Monday, 26 August 2013

Taipei Children's Recreation Center

Updated 29/03/2015: Taipei Children's Recreation Center has closed down and been replaced by Taipei Children's Amusement Park.

When Taipei Zoo relocated to the southern outskirts of the city in 1986, it left behind large empty site in the northern suburb of Shilin. Over time, this was transformed into the Taipei Children's Recreation Center, comprising the World of Yesterday, the World of Tomorrow and the World of Amusement, and today it's a place most Taipei children know well. With traditional fairground rides, a science museum and a folk arts museum, it keeps kids interested and amused for whole days, rain or shine.

Taipei Children's Recreation Center is within five minute's walk of Yuanshan MRT station on the red line (leave by exit 2, go under the train line and follow the line of the bright yellow temple wall), so it's extremely easy to get to, and also very cheap. Children don't pay and an adult ticket is only NT$30, or about 70p. Amusement park rides are NT$20 and there are two playgrounds for blowing off steam while grown ups rest their tired legs.

We've been twice in recent months, once as a school field trip and once more recently on a Sunday afternoon outing. The World of Tomorrow is a good bet for a boiling day, as we found on the field trip. The kids could have spent all day at the various exhibits on space and biology. The World of Yesterday is more laid-back but very interesting from the perspective of Chinese cultural history. A collection of buildings with traditional swallow tail or horseback roofs, the idea of symbolism in architecture is clear to see. There's a peach-shaped window to represent longevity, a bottle-shaped door symbolising safety and well-being, and an eight diagram window that brings good luck and avoids evil spirits.

The children had a cracking good time, despite the fact that they were allowed on each amusement park ride only once because of the heat. They finished the day with some traditional gurning for the school photo.
When Conrad and I returned recently we confined our visit to the amusement park. Containing eight or nine rides spread out over an open site, it's pleasantly green and low rise in the middle of a built up area. Most foods that are bad for you are available including Ireland's potato (don't ask), ice-cream and candy floss. Shooting games with cheap plastic toy prizes are refreshingly absent. There's a small area for tiny tots addicted to Thomas the Tank Engine.

Before the days of terrifying roller coasters and death-defying torture vehicles masquerading as 'fun', there were ferris wheels, carousels, spinning tea cups and - for the more adventurous - bumper cars. I must be getting old because I prefer rides like these, where you're only mildly physical challenged or moved gently in one direction in a sedate and civilised manner, rather than experiencing jet fighter g-forces as your life flashes before your eyes. Taipei Children's Recreation Center has the kinds of rides I prefer.

Some visitors didn't enjoy even the mildest rides,

but we spent a very enjoyable two hours at Taipei Children's Recreation Center and not for the last time, I have no doubt.

Monday, 19 August 2013

All You Can Eat

Maybe it's just that I don't move in the right circles, but I'd never before encountered the all-you-can-eat restaurant in a truly grandiose style until I travelled to Asia.

My first experience was when we were on holiday in Hong Kong. One night, as we were wandering around trying to find somewhere to eat, we followed some food signs to a basement restaurant beneath a department store in Nathan Road. We were blown away when we saw the range of food to choose from. In a normal restaurant you expect to see several dishes for different kinds of meat, fish, seafood, vegetarian, plus staples such as rice, noodles, bread and potatoes. All you can eat Asian style means very many more dishes of every kind, plus several you've never heard of, and lots more that were until that moment beyond your imagination.

Even four years later the memory of my first encounter with this phenomenon is so strong I can recall details vividly. I remember wondering what the people in the long line were waiting for, and then seeing someone walk away with half a lobster, eat it quickly, then rejoin the queue for another one. And then do it again. To save time people in a large party would load plates to spilling point with just one dish and take it back to their table to share. I had my first, and last, taste of jellyfish there (there are some Asian foods that I don't think I'll ever understand), and my final memory of the evening is waddling to the dessert counter and trying to choose from fifty different types when I was already too full to eat even one.

Luckily for our waistbands, we haven't got heavily into all you can eat here in Taiwan. Such restaurants tend to be packed on weekends, which is mostly when we eat out due to weekday evenings being taken up by homework. But now that it's the summer holidays and our evenings are less busy, we took the opportunity to visit an old favourite on floor 12 of the building above Uniqlo at Zhongshan Dunhua MRT station.

This restaurant is the largest and best we've yet encountered. Called Guo Ran Hui (which means...'really'...ummmm...something) it must seat at least two hundred people, and when we'd been there before we not only hadn't been able to fit in even the smallest taste of everything available, we hadn't even been able to see it all. Afterwards, comparing memories, we'd all seen things the others hadn't managed to get around to.

Our most recent visit was on a Tuesday evening, and this time there was a small surprise in store. While waiting to go in, the waitress explained that there was no beef or seafood that night. At least, that's what we thought she said. We were okay with that and just put it down to the fact that it was midweek so they probably didn't go the whole hog, or cow (okay, that was bad, I know).

I'm not that quick at the best of times, and when I saw the rows of vegetarian dishes I thought, great, they're catering really well for the vegetarians. Now, what am I going to eat? It was only when my husband brought back his vegetarian dishes from the other side of the restaurant that the light began to slowly dawn. Tuesday night was vegetarian night, and we'd misunderstood what the waitress was trying to tell us.

Oh well, it was time to eat healthily for a change. Having several vegetarian friends, I've been treated to many delicious vegetarian meals over the years, but the choice and quality of meals we ate last Tuesday were a wonder.

Long rows of ever-replenished plates of food.

This was my first plate. I was hungry, having not eaten for several hours in preparation for the evening. Mexican omelette is peeking out at the top. Mushroom risotto to the right. Vegetable curry at 6 o' clock, ratatouille to the left, roast vegetables and baked tomato with cheese, topped with a small rice cake.

I lost count of how many plates Andy had. This is roast baby corn at the back, bamboo shoot kebab in front, cooked melon gourd (or something like that) in front of that. I'm not 100% sure what the other two things are.

This is my second plate, which is sweet and sour tofu, Kong Pao tofu, tempura vegetables including some kind of fern shoot, more stir-fried shoots and a sesame ball. Which was a mistake, because that's actually a dessert, haha.

One of Conrad's plates. He had some kind of Italian bread thing, deep fried broccoli, salad leaves, rice cake and one of the many dumplings. I couldn't fit any dumplings in, unfortunately.

Because I had to leave room for dessert. From the twenty or thirty on offer, I chose morello cherry pie, longan cake, choc chip cookies and a square of chocolate fruit.

Who knew stuffing yourself to the gills could be healthy?

All you can eat Asian style is a lesson in excessive eating that I'll hopefully never learn to master like a local. It's feasting in a grand style that's both amazing a kind of mildly disappointing, because your stomach can never possibly fit in all that your eyes can behold.

Monday, 12 August 2013

A Night at the Aquarium

Most public attractions shut their doors on the chattering masses at closing time, and an air of mystery surrounds what goes on after hours in the quiet halls and passages. Not so the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Pingtung County, which allows a set number of visitors to stay overnight, and go behind the scenes to see where fish and sea creatures are fed and bred. After the tours are over, guests can wander the site as they choose, before bedding down next to their favourite tank to sleep.

Tickets for this special experience have to be booked quite far in advance as it's very popular, so we had many weeks of excited anticipation before travelling down last weekend. It's a long way for us to go, catching the HSR down to Kaohsiung, which was as far south as we'd ever been, and then the bus for another 2 1/2 hours, so we made a long weekend of it and spent our first night further down the coast, where there are sandy beaches, many hotels, night markets and other tourist attractions. We tried the beach, but the sea was so rough, with a typhoon circling off the coast somewhere, that no one dared venture in the water. 
The Howard Beach Hotel, where we stayed, had an indoor water park and an outdoor pool, so we still had plenty to do. When we set off for the aquarium the next day, the ocean had turned beautifully still. Oh well, next time!

Touring the aquarium during normal opening hours was an experience in itself. The exhibits in the three areas - Waters of Taiwan, Coral Kingdom and Waters of the World - were fascinating. My favourites were the jellyfish, corals and the deep sea scavengers.

There were some amazing tanks. This is the kelp tank, which demonstrates how tall this seaweed can grow, from the seabed to the surface.

Conrad enjoyed the research submarine simulator, in which you seek out marine life to record and take samples from. He also loved the two outdoor water play areas, where some of the kids could keep cool at least, in the sweltering heat.

Our backstage tours started once the aquarium had closed to the general public. We were taken to see the staff work areas, which didn't look as pretty as the displays, but in some ways were even more interesting. We saw the upper area of a one million gallon tank, and our tour guide pointed out where the sharks and rays sleep at night. She explained that the feeding shows the public sees are just snacks for the fish, and that daily diet for in the particular tank we saw consisted of 100 kgs of mackerel.

We fed the jellyfish. Our guide explained that, because they're transparent, you can actually see which jellyfish had no food in their stomachs.

The blue tanks you can see filling with water periodically tipped over, simulating the effect of waves on the seashore for the fish in the tank below.

Our guide showed us a jellyfish that has a symbiotic relationship with algae.

We were also taken around the exhibits, which were now quite dark, to see how the fish behave at night.

Once the tours and dinner were over, we were free to wander at will. Conrad and I took the opportunity to go outside into the grounds. The aquarium site is quite remote, and with most of the outdoor lighting turned off, we could see a sky full of stars. In the background the only sound was of waves gently lapping the beach nearby.

At around 9.30 we were all brought back together to set up sleeping arrangements before the staff left us for the night. Family names were drawn randomly and the rest of us were entertained with a quiz while the chosen ones could select a spot to put down their mattress, pillow and comforter.

It was a little tense, as everyone had formed an opinion about where they'd like to sleep, and of course some places couldn't accommodate everyone who wanted to sleep there. But it turned out well for those, such as us, who were drawn towards the end. What might have appeared to be a good spot actually wasn't. The tunnels, which cost extra, are cold and, because they're thoroughfares, busier than other places. In other places it was so dark after the lights went out at 10.30 it was impossible to see anything.

We had little choice in the end, along with many others, and had to sleep in front of the largest tank in the Waters of Taiwan area, but this was one of the best places. There were three exit sign lights that stayed on all night, so whenever you woke up you could still see the fish. I'd been expecting to have a bad night's sleep, disturbed by people talking and babies crying etc., but everyone made a big effort to be quiet. (There were a few snorers, it must be said.)

The next day we were taken out onto the beach to search the rock pools and learn about the plants and coral. Then we had a whole day to continue to explore the aquarium.

I think I'll remember this trip as one of the many highlights of our time in Taiwan.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Wai Ao Beach

Taiwan may not be the first place to spring to mind when thinking of famous surfing destinations, but surf culture grows ever more popular here, amongst Taiwanese and foreigners alike. One surfing spot within easy reach of Taipei is Wai Ao beach, Yilan County.

We spent a hot day there recently on a trip with friends. Rising Surf Inn were our generous hosts, providing a surfing lesson for the kids, a loan of surfboards and boogie boards, and putting on a delicious evening barbecue to fill our stomachs ready for the trip home.

We learned that the beach at Wai Ao really isn't for swimming at all, unless you're into waving sadly at the shore as you're pulled out to the ocean on a riptide. Garrett, our surfing instructor, gave an enlightening safety lesson before anyone set foot in the water, and the kids took full notice of what they were told. Then the fun began. I think the pictures say it all, really.

Conrad did attempt some surfing but spent most of his time on a boogie board. Like most of the kids, it was nearly impossible to get him out of the water for sunscreen top-ups, which were very necessary on such an extremely hot day.

Conrad gets a helping hand from Garrett

The beach wasn't particularly busy, despite it being a weekend in peak season. Rising Sun Inn was popular, however, with surfers of many nationalities making use of its facilities.
Wai Ao beach lies on the train line from Taipei, and although the fast train doesn't stop there, passengers can get off at Toucheng and get a taxi back to Wai Ao quite cheaply.

The mountains provide a backdrop to the rear of the beach and Guishan Island lies off the coast. The area around the beach is still relatively undeveloped, though there are a few other hotels. It's basically a small settlement lining the coastal road and rail line.

I got the feeling that it won't stay that way for long.