Street carousing was the order of the night but first we needed dinner so we caught a cab out front and directed the driver to take us to Din Tai Fung, the preeminent xiao long bao (steamed dumpling) restaurant in Taipei. In 1993 the New York Times named it one of the 10 Best Restaurants in the World so my expectations were high, doubled in fact as this year they had received a One Star Rating from Michelin. It was late rush hour but the streets were mostly deserted. The cab – a classic yellow – was clean, new and smoke free, something you would never find on the mainland. I hate to admit it but my bitterness was slowly growing tempered only by the fact that it’s probably better that I had not just spent the last two years here, because in only 5 hours it was clear to me that I would have a hard time leaving. Even Ben, committed to his mainland life was beginning to talk about retiring here in his homeland.
We left the hotel circle and caught RenAi Road towards the heart of the city - a beautiful street, tree lined and covered overhead with dense green from side to side. Two lanes up the middle and two outer lanes allowing parking and access to the blocks of apartments and shops, the basic prosperity of Taipei evident in everything from the people to the cars to the pin neat and lush medians. Not the glitzy, showy wealth of Shanghai but rather an understated self-confidence that comes from people long accustomed to a higher quality of life. Again, Japan kept coming through, but you could tell from the people on these streets that they were not nearly so bound by the austere traditions of their northern neighbors and formers masters. Rather, these folks just seemed to be enjoying a velvety tropical evening by having a walk down a boulevard that anyone would be hard-pressed to find a problem with knowing full well that they were lucky and blessed to have such an opportunity. Ben sat up front talking to the cabbie alternating easily between Chinese and English. I just sat there listening and staring out the window glad that I had taken the time to come here. I knew it would only get better.
We pulled up in front of a tiny restaurant in a busy shopping district – not at all what I was expecting, because a place in Dalian with these kind of bona fides as though there could possibly be one) would have been one of those traditional red velvet, gold filigree and marble monstrosities that form the universal symbol for wealth in China. No, this was my kind of place – a long white tiled diner with a lot of noise, good smells and abundant people. We had a reservation but the table was not ready. In a demonstration of clear-headed restaurant management, one of the girls out front handed us an order form and told us to pick what we wanted – our food would be ready when it was time to sit down. Again, the conversation took place in a nice mix of California English and Chinese, and they loved the fact that I could carry my own in both. There were 6 girls in spotless white shirts and black skirts using headsets to communicate with the kitchen while chit-chatting with the clientele.
There was a big poster on the front window with about a hundred choices shown in tiny color photographs with numbers, Chinese and English descriptions. We picked a few and Ben picked some childhood favorites and then we simply stood back and enjoyed the scene, flirting with the waitresses and assessing the customers. When we got called we were led inside through a spotless lower dining room set right in the middle of the dumpling production that led to some stairs up to the second floor where we were seated at a table in a brightly lit, utterly clean, pretty packed yet surprisingly quiet dining room. Tea was delivered and we ordered beers – Taiwan Gold Star in keeping with the theme of the evening - and sat back. Small saucers of soy sauce with shaved baby ginger were delivered next followed by a plate of cold, pickled cabbage leaves, soup and a plate of greens. The biggest miracle was that there was no smoking – outside of trips to the US, I could honestly not recall the last time I ate out without compromising on that point.
The dumplings began to arrive and they were wonderful – delicate, tasty, impeccably prepared and presented. The dumpling cooks bring them up themselves – young men in white, wearing face masks – could this place get any better? I felt like I had fallen asleep in the wilds and awakened in civilization. The cooks were friendly and gracious when you thanked them for the order. Each course was better than the last and I was sorry when I couldn’t convince myself that I needed to try another type. We paid up and headed out to the first of the pedestrian streets we planned on visiting, this one right around the block where the specialty was desert.
Like so many cities in the tropics, Taipei comes alive once the sun sets. While the evenings remain warm and moist, once the sun is off the back of your neck life on the street takes a decided upturn in quality. The city has a number of “night markets”, each with unique specialties and different degrees of urban sophistication. The one behind our restaurant was relatively small and not very busy and we strolled for about a block before Ben found what he was looking for, a true Taiwanese delicacy – mango shaved ice. Like every tradition in Asia this one had been mildly modernized – the stall was tiled, brightly lit, the workers had matching bright polo shirts and baseball caps and the menu offerings had catchy cold clime names like “blizzard” and “avalanche”. We decided on one plate of mango and one of mulberry and lychee. We grabbed a table on the sidewalk and pulled up three bar stools. The kids working in the back caught me taking their picture and cheerfully struck the traditional Chinese photo pose – smiling and throwing a “V” sign. Our food arrived, a big pile of fresh fruit and syrup sitting atop a mound of the finest and coldest shaved ice I had ever seen. It was like snow and it was delicious and such a great follow-up to our just completed steamed dinner.
Another cab took us past the brightly lit Presidential Palace and off to Ximending Market, a modern version of the place we just left. For the first time in the trip we found ourselves mired in traffic – this place is very popular. The cabbie suggested that we hoof it for the last block so we paid up and hopped out; crossing a main intersection choked with dozens of the now ubiquitous scooters. Ximending turned out to be much like pedestrian walking districts everywhere the world from Santa Monica to Grafton Street in Dublin, but with an incredible vitality. The lights and the designs were like nothing I’d seen, a giant golden head atop a curry restaurant, a café crammed from floor to ceiling with giant stuffed animals, a huge rotating wheel of anime sushi that announced a second floor restaurant and laser designs dancing on the sidewalks, emanating from somewhere up above. Hundreds of teenagers moved in flocks, still in their school uniforms catching a quick meal while gossiping with their friends and checking out the opposite sex. Tattoo parlors spilled out into the path and fresh fruit vendors displayed their colorful ware in the middle of the broader lanes. A bright orange shop labeled “Condom World” was surprisingly empty. The anchor for the place was the newly restored Grand Concert Hall built in the early 1900’s, all brick and nicely illuminated with soft white spots, imparting a stately elegance. We wandered up and down a few streets taking in the sights and smells; I stopped for a chocolate donut figuring I it was an opportunity I wouldn’t have again - it was worth it. Another thing became apparent as we roamed around this place – the Taiwanese are very friendly. They make eye contact, they smile and they’re happy to talk – none of the feeling of invisibility you get wandering around where we live. It was very refreshing.
Having now seen the neighborhood variety market and the modern option, we grabbed another cab and headed to Ximen Market, home to the infamous Snake Alley where broken-hearted men are taken to solve “those” kinds of problems. The Alley is a long covered arcade with shops on both sides and a peaked metal roof above lined with blue twinkle lights. Given its purpose and reputation I was expecting something seedier, ala 1930’s Hollywood noir, but it seemed nice enough and not very threatening – no fog rolling in, no crates, no dark corners and no mysterious shadowy figures off to the side. Each shop had a wall lined with terrariums and cages holding an interesting variety of snakes. There was typically a tout behind a counter with a microphone extolling the virtue of their products, and in every case there was a handwritten “No Photos” sign at the entrance. Whether this was to protect their trade secrets, the anonymity of the customers or romance of the location, I cannot say. But I will mention that it was strictly enforced and I saw more than one stroller get yelled at and hurried off by the proprietors.
The process is simple. Some gal whose guy is suffering from a lack of resolve takes him by the hand and leads him to the Alley where together they purchase a snake. The poor animal is prepared by the chef, the gall bladder is removed and the bile is extracted and drunk by the man. Then the couple enjoys a nice snack of stir-fried snake meat and tea and they go home, presumably, to a night of reptilian passion. No idea if it works – no one wanted to be interviewed. The places were interesting though and I did manage to sneak one clandestine photo of a woman who claimed to have the world’s largest Burmese Python. Whether he was on the menu or just an attraction, I don’t know. I might be worried that devouring his gall bladder might result in one of those “greater than 4 hours” visits to the doctor.
Snake Alley eventually ended at a T intersection and we took a right turn. Here the nature of the products changed, becoming more what you’d expect from a Chinese street market – food stands, fish markets, and cheap consumer goods. We went looking for a draught beer, famous in these parts but were put off when the woman operating the only machine we could find picked up a beer glass and released the only mouse-sized cockroach I’ve ever seen. We passed booths piled high with pig’s feet, hocks, all manners of fish and fowl and some interesting crabs with three big brown-ringed white dots on their carapaces that are known locally by the quite unexpected name “san ban” or “three spot.”
We stopped at a booth that was offering Ear Candling and a handful of young women were in the process of having the procedure done. A long white cotton tube is soaked in wax and placed in a big plastic bottle about the size of a gallon milk jug. The tip of the bottle is placed in your ear (with your head resting sideways on a pillow) and the candle is lit. The theory is that the flame creates a vacuum inside the cotton tube that in turn draws debris out of your ears. When the candle is burned down the bottle is removed along with all the displaced junk from the inside of your head. The guy selling the process was begging us to sit down and give it a go, but there was no way someone was going to insert a burning torch in the side of my head, benefits or not. (It should be noted that the Chinese are obsessively weird about earwax. Theirs is different than ours, lacking a gene that renders it dry instead of moist. I don’t think that makes it any different in its function, it’s just one of those strange little genetic remnant from the time when our grandparents wandered out of Africa. I've had at least one offer to have my ears cleaned in situ and it was while I was sitting in a bar in Lijiang, Yunnan and by a guy of indeterminate ethnicity who took the time to show me the quality of his tiny stainless steel scooping instruments.) We watched for a while before the seller told us to get lost as we were stifling his business.
It was getting late and so after passing one last stand that was selling those same mouse-sized cockroaches as pets (I knew that beer loving fellow was not wild) we back out of the market and into some silent streets where we surprisingly stumbled upon Qishan Temple. It was of course closed for the evening, but even so, there illuminated by only a few weak streetlights, I could see that it was very different than the temples I was used to. Far more ornate, baroque and a tiny bit scarier. Clearly the rendering of the dragons, phoenixes and other beasts were strongly influenced by the aesthetic of the southern mainland immigrants and not so much by the Ming and Manchu northerners. Completely different was the host of tiny people that roamed just below the eaves, depictions of various saints, demons and fairies. I looked forward to a daytime visit to one of these beauties.
We caught a cab back to the hotel and spent some time in the bar admiring the duo singing American pop tunes. She had great voice and he was handy with the guitar. Every nice bar I visit on this side of the world has just such a duo versus the taverns in Dalian that tend to be entertained by sleazy Filipina bands fronted by girls in hot pants and boys with a rather strong androgynous slant. The better places in Shanghai, Japan and now Taipei usually have pairs that cover jazz standards and modern love songs. Often they’re Americans and they always bring to mind the group in that wonderful movie, “Lost in Translation.” Of tonight’s pair, he was Chinese and she appeared to be some sort of Eurasian with a strong western component. They were pleasant and cheery and a nice cap for the evening.