which is why his amber lager is slightly sweet. I’d prefer a more hoppy blend, but I’m not his target market. Most brewers here are going for more traditional brews to introduce to the Taiwanese market, while Steve is trying to attract the market to his beer. I also got to taste his black lager, Black Hole Beer, which is more my taste–it’s a little on the lighter side but still provides the flavor a schwarzbier should. I didn’t get a chance to sample the rest of his beers yet, but I’m sure I will soon enough.

Read more about the beers and bars of Taipei in my travel guide.

Have I missed any of the local brews worth trying in Taiwan? I’m sure there are more to come.