“Does this contain meat?” (and other phrases)

This blog-post needs to start with a disclaimer: This article is not for those hoping to read all about the fantastic cuisine found in Taiwan.  Rather, it’s an account of the foodie adventures of two travellers with VERY specific diets and the comical situations which ensue as they try to find things they can actually eat…

2016-01-15 04.27.28

This blog-post also needs something of a warning.  A food warning, perhaps.  If you’re one of the many people who despise pictures of food, or strange folk who take photos of their meals, you might find this article irritating. I’ve no idea when I started thinking it acceptable to photograph my food.  I used to be in the camp of people who thought it very odd that anyone would want to take a picture of what they were about to eat, and even odder that others might actually want to see it.

2016-01-27 19.47.05

But whilst travelling over the last year or so I’ve actually found something quite satisfying in sharing my food experiences.  Maybe it’s that feeling of needing to share a joyous moment on social media.  Food is usually a social experience, after all.  And maybe the pictures garner interest because people are curious about what other people eat.  It’s the same sort of curiosity I have at the supermarket, watching (and silently judging) other people’s purchases on the conveyor belt.

If instagram #foodporn ain’t your bag, I’d stop reading now if I were you…

Incidentally, if you are curious about the whole food-photography phenomenon, you can read an interesting article here: What does instagramming our food say about modern eaters?

Before I take you on a journey through the culinary delights and food oddities of Taiwan experienced so far, I really should explain a little bit about me and my partner’s specific eating habits.

We’re both on the hippy side of the table when it comes to food.  We like our nosh fresh, organic and unadulterated, with as little negative environmental impact as possible.  The more sustainably we can eat the better, which entails forgoing most processed rubbish and fastfood places.  Sustainable eating also means we prefer to eat a mostly meat-free diet.  I still like to treat myself to fish and even the odd venison steak here and there (with the justification that venison can’t be commercially farmed in the same intense way as other animals), but for the most part we both exclude living creatures from our meals.

2016-01-27 20.39.54
This duck looks so overjoyed about being someone’s next meal.

Our avoidance of industrially-farmed animal products also includes everything dairy.  This was a huge leap for me last year.  I had always struggled to justify being a vegetarian while still consuming dairy products.  If you’re against the treatment of animals as commodities, then you can’t carry on supporting an industry that abuses cows and goats in the way the dairy industry does.  It just felt like a contradiction to my beliefs.

Cows-at-diary-farm-006
Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

I’ve now done without milk, cheese or butter for about three months.  This means more than just pouring oat milk on my cornflakes instead of the regular white stuff.  This has meant giving up cake, biscuits and ice cream, as well as a whole range of other foods that contain milk or butter.  Now, for anyone who knows me well, the thought of Mark without cake is akin to Homer Simpson without his donuts.  Or Patsy Stone without alcohol.  The challenge of finding vegan-friendly (palatable!) cake has been a tough one, but not impossible.

2016-01-15 04.51.21

Nevertheless, I’m still going along with this diet and oddly don’t miss the sweet stuff as much as I thought I would.  Even cheese has lost its appeal, which has left me wondering whether, like sugar, there’s something in it that makes you crave it while you’re consuming it most days of the week.  I can now do beans on toast without handfuls of cheddar.  Pizzas are a thing of the past.  Jacket potatoes are devoid of sprinklings of red Leicester. Okay, so all of this initially sounds fairly appetising to me, but then I only have to visualise the stress and trauma endured by the cow to produce bucket after bucket of milk, not to mention the gunk that is actually in milk before it’s processed (think pus, blood and hair) and that wedge of brie suddenly seems very different.

cow
Photograph by Liu Qiang, found at freefromharm.org

My partner has much the same attitude towards the meat and dairy industry, but his diet is also affected by an intolerance to dairy products that leaves him feeling fairly crap after eating it.  Add to that a gluten-intolerance too, and you can say goodbye to enjoying anything involving noodles, bread or pasta made from wheat.

So this leaves you with two bumbling travellers who are trying to find sustenance in a country that doesn’t speak their language (much) while avoiding meat, dairy and wheat.  Fun times.  What follows is an account of some of our experiences of food while in Taiwan.

If you’re a pescatarian in Taiwan, the options are fantastic.  An island culture with a strong Japanese influence is bound to have a rich menu of seafood.  Likewise if you love meat, there are countless dishes involving pork, beef, duck or chicken.  Chinese and Taiwanese people endured long periods of poverty in the past, when meat was truly a luxury only the rich and powerful could afford.  Now in modern times with a rising middle class, meat is eaten at every opportunity.

While finding meals made mostly of meat is a breeze, finding food from a sustainable, organic provenance is not.  This wasn’t a huge surprise to us to be fair, but it makes it no less frustrating.

The Taiwanese generally have a very different idea about nutrition, which results in confusion and amusement whenever they realise you don’t/can’t eat meat, dairy produce or wheat.  Even the words gluten, vegetarian and dairy appear to have different connotations here in Taiwan.  For example, when one of our Taiwanese friends helpfully gave us the symbol for “vegetarian” we used it enthusiastically, pleased that finally we might have food we were happy to eat.   Imagine our surprise and mild horror when things still turned up with pork or beef floating in them.  It turns out that the word “vegetarian” is used far more loosely and actually refers more to the Buddhist avoidance of onion and garlic, which are pungent aliums both reputed to encourage heated desires (!)  This explains why in one restaurant we tried to add slices of onion and spoonfuls of garlic sauce to our meal from the buffet, only to be stopped by the servers who frantically indicated that as vegetarians, this food really wasn’t meant for us!!

wochisu
The sounds and symbols for “vegetarian”

Meat and fish are handled very openly here in Taiwan, with stalls displaying severed heads and piles of body parts that most shops in the UK would never reveal.  Our culture of meat consumption is so divorced from the source that seeing staring eyes and bloody entrails would shock most Westerners.  Here it’s not unusual to see and even choose your meal while it’s still alive and kicking.

2016-02-14 13.30.32

I kind of have a strange respect for people who are still happy to eat another being after seeing it living and breathing just before they eat it.  I sort of think it shows they’re being real about where their food came from.  It also makes me wonder if they have slight sociopathic tendencies, but I still admire them somewhat if they can tuck into something that stares back, in the same way most blokes admire Bear Grylls spearing something edible on a desert island.  People who say “aaaw, little piggies, so cute” and balk at the sight of a pig’s head on a plate (“eewww, that’s awful!”) only to then start tucking into a bacon sandwich, are the sort of deluded idiots I’d happily punch in the face. (#justsayin)

2016-01-21 10.56.35

In order to provide food for so many carnivores, there can be no doubt that animals raised in Taiwan are done so on a huge scale, with little regard for their welfare.  Taiwan claims to have the cleanest pork, but I doubt any of those pigs see daylight while they’re being sanitised and sterilised on a cocktail of antibiotics before we consume them (incidentally, China is named as the biggest consumer of antibiotics in the world, with more than half the world’s pigs kept in this country alone.  As a result scientists have recently raised concerns about drug-resistant antibiotics and warn that unless things change, we could be facing a global catastrophe where even a simple operation could kill you.  Less meat, anyone?)  I’d like to add that I’m not having a dig at Taiwan in particular in this post – the problem is global.  Taiwan is just a current frame of reference and one of many examples.

2016-01-30 22.54.34

pig-abuse-475
Photograph found on http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/food/pig-abuse

Check out these articles if you’re interested in reading more about the escalating use of antibiotics and the future implications for human health: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/854711,

http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/03/20/394064680/for-the-love-of-pork-antibiotic-use-on-farms-skyrockets-worldwide

My point is that even if Nate and I were happy to consume meat, we’d have no idea where it was from or how the animal was treated before it reached our plates.  My taste for fish has waned considerably since being here, especially after seeing huge vats and reservoirs out in the countryside of Taiwan, where hundreds of thousands of fish are raised for the table.  I can’t help but wonder how cramped they are and what they are fed on, or how contaminated with metals their flesh is before I consume it.

2016-02-03 20.21.15

The same goes for eggs.  At no point have we encountered any labels or symbols indicating free-range.  At present we’re both eating eggs to keep up our protein (and because they just taste so bloody good!), but after seeing huge poultry farms out in the fields, with thousands of birds crowded in small, brown pens, my desire to buy and eat eggs out here is also diminishing.  Thoughts like this really kill my appetite for anything!

2016-02-11 17.43.47

An aspect of Taiwanese food culture we’ve really enjoyed are the renowned night markets.  Food is such an important part of Taiwanese daily life and people gather together to enjoy meals as a social event.  The Western culture of sitting quietly in a peaceful restaurant is fairly alien here; Food is meant to be enjoyed with gusto, loudly and excitedly! The markets are riots of colour, sounds and smells, with so many strange and wonderful things on offer.  If you’re the sort of person who turns their nose up at establishments that look about as clean as a public toilet in Peckham, you’d be missing out in Taiwan.  Some of the tastiest food we’ve had has been wolfed down in these dirty, run-down places.

2016-01-13 12.33.47

2016-02-11 17.49.25

2016-02-11 17.58.30

Some of our favourite snacks here have been little green onion pancakes, also called scallion pancakes.  Another breakfast favourite has been Dan Bing, which are pancake-like wraps smothered in a sweet brown sauce.  You can check out a video of them being made here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQ7iieZaQWE

P_20160121_083055

For most of our meals, we’ve found lots of vegetarian buffets throughout Taiwan. For the discerning vegan/veggie, these joints are perfect as they offer a wide selection of different vegetables, tofu and mushrooms, while being astonishly cheap. We have found most of them using an app called HappyCow (http://www.happycow.net/), which locates and rates places that serve vegan and vegetarian food.  Among the gems we’ve found using this app are chain buffets like Minder Vegetarian and Loving Hut, as well as little independent places like Vegan Heaven cafe in Jiaoxi (perfect for soy lattes and CAKE) and Ming Yuan Vegetarian in Hualien, where we ate some of the best veggie food we’ve ever had.  If you log into the HappyCow website or app and search for the above, you’ll find them easily.

Taiwanese dessert is also a strange experience, as they tend to use beans for sweet things rather than savoury.  There are loads of colourful little shops devoted to this bean and sweet tofu dessert, where you can tuck into tapioca balls and jelly in an odd sweet soup.

Another dessert is shaved ice, usually flavoured with mango or other fruit.  At one place Nate had peanut-flavoured ice with spoonfuls of beans to go with it!

 

Our experiences of finding and then ordering food have been consistently fun-filled and hilarious.  The language barrier has made things predictably challenging, but details about how much we wanted or what we wanted or what we were prepared to eat have always caused huge complications for everyone involved.  Nevertheless, the wonderful people here are immensely patient and ever-smiling throughout all of the proceedings and I’m genuinely touched by how accommodating the Taiwanese are (a good thing too, seeing as they’re dealing with two extremely fastidious eaters!)

2016-02-13 21.23.07
Fancy negotiating this without Google Translate?

2016-02-13 21.17.25

2016-02-08 16.25.50

No doubt there will be many more ludicrous and entertaining food adventures to come here in Taiwan.  Our next mission is to successfully prepare dairy-free, meat-free meals at home using ingredients bought at the markets.  Chances are the results will be uploaded to a social media feed near you soon…

 

 

Advertisements

On our way to Taipei!

This was written by my wonderful man, Nate and is a fantastic extension to my own accounts of Taipei… Check it out!

A cosmic Wanderer

We’ve been in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan for just over a week now. We arrived last Saturday after a longish bus ride friom Yilan (in which I managed to sleep for most of). Our first impression of Taipei was a sunny one! We could see the sun! And was almost warm, I was even down to just my T-shirt and shorts for part of the day. Little did I know that would be the last time I’d be exposing so much skin for the rest of our stay here…

IMG-20160201-WA0012

We waddled from the bus station with our HUGE bags for about 15 minutes and set up camp outside a coffee shop called ‘Louisa Coffee’. The plan was to meet my friend Louis who lived in this busy area of Taipei (Banqiao) somewhere. He had only returned home the previous day from a Christmas break in the UK to visit…

View original post 2,077 more words

The trials of Taipei

2016-01-17 21.48.51

I have to say that is possibly one of the hardest blog posts I’ve had to write about my travels, because it describes a part of my journey that wasn’t really all that enjoyable.  Nevertheless, I feel it’s better to record everything in these electronic diaries whether they are full of fun or not.  I’m hoping I can look back on my musings and laugh at them a lot more than I could at the time of going to press…

2016-01-17 21.25.04
Christmas is still in full swing in Taiwan with trees and lights still up all over the island.  Apparently it’s not really celebrated here and the festive decorations are left up for months as a sort of imitation of our own festival.

2016-01-17 21.28.57

2016-01-19 19.02.50

I’m pretty sure our miserable experience of Taipei came down to several things rather than just the one. Let’s face it: January is hardly a happy time of the year for most of us in the northern hemisphere and supposedly the 3rd Monday in January is the most miserable day of the calendar, owing to Christmas-induced debt, cold shitty weather and the realisation that you’re still facing at least a month and half more of extra darkness before Spring arrives.  Happy happy joy joy.

2016-01-19 15.38.34

I knew from the outset that I would still have to face winter this year.  Usually I do my best to avoid it and flee southwards, but our move to Taiwan meant that we still had to put up with it.  That said, we were mentally gearing up for a much milder affair, with lows of 12 degrees and highs of as much as 20; Winter was supposed to be a lot easier for us this year.  Alas, luck was not on our side.

2016-01-19 15.35.11

2016 saw the coldest winter on record descend upon Taiwan.  Ok, so the lows were only 7 degrees, but the moist climate here meant that this felt much colder, with a wind that felt like it had knives in it.  Couple that with a society who normally have no need for heating in their accommodation and you’ve got a near-frozen population in the north of the island: no snug fireplaces, no central heating.  Snow fell on the high hills and mountains (tailbacks from people driving up there to see their first ever glimpse of the white stuff were reported) while over 80 people in the capital lost their lives in the bitter cold.

2016-01-16 15.05.04

We hid in the apartment of Nate’s friend Louis, buried under our duvet while icy rain fell constantly for about five days.  The sky had that blank, grey-white, desolate, suffocating quality to it and a chill dampness got into everything.  It really was very depressing, even for two Brits who should be used to that sort of weather.

IMG-20160121-WA0007

2016-01-23 13.20.22

We did try to cheer ourselves up by venturing out on night walks despite the heavy rains and for a brief time the newness of our environment and the vivid city lights raised our spirits a little.  But getting back to the flat with cold damp clothing that was impossible to dry (no radiators or heaters anywhere in Taiwanese houses) brought back the gloom.

DSC_0629

Nate’s friend did his best to host us and took us to see some of Taipei’s sights.  We visited Longshan Temple, one of the oldest in Taiwan.  The fragrant incense, flickering candles and offerings of bright fruits and flowers were a welcome sight in the chill damp of the city.

2016-01-19 16.06.332016-01-19 15.43.092016-01-19 16.03.242016-01-19 15.41.032016-01-19 15.58.03

2016-01-19 15.59.55

We were taken to the infamous Snake Alley near Longshan.  This market is known for offering snake on the menu.  As we walked along the arcade of shops and restaurants, we caught sight of tanks filled with pythons and vipers, all awaiting a grisly end in someone’s soup.  Snake is considered high ‘yang’ energy food here, and often consumed to boost health in the cold winter months.  Despite our chilled bones, we didn’t fancy making a meal out of any of the poor things. (Louis warned us not to get our cameras out in this market, as apparently photography is forbidden, so I didn’t get any pics of the snakes – I’m guessing they don’t want too many people publicising this horrible trade)

2016-01-19 16.21.29

As night descended we made our way through the city and into Ximending Youth Shopping district, where the atmosphere felt far more Western and the demographic was definitely a younger, hipper variety.  Familiar brands like KFC or Starbucks sat alongside market stalls selling stinky tofu (a delicacy here that smells like rancid three month old unwashed socks) or pots of seafood soup.

2016-01-19 18.03.122016-01-19 18.14.552016-01-19 18.18.51

2016-01-19 18.20.30

 

2016-01-19 18.54.01

After passing the remains of one of the old city gates, we also saw the 228 Peace Memorial Park, which marked a terrible time in Taiwan’s history.  In 1947, shortly after WWII, a number of people gathered at the site in response to civil injustices and corruption by the ruling KMT Party at the time.  Outside a police station there, soldiers shot down protestors and the ensuing civil unrest resulted in 38 years of martial law.  A park has since been laid out in memory of those who lost their lives at this spot.

2016-01-19 20.10.042016-01-19 20.02.13

Next on our whistle-stop tour was the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, built in 1980 to commemorate the president of the same name.  The plaza was huge and the gate in front of it equally imposing.  It reminded me of a similar plaza I once saw in Lhasa to celebrate the power of the People’s Republic of China and their presence in Tibet.

2016-01-19 20.37.41

Despite seeing all of these famous sights and places of historical importance of Taipei, the bleak, wet season kept our vibrations quite low and it was a bit of a struggle to maintain any sort of enthusiasm for sight-seeing.

Another factor that didn’t lift our moods was the environment of Taipei.  We had both just left a vast metropolis where the air quality is noticeably poorer than the rest of the UK (I don’t care what any of my Londoner friends say – even with congestion charges and green buses, London air still smells foul at the best of times and I would always be grateful for my weekend escapes to the Peak District or Dorset where the air was sweeter) so arriving somewhere with an even worse example of air quality was somewhat hard to bear.

2016-01-17 20.58.00

I still remember our first evening in Taipei; we’d been travelling by bus from the green foothills of Yulin County and watched with growing dread as the ugly high-rises multiplied around us and hordes of scooters swarmed the streets in clouds of blue exhaust smoke.  Tired and hungry, we left our baggage at Louis’ flat to head out to find our bedding for the night (we needed to buy a duvet and mattress to stay on while crashing at his place but really should have been looking for food first) and trudged across the city through this dirty, noisy, smokey, rainy, Blade Runner-esque landscape.  It was fairly distressing at the time, I have to say.

DSC_0626

2016-01-17 23.37.07

One of our days here was spent exploring an area on the outskirts of Taipei named Xindian. We’d located a cluster of vegetarian restaurants using GoogleMaps (finding veggie food here takes some effort) and also noticed there was a pretty forest walk nearby.  We ventured out to the area using Taipei’s wonderfully efficient MRT system (their version of a metro) and hiked up the forested slopes near Bitan Bridge.  Even though the weather that day was its usual drizzle interspersed with heavy rain and occasionally broken by showers (!), being surrounded by greenery was exactly the boost we needed and our walk by the river really helped us realise that we needed to leave the city in order to keep our sanity.

2016-01-21 10.18.482016-01-21 10.41.322016-01-21 10.22.342016-01-21 11.29.272016-01-21 10.40.112016-01-21 11.22.34

We decided enough was enough and left Taipei to head south.  Even if we were to find cold weather elsewhere in Taiwan, we hoped it would be in the midst of greener, less urban surroundings. It turns out we made the right decision (stay tuned for my next blog post about the sunny, sultry south!)

2016-01-25 12.59.53

Before I sign off, I want to mention the numerous Instagram posts of food during our first few weeks in Taiwan which prompted some of our friends to ask if eating is all we’ve been doing here.  I think one reason we’ve been stuffing our faces is because comfort-eating is a sure way to banish winter blues wherever you live.  And comfort-eating aside, Taiwanese food is so affordable and downright delicious that you’d be an idiot not to fill your face here.  The Taiwanese have a rich culture of culinary delights and eating out is seen as a very entertaining, enjoyable, social affair.  I’ll be writing a whole post dedicated to Taiwanese food very soon, I think!

Trying out Taiwan: First week in Yilan

It started with an idea to visit someone on the way to somewhere else.  My other half Nate has a friend who’s been living in Taipei, Taiwan for almost a year, and loving it.

2016-01-14 11.59.27

Let’s go go for a month, we said.  Or three months.  Hang out with Louis before we go on an adventure to central America.  But the more we talked about Taiwan, read about Taiwan and heard about Taiwan, the more it appealed to us to stay much longer.

2016-01-13 13.15.16

Lots of our friends have asked why we would come here.  I completely understand their puzzlement.  Before I even entertained the idea of a holiday in Taiwan (never mind actually living here for a year or more) I realised I knew very little about the country.  It was the sort of place I imagined as being quite industrial, with lots of toy factories and electronics manufacturers.  After all, look on the back of your microwave or laptop and you’ll probably see the familiar Made in Taiwan stamp.  I remember thinking Santa’s workshops were based in Taiwan as a youngster, because the words were written on most of my toys.  What could there possibly be in Taiwan other than acres of factories and dirty, smog-smothered cityscapes?

2016-01-14 03.53.41

The first thing you notice as you fly in over Taiwan is the cloud cover.  Being on the Pacific rim and in the path of annual typhoons, it’s quite a damp place.  But this also makes it very green.  As we decended through the white blanket above this small island nation, we saw so much water and lush carpets of jade vegetation stretching out for miles.  It almost looked like the English landscape in some places, except England doesn’t have palm trees or rice paddies amongst the urban sprawl.

taiwan_air01
Picture credit: http://www.jacekphoto.com/taiwan/taiwan15.htm, Jacek Piwowarczyk, 2004

We landed at Taoyuan Airport in the north-west of the island and made our way to our first stop: Yilan in the north-east.

2016-01-13 13.46.18

We chose to visit Yilan first as a bit of a break after living in the intense city of London.  We’ve assumed that Taipei will be just as hectic and fast-paced, so we fancied a bit of time chilling out in a quieter area of Taiwan.  Yilan County is on the eastern side of the island, backed by misty forested mountains.  According to our host, it is much friendlier than Taipei, with more availability of traditional Taiwanese food.  As we haven’t yet reached Taipei, we can’t make a comparison yet, but I’ll be updating my blog once we’ve experienced both places!

2016-01-13 13.42.282016-01-13 12.04.412016-01-13 13.12.562016-01-13 13.15.55

Taiwan has a really modern rail network and is such a small island (just under 400km long and only 144km wide) that it doesn’t take long to reach any of its cities.  We were in Yilan County within three hours and settled into our B&B that night: Cloud B&B in Luodong. (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g608526-d6676248-Reviews-Cloud_B_B-Yilan.html)

2016-01-16 12.42.08

Most houses in Taiwan look pretty shabby and ramshackle on the outside (Cloud B&B is actually an exception and has quite a swish exterior) but these moss-covered, tiled and concrete monstrosities belie interiors that are clean, modern and quite Japanese/Scandinavian in appearance.

Upon our arrival our host Xiao Lei displayed typical Taiwanese hospitality, showing us maps of the surrounding area, offering to give us lifts to the various sights and asking us what we’d like for breakfast the next day.  As it turns out, food seems to be something fairly central to our visit to Taiwan.

2016-01-12 11.30.12

Many of the Chinese and Taiwanese students I taught at Coventry University London sang the praises of Taiwan’s gastronomic greatness. In fact, it was usually the first thing they’d mention.  We haven’t been disappointed in the slightest.  And not only is Taiwanese food incredibly tasty, it’s also incredibly cheap.

2016-01-14 05.37.00

Nate and I don’t eat dairy or most meat (the reasons perhaps best explained in another post) and we were worried about whether we’d still be able to stick to our specific diet.  As it happens, we’ve found that like the UK, Taiwan has plenty (if not more!) options to ditch the dairy when eating out.  Getting the food is also pretty entertaining in itself.  There are lots of young people who can speak English, but for the most part there aren’t many Taiwanese here who can understand us, and presently our Mandarin is limited to about five spectacularly mispronounced words.  Mad gestures, blank expressions, confusion and general hilarity have ensued at every restaurant and food stall we’ve visited.

In one store we ordered twice as much sushi as we wanted (not that it went to waste, mind) and in another we accidentally ate shark. Aside from this mortifying incident, our food adventures have been the highlight of being in Taiwan so far and every day presents another entertaining challenge and new experience.

2016-01-14 13.02.47

Our stay here in Yilan was never intended to be filled with visits to tourist-attractions: we didn’t even bother reading guidebooks before coming here!  Our aim was to relax.  With the intention to stay for at least a year, we’re in no hurry to be tourists.  However, besides lounging around catching up on episodes of Game of Thrones while suffering the effects of jet-lag, we have actually ventured out and seen a few things.

2016-01-13 04.03.08

The night market in Luodong town has been fantastic: Such energy, sounds and smells.  We’ve sampled delicious noodle soups, scallion pancakes and deep-fried tofu sticks all washed down with fragrant cold green tea.  The food here really is as good as everyone shouts about.

2016-01-13 13.04.07

We wandered around Luodong Sports park, narrowly avoided being savaged by the fat brown squirrels there and watched shoals of monstrous carp in the lake.

2016-01-14 04.36.542016-01-14 04.06.212016-01-14 04.07.442016-01-14 04.15.31

Jiaoxi to the north of Yilan County has possibly been our favourite place so far.  As a town that draws tourists for its natural hot springs and tumbling waterfalls, we can see why it might be popular with Taipei-dwellers who want a relaxing break from the city.  We enjoyed a soothing soak in the spa here and had our feet meticulously cleaned by small fish (a terrifying experience in which scores of goldfish nibble voraciously at the dead skin on your soles; I kept imagining them to suddenly start stripping my flesh like a shoal of vicous pirahnas at any given moment).  Not for the ticklish!

It was in Jiaoxi that we found a cute vegan cafe called Vegan Heaven (http://www.veganheaven.com.tw/) which served smooth soya lattes and amazing vegan cakes. For someone who has recently renounced all things dairy, their slice of lemon cake and pots of tiramisu dessert are sweet Shangri-La.

 

We also had amazing vegetarian food on the main drag in Jiaoxi.

2016-01-15 06.23.33

I couldn’t tell you the name of the restaurant, but I can tell you that a good friend of the owner there is retiree William (born in Myanmar, resident of Taiwan), a very friendly chap with brilliant English who bought us both beers and regaled us with tales of his travels to over 60 American cities back in the 1970s, when he worked as a scout for television programmes to bring to Taiwan.  One thing I love about travel is meeting random people and learning something about who they are, where they’re from and where they’re going.

 

We also hiked to the Wufengqi Waterfalls in the foothills of the mountains close by.  The short 45 minute hike took us through dripping, mist-shrouded forest to the foot of a 400m cascade.  It was all very tranquil and picturesque.  I get the feeling Nate would have found it even more agreeable had he not slipped and submerged both feet in the river while posing for a photo with me.  Apparently the water is quite warm in that stream.

2016-01-15 08.09.14

2016-01-15 08.34.302016-01-15 08.24.562016-01-15 08.40.192016-01-15 08.47.56

If our first week in Taiwan is any indication of how much fun the rest of our stay will be, then I have high hopes for our time here.  Next stop: Taipei, so watch this space for the next instalment.

2016-01-15 11.01.46

A year of feeling free

20150328_135600

This week marks an important anniversary for me. I’m not sure whether I should feel proud and accomplished, or encouraged to seek professional help or merely feel moderately embarrassed. Perhaps a combination of all of the above. This week it has been one year since I last had a permanent address. Since October 2014, I’ve been living out of a cabin bag and haven’t stayed in the same place for longer than two weeks.

My bonkers venture began as a result of the end of a relationship and a perpetual tendency to flit from place to place. I’d been living in south London and suddenly had to be rescued by kind friends with sofas and beds and floor space to spare. It would only be until Christmas. I’d find a flat again after the holidays…

10469740_10154568332985473_7737554212289310583_n

But then the Christmas holidays became a much longer vacation and I found myself still living out a bag and bumbling across Africa during January and February.

20150216_131309

In the spring I returned to London to work. My five months of frugal, simple and quite frankly liberating cabin-bag existence had made me resistant to searching for a place to rent. I decided to keep up the hobo lifestyle and began to explore other ways of living and working in a city while paying absolute zero rent. No cash-grabbing landlord was going to see my earnings… I was more than happy with my 56cm x 45cm x 25cm property. So much so that I’d practically got rid of all my belongings until everything I owned could be packed into it.

There wasn’t an awful lot of work with my employers in March, so after just three weeks of meagre hours at the university, I buggered off again, this time on a couch-surfing mission. I’d discovered www.couchsurfing.com through a friend who insightfully thought it would suit me to a tee. I tested it out in London first (just in case the host turned out to be a nutter of the Norman Bates variety) and discovered a whole community of like-minded, generous and selfless wanderers who took it in turns to offer up their living space to other nomadic types. The experience was revelatory.

10906585_10155137150655473_3363019026278681208_n

africa

Travelling across Africa and embarrassedly admitting to other nomads that I’d never been to Dublin or Berlin or Prague made me realise that there was a fair amount of Europe I’d never seen, despite it being on my doorstep. I decided to stop dilly-dallying and go and see as much of it as could while I had the time and energy. I also decided to do this without paying for accommodation, on as small a budget as possible.

tower

My travels took me to Ireland for the first time, then Spain to be with friends, followed by a brief jaunt to the Isle of Wight for a spot of cycling with a complete stranger and back to Dorset for a friend’s wedding.

wight sunset

I’m at risk of turning this already epic-post into a saga of my travels, so I’m going to condense the rest of my European leg into the following: During the month of May, I flew from London to Helsinki to Oulu (Finland) to Helsinki again, then to Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius to Warsaw to Berlin to Wroclaw to Jelenia Gora (Poland) to Prague to Vienna to Bratislava to Budapest.

finn8

finn16

riga3

riga6

11233508_10155597425725473_8568091087157724792_n

war2

IMG_20150516_163243

wroc4

wroc28

2

1

11401005_10155685373835473_5557436747938126199_n

Seeing it listed like this seems so short and inconsequential, so I’ve drawn a little route on a map of Europe to show off my wanderings a little bit clearer.

Euro-tour

The experience was memorable to say the least. I managed to catch up with old pals and make plenty of new ones. I experienced heart-warming hospitality from complete strangers and familiar friends alike, travelled by train, plane, automobile, boat, bicycle and more buses than I ever want to see again, faced my fears in Lithuania, went on a treasure hunt in Latvia, made daft movies and sang karaoke in Finland, got invited to Amsterdam by random strangers while in Estonia, danced for so long to Latin music in a Berlin nightclub that I put a knee out, was humbled by history in Poland, walked up a mountain near the Czech border and explored tunnels under a castle in Hungary, was blown away by art in Prague and Vienna and received a brand new scar in Bratislava. The whole trip was phenomenal and I think I’m still recovering from it.

finn10

finn

riga2

riga10

vil6

war6

20150513_164226_2

IMG_20150516_163206

wroc22

 18

11401021_10155693293380473_3497163672347345982_n

Alas, reality had to return soon and I had to go back to the UK to replenish my funds. I’m not sure how, but I’ve been living out of the cabin bag since, and have still managed to work full-time. Indeed, during July and August I was actually working seven days a week, which begs the question: Did I keep a sleeping bag under my desk?

Joking aside, I have been rather resourceful with this way of life. I guess I’ve had to be. I have a locker at work with my work clothes and two pairs of shoes in it. There’s also a kitchen with a fridge and a microwave, so I’ve even taken to preparing most of my meals there. Annoyingly there aren’t any showers at the university, otherwise I’d probably have moved in by now. In terms of somewhere to sleep, I either check into a hostel (or a hotel if I’m feeling flush and in need of pampering), couch-surf somewhere or else graciously accept an invitation from a friend to pop round for tea and a bed for the night.

11855631_10155968366155473_8051505144527669026_n

People often ask how I cope; the most common question is “Don’t you ever miss having your own space?” which for me is a strange one because I can’t understand why “your own space” wouldn’t be something you carry around with you everywhere.  The only time I ever felt a bit hard done by was when I came down with a bout of man-flu and honestly just wanted to lie in the same bed for a week. Aside from this, “my own space” is usually generated in the quiet corners of cafes or libraries or under a tree in a park.

This last month has seen a new addition to my nomadic lifestyle in the form of house-sitting. Like couch-surfing, this was suggested to me by a friend who’d heard about it and thought it would suit me perfectly.

It involves signing up to a trusted community of sitters and seekers and works on the mutually beneficial act of staying temporarily in a property while the owners are away. There are typically plants to water or animals to look after, but aside from this, you essentially get to live in someone else’s house for free with very little to worry about… with pets to cuddle and take selfies with.

11227390_10156018726350473_4812040853089482311_n

So far I’ve looked after a cat in south London and two dogs to the south-east of the capital, and next week will see me on a farm near Elstree studios where I’ll be feeding seven cats and making sure the three dogs that also live on the property don’t escape from the garden and eat them.

11993288_10156075242940473_5819024802369186300_nThis year has seen the beginning of a new adventure for me, an adventure that challenges social norms and proves something to myself as much as those around me: That it is possible to break the mould and live somewhat unconventionally while still feeling a part of society by being in a teaching job.

It may be stressful at times and open to various forms of judgement, but the positives of this way of living have far outweighed the negatives for me: I can save more money to create the life I’ve always wanted; I meet new people from so many walks of life who help broaden my horizons; I still see old friends regularly and most importantly I feel freer and happier than I’ve ever felt.

I do wonder what is next on the horizon.  Perhaps earning a living as a digital nomad could be possible, generating an income from my laptop so that I can truly be untethered from any permanent place of residence, free to explore and experience the globe when I want.

Or maybe I’ll end up being a door-to-door Dr. Doolittle, sitting for other people’s pets and pottering in their garden in exchange for a roof over my head

Whatever I end up doing in the coming year, you can bet it won’t be normal.

Viennese Splendour

In my efforts to play catch up with this blogging lark, I ask you gentle reader to step back in time with me, over three months ago to the 26th of May, when life didn’t include paperwork or deadlines.  Ah, those were the days…

1

I had left Prague after a whirlwind visit, still aglow from my encounter with the treasures of Mucha and his contemporaries.  Art Nouveau held me in rapture and I was clamouring for Klimt.  For those not of an artistic persuasion, this is an Austrian painter and not something you’d find on Urban Dictionary describing a hard-to-find part of the female anatomy.

19

I’ve been a huge fan of Gustav Klimt ever since I first clapped eyes on “The Kiss”.  The painting hangs in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna and is something Austria is rather proud of.  It’s also something I had high on my list of art to see, so I booked a ticket to this magnificent city during my tour of Europe earlier this year

9

11 7

I’d imagined Vienna to be a regal city of grand proportions.  The sort of place where operas were written and opulent balls were held.  I wanted to find more art nouveau (there was a bonkers building designed by Klimt and his cronies called The Secession amongst the plethora of Jugenstil architecture in this city) and perhaps see some of the old haunts of one of my favourite composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  I also had in mind Viennese biscuits and coffee, because my brain seems perpetually wired up to seek out cake and hot beverages.

8

As ever, the trip was made memorable and marvellous by the presence of a couchsurfer host.  In the case of Vienna, my kind and considerate guide was a Buddhist named Karl who was keen to show me the sights of his home city.  I instantly identified his apartment at the address he gave me from the riot of luxuriant foliage spilling from his windows on one of the uppermost floors.  His profile described him as someone who’d typically have a small rainforest in his flat, keen on gardening and yoga and arty things.  His apartment was so wonderfully quirky and creative, decorated with objects he had sculpted from upcycled materials.

18

We instantly clicked and had lots of stories to tell each other, as well as a shared sense of humour; after exploring the famous landmarks of Vienna by day, we spent the evenings cracking up over The Graham Norton Show and old sketches from British comedies.

6

5

12

My initial tour of Vienna was through the museum quarter and into the area around the royal palace; we passed the museum of natural history, wandered into the gardens of Heldenplatz and through the buildings of Hofburg Palace before strolling through the winding streets of the city centre.  The architecture of Vienna is truly grand and something I will remember fondly for a long time.

21

32

My second day in the city was spent visiting Schönbrunn Palace walking through its ridiculously vast gardens.  The topiary, fountains and flowerbeds were a welcome visual break from the urban landscapes I had been touring through that month. Exploring cities is a fun pastime but my heart is where the green things grow, even if it’s manicured lawns and geometric gardens.

20

After the obligatory coffee and cheesecake in the tearooms of Café Gloriette we meandered down through the forested parkland to the nearest metro and boarded a train bound for the food stalls of the Naschmarkt.  Apparently the market has 16th century origins and still boasts a huge selection of colourful and fragrant food.  It was a feast for the senses!

29

11390277_10155669439020473_641018829698950911_n

11295611_10155669441160473_2125802121655877475_n

After strolling among the stalls, we saw more of the Art Nouveau decoration I had been seeking in Vienna, as well as the famous Secession building where Klimt’s famous frieze can be viewed in the basement.  If you visit Vienna, don’t miss this amazing combination of architecture, interior design and spiritual vision.  The restored building is wonderfully unique.

26

2513

On our meanderings around this city, we also paid a visit to the national postal savings bank, or “österreichische postsparkasse”; Don’t be fooled by its mundane-sounding name.  The interior and exterior of this building is another marvel in this grand city and definitely worth a visit if you love Jugenstil.

3

2015-05-27 12.23.48

Vienna was one of my favourite places in Europe, with its magnificent architecture and beautiful art, grand boulevards and lush green parks, food from a rich mix of cultures and indulgent café culture, there really was something lavish and luxurious about the whole place. It is definitely a city I would return to, not least because I made a new friend in Karl there.  His hospitality and generosity were much appreciated, as was his marvellous historical and gastronomical knowledge.

4

15

28

I feel like this post has taken a turn for the somewhat serious, but I guess this is an adjective that certainly suits this Austrian city.  It is a very sober and somewhat taciturn place, perfect for contemplation and inward searching.  I’m sure there is a vibrant nightlife there, with bars full of raucous Austrians glugging beer, but my visit was memorable for being a peaceful, calm and soulful experience.

17

A Postponed Prague Post

1

Well isn’t this rather embarrassing?  In May earlier this year I started a travel blog describing the mad wanderings and wonderings of an itinerant English teacher. I’m still wandering and wondering and fairly itinerant, but having been tied to my job in London once again, the blogging has all but ended.

So what was responsible for this abrupt end to the ramblings of a nomad as he journeyed through Europe?

The tale was last told as I was leaving Poland, after spending time with some wonderful friends and visiting the Karkonosze Mountains.  My next stop was Prague in the Czech Republic.  Three more cities also followed this place.  But the story suddenly ceased.

wroc22

What happened was work.  Marking assignments from a laptop on the beach or the comfort of a Latvian cafe was no longer possible. The ugly little four letter word had beckoned, funds had run low and I was due to start back at the university in July.  It was time to get back into the classroom.  And so I had to prepare to rejoin society and the race in the city.  This kind of lifestyle leaves no room to muse about living out of a bag.

22

Amidst marking essays, preparing lessons and writing whole programme of study for a fashion MBA, I’ve finally found a spare rainy afternoon to dip back into the blogging.  I’m writing this from the cosy bedroom of my new-found soulmate in a village in southern England, but let’s go back in time, all the way back almost two months ago to May 24th 2015. I was sitting on a bus to Prague…

7

It was a spontaneous decision.  My original idea had been to go to Vienna from Wroclaw.  But I’d seen how close the Czech capital was and realised I could chop a few days off my trip in Austria and go on an Art Nouveau pilgrimage to Prague as well.  The cities of Prague and Vienna were places I’d always associated with the work of Alphonse Mucha and his contemporaries.  I was practically quimming myself at the thought of all that Art Nouveau architecture and Secession style.

23

The city of Prague didn’t disappoint on that front.  I wandered the streets at sunset on my first night there and almost developed a crick-neck from looking up at all the incredible buildings.  It was impossible not to be impressed by the splendour of the architecture there, with its High Gothic and High Baroque styles well-preserved in the same plan of the Middle Ages.  I was in awe.

5

I remember entering the square in the old city centre, where a medieval clock was mounted on the side of the city hall.  According to the history books, this astronomical clock, called the Orloj, was first installed in 1410.  I watched as a huge crowd of tourists oohed and aahed then applauded as the skeleton chimed the hour.  To this day I’m still baffled as to why they were so excited.

2

I remember feeling slightly annoyed by the crowds in Prague, if I’m honest.

In all of the other European cities I’d visited in the weeks before, I hadn’t experienced the same degree of tourism.  In Helsinki the mood was cool, calm and typically, Nordically empty.  In Tallinn the winding medieval streets were free from hustle and bustle.  Likewise in Riga and Vilnius.  Warsaw was busier, but even Nowy Swiat and the old town were devoid of shambling crowds of tourists.  Berlin had a vibe of free-space and free-thinking, which gave the feeling of a city that was positively empty in comparison with metropolises like London.  And Wroclaw is a fairly small city in southern Poland, so it felt like most tourists had overlooked it somewhat as they travelled through Europe.

24

Prague on the other hand was a seething messy mass of people tapping smartphone cameras, following flag-holding guides or choking up the medieval alleys like runaway sheep at a market.  It was rather a shock to the system.

Photo courtesy taken by David Lucha found at this url: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dlucha/3888958727
Photo taken by David Lucha found at this url: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dlucha/3888958727

And the couples.  Dear lord the couples.  Everywhere I turned there were two people holding hands, taking selfies, sharing spaghetti at tables in the street or snogging brazenly.  I was wandering Europe as a former-Singleton who had just met the love of his life before embarking on the journey.  I can categorically say that Prague is no place for a single person, nor for anyone who has just had to leave their lover back home.  It is a beautiful, magical, romantic destination of new couples and newlyweds.  If there ever was a place seemingly arranged to remind you of how painfully, eternally lonely you are, while all others around you share in some sort of vom-inducing passionate world of soulmates and true love, Prague is it.

6

These were my only objections in this charming city.  Aside from feeling sick to the back teeth of amorous lovers and hordes of tourists, Prague was a marvellous place to visit.  I decided to distract myself with a quest to find Mucha’s treasures.

11

After visiting the tiny yet delightful museum of Alphonse Mucha (http://www.mucha.cz/) I discovered there were more examples of Art Nouveau elsewhere in Prague.  I visited the cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in Vysehrad.  I had been looking for the cathedral of St Vitus next to Prague Castle, as I’d been told there was a magnificent stained glass window by Mucha there.  At the entrance to this smaller basilica I realised I was at the wrong place.  But I was lucky.  The lady at the ticket booth told me the interior was worth seeing.  Why was that? I asked.  “Its paintings are inspired by Mucha” she replied, “An artist named Frantisek Urban and his wife Marie did them”.

13

I paid my Euro entry and stepped inside.  And gasped.  The interior of the church was painted in Art Nouveau style from its columns to the high ceiling, flowers and foliage and elegant nymphs festooning every surface.  It was like standing in a pre-Raphaelite forest.

12 14 17

I sat inside and stared at the wondrous art around me for a long time. I’ll never forget the beautiful colours and patterns inside that church.

Walking back down the slopes of Vysehrad, then alongside and over the river to the castle side of Prague, I passed through the narrow streets there and up the steep winding lane that led to St Vitus and the castle itself.  I eventually reached my earlier goal of the cathedral and went inside to marvel at the Mucha art on show there.  His stained glass window was worth the climb up the hill.

15

That evening I met with my couchsurfer host, Jan.  He’d offered a place to stay at very short notice; my spontaneous decision to visit the Czech capital had meant I’d messaged on the CS website much later than usual.  It’s typically bad form to try to find somewhere to stay at short notice.  CS isn’t about finding an emergency bed for the night.  It’s about engaging with an interesting host who you’d like to discover a place with.

19

Fortunately for me, Jan was more than happy to host, although I had to wait until his Bulgarian guests had vacated his apartment.  Jan had suggested a friendly hostel called Hostel Elf until he was able to accommodate me.  Staying at the hostel was a strong reminder of how much I loved couchsurfing.  I’ve had lots of fun in hostels.  In South Africa I stayed in several as I travelled, meeting many wonderful people and making new friends.  But CS is different.  With CS you really get under the skin of a city.  You get to see it through the eyes of your host.  When I stayed at Hostel Elf, it felt shallower somehow.  I’d gotten used to engaging with people in their own homes, cooking for them, listening to them play music, being shown the places they love about their home.  Staying in the hostel reinforced my love of couchsurfing.  I was rather glad to see Jan when we met in the Old Town as it meant I was finally getting to see a bit of real Prague.

2015-05-25 16.52.08

Jan took me to his favourite café, where I tried a Viennese coffee.  We wandered through the parks and along the river sharing travel stories.  Jan also knew an amazing vegetarian restaurant named Maitrea (http://restaurace-maitrea.cz/en/) in the centre of the city.

2015-05-25 21.55.052015-05-25 20.59.10

I discovered he had a passion for languages and could speak French fluently, working as a translator in the city.  He loved photography and showed me his incredible work.  We talked long into the small hours, drinking absinthe and watching old Monty Python sketches.  Seeing his appreciation for classic British comedy, I shared Julie Walters’ hilarious sketch Two Soups with him and we both belly-laughed at the humour (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6aYLOf8CUQ); sharing culture in this way is such a brilliant aspect of CS.

20

My trip to Prague was short but sweet.  I’d managed to squeeze in some incredible sights and experiences during my visit, and even made another new friend as well.  The works of Mucha and his contemporaries had also awakened a thirst to see more art like it on the rest of my journey.  I didn’t realise it then, but I was in for a treat.  My next stops were Vienna and Budapest and both cities were full of Art Nouveau and other incredible architecture.

25

I shall regale my readers with Viennese tales in my next instalment.  Let’s just hope my next blog post is a lot sooner than two months!