Thursday March 21, 2013
Learning experiences from work trips to Daegu and Taipei
By MELINDA LOOI
Our columnist combines work with pleasure, with tips to share from her trips.
IN THE last two weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to visit two wonderful Asian cities. First was Daegu, the fourth largest city in Korea, but a pleasantly quiet one. I was invited to attend their textile fair, Nex Fair.
I went, partly to expand my network (and I accomplished this mission, thanks to the very efficient organisers) and partly to discover a new city. My husband Dirk and I arrived a day before the actual fair, so we had a whole day to explore. The temperature was -1°C, just right to walk around and taste some hearty Korean food.
Daegu is surrounded by mountains and apparently mountain trekking is very popular. Hence the city is filled with outdoor clothing stores and coffee houses.
Interestingly, there are none of the Korean BBQ restaurants that are so popular in Malaysia. Could it be that the Korean BBQ is an export concept? Anyway, without the familiar BBQ restaurants, Dirk and I did what any sensible tourist would do – choose a busy place to eat. If it’s popular, after all, it must be good, right?
Yoogane was very crowded, and it certainly was good. It served food in huge hot plates which is cooked right in front of you. We had a dish called Dak-Galbi which mixes Korean rice cake with kimchi marinated meat and some fresh sliced spring onions. We were very hungry, and this dish was very heartwarming – we loved it!
The textile fair was also very good and our time in Daegu was well spent. If given the chance, we would definitely come back again.
But it was our second trip that was really exciting, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was not about work. Secondly, it was a trip to celebrate my 40th birthday and the birthday of my good friend Stephanie. And lastly, it was going to be spent with friends from Malaysia, Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The venue: Taipei. The choice was made easier by the fact that I have dear friends, Shin and Emily, who live in Taipei and had been asking us to visit.
So the eight of us went together and had a blast. This was my first time in Taipei for leisure. I’d been to Taipei numerous times for shows but never really got to explore the city properly. This trip was ideal for wandering around, as it was spring and the weather was wonderful, sunny and cool without being dry.
We made a pact to try as many different types of food as possible, go to as many places as we could and shop till we dropped. And we did all three! The first thing we tasted was warm soya milk (salty, with egg or just plain), some local buns, steamed xiao loong pau, fried pancake (shao bing), fried youtiao (Chinese donut), friend egg cake wrapped with youtiao and water steam fried bun. Our first impression of our first meal was how unbelievably affordable it was.
Everything was around NT$15 to NT$25 (RM1.50 to RM2.50) each; imagine RM5 for eight super yummy steamed siew loong pau!
After that first breakfast, we decided to come back every morning as we were staying just across the street from the Yong He Soy Milk King restaurant, which is very famous in Taiwan.
We rented a van with a driver, Mr Wu, who was the perfect tour guard, keeping us entertained with jokes and stories about Taiwan. I would definitely recommend him to anyone visiting Taipei. His van fits about nine people (just right for our group) and has a big booth to fit your shopping bags. His charges were also reasonable – NT$6,500 (RM684) for a day.
On our first outing with him, he took us to JiuFen, which was a prosperous gold mining town until the 50s. However, once mining was discontinued, it went into sharp decline. The quaint streets, tea houses and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean saved it from becoming yet another anonymous mining ghost town. JiuFen is now a popular tourist destination for Taipeites eager to relive scenes from the past. It has provided the setting for several period movies such as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City Of Sadness, which won the Golden Lion at the 1989 Venice Film Festival.
We were charmed by Jiufen; besides the many souvenirs to take home, food is everywhere. The very famous fishball soup, yuyuan (taro balls), dumplings served hot or cold with sweet bean and mochi are all widely available. We spent almost three hours shopping and trying every snack. By the time we left, our bags and bellies were equally full!
From JiuFen, we descended to The Golden Waterfall, and then to a place called Ying Yang Hai (Ocean of Ying Yang), where you can clearly make out a line separating the ocean into the colours brown and blue. It was too windy to walk along the oceanfront, so we just enjoyed the great view from the car.
Mr Wu then drove us to Yehliu Geopark, a cape on the north coast of Taiwan in the town of Wanli. The park stretches approximately 1,700m into the ocean and was formed as geological forces pushed Datun Mountain out of the sea. There were many tourists queuing to take photos, especially of a formation called the Queen’s head.
The highlight of the day, however, had to be our stop at Yang Ming Shan National Park hot spring, not very far from Taipei city. Soaking in a hot spring, surrounded by beautiful green mountains with spectacular views of Taipei at night from Yang Ming Shan was definitely an experience of a lifetime.
Over the next few days, we did as we said we would – lots of shopping and eating. I must mention here some of the best shopping and eating finds.
For shopping, head to Eslite (translated in Chinese, Chen Ping book shop), which started out as a bookshop but expanded to become a department store selling all kinds of in-house designer products and local fashion. It’s an amazing book and trendy fashion one-stop centre, with a few branches each selling different brands. So it’s best to visit them all!
For food, you must try Kiki restaurant; it offers one of the best Sihuan food in Taipei with a modern twist and a very nice interior. You also have to try the famous Ma La steamboat (mameans ‘numbing’ and la means ‘spicy’, referring to the feeling left in the mouth after eating the sauce). They serve the soup with duck blood pudding. I had my first duck blood on my birthday. And it was not as bad as it sounds; in fact, it was soft like jelly and tasteless. And, I quite liked it, but it has to be served in hot soup. My advice for first-timers of Ma La hotpot, order the less spicy version before you go with the very spicy one, which will really numb your mouth for days.
Oh, and if you intend to dine at one of the good restaurants in Taipei, you will need to make prior reservations, and you must be there on time. They will hold your reservation for only 10 minutes. And they limit your dining time to two hours maximum. So forget a long drawn leisurely meal, but it’s still worth the while, as the food is excellent.
I love Taipei/Taiwan. The people are super polite, customer service is fantastic, the food is out of this world, the landscape is beautiful and all those night markets are very affordable. This will certainly not be our last trip to Taipei for a holiday.
I’m glad I said good-bye to my 30s here, with my lovely friends. I’d like to thank them, for making it a special occasion; and thank Taiwan for being such an amazing host.
Award-winning fashion designer Melinda Looi tries to marry consumerism and materialism with environmental consciousness, and believes her greatest creations are her children. Follow her on Facebook or write in to email@example.com.