This was my second time in Mudanjiang, a city I've not so fondly described as the "Cleveland of China". This might be unfair to Cleveland, considering I've never been there and I'm often pleasantly surprised by unheralded mid-sized American cities. It's more because Mudanjiang calls to mind the popular conception of Cleveland as a colorless, industrial city with a distinct lack of culture and fun things to do. Why Mudanjiang instead of one of the countless amazing and beautiful cities in China? Because that's where Mei Ling's sister, brother-in-law, and nephew live. Her parents come over from Jixi, a couple of hours away by train, when we visit.
If China was drawn as a chicken, Mudanjiang would be its forehead. Didn't know that China looks like a chicken? Here you go.
Another similarity to Cleveland is the climate. Mudanjiang is located in the northeasternmost province of Heilongjiang in close proximity to Siberia and North Korea. Illustrious neighbors. Even in June, the mornings were uncomfortably cold. That was an issue since probably the most interesting thing to see in Mudanjiang is the daily morning market. Because China is on one time zone, daybreak comes very early in the northeast so the morning market is over by nine. That's how I found myself groggy and shivering on a busy street in Mudanjiang at seven in the morning the day after our arrival from Taipei.
It didn't take long for me to be drawn into the energy of the market and absorbed in all the delicious and exotic foods that are unique to China. Even in a backwater town like Mudanjiang, the variety of produce and prepared foods on display seemed endless.
One of the high points of any market in China is the abundance of fresh fruit, especially berries. One particular vendor was wheeling a cart down the center of the market that was practically groaning under the weight of cherries, yang mei, and golden gooseberries.
Mei Ling's sister's house was about a fifteen minute walk from a busy pedestrian zone with department stores and a miniature amusement park. The department store had upgraded itself substantially from our last visit two years earlier and now boasted a deli section and a food court that rivaled the ones one might see in Shanghai or Beijing.
On the pedestrian street outside there were food vendors already set up in advance of the night market which would begin several hours later.
That evening we had our first homecooked meal in Mei Ling's sister's apartment. Everyone tripped over themselves trying to fit in the tiny kitchen while I amused myself torturing the kids with still-living food items.
Dinner finally appeared with not one but two silkworm dishes. There's nothing like washing down homecooked spicy northern Chinese food with ice cold Snow beer.
I didn't have it in me the next day to get up by seven for the morning market, so I joined Mei Ling and the kids a little later at a smaller street market which had its own collection of interesting foods. The highlight was the vendor of stir-fried unhatched chickens, which proved to be quite spicy and tasty once you got past the little feathers. For anyone who prefers their little chicks already hatched before being fried, they had those as well.
Next stop was the barber shop for haircuts for Ian and Spenser.
After some lazing around at the apartment with the kids it was time to hit the night market on the main pedestrian street.
On our last evening in Mudanjiang we walked to a park where a couple of hundred people were getting some exercise doing a communal dance to Chinese pop.
Outside the park was another small night market but it couldn't hold a candle to the one in the pedestrian zone. However, I did get a chance to chew a pig tail.
By a stroke of good fortune, we had to visit a larger city called Shenyang in order to obtain a visa for Mei Ling's Mom to visit us in the US. Through persistent campaigning, I managed to convince Mei Ling to split our time in China equally between Mudanjiang and Shenyang. I didn't know a thing about Shenyang, but I figured three days there had to be better than three more in Cleveland ... er Mudanjiang. Therefore, we found ourselves taking an overnight train to Shenyang before I'd even had time to get bored. Hopefully I'll be able to find another way to cut down our stay in Mudanjiang the next time we visit China. The visit itself is non-negotiable. The town may be Cleveland to me, but to Mei Ling it's home.
It's hard to explain the significance of a night market to someone who hasn't spent time in East Asia. These unique markets are ubiquitous in China but also found in major cities throughout Southeast Asia and anywhere in the world where there is a large Chinese community. Eating is naturally a major aspect of visiting a night market but the social experience transcends the simple act of filling one's stomach. One of the first things Mei Ling asks me when I tell her about a city I want to visit is "Is there a night market?" All too frequently I have to tell her something like no, there's no night market in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Fortunately for us, no city has elevated the night market into a pervasive cultural phenomenon like Taipei has. People go out at night to snack in Taipei the way Westerners go out to drink.
There are at least ten major night markets scattered around Taipei, but it's impossible to keep an exact count because of areas like Ximending which aren't thought of as night markets but have pedestrian zones packed with snack bars and street food. I compiled the most exhaustive list I could with big plans to visit all of them, but in the end we were only able to see three as well as Ximending. I'm not sure how much we missed though, as we saw a lot of same or similar dishes in all the markets. Most of the articles and blogs I read about the different night markets focused on their atmosphere or small differences in the prices, but we only encountered one atmosphere during our trip: rainy.
Our first genuine night market, and the only one we revisited, was in Shilin just north of the Keelung River. Shilin Market is the largest night market and has a reputation for being touristy. Even worse for the night market connoisseurs, it's considered to be expensive. However, dropping a few extra bucks wasn't much of an issue for us considering the amount we were already spending on our trip. Shilin Market had the added advantage of being practically around the corner from Mei Ling's grandfather's apartment. Aside from the long outdoor night market, there was an indoor food court and a games arcade. On our last night in Taipei it didn't rain and I got some good footage of the market with my iVUE Horizon video sunglasses, as well as an impromptu interview with one of the vendors who happened to be from the US.
I can't say much about Tonghua night market except that it was conveniently located in central Taipei, within walking distance of Taipei 101. It was raining so much the night we were there I could hardly take any pictures. By this point we had experienced three days of almost continuous rain and I coined the term "Taipei personality" for anyone who would throw on a poncho and get constantly deluged rather than miss a chance to see a night market. We were rewarded for our persistence with a huge platter of deliciously ripe yang mei. This is one of my favorite fruits, but unfortunately it's completely unobtainable outside of China and Taiwan. Aside from being practically unknown in other countries, the berry is so fragile that it's impractical to transport overseas. Just a slight bruise and the fruit immediately starts to acquire an unpleasant fermented taste. The opportunity to eat fresh yang mei is one of the treats I look forward to when I visit China.
Raohe is the second biggest night market after Shilin, and many people consider it to be the best. We particularly enjoyed the wide selection of fishballs and meatballs as well as barbecued shellfish. Cleo was amazed by the liquid nitrogen which spilled from the ice cream stand and made clouds around her feet.
You won't find a mention of Ximending in any article about Taipei night markets, but in its own way the whole neighborhood is the biggest and most vibrant night market of them all. It was without question the best part of Taipei we could have chosen to begin and end our days.
Despite regular attendance at the night markets, I never did become an expert on Taipei street food. I included a couple more helpful guides to some of the favorite dishes here and here.
We spent two of our seven days in Taipei visiting places on the outskirts of Taipei itself. We abandoned our original plan to rent a car which was the right decision, as the Metro took us most places we needed to go and taxis were easily available for short hops even in the rain. The one exception was our trip to Jiufen and Keelung, but fortunately Mei Ling had an old friend in Taipei with a three row SUV who kindly chauffeured the entire family around for the day.
Jiufen is a former mining town nestled in the hills set back from Taiwan's northeastern coast. Long after the mines were exhausted and fell into disrepair in the 1970's, the town found a new life in tourism thanks to the mostly unintentional preservation of its turn-of-the-century style layout and architecture. The star attraction is Jishan Street, commonly known as Jiufen Old Street, a narrow pedestrian alley that winds through the town lined with old-fashioned boutiques and restaurants. The overall effect is touristy, but since the majority of tourists are Taiwanese daytrippers it's not as obnoxious as it could be.
We had a snack at a restaurant with a balcony overlooking the hillsides as they rolled down to the coastline a few miles away.
It was a short drive to the Golden Waterfall, which turned out not to be particularly large or particularly gold. However, the verdant mountainous backdrop was quite beautiful in the mist.
We had one more stop in a coastal town whose name I've forgotten for another bite to eat, including a crunchy fish roe salad. Lantern boats were docked in the harbor awaiting the next festival.
We backtracked westward to Keelung, the largest city on the northeastern coast. I was excited to see the Miaokou night market, which was reputedly better than any of the night markets in Taipei especially with respect to seafood. We were still a little full from lunch so we killed some time in the local produce market. The night market seemed a little subdued, probably because the rain was worse than ever. We had to be careful of the tarps covering the stalls as they would occasionally sag under the puddles forming on top of them and dump a deluge of rainwater on unsuspecting patrons below. The market had a good selection of shellfish but I can't say I had the kind of seafood epiphany I've had in places like Hangzhou or Seoul. We had to cut our visit short because of the incessant rain and the long drive back to Taipei. Hopefully I'll have a chance to return to Keelung and explore the market at a more leisurely pace in better weather.
Taipei Metro's Red line conveniently courses northward from the center through Shilin to the northern suburbs of Beitou and Tamsui. Tamsui is home to another of Taipei's most famous markets, also named Old Street, with lots of shops and other daytime activities. Beitou is home to the Guandu Temple, an elaborate structure which blends Buddhist and Chinese folk religious traditions. Shortly after we arrived a procession of monks came into the main hall and began a ceremony.
Walking through the temple it's impossible not to be amazed by the incredibly detailed woodcarving from the floors to the ceilings. It was the most impressive building interior I'd seen since the Akshardam Temple in Delhi. The dragon sculptures on the roofs were also beautifully detailed and painted. Presiding over everything is a statue of the multi-armed sea goddess Mazu, to whom the temple is dedicated.
Tamsui was an energetic neighborhood full of clothing shops and seafood snack bars. The first thing one sees leaving the Metro is an engine car on a small section of track preserved from the original Tamsui railway. Old Street is famous for super tall soft serve ice creams and squid-on-a-stick. There were also plenty of carnival-type games, mostly involving the destruction of balloons with various projectiles. The riverside stroll provides good views of Guanyin Mountain in Bali District across the river.
On the way back to the Metro we ran into either a parade or a protest, accompanied by plenty of fireworks and incense.
Due to our busy schedule in Taipei, the rain, and lack of transportation we didn't take a lot of the day trips I researched. We'll have to leave Shenkeng, Green Lake, Minquan, and Wulai for our next trip. It was amazing how quickly our time in Taipei went by. Thanks to the endless markets, street life, and food options it's one of the few cities I could recommend for a two week stay or longer.
We had great experiences in Tokyo and Seoul on our last two round-the-world trips, so we decided to stop in a major East Asian capital this time as well. The two things that brought us to Taipei were the city's reputation as a food and market mecca and the presence of Mei Ling's beloved elderly grandfather, who she hadn't seen in many years. We allotted a full week to experience the many famous night markets and give Mei Ling plenty of time to reconnect with her family.
The fifteen hour flight from NYC was tough but not excruciating, as the kids slept for a decent portion of it. I only slept about an hour but I was high on the adrenaline of arriving in a new country and major city. Oddly enough, we were staying in a Hello Kitty Airbnb much like the one we'd stayed in in Seoul. I didn't have any particular affinity for Hello Kitty, but it was the best place I found and it seems to be a fairly common theme in East Asia. The hotel sent over a Hello Kitty van to pick us up at the airport and take us back to our room.
We had chosen the throbbing commercial neighborhood of Ximending in the center of Taipei. The area didn't have its own named night market, but we would never have known it walking around the pedestrian zone on our first night. The entire area seemed to be one giant night market with neon signs and billboards everywhere we looked. And naturally, exotic and delicious food was all around us.
After gorging ourselves we stumbled on a couple of street acrobats in an open space in the pedestrian zone. This was no ordinary event, as the performers were obviously highly skilled. In fact, we later learned that one of them was the famed Taiwanese acrobat Isaac Hou who has been featured in commercials for Chase bank.
Our first night turned out to be one of the few moments we experienced in Taipei without rain. For the rest of our week-long stay it rained almost continuously. We didn't have the time to stay inside to wait for the rain to stop, which it almost never did anyway. We bought the older kids raincoats and used plastic covers on the strollers. For ourselves, we had the cheap plastic bag ponchos that we could scrunch up and stuff into our pockets when we were indoors.
On our first full day we snagged breakfast at a series of classic Taiwanese sidewalk dumpling and noodle shops in Ximending. Every time we decided we'd had enough we'd run into another irresistible delicacy a block down the road.
We took the highly efficient Metro to Dihua Street in the northern neighborhood of Dadaocheng. Dihua Street is believed to be the oldest street in Taipei and is famous for dried foods and Chinese traditional medicine. We spent about an hour walking up and down the street enjoying the sights and smells of the preserves.
Day or night, it's impossible to walk far in Taipei without stumbling on a market and soon enough we found ourselves inside a major one in Dadaocheng. The kids were fascinated by a lady artfully making thin pancakes on a gas cooktop.
It was only two hours since we'd had breakfast, but we still found room to consume a selection of delicacies we found at the market's food court. My favorite was the fish skin salad, although the skin was somewhat thicker and less crispy than the first one I'd tasted in Guangzhou two years earlier.
We returned to the Metro which took us to Mei Ling's grandfather's apartment in the Shilin district, north of the Keelung River. Interestingly, the sidewalks of the apartment complex were full of huge African land snails. Perhaps the incessant rain had driven them out of their usual habitats.
After a couple of hours of reconnecting, we went out for our first real restaurant meal of the trip which was relatively boring compared to the street and market food we'd been eating over the last 24 hours. Once Mei Ling was finally ready to leave her family, it was just a short walk to the Shilin night market. Taipei's night markets are one of the most amazing and unique features of the city. There are at least a dozen scattered around the city and most are open every night. The experience of walking through a night market is overwhelming, with a seemingly endless array of booths serving the favorite local snacks. Since there's so much to describe regarding the night markets we visited, I decided to group them together in a separate post.
On our second full day we decided to check out a couple of the larger morning markets in the center of the city, Nanmen and Dongmen. When we got out of the Metro we found ourselves just outside of Liberty Square, home of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This is one of Taipei's main tourist attractions, but not the type of place we usually seek out when we travel. Since we were there anyway and we'd already eaten breakfast in Ximending, we decided to take a look around. Fortunately we didn't have to climb the 89 steps, representing Chiang's age at the time of his death, to the main entrance. On the ground level there was a small museum and an elevator to the main hall. The building contained the expected collection of dry historical artifacts and a towering statue of Chiang Kai-Shek. I don't think we would have missed much if we'd decided not to go inside.
The morning markets were quite large and energetic, especially Dongmen which was labyrinthine. We put together a great lunch at the food court at Nanmen and topped it off with sashimi at Dongmen that was so fresh it glistened.
We took a long walk to Huashan 1914 Creative Park, a collection of galleries, stores, and performance spaces housed in an abandoned factory complex. It was an interesting place, but not on the level with other reclaimed art communities that we've seen so we didn't stay long.
Our next stop was Taipei 101, which was the tallest building in the world from 2004 to 2010. The skyscraper has a unique segmented design meant to evoke a stalk of bamboo, and is famous for the enormous steel pendulum suspended amid the upper floors. The pendulum acts as a mass damper to offset swaying caused by wind gusts. Because the weather and hence the visibility were so bad, we decided not to waste time and money standing on line for the elevator to the observation deck and therefore missed seeing the pendulum as well.
Taipei 101 is surrounded by an enormous multilevel network of malls as well as the requisite basement food courts. After exploring for a couple of hours and letting the kids try out most of the displays at a toy store, it was time for dinner. Fortunately we were within walking distance of the Tonghua night market, which we had to hurry through as the incessant rain had strengthened into a downpour.
We spent the entire day Friday on a road trip to Jiufen and Keelung which I'll cover in my Taipei day trips post. On Saturday we started the day with breakfast at the Qingguang morning market in the central Zhongshan neighborhood, then walked south to the Hope Plaza Farmers' Market. On the way we discovered a cool little sculpture park.
The farmers' market was awesome, with a huge selection of fresh produce and artisanal foods. There was also a food court with plenty of dumplings and soups.
After a brief stop at the Miniatures Museum we went back to Mei Ling's grandfather's house for dinner.
In the late evening we took a taxi to the Raohe night market which we enjoyed despite nonstop heavy rain. It amazes me how the Taiwanese crowds still came out in the evenings for the night markets regardless of the weather.
On Sunday we began our day with another market breakfast and then checked out a weekend crafts fair. The kids especially enjoyed watching bead necklaces being made. Afterwards, we walked to Daan Forest Park where the drizzle stopped just long enough for the kids to get a little playground time. The small pond in the park was absolutely packed with bird life.
We joined Mei Ling's family for lunch and let the kids play at her aunt's house for the rest of the afternoon.
In the evening we went to Addiction Aquatic Development, an oddly-named complex of seafood markets and restaurants in northern Taipei, not far from Shilin. I'd discovered it when searching for a major seafood market like Tsukiji in Tokyo or Noryangjin in Seoul. All my searching only identified this one location, which was variously described as a market and a restaurant. The confusion was likely due to the fact that the original fish market was redesigned in 2012 and was now predominantly devoted to restaurants and retail stores selling prepared seafood, with only one small market selling live fish. Either way, the market was nothing comparable to what we had experienced in other major East Asian cities. It seemed like there were far more Westerners here than we had seen anywhere else in Taipei as well.
We eventually selected a restaurant and splurged on a couple of huge king crab legs as well as a shellfish hotpot. The most memorable thing about the meal wasn't the food itself, but the opportunity to make wasabi paste the traditional way by grating the root on the bottom of a spiky dish.
For the first time we got back to Ximending early enough to visit Red House, an imposing octagonal red brick structure just a block from our Airbnb. The building apparently contains some performance spaces but we only found a number of boutiques selling clothing and handicrafts.
We spent most of our last day in the northern suburbs of Beitou and Tamsui, which I'll cover in detail in the day trips post. In the late afternoon we returned to Shilin where we had another home-cooked meal and Mei Ling's aunt taught Spenser some tai chi moves. We closed out our visit to Taipei with a final visit to the Shilin night market.
Mainly due to the terrible weather, we missed a lot of things I had listed as worth seeing in Taipei such as Elephant Mountain, Songshan Park, and Treasure Hill. We also only made it to three of the more than ten named night markets. Fortunately, I know we'll be returning to Taipei when the kids are older and more independent and I'm sure we'll have better weather the next time. Hopefully I won't be too old by then to do the hiking and rafting that the rest of Taiwan is famous for.
Queens may have been the focus of this stay in New York City, but that didn't mean we were going to leave without visiting Manhattan. I've been to most of the major cities in the world, but I've never encountered anything like the collection of unique neighborhoods jostling against each other in downtown Manhattan. For lovers of cosmopolitan culture it has to be one of the most interesting areas in the world to walk around in. The only place I can think of that comes close is central London.
We kicked off our morning at the Union Square Greenmarket, the largest and most well-known farmer's market in the city. The setting surrounded by New York skyscrapers is incongruous, but New Yorkers are very discriminating when it comes to their food. The stalls were laden with the highest quality produce and there were countless options for artisanal meats and baked goods.
After a light lunch with fresh-squeezed lemonade, we drove down to my favorite downtown neighborhood, Soho. There we discovered that street parking is currently non-existent, and were forced to pay extortionate rates at a lot. I think I paid forty-five dollars for three hours, and that was advertised as a deal. We found our way to Dean and Deluca, a gourmet food store I've been going to since I was kid growing up in Brooklyn. The store has gotten more and more crowded over the years, but it still has the best selection of hard-to-find delicacies that I've ever seen. We walked around the neighborhood and enjoyed the unique Soho atmosphere, and eventually ended up in a beautiful park tucked away amidst the brick apartment buildings.
We drove back to Queens and visited a few more ethnic food stores on the way back to Flushing, where we met my college roommate George and his wife for a hot pot dinner. Then we all went back to the Chinese supermarket at New World Mall for another shopping trip before calling it a night.
I had a lot of special events planned for Saturday. One of the huge advantages of living in a metropolitan area with more than ten million people is that there's never any shortage of activities. The only problem I had when looking at the list was choosing which ones would be the most fun. Eventually we settled on a scavenger hunt, a barbecue festival, a Brooklyn neighborhood party, and a Queens night market. In twelve years in Miami I've never been able to line up a day like that.
Our first stop was the Randall's Island Treasure Hunt, which turned out to be more of an orienteering activity without any actual treasure at the end. Nevertheless, the older kids had a great time perusing the map and scampering around the southern part of the island hunting for the next control point.
One particularly beautiful spot on Randall's Island is beneath the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge to Queens. The arched concrete piers that support the section of the bridge that traverses the island look like the entrance to a palace created by a lost civilization of giants.
We drove to downtown Manhattan where I was prepared for the parking situation with a new weapon, the SpotHero app. This app allows you to shop for parking garages online and purchase a space in advance for much less than you would pay just driving in. It makes a huge difference when parking downtown can cost forty dollars or more for a couple of hours. My fifteen dollar reservation worked like a charm and we took a short walk to Madison Square Park and the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. This annual festival attracts barbecue specialists from around the country who set up trucks around the perimeter of the park. The park was crowded but we were able to find enough grass to put down our mat and I left Mei Ling to guard the kids while I foraged for barbecue.
There was no shortage of things to see in the busy area around Madison Square Park. Just outside of the park we found a fresh-squeezed lemonade stand, the famous Flatiron Building, and a Hare Krishna parade.
Thanks to the barbecue lunch was taken care of so we went back across the East River for Red Hook Fest, a community arts festival in Brooklyn. Red Hook was another area that used to be a "no-go" neighborhood when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 70's and 80's. However, like Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, the area has experienced a renaissance in recent years which has been spurred forward by the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Sandy. However, the lack of proximity to the subway seems to have prevented the same kind of hipster explosion that has transformed Williamsburg and LIC.
The festival was pleasant if somewhat low-key. The kids spent the time at an art tent and playing with paper planes while Mei Ling and I watched some activist-minded spoken word performances. Relaxing in the waterfront neighborhood park was a great way to spend the afternoon.
The highlight of the day came at the end with a trip to the Queens International Night Market, a huge convocation of ethnic food stalls held every Saturday night in the summer in Flushing Meadows. Before gorging ourselves we treated the kids to a game of knockerball, where we rolled them around in enormous inflated balls on a grassy hillside. Fortunately, despite my trepidation, no one suffocated or threw up.
The market stalls mostly featured cuisine from Latin America and East Asia. The selection was broad and the atmosphere was energetic, with both vendors and patrons reflecting New York's amazing cultural diversity that is unequaled anywhere in the world.
After we'd filled up on meat skewers and ceviche, we hung out outside the market where they had a succession of DJ's and performers at an outdoor stage. The highlight was a crew of talented Asian breakdancers.
We started our last full day in New York at the Jackson Heights Greenmarket, a year-round Sunday farmers market in Queens. It was a pleasant, medium-sized produce market in a very diverse residential neighborhood. The market was adjacent to a community park with a huge jungle gym that made the kids' morning.
We headed back close to our home base for LIC Flea and Food, a weekend craft and food market on the bank of the East River.
We couldn't putter around the flea market for long, because we had to met old friends at the Bedford Avenue block party in Williamsburg. Naturally the kids found the art station right away, and got their first taste of tennis at an impromptu court laid down in the middle of the street. New York City is definitely a great place to be a kid in the summer.
We spent the evening bouncing around ethnic food stores in Queens and then headed back to Flushing for more Asian food. After some hunting around, we found one of the legendary Xinjiang barbecue trucks for our final New York City meal. Our flight to Taipei the next day would be leaving before lunch time.