Well, not "nothing". There are some residential blocks. But not interesting residential blocks, just soulless new condos or smart little row houses with no stores for miles around. It's extremely pedestrian-unfriendly compared to Kaohsiung where you can (and i did) walk for 10km in every direction and never stop seeing food stalls, mom'n'pop stores and other pedestrians. I can get why tourists like it - there are some very well-signposted sights, and most of the chain stores have English and Japanese translated menus - but... eh. Boring.
So i spent yesterday doing laundry and bumming around in my hotel room. The best thing i found in this city is 豆花 (dòuhuā), which is silky tofu with simple syrup - aka 糖水 (tángshuǐ) - poured on top. It's prepared like and eaten as a dessert or sweet treat. The best thing is that it's not over-sweet; great for someone like me who doesn't really like sweet food. Also, no bloating, no phlegm, none of that grossness of eating pudding made from eggs or milk. It is ridiculously delicious. You can augment it with red bean, peanuts and more, but my favorite version is 豆浆豆花 (dòujiāng dòuhuā) - just floating in soy milk with a drop of syrup.
Aside from that, it's actually harder to find vegetarian food than in Kaohsiung because all the chain restaurants only serve meat, and there are far less street-side cafeteria/food stall type places where you can point and smile and explain what you (don't) want.
Today i looked around and discovered there is a badlands "nearby". Since badlands are my favorite lands, i tried to figure out a way to get there on foot. All the guides give directions to rent a scooter or bike, but i don't want to do that on principle. I want to support public transport wherever i can, plus walking is the best and purest form of travel - nothing to worry about but the clothes on your back. After a couple hours researching with Google Translate, Wikivoyage, Wikipedia and some not-very-helpful English-language blogs, i found a way to get there. There are two buses that together would take me kinda-sorta in the right direction. The first took me to 新化 (Xīn Huà).
Or, should i say, the first bus took me Sin Hua? Or Hsin Wah? Trying to find your way around is made vastly more difficult in Taiwan because they do not consistently use pinyin for romanization. Even different street signs in the same town can contradict one another. This, incidentally, is also why most Chinese restaurants overseas write stuff like "kung pao" instead of "gong bao" - they are largely run by Hongkongers, Macanese and Taiwanese who were not subject to the 50+ year old mainland China ruling that everyone should use pinyin. If you google, Xinhua will be called Sinhua because fuck my life. From this point on i will use pinyin, unless it's a major city like Kaohsiung (Gāoxióng).
Anyway, i took the bus to Xinhua, which is a rural exurb of Tainan. It's in a farming area surrounded by rice paddies and pineapple plantations and mango trees. How do i know this? Because by the time i found vegetarian breakfast this morning in the miserable vegetarian desert that is Tainan, i missed the connecting bus to 岡林 (Gānglín) and now i am here.
I have three hours till the bus leaves, at which point i will have just a couple hours before the bus back to the city. I hope the badlands are close enough i can walk there and hang out, but otherwise i will just dopily walk around some roads in the countryside. Which, i guess, is not much different to what i did in Utah and Nevada, so that's fine.
Latest delicious meal is 杏仁豆腐 (xìngrén dòufǔ) or almond tofu. I am familiar with this from dim sum, where you get a tiny little cube of almond jelly and it costs a fortune, but this is the fucking country. I got a bowl-sized slab of almond jelly on top of a heaped mound of shaved ice for about a dollar. And then the girls at the counter brought me out the aforementioned douhua too, with copious syrup, because "you have to try!" This is the kind of hometown specialty i can get behind.
Xinhua is like a little wild west town, complete with a Main Street with 100-year-old façades and red brick bungalows still (barely) standing a block or so back. Except the bungalows have curved rooves, and then you remember you're in a country that both the Chinese and the Japanese occupied. That's capped off by the century-old Japanese-era dojo that still has a spring-loaded wooden floor. Awesome.
Yesterday was interesting. After spending a few hours in Xinhua, i was still determined to see the badlands, so i took the bus to Ganglin. Ganglin is basically a bend in the road with a police station, a restaurant/bar and - unusually - a Christian church. I walked out in the direction of 草山 (Cǎoshān), which is not even a village as far as i can tell, just a rural area with a few farms.
The scenic area is called 草山月世界 (Cǎoshān Yuè Shìjiè) or Caoshan Moon World, due to the moon-like landscape of the badlands and mud flats. In reality, it is far too wet and humid to look like a real desert moonscape, but when you are surrounded by jungle, even just a hint of a place where nothing grows is notable. The farmers valiantly try to shove pineapples, bananas and mangos in the ground, but a lot of the area is just thick and thorny bamboo. And - Lord almighty - if you have never walked through a bamboo forest alone, it is something else. Creaking, whining, knocking, barking (!) and rolling, rolling thunder like the sky is about to fall. It is awesome and terrifying. And every now and then you pop out at a river bed or a crest where you can see mountains made of mud and giant fucking spiders. Most of the publicity photos of the area are taken after the rain when the mist is rising and it looks like a Chinese watercolor, but i was humbled by the beauty on just a plain old summer day.
The walk exhausted me. I went about an hour and a half before turning back, planning to take the penultimate bus and knowing there was a bar there where i could drink while i waited. The bar was basically an open shed with a wok, refrigerator and tables and chairs. They had beer and tofu and standing fans. All the necessities. The men i had waved to when i had first gotten off the bus were still there, very drunk. Despite considering me crazy for walking a few hours in the late afternoon, they delighted in inviting me to their table where they finished off their beers and rice wine while i cracked a cold one. They knew about 50 English words between them. So we laughed, and we drank, and we laughed some more.
The biggest joke of the night was "no 3 no 4". I had no idea what they were talking about. I thought it might have something to do with the "out of 10" scale that a lot of Taiwanese tea shops use. For example, if you want half sugar, half ice, you say "5, 5". 10 is full sugar/ice. But when i got back online i translated back to Chinese and looked up 不三不四 (bùsānbùsì). Turns out the number one translation for no-three-no-four is "shady". It sounds like some kind of slang, but i noticed it also means the idiom "neither fish nor fowl", which made me wonder if they were commenting on my gender-confusing appearance. That would be in-line with my experiences in rural America, where being confronted with a fearless trannie completely does their head in. On one hand they have an idea of what a trannie should be and fear and hate that thing, on the other hand i walk into their dive bar dressed like a farm worker, covered in ratty tattoos and order the same cheap beer they do. So it doesn't compute. Usually people get over it. I leave if they don't. I guess i'm lucky i haven't suffered the Matthew Shepard treatment. I've had bigger problems in suburban and touristy areas of big cities where douchebag straight men feel like they have something to prove. True country boys don't tend to care much, as long as i don't rock the boat.
Around 6 i headed across the road to the bus stop. Most everyone else had left in dribs and drabs. Of the remaining two, one was passed out over the table, and the other came and sat next to me at the bus stop. He was a gentleman who refused to let me wait alone. He called his wife and she approved, you see. After about half an hour, he invited me on his scooter and said he would take me back to Xinhua. Against my better judgement (he was very drunk and i had no helmet), i jumped on and we started cruising the winding roads back to the big smoke. About 5 minutes in, the bus passed us in the other direction, so he turned around and took me back to the bus stop. It took another half hour of being bitten alive by mosquitos and listening to the crickets and watching the dogs strut around like they owned the whole place till the bus showed up, an hour behind schedule.
On parting, Mr X - as we shall call him - shook my hand and gave me his business card. I made it home safe and sound with a dead phone and a head full of memories and a heart full of love for rural Taiwan.
Imagine my surprise when i googled Mr X and found out he was a senior elected official in the DPP - the major left wing party of Taiwan. He has a Wikipedia page and everything. He kept lamenting his drunken state and apologizing to me every time he walked off to pee (or puke), but i am not sure we had enough shared language for me to say i totally get it. We've all been there, and the journey down is always a blast. The last thing he said to me was "come back to Taiwan!"
Today i took the local train to 嘉義 (Jiāyì) or Chiayi, a city whose name i will never be able to pronounce correctly. It was a leisurely hour or so across rice paddies and past factories and row houses and the odd highrise. The country here looks so much like Holland it's uncanny. Low, wet, gray.
Arriving in Chiayi was nice. Unlike Tainan - which has almost 2 million residents - Chiayi is a legit country town whose main claim to fame is that it is the terminus of the branch line to 阿里山 (Ālǐshān), Taiwan's most famous mountain and its most famous national park. I guess Chiayi is like Taiwan's Merced. And yet... it was immediately charming. There is hustle and bustle in the streets, the smell of fivespice and oolong wafting out of storefronts, and - most importantly, as a pedestrian - no boring gaps.
Also, there is a shit-ton of coffee shops. There are even guys on bikes selling ice coffee. It puts the cities south of here to shame. I wonder if this might be a sign of my slow progress north towards Taipei and its (presumably) more Japan-influenced coffee culture?
So, i am totally down with Chiayi. Its other claim to fame is a baseball team with a Hollywood story. They were a team of Taiwanese Aborigines and Han Chinese who - back when Taiwan was colonized by the Japanese - beat the Japanese-only Taipei team, then went on to Japan to compete in the nationals. Against all odds, they made it to the finals where they lost, but nonetheless became heroes. I think baseball is one of the most boring sports ever invented, but the stories are truly great. I walked up to the stadium, and then i kept on walking to a reservoir way out on the east side at the foot of the mountains. It's wild, standing on the dam and seeing houses way below on one side and water a stone's throw away on the other.
I walked back to town around sunset and found a busy farmers' market that was just winding down. All manner of fruit and vegetables and fish were there that i have never seen before. I was tempted to buy stuff, but then i remembered i only booked one night in this hotel and will probably leave tomorrow. These are the times i wish i had an apartment for a few days and could nestle in and cook some shit. Anywho, i continued on and found a night market and a bunch of stores and restaurants where i sampled the famous Chiayi turkey rice. You actually just ask for 鸡肉饭 (jīròu fàn), which is chicken rice, but the local specialty is turkey and that is what you will get. Similar to the famous Hainanese chicken rice of Singapore, it is literally just chicken (well, turkey) on rice. That's it. No vegetables, no seasoning - not really - just the meat on the rice. Much like Hainanese chicken rice, i have no idea why this is famous, but somehow the simplicity is endearing. It was well-cooked turkey, and well-cooked rice. And it cost a 30 kuai, which is a buck. So fuck it.
After that i walked back to a douhua stand that i had seen down an alleyway because douhua is heaven. I got hijacked by a young dude with a ponytail and his younger friends. He spoke perfect English with an American accent and said he was born in Chiayi and they were hunting tourists to ask about what they could do to make the city more appealing. He almost seemed disappointed when i said i really liked the place. He said it was boring and they wanted to make a video to point out that the city should be more exciting and do more to attract tourists besides being "close to Alishan" (they were surprised to hear i wasn't planning on going there). After chatting for a while they taped my answers - the only thing i thought they were missing, like the whole of this fucking country, is a bar that is open in the day time. Not sure if it'll get the kids a good grade at school or make a compelling YouTube video, but hey, i did my bit.
I gotta admit, i totally get where they are coming from. I love traveling through rural cities as an adult where i can hang out for a bit and then move on. But if you're a teenager in a town of a quarter million people a couple hours from anywhere with nightclubs and diversity... yeah, that sucks. I hated it when i was a teenager in ass-end-of-the-world Toowoomba. Fucking taking Greyhound to go to a rave, ffs... When you're a kid you can't understand that old people have done all that shit when they were younger and kinda like pottering about living the simple life. But God knows if i ever had kids, if i could give one piece of advice to any of my friends who plan for kids, it would be: move to the city. Kids will hate and resent growing up in the burbs or in a rural town. Big cities are where young people bloom and flourish and get to figure out who they really want to be. I am always baffled by the thought process that leads to my urban friends moving out to the burbs to have kids, it seems so cruel to stick them in a place that will suffocate their dreams.
Anyway, bored but optimistic rural teenagers aside, this middle-aged kid thought Chiayi was bomb. After my Ganglin experience, i finally figured out how to find a bar in Taiwan. It's not like a western bar. It looks just like any other restaurant, only difference is there are beer signs out the front (not all restaurants here serve alcohol). Up until now i avoided those places because they seem to be exclusively meat, but this time i sat down and struggled with a wait staff who spoke no English at all and did not understand my Mandarin either. They kept trying to push meat on me. Eventually i got tofu skin and baby corn, fresh off the BBQ. The thing is, i didn't want any food at all, i just wanted beer. But that's the thing - bars here, they serve food and beer. Nobody orders just beer. There are cocktail bars, of course, but they only open at 9pm and fuck that noise. That's where the young people go, all dressed up and shit when i am already lying in bed. No, if you are old in Taiwan, instead of grabbing snacks - 小吃 (xiǎochī) - at a night market, you go to these seedy restaurant-bars and order a beer and xiaochi like they are tapas and pour that beer in tiny little glasses and cheers and laugh all night. Since i have no friends here, i just quaffed the tiny little glasses alone and read China Daily for the comedic propaganda reports from across the strait. Good times.
Yeah, and then i picked up a few more beers at the 7-11 on the way back to the hotel. So, tomorrow will be awesome.