About Me

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Yilan, Taiwan
I'm a Social Studies teacher and single mom from Colorado and have lived here for 9 years. Taiwan is an excellent base for us explore Asia, while living in relative (gun free) safety, while benefiting from a cheap and efficient national health care system. The people are amazing too. I have friendships that are 14 years old and I'm always making new ones.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

High in Hsinchu 新竹市: The Magical Mystery Tour

I have been wanting to take a weekend trip up north to visit my friend Grace, she recently moved to Hsinchu from Tainan. (Photos of our trip are here.) Hsinchu is a mystery to me, its a place I hear about and usually see from the window of a passing bullet train on my to or from Taipei, on those rare times I go to the big city.

We took a bus Friday night after work and arrived  in 新竹 Hsinchu late, around 10pm. It was a late night for all, the kids were excited, the moms were tired.  My friend Grace's new apartment was fabulous in a block full of newly built apartments (all sold out) across from Costco and down the street from the famous Science Park. Hsinchu is Taiwan's Chicago (the Windy City 風城) and their Science Park (新竹科學工業園區) is Taiwan's "Silicon Valley," all engineers, factories, people who are movin' on up. The city also has 2 of the top 5 Universities right next to each other. Its a city full of highly educated people and the place is seems to buzz at a much faster pace than mellow Tainan.  It just looked like any other Taiwanese city, but I didn't get any feeling that it was artsy like Taichung or Taipei. It did seem like there were lots of expats and not the English teaching, partying kind. I really didn't spend enough time there to form more than this superficial impression.


The next day, early Saturday Grace made a quick and hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast  and then we were off on our road trip adventure. She took us to Neiwan 內灣 about 30 minutes east, outside Hsinchu City. First stop 7-11 for an ATM machine, some drinks and then we crossed the street to our first of two suspension bridges.There were so many go-carting tracks in the area, I thought for sure we would all be in these soap box go-carts, but when the opportunity came, the kids fell asleep so we moved onto other, more fun things, like hiking up a mountain.

On the other side of the first suspension bridge was a little tourist trap of kiddy games, go-carts and suspension ropes. Jeffery went first and it didn't take him long to master somersaults midair. Then it was Z's turn and I guessed rightly that she would not do the somersaults (they assisted her a few times but she didn't like it), but she did request they make her higher a few times, and they did. I wondered (and hoped)  they knew what they were doing.

After that we crossed back over the bridge and took a leisurely stroll down the town old street, checking out the vendors, scouting a place for lunch. We let the kids blow off steam at the local school's playgrounds and then continued on. My highlights for this street's wares and fares was the Hakka restaurants in old Hakka style wooden buildings (looks almost Japanese), the fresh Noni juice (almost bought a bottle), the old Japanese era cinema now converted to an overpriced restaurant, the local wood carver artisan, the pickled, smoked preserved green veggies (looks like tobacco) that we later ate stewed with soy sauce and pork fat drippings at one of those Hakka joints for our lunch.

In front of the Neiwan rail station
Z captivated by the wood carver
A few km outside of Neiwan, going up the mts we stopped at an another, much nicer suspension bridge. The view of lush green mountains unfolding all around us, the sound of a rushing, clear mountain stream below us, I thought to myself this would make a nice place for a minsu 民宿 (B&B). Guess what was on the other side of the bridge? A nice minsu with camp sites available (600NT), cafe, happy bunny rabbits lopping around big eared and attracting the kids. Z and the boys had already let themselves in and made themselves quite at home, by the time Grace and I caught up to them. I hope we can return there one day and camp to the sound of that mesmerizing, mountain river. 

We continued up the mountain, passing little aboriginal villages, following the giant dish signs to our mysterious elusive final destination, the D-Sky cafe. It was a near vertical off road and we were surprised people on scooter even made it there. We arrived in the late afternoon, the air cool and I was trying to get our crew on the trail so we could make some altitude before it got too dark for our descent.  

Mountain river views
 The kids kept on getting side-tracked and I didn't think we would see any view, but with a lot of, "come on kids" we didn't make it to the top, but we certainly had an adventure not falling off the mountain and saw some incredible views of the valley below and mountains in the distance. We definitely got some good exercise. The air smelled so incredibly fragrant and fresh I was beside myself, smiling, telling Grace every 10 minutes how wonderful this was and thank you. We found a few nice flat camping spots that just asked for a tent to be pitched there.

The sun was setting and we made our way down fast enough, walked to the cafe, up the 3 flights of stairs for the rooftop sunset view. It was incredible, the golden light of the setting sun bringing out all the different shades of green. There was a friendly foreign couple, tall, blond giants (Canadian male for sure) who were chuckled at Z's Mandarin and made light conversation with us. Later Grace and I wondered on the drive back how they got there, car? motorcycle?

The owner of the cafe was very friendly and flirting with me, although he was old enough to be my father. Like most Taiwanese, he asked me where I was from, if my husband worked here, then if my husband was Taiwanese. After this I always reply, I'm not married. Then they ask me where Z's father was and I always reply "America." I call it the Hello Drill. Usually after that, they ask what I do and how long I've lived here.

He thought I was Middle Eastern and he told us he was still single, but still had the body of a 30 year old, Grace and I were having a few laughs about this. Our entrance fee ticket included 100NT off of a drink so I had a glass of red wine, Grace the milk tea, the kids juice and some onion rings and french fries. The owner kindly gave the kids some extremely tasty mango pudding, which they couldn't finish (so we did.)

The evening air was cold, and the D-sky was buzzing with young couples on first dates or older business colleagues having a quiet evening. It certainly was a romantic enough place and only a 30 minute drive outside of Hsinchu.

The next day Grace took us to the city's municipal zoo. We walked through a market to get there, nibbling on piping hot sweet potato. The zoo entrance fee was a mere 10NT. The park was the oldest in Taiwan, so was full of old, tall trees and black, Victorian round cages. It wasn't impressive or grand like Taipei's zoo , more like a park with animals, but the weather was perfect. It didn't take long to see everything. My highlight was holding hands with the monkeys. This clever one took a fancy to Z and had her follow him as he showed her 2 different holes in his entrapment where he was able to get some affection. She thought he liked her because they had the same color hair, which might be true.

After the zoo and a quick coffee Grace treated us to lunch at the very popular and bustling Din Tai Fung restaurant for some soup filled steamed dumplings (rather than the tried and true dumpling soup). We had to wait a half hour for a table and passed the time at the international supermarket where I bought a small (and rare) portion of Australian cottage cheese and plain yogurt to take home to make my own from.

At the restaurant Grace ordered so much we couldn't even finish all the dumpling and the soups, she is generous like that, I always eat well with her. These dumpling were light so although we were full, we didn't feel uncomfortably stuffed, it was perfect. Both of us were tired from the kids being tired and fighting with each other. We fantasized aloud of a kid free lunch.The Din Tai Fung food was excellent, the service was the best I've had in Taiwan, if not over the top (they must of had some difficult customers) and I was surprised how extensive the chain is, that they have branches all over the world, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Australia, the US, and of course in Taipei and Taichung.

Soup in a dumpling

simple tofu veg soup
After lunch, Grace took us to the train station so I could run in and ask about trains to Tainan and we ended up taking a bus back to Tainan, recovering in a nap on the way down south. All and all a nice introduction (seduction?) to Hsinchu. I wasn't so impressed by the city itself as much as curious to what mysterious delights the mountains might hold for me and I am also curious of the state of the nearby beaches, if they are comparable to my neighborhood beach here in Tainan. You see I have this tasty job offer outside Hsinchu and I might be back there to check it out some more...More than that it was refreshing to spend some time with Grace, for the kids to play with each other, to connect with each other, although the rascals were at times exhausting.  When Z and Jeffry weren't trying to kill each other (he with blows and she with kicks) with little Simon stuck in the middle, they were like lovebirds. That afternoon on the mountain was magical.

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