Hualien (3 Days 2 Nights)
14th January 2020 (Morning)
Got up ridiculously early this morning. Got a morning train to catch to Hualien where Constant Companion RR and I spent the next 2 nights in. Arrived at the Taipei Main Station’s TRA Station with ample time, Constant Companion RR popped into the convenient store and bought some breakfast.
Constant Companion RR had one onigiri (salmon filling), a cup of assorted pieces of fruits and a cup of hot Americano. I had two onigiri (one with stir-fry pork and spring onion, the other Tuna filling, a peanut butter sandwich and a bottle of water. As the designated “Travel Pack Mule”, I always require more fuel for my body for all the manual labour I do during our travels.
The onigiri were decent enough; something I would eat again. The peanut butter sandwich was not very good; the peanut spread itself was a little too dry and too sweet.
We were done with our food by the time our train arrived. Quickly, we located our seats and got comfortable for our ride ahead. Well, at least Constant Companion RR did. Almost immediately after we sat down, she removed the armrest which separated our seats and leaned over, laying her entire weight on me, taking up most of my seat. Then without any hesitation, she dozed off without a care in the world. Sometimes, it is amazing to watch her do things the way she does.
2 hours later, we found ourselves in Hualien. Unlike Taipei for the past couple of days, it was a beautiful sunny day with a clear blue sky in Hualien, surrounded by green mountains. It felt refreshing away from the city. From the train station, we were ferried away by our hotel’s transportation and in no time at all, we reached our accommodation. Since we could only check into our room at 3 pm, we left our luggage in the hotel and went off exploring the city of Hualien.
Exploring Hualien City
Our first course of action was to fill our stomachs with as much local delicacies as possible, eating and sampling everything in small portions. With recommendations from Constant Companion RR‘s friends and parents, we basically had an idea of what to eat that afternoon. It was just a matter of finding the recommended places. Not too difficult with GPS and all.
Gongzheng Street Baozi (Pork buns)
First on the list, we had some steamed pork buns from this popular eatery, “Gongzheng Street Baozi”. This was recommended by Constant Companion RR‘s friend. She was told that he drove all the way from Taipei(?) just to get his greedy hands on some of these meat buns.
We joined in the short queue in front of the shop, there were maybe 3 customers ahead of us, and stared that tall stacks of bamboo steamers steaming away right next to us. It did not take long before we got ourselves some of their pork buns. The pork buns were not very big; I can easily finish each bun in 3 bites. After standing around waiting for the freshly steamed buns to cool down enough to eat, we dug in.
Constant Companion RR was not impressed by the pork bun. In fact, she seemed a bit disappointed. Perhaps her friend hyped it way too much for the pork bun to realistically meet her expectations.
Personally, I feel it was a good pork bun, especially since they were fresh from the bamboo steamers. I like how chewy the dough of the bun was. The pork filling can was a little lacking in terms of the quantity, but it was flavourful and savory. Next time, I would love to try the other items in the shop’s menu.
Ye Xiang Bian Shi (Taiwanese dumplings)
At the other end of the town, we walked to this particular shop selling “Bian Shi” (Taiwanese style dumplings). The shop, “Ye Xiang Bian Shi” is recommended by Constant Companion RR‘s parents. Guided by Google map, we easily find the shop. Nothing fancy or touristy about the shop.
When asked to look at their menu, the lady at the counter said the shop only has dumplings and nothing else. Each order of dumpling soup comes with 10 dumplings, so I shared a bowl of Constant Companion RR. After placing our order, we were given a piece of paper with a handwritten number. The lady then told us that we can sit anywhere we like and to call out when the service staff call out our number.
Our bowl of dumplings was brought to us shortly after we got our seats. In a bowl of clear broth with bits of garnish floating on the top, there were some good sized dumplings swimming at the bottom. For once, I was glad we were sharing a bowl between the two of us. If not, I would have probably eaten at least 16 (10 from my own, 6 from Constant Companion RR‘s) pieces of dumplings that afternoon.
The dumplings were good. If compared to the Cantonese style dumplings, these Taiwanese style dumplings are lighter in terms of flavour. The meat used was a lot leaner than the Cantonese style dumplings. The ingredients used in Cantonese style dumplings have more variety, the texture of both dumplings are different as well. Overall, I find the “Bian Shi” is a simpler dish and it is delicious in its own right.
Li Ming Red Tea
To wash everything down, Constant Companion RR and I proceeded to “Li Ming Red Tea” shop for a refreshing sip of their popular red tea.
Recommended by the friendly lady tending the shop, I ordered a cold drink of almond milk mixed with red tea while Constant Companion RR got herself a mung bean and barley drink. We also ordered one of those what I call “Taiwanese Macaroons”. They are nothing fancy, but I find these old school snack to be really tasty. In fact this was the second one we had that day; we tried the original butter cream flavour earlier, this one is coffee flavoured. I prefer the original butter cream flavour a little more.
It was relaxing to be sitting infront of the shop, chatting while sipping our beverages.
Hualien Cultural & Creative Industries Park
Full from all the food and drinks, with another hour to spend before we can check into our hotel room, we decided to go explore the Hualien Cultural & Creative Industries Park.
We walked towards our destination, taking in sights and sounds of Hualien City. Strangely, I noticed that a lot of shops remained closed even though it was already 1300 hrs. Other than the many “local product souvenir” shops (lots and lots of handmade mochi) and eateries that are opened, the Hualien City is seriously lacking in the “things to do” department.
I do not know exactly how their operational hours are, but it gives me the impression that most of the business owners in Hualien do not really care about making money. That is something admirable.
The Creative Park itself is just like the city; at the time of our visit, nothing much was going on. I was expecting to see some exhibitions and maybe a quaint little cafe for a sip of coffee. Unfortunately, none of the galleries were opened and the only “cafe” was manned by this one dude in an apron with a couple of tables and a coffee machine right outside the Visitor Center, in the middle of the whole compound.
It is a shame. I like the space a lot. It must be wonderful to have such a space for creative works. However, Constant Companion RR considered that to be a little “Highlight of Our Trip” although all we did was walk around the compound a bit, took pictures and then sat down one a wooden bench for a bit.
We wandered around the city a bit more. Had another snack. We found ourselves at the traditional wet market where Constant Companion RR bought some fish floss from this “30 Years Old Shop”. It was about that time we decided to return back to our hotel, check into our room and take an afternoon nap.
Checked into our room for the next 2 nights. There is nothing much to complain about the room or the hotel really. The room is spotless and comfortable, the service staff are professional, efficient and friendly. The view from the bath tub has a bit of the sea view too. Not bad.
Constant Companion RR and I quickly settled down, showered and dozed off for a quick couple of hours to recharge ourselves.
Dong Da Meng Night Market
After waking up from our late afternoon nap, feeling recharged and hungry, Constant Companion RR and I took cab down to Hualien’s popular night market, “Dong Da Meng Night Market”.
“Dong Da Meng Night Market” is quite different from the other night markets I have been to so far. Instead of operating from pushcarts, vendors in this night market, have actual stalls to hawk their wares and do their business. While everything is really organized, it somehow loses a bit of the traditional night market feel.
What impressed me most is that the night market has a couple of designated recycle centers within itself. There you can dispose of your rubbish and uneaten food, arranging them according to 3 categories: general trash, compost and recyclable. Taiwanese take recycling very seriously.
For dinner that evening, we hopped from stall to stall, and ate a variety of things. For starters, we had a Taiwan aboriginal sausage wrapped in a pan-fried roti together with some preserved vegetables. Greasy, but not too bad. The only difference between a Taiwan aboriginal sausage and a normal Taiwanese sausage, is that in the aboriginal version, the taste of different herbs
There is a sheltered area in the night market where tables and chairs are provided for dine-in customers, located behind a row of cooked food stalls. It was more like a food court than a night market. We ordered some “Sha Cha” stir-fried mutton with morning glory and a bowl of Sesame Oil noodle. I did not taste too much of the “Sha Cha” flavour and the “mutton” was a lot more gristle than actual meat. The sesame oil noodle was uninspiring. Those are just wasted calories.
The food is just edible. Cannot be helped, since Constant Companion RR picked the stall out of so many other stalls, and when she is made to choose, she has the uncanny ability to always choose the most disappointing place or item on the menu. Constant Companion RR is well aware of her special “mutant ability”.
For a drink, Constant Companion RR ordered a really popular drink for me. She decided that I would drink the Avocado and Pudding Milkshake. I thought we would be sharing it so I agreed, in the end, she got herself another drink as she handed me my drink for the night. It was a really big cup filled to the brim with a thick, light greenish goo. Took a cautious sip and tasted the drink, beloved by many Taiwanese, for the first time.
Immediately, I knew Constant Companion RR took it upon herself to order the drink less sweet; I was even suspecting that she ordered it non sweet. I can see why the Avocado and Pudding Milkshake is likable in its original, sweeten version. Not only I had to finish the entire thing by myself, Constant Companion RR also made it less enjoyable for me to do so. Well done, Constant Companion RR!
The last thing we had was some skewers of random ingredients which were braised and fried. Not exactly the healthiest food, but nobody go to night markets for healthy food really. I think it was the skewers of vegetables, displayed at the front of the stall that caught Constant Companion RR‘s eyes. The skewers were okay, I guess.
Done with dinner, Constant Companion RR and I explored “Dong Da Meng Night Market” a bit. There is a section of the night market where it is all about carnival games. While the general idea of the games is to hit a target to win a prize, each vendors provide a slightly different tool/ projectile for their customers to do so. The more common means are the air rifles/ pistols and, the most basic of projectile, the bean bags or baseballs. One of the more creative vendors gives his customers a chance to use his giant slingshots, which are mounted on the floor, to attempt and win a prize from him. Constant Companion RR and I did not play any of the games. The carnival games section of the night market had a lot less crowd when we were there. Perhaps things usually pick up later at night; we would never know.
There are a lot of street performers all over the night market. Some of them are Taiwanese aboriginals, singing their hearts out for the crowd, belting out songs after songs from the past. There are also a couple of younger performers, serenading with more contemporary music. To show appreciation and support, one can make a little donation to the boxes the performers set up in front of their performing area for the evening.
I thought “Dong Da Meng Night Market” is a pretty cool spot for a simple night’s out. At the time of our visit, the night market was not overwhelmed with people; it was spacious and comfortable to walk around in. Like I have mentioned before, with all the proper stalls, sheltered areas and levelled, tiled floor, you will not be getting the authentic Taiwan night market experience here. However, it is just a small price to pay for the accessibility, convenience and overall comfort that you will be enjoying.
While we are not impressed by the food, I would think it was mostly due to us (Constant Companion RR) choosing badly. There are so many food options available, I am sure a handful of them should be good.
Hualien City Night Exploration
After the night market, we strolled back to the city center. Compared to our visit in the morning, there seemed there were a lot more shops opened for business. Aimlessly, we wandered around, just trying to walk off our dinner.
We came across one of the many shops of this well-known local brand selling mochi (which strangely has numbers in their brand name); the number of shops the brand has all over Hualien city is ridiculous. Constant Companion RR said I had to try their mochi so she went in and bought me a single mochi ball with sesame filling. It was rather late in the evening and the shop had already ran out of their more popular handmade mochi ball with peanut filling. I took a bite and thought that it was alright; I would have preferred the one with peanut filling. One thing bad about having anything with sesame filling is that it always leave black spots on my teeth after eating.
Shaved Ice with “Wrapped Hearts”
Next, we had shaved ice dessert in this shop in an alleyway. The dessert is also something people recommended us to try in Hualien. There are two shops selling the same thing in that alleyway and they are located side by side. People will always try to duplicate/ imitate whatever is popular and claim that they are the originator. Either that or it could be due to dispute, old family business split up and they start selling the same product in the same area to tap on the same pool of customers. This kind of business rivalry is not uncommon.
While we do not know the backstory behind these two shops, this evening, we picked the inner shop. I felt bad because there was an elderly man tending the outer shop, who quickly stood up when he saw us approaching and bowed multiple times in our direction, beckoning to us. Now, I had to eat my sweet, late night dessert knowing I have disappointed an elderly man.
In the nutshell, the dessert we shared is shaved ice with brown sugar syrup drizzled on the top, and packed underneath, are all the usual chewies (tapioca and stuff) you can find in a Taiwanese dessert shop. The selling point for the entire thing is the brownish chewy balls, served in a separate bowl (see picture in gallery above), with a cute name that loosely translates to “wrapped hearts”.
The way the lady drizzles the brown sugar syrup over the shaved ice, is quite unique. She would hold the bowl of shaved ice with one hand, and with the hand, she would pick up this giant wooden spoon sitting in a container of brown sugar syrup. As the syrup drips from the wooden spoon, she would fling the spoon back and forth quickly over the shaved ice, creating that zig-zag pattern on the surface of the ice and a mess. Any syrup flung over the limits of the bowl, would hang from the side and dripped. Once she is done, she would wipe the side of the bowl with a cloth before serving.
The only reason I can think of why all that flinging is necessary is because the lady wanted create something, for anybody watching her fling syrup, to remember her shop by. If that is her goal, she has succeeded because that left an impression in my head and I am writing about it. I doubt the flinging action affects the taste of the dessert and I am sure there are more efficient, less wasteful and neater ways to pour the syrup without creating a constant need to wash the wiping cloth.
Late Night Shopping at Poya
The last thing we did for that night was to shop for bath bags to make full use of the bath tub in the hotel room. Funny thing is we remember seeing a lot of healthcare and beauty shops like Watsons, as we explored Hualien. But at that point when we were in need of one, we could find none.
When we finally found one, surprisingly, it does not sell bath bags. The kind shop attendant did however, gave us direction to a nearby Poya. Following her vague instructions, we managed to locate the departmental store after a bit of a searching. There we shopped for some necessities, the bath bags and some snacks and headed back to our hotel and called it a night.