Saturday, April 9, 2011

Taiwan: Scooting Around Kenting

On the next-to-last day of our Taiwan trip, Nana and I rented a scooter (thanks to some help from our hosts, the Surf Shack in Hengchun) so we could tootle around Kenting National Park, at the very southern tip of Taiwan. It was a team effort: Nana handled the negotiations, and I handled the driving.

All in all, it was a great day. We spend the morning at the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium (yes, it's a mouthful). Tucked away on a near-deserted stretch of the Hengchun Peninsula coastline, the place is actually a sprawling, world-class aquarium.

The forecourt area had a bunch of wading pools for splashing around in--deserted mostly, on an off-season weekday.
We were lucky enough to arrive at feeding time, so we got to see a lot of the fish in action.
Including the star attraction: a whale shark, one of only a handful in captivity.
This is actually a creative commons image from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta--the lighting was bad at the aquarium in Kenting.
Whale sharks are native to the waters around Taiwan, where they're called "tofu sharks." Apparently, whale shark meat looks a heck of a lot like tofu.

The aquarium also had an big glass tunnel--biggest I've seen, anyway--in their main tank.
"Forward, my fishy minions!"
They even had a tunnel through the beluga tank.
After the aquarium, we spent the rest of the day exploring the Kenting coast.

At one beach, we stumbled on a crew filming some kind of dramatic water rescue scene . . .
At another, we stopped to engage in two of Nana's favorite pastimes: mucking around in tide pools . . .
. . . and amusing precocious Asian children.
Then it was off to the Eulanbi Lighthouse at the very southern tip of mainland Taiwan.
(I say mainland Taiwan because the Taiwanese claim some rocks out there in the Luzon Strait to fatten up their territorial waters.)

The park surrounding Eulanbi Lighthouse is small, but criss-crossed with a network of surfaced nature paths through some really odd little landforms. Fun to explore.

That's "Kissing Rock," behind the bald spot.
With the overcast weather and the time of day (late afternoon), some of the trails looked pretty ominous.
After a while, the trail opened up onto a rocky beach--the actual, for real, southernmost tip of (mainland) Taiwan.

A really fun day overall. I especially liked driving the scooter. I keep threatening to buy one of my own . . .

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Taiwan: Lotus Pond, Kaohsiung

(Note: I've gone out of chronological order here. Nana and I spent the middle of our Taiwan trip in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second largest city. There are still some Taipei posts waiting in the wings.)

To be honest, I'm still not sure what Lotus Pond is. Wikipedia isn't much help on the topic, and there was very little signage in English. I do know that it's a man-made lake near what used to be the old town of Fengshan, and that its western shore has been dotted with temples and shops for centuries. I also know that, today, it's advertised as a kind of open-plan cultural park ("amusement park" being the term used by the local tourism bureau), and that some of the buildings are almost certainly more recent reconstructions.

Nevertheless, several of the temples are still in use, making Lotus Pond a great place to see the colorful traditions of Chinese polytheism on display.

Our visit to Lotus Pond started at the Zuoying high-speed rail station, from which we walked about ten minutes to the north-east corner of the park.

The first big attraction on that side of the lake is a massive Confucian temple dedicated to one of the old Confucian saints.

It was there we stumbled onto a big foreign tour group, evidently visiting Kaohsiung on a cruise that was diverted from Japan after the Sendai quake. I wonder what they made of us: we crossed their paths a few times on our way around the lake.

Anyway, the architecture of the Confucian temple had some interesting quirks. For instance, the eaves were more colorful than what I can remember of the buildings we saw on the mainland. I wonder if this reflects older differences in taste, or more recent differences in restoration practices between Taiwan and the mainland.

Things only got more colorful as we made our way around.
Some of the temples we passed were astonishingly ornate. To my non-expert eye, some of them looked more Southeast Asian than purely Chinese.

One of the two big attractions is actually in the center of the lake, across from the halfway point of the western shore: a huge statue of a deified Chinese general.

The inside of the statue was actually a small temple. Pretty neat.

Further along the western shore is a shrine to Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy in East Asian Buddhism. She stands over the water on top of a dragon.
You can actually walk through the dragon to view scenes that, I can only presume, depict some kind of Chinese teachings.
Watch out for the teeth.
A wise man once said: "Grow your eyebrows really long and put a bat in your crotch."
Um . . .
Yes, that's the dragon's bum.
Further along the shore, there's another pair of walk-through animals at the aptly-named Tiger and Dragon Pagodas.
Here, you go in the mouth of the dragon and out the mouth of the tiger.
Hey, pal--you've got something in your teeth.
Our final stop on the western side of the lake was at a segment of the old Fengshan wall. 
Again, I'm not really sure about reconstruction dates, but it's likely that this wall, dating to the mid 19th century, was the oldest thing we saw all day.

After the wall, we faced a difficult choice: catch a cab back to the train station, or hoof it back along the eastern side of the lake. As it turns out, we chose poorly--there isn't much to see on the eastern side besides a strange zip-line wakeboarding thingy and this humdrum temple.
Given the heat, the humidity, and the long walk . . . I think this guy just about sums up how we felt!
All in all, a good way to spend a day . . . though if I could do it again, I would have skipped the eastern side of the lake!

Monday, April 4, 2011

They See Me Rollin', They Hatin'

We interrupt these time-sensitive posts about our week-old vacation with this important news update: yesterday, I won the chef-awarded title of "Most Beautiful Platter" at the FIS sushi-rolling class at the Sushi Den. Oh, yes. Marvel at the sight.

The sushi-rolling class was arranged by the fabulous school culture committee, purveyors of lantern viewing and karaoke nights, among other most excellent enterprises. We've been making sushi a lot at home now, but completely incorrectly. For starters, we don't make the rice right. Sushi rice is distinguished from regular white rice in that it has vinegar, sugar, and salt in it, but the only recipe we found online had like forty steps and looked like it would take forever, so we gave up. At Sushi Den, he just poured a quarter-cup of liquid into a big bowl of rice, which looked much easier. Maybe we'll try that from now on.

The other thing we don't do is raw fish, going for smoked salmon and cooked shrimp instead. I know, that sort of defeats the main idea of sushi, but I don't trust myself to identify, buy, or store it correctly. I will eat anything. I drink expired milk. I cut the bad parts off of fruit and cheese and go to town on the remainder. I once threw up an M&M that I found in the bottom of a suitcase. I am not to be trusted with raw fish.

(Side note: I juts tried to type "smoked" with an L in it about six times. Why not? You don't pronounce the "l" in "salmon." Smolked salmon... I like it. It reminds me of a sushi restaurant Justin and I used to go to in New Haven that accidentally had "smorked salmon" on the menu. Now that sounds delicious!)

We made two rolls each and three nigiri, or fish slices on rice. First you had to get your hands wet, so the rice wouldn't stick, and then make a big ball of rice:

Yes, that is a Steelers coat in the background, worn by our landlord's son Max. No, he didn't know what it meant. It was on sale when he bought it in Taiwan. Justin enlightened him and welcomed him to the mishpacha.

Then you spread the rice on top of a slice of seaweed about the size of a paperback book. It was critical to get the rice all the way out to the edges - not for flavor, but if you want the sort of sushi beauty that wins at pageants. Trust me, I'm an expert. Dig these beauties:

They provided cucumber, tuna, crab salad, and avocado for the rolls. I went no-cucumber since I hate cucumber. Justin put in everything because he likes everything. They didn't let us slice the rolls ourselves, which is probably a good thing, since that's where I always mangle everything when we make rolls at home. Maybe the secret is their knives, which apparently clock in around $500 each. For that kind of money, I'll mangle.

Nigiri is harder. You have to make the little rice ball, about the size of an eraser but thicker, and swipe some wasabi on the fish, then get this slippery piece of fish to sit firmly on top of the rice without squishing and ruining it. Justin thought his came out a little fat, which is why they have no future in modeling.

And then came the arranging part, which they did not tell us at the time would be judged. I remember spending an inordinate amount of time rotating the tuna rolls so the avocado would be in the same place on each slice.

Behold the majesty!

Behold, by contrast, Justin's effort. David Bowie to my Iman.

To be honest, I just tried to imitate what I saw on my plates at sushi restaurants. Everybody else was getting all creative - the pre-K teacher made a flower, the K teacher made a fish (out of fish!), the math teacher made a Pi sign - yet victory went to my shamelessly derivative opus. Who says life's not fair?

We all sat down to eat our spoils, which were freaking delicious, and partway through the meal they came out from the back with a framed photo of me and my victorious sushi platter. Since at that point, my chopsticks and I had gone through said platter like Sherman through Georgia, it was a truly bittersweet moment. A reminder of the ephemeral, transient nature of sushi beauty; nigh on a memento mori. Remember, you too, shall be devoured by ravenous expats. Or, in the words of the immortal Bard, as Henry IV quoth to the French upon the battlefields of Agincourt: