February 1, 2014

The North Shore

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I'm back in Taiwan spending Lunar New Year with the parental units, and the weather has been absolutely incredible for the last few days.  I can't recall the last time when the sun was out for such an extended period of time during the holidays, and it's so warm that I'm actually comfortable in a single layer of cotton - and short sleeve!  Naturally dad didn't want to spend the weekend cooped up at home, and decided we should take a trip outside the city.

Taiwan's a beautiful place once you leave the cities, but I've never had a lot of opportunity to see what's beyond Taipei city limits.  So dad figured we'd circle around the northern coast of Taiwan, skirting along the coastline so we could take in the view.  He also thought it'd be best if we did it counter-clockwise as it gets us the best views.

We set off late morning-ish, and encountered traffic jam not long after leaving the parental home.  We knew there would be a lot of people heading out of the city, but this was ridiculous.  We were stuck on the highway even before we reached the Nankang Tunnel, and there were 2 other long tunnels between us and Hsuehshan Tunnel.

But we did finally reach the Hsuehshan Tunnel (雪山隧道), the longest road tunnel in Taiwan and the 5th longest in the world at over 12.9 km.  Surprisingly there was no traffic jam once we entered the tunnel, although the speed of the traffic was moderate.  It took us exactly 17½ minutes to travel the entire length.

Once we emerged on the other side, it was past noon and about time for lunch.  Not knowing what would be open along the way during the Lunar New Year holidays, we decided to stop along the main street of Toucheng (頭城) and just grab whatever was open.  This resulted in a few surprising choices.

We're in Yilan County, famous throughout Taiwan for Sanxing scallions (三星蔥), among other things.  So naturally we'd have to have some scallion pancakes (蔥油餅).  I picked up Shunfa (舜發三星蔥油餅), which is really just a stall in front of a local souvenir shop.  There seemed to be a line of people waiting, and someone whose blog I've come across had reviewed this, so I guess it was OK...

A few minutes later I decided to pick up another one just a few doors down from the 7-11 on the same road, and do a side-by-side comparison.

The one from Shunfa (on the left) was deep-fried in a shallow pool of oil, which meant it was crispier on the outside from higher heat.  However, there was very little scallion in the dough, and as a result relied much more on the optional pepper seasoning and/or chili sauce for flavor.  The other pancake (on the right) was cooked a la plancha where the cook ladled on spoonfuls of oil periodically.  The texture was a little soggier, but this was also partially due to the abundance of scallion filling inside.  The scallions also meant this version was significantly more salty, and more traditional in flavor.

Dad wanted a place to sit down and eat, so after passing by a couple of open eateries, we ended up at... the local 7-11.  In Taiwan every 7-11 has either counter or table seating, or both.  I picked up a few pieces of oden (おでん) while the parental units got their daily coffee.  And that was our lunch venue.

While I lined up for the scallion pancakes, the parental units noticed a long line at the ice cream shop nearby, so they lined up for some taro ice from Ajon Babu (阿宗芋冰城).  Babu (叭撲) is the traditional Taiwanese-style ice, which is smooth and a little more watery compared to dairy ice cream.  Basic package here gets you three different flavors, and taro, peanut and red bean was chosen.  Unfortunately I didn't grow up on babu and actually prefer ice cream, so I found this a little bland.  My first couple of spoonfuls were so bland I wasn't sure what I was tasting... I needed to take in a few chunks of peanuts and red beans to distinguish them.

I also picked up a charcoal-grilled boar sausage (手工野豬香腸) from the stall next to Shunfa.  There were many chunks of fat inside, but I guess it was still within my acceptable limits.  After all, I have eaten street food in Sukhothai where I thought the sausage was made with mystery meat and probably had about 15% meat, tops...

We needed to get a move on, so we follow the coastline closely, stopping occasionally for the wonderful views.  The sun was coming down strong and the skies were blue, and all along the rocky coast we saw people fishing and hunting for seafood as we headed north.

Conditions changed drastically once we went past Sandiaojiao Cape (三貂角), and I saw this wall of fog rolling in, creating a massive whiteout.  For the next hour the coastline kinda disappeared from view...

The final destination for today was Yehliu Geopark (野柳地質公園), and thanks to an unforeseen traffic jam where it took us more than half an hour to get out of a tunnel, we arrived about a half hour too late in terms of the perfect light for photography. Dusk was already beckoning.

The main attraction here is the Queen's Head (女王頭) - a rock formation that has seen centuries of erosion into what looks like the head of a queen.  Needless to say everyone wanted to take a picture of (or with) it, so we had to line up for it.  Unfortunately the park staff couldn't stop visitors from going around different sides of the rock, so it's near impossible to not have other tourists in your picture...

The sun has sunk below the horizon, and we had snapped the pictures we wanted.  Mom decided to walk through the row of souvenir shops, and we picked up a few packs of seafood and other snacks.  We also passed by a stall selling street food where the oysters looked pretty fresh, so mom made the decision to sit down and grab dinner.

The oyster omelette (蚵仔煎) wasn't too bad - it certainly was better than the average version one gets in Taipei.  In any case, I tend not to complain too much about something that cost me only USD 2...

Whitebait soup (魩仔魚) - I don't normally see this, so I ordered it to try it out.  Gotta say it was a little bland... a little too much starch, and needed a little more vinegar and minced garlic.  But I really do love whitebait.

Fried rice (炒飯) - this was a fantastic example of Taiwanese fried rice done at high heat a la plancha.  Individual rice grains remained loose, a little dry and chewy, and plenty of yummy goodness.

I also had some fried rice vermicelli (炒米粉) that mom ordered, since she didn't care for the big dollop of braised pork belly bits (滷肉) on top.  But that just happens to be my favorite...

It's a real shame we didn't get to Yehliu earlier, as we could easily have spent a couple of hours walking around and seeing things while there was still plenty of light.  I guess I'll just need to come back early in the morning another day...

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