Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On mostly wheat-based foods

We begin with noodles, as we always should.

The famous fish noodles (黄鱼面) at A Niang noodle shop (阿娘面). The restaurant had been remodeled since the last time I lived in Shanghai, when the dining room was an open lot across the street from the kitchen and cash register. The prices appear to have kept pace with the upgrade in facilities: a bowl of noodles, plus salted collard greens and chili potatoes, cost me just under 30RMB, which is an astronomical per-capita rate for what remains in essence a street-food meal.

As I write this, I'm realizing how preoccupied I've been with how much or how little things cost in Shanghai. For some reason the experience of being here is heavily mediated by the prices of things.

Part of the assumed appeal of life in China is how inexpensive things are supposed to be, how cheap it is to buy food, pirated DVDs, or the labor of maids, cab drivers, or masseuses, and thus a lot of attention is bound to be paid to how that expectation is fulfilled or thwarted in practice. Another factor is that prices seem to reflect very closely both the pace and unevenness of socioeconomic development--within three years you see your favorite bowl of noodles jump in price, and you also see how that bowl of noodles is still a tiny fraction of the cost of an inferior meal in any upscale shopping mall.

Soup noodles with chili potatoes (辣酱面) and a side of fried pork loin, from the hole-in-the-wall noodle shop near the gate of my apartment complex. The pork curls upward and away from the oil during the frying process, forming a sort of crispy basin into which the chef deposits a ladleful of dark vinegar.

The owner of the restaurant is affable and wiry. He mostly perches on a little table outside the entrance where some of the regulars eat. He could tell right away that I wasn't familiar with the menu, and after recommending me the above meal, he noted with pride that people line up every day to eat at his shop. Apparently, the television drama Wo Ju (蜗居) had also featured his restaurant at some point. He pointed at a corner of the room where he'd served noodles to one of the show's protagonists.

Xiao Yang Shengjian (小杨生煎), just north of People's Square and among the most famous of Shanghai's pan-fried dumpling purveyors.

A source of great stress to the snack-seeking tourist is the bewildering and improvisitorial nature of the Shanghaiese food-ordering process. Some restaurants employ the order-eat-pay cycle, familiar to any Westerner, while others demand payment upon ordering or receipt of food. In many restaurants there is no obvious cashier or server, and you are left to approach the person in the room who appears most likely to work there and deliver to him or her your order.

At Xiao Yang's, you wait in line to place your order with the unimpressed and vaguely shrewlike cashier, who prints out a receipt, which you are then to display to various restaurant staff. By some managerial alchemy, your order eventually makes its way piecemeal to the relevant parties within the various kitchens designated for soups or dumplings.

Shengjianbao (生煎包/生煎馒头) are structurally similar to the more familiar xiaolongbao soup dumplings: a flour skin, filled with wad of pork and a greasy, salty brine. You also eat them using a similar method, first biting a small hole into the side of the dumpling and sucking out the soup, and then dunking the remainder into vinegar and consuming with hasty munches.

What makes shengjianbao distinct is their large size and crispy bottom skin, similar to potstickers.

Two lia (俩), or eight dumplings (10RMB), and a can of Wang Lao Ji (王老吉), a kind of soda version of herbal tea, marketed for its health benefits and spurious historical pedigree (5RMB). Note: this is too much for one person to eat.

Five shengjianbao down, three two go. By this time I am starting to feel sluggish, with dark shoots of regret sprouting in my mind that I wash away with another gulp of hypersweet Wang Lao Ji.

A lot of customers at Xiao Yang's are Cantonese-speaking tourists from Hong Kong, and who are by mainland standards almost obsequiously polite in their table manners, cautiously dipping their dumplings in small saucers of vinegar. But when I eat shengjian, I employ the local expediency of pouring a huge amount of vinegar over the entire platter, instead using the sauce dish as receptacle to catch any soup that squirts out from the dumpling.

Eight shengjianbao consumed at the end of a minor culinary marathon. Upon the conclusion of the meal, I received high-fives from Buddha, Jesus, and Abraham Lincoln, who arrived on a translucent 1964 Chevy Impala that could fly, although it just looked like it was driving through the air. I then staggered through the subway system and down the avenues toward my apartment and my bedroom, where I slept until past dinner time.

Incidentally, Xiao Yang's is directly across the street from Jiajia Tangbao, the soup dumpling restaurant I mentioned in my last entry. The latter should be strictly regarded as a brunch option--arriving after 11:30AM will guarantee a minimum wait of 30 minutes, and the dumplings will routinely sell out by 2PM.

Two fine gentleman relax at the park across the street from the posh Xintiandi shopping district.

A couple of days ago, I was sitting in roughly the same spot, choking down a few incredibly salty Xi'an meat pies I'd bought from a nearby stall. On the adjacent street there were a couple of guys loading a Lamborghini onto the bed of tow truck. The event was totally unexceptional to me, save for the fact that it seemed to mesmerize all passers-by. Office workers in the surrounding high-rises pressed their faces up against the glass. A tour group that had been moving through the park clustered on the sidewalk to take pictures. Old couples strolling past paused agog.

This went on for five or ten minutes, quite a long time when all you're doing is staring at something. Fancy sports cars are apparently still a spectacle in Shanghai, even in one of its most opulent corners.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Shanghai Potpurri II: Potpurri Strikes Back

The enormous traffic circle and pedestrian bridge in Lujiazui (陆家嘴), on a muggy wet day. The current stretch of thunderstorms has gone on for a week now, and admittedly it's bringing me down a little.

Shanghai's first Apple Store, in Pudong. Wide-eyed and deep-pocketed pilgrims enter via a spiral staircase under a hollow glass column, which looks cool but is actually kind of a pain in the ass to navigate, and are then greeted by a full spread of expensive Apple gimmickry, like the evil android version of Willy Wonka's chocolate room. The wares are marked up by 20% over US prices, despite the fact that most of it is manufactured by low-wage labor just a few hundred miles away in Shenzhen.

I have a difficult time coming up with a supply-side reason why most luxury goods, from food to clothing to electronics, are more expensive in Shanghai than in the US. But if consumer demand can support no less than three Tiffany's outlets within shouting distance of one another, then it can probably afford MacBooks at an extra premium.

This is the same town where you can buy a full breakfast for two RMB, or about 30 US cents. It's hard to imagine any other place on the planet where there is such a huge difference between the cheapest things and the most expensive things.

Upon arriving in Shanghai, I unpacked my guitar pedals and plugged the 110-volt AC adapter for my MicroPOG into a 220-volt Chinese wall outlet. This was a classic expat noob maneuver and inexcusable for someone who has lived abroad for as much time as I have. Fortunately, this usually just destroys the power supply, and spares the device itself. And so I found myself on the market for a new AC adapter.

Plan A was to head off to East Jingling Road (金零东路) near downtown, which has a quarter-mile stretch consisting exclusively of instrument stores. Most of these stores sell pianos, knock-off guitars, and traditional Chinese instruments. The ones that sell rock equipment were useless for my purposes--they either didn't know what I was talking about, or sold very particular and bizarre equipment, such as an AC adapter that accepted a minimum of 180 volts of input (according to the internet, the only places that appear to offer such a weird voltage out of a standard wall outlet are Equitorial Guinea and certain parts of Afghanistan).

Thus I turned to the exciting world of Chinese online retail, and began a herculean, week-long effort to figure out how to pay for something on Taobao, China's massive and bewildering answer to eBay and Amazon.

For a semi-literate Mac/Chrome user, about 70-80% of the Chinese internet appears to be broken, oftentimes in such an arcane and exotic manner that it appears to imply not so much incompetence on the part of the web developer as it does openly malicious intent. For example, many Chinese websites employ a Flash- or JavaScript-enabled virtual keyboard that you operate with your mouse, presumably as a means to thwart keyboard sniffing malware that could steal, say, your credit card information. Taobao routes Visa and MasterCard payments through the Agricultural Bank of China's website, and the latter's virtual keyboard system doesn't work in any browser available to OSX. So I went as far as calling my cousin in Taiwan via Skype so he could use Internet Explorer on his work PC to punch in the order. When that got too cumbersome, I finally wrangled some PC time from a guy I just met in Shanghai, and then I discovered that using international credit cards just wasn't going to fly--I tried several different cards, and the result of every attempt was a cryptic DENIED message. I'd used my credit card all the time in regular stores, but here I could only shrug and contemplate the Chinese national mantra, mei banfa (没办法): nothing you can do.

Finally, after squinting at Taobao's menu system for some time, I learned that you can pay COD for an extra 10-15RMB. This discovery was a stunning coup. After much struggle and exertion, I had slain the minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth of Taobao's payment system. The only problem here was that I received no confirmation email or notification, and no specific information about when the delivery and payment were actually supposed to take place. I finally got a phone call an hour before delivery asking if I would be home to receive a package, which by this time was a totally unexpected and welcome courtesy. The guy was still 10 minutes late, but I guess nothing's perfect.

Petty Reason #421 why life in China is annoying: I woke up this morning and realized I'd eaten all of my yogurt, so I rode my bike down the street to the local supermarket. As of a few years ago, most stores in most major Chinese cities charge extra for bags, as a way to disincentivize plastic consumption and littering. Since I didn't bring my messenger bag, I had to pay RMB0.2 for a plastic bag at the checkout counter.

On the way back home, the bag burst open along the bottom seam and spilled my yogurt containers into the street. I had to stop in an intersection to pick them up, and then I rode back home with one hand steering the bike and the other hand tenuously gripping the yogurt. This was an interesting but not very enjoyable bike ride.

You could say, hey man, bags just break sometimes, but I find myself having a hard time giving China the benefit of the doubt. Sure, this ain't exactly melamine-tained milk here, but only in China do you pay for a plastic bag, only to have it inexplicably break on you while you're riding down a busy street.

Hamlet existentialism, 21st-century Shanghai Edition.

The best steamed soup dumplings (小笼包) in the world, at Jiajia Tangbao (佳家汤包) near People's Square. This uncompromising feast is the best meal I've had in Shanghai and cost all of 36RMB (US$5.34). In its own way, though, it's a high-maintenance meal, since you have to show up at 11AM if you don't want to wait in line, and you can't arrive too late in the afternoon, or else they'll run out of food. Also, the waitress there is a kind of a bitch.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Shanghai Potpurri

The world's largest Uniqlo outlet, on West Nanjing Road. Uniqlo is a Japanese clothing brand roughly equivalent to Gap, although here in China it's more or less a luxury brand and seems to command a 50% markup over domestic Japanese prices.

A new shopping center in Xintiandi (新天地), which insists that DRESSING IS A WAY OF LIFE. Shanghai is the nouveau riche writ large, in glass and concrete; it has yet to evolve any kind of high-brow tact vis-a-vis the obscene amount of money that flows into this city. Instead what you see is an unironic and unqualified celebration of wealth and consumption. Nearby, there is a community of high-rise apartments named "Richgate", and a little over the way, a brand-new development called Sinan Mansions promises such extravagances as 40,000RMB-per-night hotel villas (nearly US$6000 if you are keeping score).

Old Chinese etiquette prevails on the streets of Shanghai, where traffic lights and painted lane dividers are exposed as the impotent theoretical constructs that they are.

A routine tactic of the Shanghai urban cyclist is to ride willfully into an intersection as the light turns red, and then to renege slightly and stop, such that the full length of the cyclist's vehicle is encroached within the intersection. After a week of braving the mean streets of Shanghai, a grim survival instinct has largely supplanted my LA-bred commuter road rage, but the latter will still boil over on occasion. I sometimes think: why did you just stop in the middle of the intersection? why did you even enter the intersection? if you had to insist on entering the intersection, why did you not then simply proceed through the intersection, so as not to thoroughly impede the large wave of unrushing traffic? is it that you were completely unaware of the large wave of onrushing traffic? etc. etc. I then think: I am so going to blog about this unbelievable and absurd practice. That will show you, you assholes.

During my search for a rehearsal studio, I stumbled upon various internet articles about 0093, a rock collective that has supposedly incubated many of Shanghai's up-and-coming indie rock bands. Their online forum had advertised rentable practice space, so I decided to go there and investigate.

The listed address was 1228 Quxi Road, which brought me to a Sichuan hotpot restaurant. Upon inquiring within, I was scolded by the house matron and hastily waved off to the unmarked metal door next to the restaurant.

The sign above the door says nothing about a rehearsal studio or rock music. It is actually an advertisement for mooncake, the Chinese pastry traditionally eaten during the Midautumn Festival.

The metal doors led to a kitchen of suspect hygene. In the back was a large pile of discarded construction material. A kitchen boy holding what looked to be a large chunk of raw chicken meat assured me that I could continue over and past the junk pile.

This brought me to a stairwell and down into an old bomb shelter.

At the bottom of the stairwell, there was a dark room with an old couch that I probably would not sit on. Nobody seemed to be around. The ground was covered in soot and drain water. Down the hall, there were several locked doors, which I assumed were lockout studios that had been rented out long-term. I found one unlocked studio where a fellow was practicing a drum beat. He was wearing headphones plugged into a metronome, and didn't notice me when I poked my head in. I decided not to bother him and left.

In attendance at Yuyintang (育音堂), one of Shanghai's "oldest" indie rock venues. I employ scare-quotes because of the nascent and slightly colonial nature of the Shanghai music scene. Yuyintang has only been around since 2004, and despite the fact this show was advertised as a "local band" showcase, the majority of the band members and audience members alike were foreign-born. Suffice it to say the pedigree of progressive pop music in China isn't exactly sterling.

Case in point: the best band of the evening were The Beat Bandits, who are composed of a British drummer, a Japanese bass player who looks kind of like Elvis, a Japanese keyboard player who I sort of wished was a better dancer, and a really awesome guitar player who I coulda sworn was a dorky Chinese guy on account of his facial hair and coiffure and sartorial habits, but who I now actually suspect is Japanese as well. These guys could really wail.

The World Financial Center and the Jinmao Tower, twin phallic icons of the eastern Shanghai skyline.

The 100th-floor observation deck on the World Financial Center, still misleadingly advertised in the brochure as the "world's highest observation deck". I presume that the Burj Khalifa now has it beat pretty handily.

The view toward the Pearl Oriental Tower and northwestern Shanghai.

Century Avenue, and endless development extending eastward, over what was farmland and countryside just a decade or two ago.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

48 Hours of Shanghai

The north-facing view from my bedroom window in Shanghai. Although I'm staying in the same apartment I lived in three summers ago, I feel completely disoriented walking around the immediate vicinity. I think this is mostly due to the pace and scale of local gentrification. Most of the nearby storefronts have been "enhanced" with concretized facades and signage with backlit plastic typography. The convenience store right outside the gate of my complex has been replaced with some kind of antiques vendor-slash-gourmet tea shop. The space up the street that used to house an Ajisen Ramen has been absorbed into a massive Cartier outlet, a development which I have greeted with unadulterated scorn.

As it happens, immediately below my window is a narrow lane that is continuously occupied by high tax-bracket automobiles, mostly Lexi and Benzes. Adjacent to this is a coffee shop which is fully-staffed, but almost never patronized. The view into the interior from the front windows is 90% obscured by an extremely bizarre collection of porcelain vases and servingware. It's pretty clearly a den of evil of some kind or another, but nobody seems to have any insight on what actually goes on in there.

Example No. 327 of why life in China is a pain in the ass: as a foreign visitor to China who is not staying in a hotel, I have to register my housing information with the local police station within 24 hours of arrival. This is my third medium-term stint in China, and for whatever reason the housing registration process is still not a cut-and-dry operation for me. Instead it seems to offer a fresh and original Kafkan ordeal every time. It was probably the worst during my trip to Beijing in 2008, when I was taken to a side-counter and given the bureaucratic 3rd degree, e.g., what are you doing here, what is your job, whom else do you know in Beijing, write down your address in the US, etc. etc., and all this for about an hour or so until my interlocutor had gotten his ya-yas out. This time around I was merely subjected to a two-day fetch quest for documentation and photocopies, which photocopies, by the way, I'm pretty sure the girl at the police station could have made herself using the office equipment behind the counter.

I got into Shanghai on Thursday at around 11AM but didn't get around to eating anything until 6PM or so. Following the suggestion of my roommate, I had a meal delivered to my door courtesy of the streetside kitchen across the street. Most of these types of restaurants (I'm not quite sure if "restaurant" is the right word, since it is literally a stove next to a stack of to-go boxes) operate on a kind of Taco-Bell-of-Stir-Fry philosophy, whereby each dish is prepared in more or less the exact same fashion and with more or less the exact same ingredients. The fact that you're ordering eggplant or beef or fish reflects little more than a superficial variation on the same basic oily/salty/spicy theme.

This meal, by the way, made quick work of me, and I was apologizing for it by way of the toilet at 6:30AM the next morning. A classic welcome to the mainland.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Taiwan Forever

Shida night market in the late afternoon rain. This is surely my favorite night market in Taipei, mostly due to its manageable size and relative lack of assholes driving scooters through the lanes.

I had a solid run of 8-10 days with no rain in Taipei, which is sorta like winning five hundred bucks in the lottery. Unlikely and exciting. Then three consecutive typhoons hit. These were deemed "useless" typhoons by my working cousins, because the typhoons were not powerful enough to warrant workplace or school closures. I remember typhoon off-days during my time in Japan as being scary as shit; my crappy apartment would creak in the wind, and it was so incredibly dark outside. In Taiwan, most people treat their typhoon-induced days off as a chance to roll down to the mall and catch a movie. Apparently the theaters and restaurants make out like gangbusters when a strong typhoon comes to town.

The vast majority of exterior walls in Taipei are surfaced with ceramic tile, as is a very large proportion of outdoor walking space. I am guessing that tile is easy to replace or clean, and is reasonably resistant to the elements, but man: when it rains, the friction coefficient of those surfaces vis-a-vis one's shoe dips precipitously, and the sidewalks become veritable deathtraps. The above image is the street-level facade of the building I was staying in; note the vast expanse of reddish faux stone tiling between the sidewalk and the doorway. Note also the brilliant sheen lent to it by continuous sheets of typhoon rain. Walking along that stretch of ground in my shitty treadworn Vans flip-flops is probably the most dangerous thing I've done on this vacation.

Xiaolongbao (小籠包) at the original Dingtaifeng (鼎泰豐). Not just a fad out in Arcadia, Dingtaifeng sells like cocaine-laced hotcakes pretty much everywhere it exists, and this is no less true back at the headquarters on Yongkang Street (永康街). We got there at 8:50AM, ten minutes before the official opening time, and the restaurant was already half-full with customers.

Wonton soup and zhajiang noodles (炸醬麵). The latter item was only recently added to the menu, after a journalist noticed that one of the chefs had made it for himself for lunch. The chef was apparently flabbergasted by the suggestion to add it to the menu; it was just something he'd thrown together for a quick workday meal.

Pork zongzi (粽子), possibly maybe the best I've ever had.

The BBQ bacon cheeseburger at 1885 Burger, near NTNU. Typically fussy Japan-inspired presentation, with pre-stacked veggies, pickle spears, and paper-lined metal cup for fries. Problem areas: the radius of the patty was too small for bun, there was not enough sauce, the presentation of the tomatoes and onions ought to have implied circular pickle slices as well, and the paper in the cup of fries actually served to artificially raise the bottom of the cup--the fries you see are all the fries you get. Oh, and the meat had a suspiciously porky flavor and texture to it.

Look, I'm not really all that particular about most foods, but I do happen to be an American who knows what a good burger tastes like. I had a conversation with my Taiwanese uncle about how the simplest and most iconic foods always seem to get mangled in translation. My uncle's complaint was that his home country could never produce a doughnut that tasted as good as what you could get in any old shitty doughnut shop in the San Fernando valley. But you might say the same about boba tea anywhere outside of Taiwan, or maybe the most egregious possible example, Mexican food anywhere outside of the western parts of North America.

After despairing the lack of decent Mexican food in this continent, and after my despair sublimated into a sense of righteous self-satisfaction bordering on outright bigotry, I elected to take matters into my own hands and make guacamole from scratch.

You aren't finding tomatillos or jalapenos in Taiwan, but you can substitute for the latter using local variants. I put my cousin Simon in charge of cutting the chiles, chiefly because I didn't want to get my hands all spicy and burny. This is also to say that I was far less concerned about any spiciness or burniness that might have occurred on Simon's hands.

This may or may not have been the first time Simon has used a kitchen knife. As pictured above, he'd attempted an airborne cutlery technique, which I put to a halt immediately after this photo was taken. The kid may have a genius gourmand master in him yet, but I'm just saying it's not gonna surface any time soon.

Of course, I was the one who ended up cutting himself. This occurred while I was smashing garlic gloves with a knife that was probably not quite broad enough for the task at hand.

My Taiwanese guacamole tasters politely took a bowl for each person, and tentatively dipped each chip into their portion. "It's pretty good!" they told me between nibbles. I kept glaring at them and saying "NO THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT," while scooping a huge glob from the common serving bowl and wolfing it down in a single mouthful.

My aunt and uncle, around 10PM after dinner, passed out in front of the TV news. These two actually sleep less on a consistent basis than almost anyone I've known. I have theorized that they are actually robots and that they sleep only to mock us, as some kind of fucked-up robot joke.

A mediocre day at the teppanyaki counter is still a great fucking day.

A sad, unimpressive helping of mango shaved iced at what used to Ice Monster, on Yongkang Street. There was a huge line at this place, filled with tourists and locals alike, all attempting to recapture the mango magic of bygone years. I think this place might've been able to solve their problems simply by adding more condensed milk, which is of course the solution to many things.

Photo nerds: why do I look skewed and almost two-dimensional in this picture? This has happened to me on more than one occasion. Is it an exposure thing, combined with weird depth of field distortion, or am I possessed by Satan, or what?

Apparently the best possible shaved ice in Taipei, courtesy of Taiyi Milk King (台一牛奶大王) across the street from Nation Taiwan University. I was told an apocryphal yarn about how the exact same store was around back when my mom was a college student, and thus it is possible that it is this very shaved ice that causes her to wax so fondly of Taiwanese shaved ice, even to this day.

I went straight for the red bean and tangyuan (湯圓) combo, which for 5 or 6 minutes was pure culinary gold. I think this is visibly obvious.

Following its grand overture, though, my turine of shaved ice degenerated into a milky slush whose consistency was emblematic of the psychological and physiological slog it had become to continue eating. The mochi-like tangyuan hardened into bullets of resilient rice paste, and it soon dawned on me that I was eating what amounted to slightly runny water. This would've been fine, since the water was filled with condensed milk (again, this was an effective solution to the problem at hand), but by that time I felt as bloated as an 8th-century Old World king. Bolder men than I have had no issue with the evolutionary life cycle of a plate of shaved ice, but my suggestion would be to always go halvesies with someone whose cooties you don't mind ingesting.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Road trip to Taizhong

The 9AM view of 日月潭 (Riyuetan), a lake in central Taiwan. To achieve the 9AM view, we left Taipei at 4:30AM. Vacation is hard work.

Either a delightfully tiny hummingbird, or a horrifyingly large and disgusting bumblebee, spotted on the rooftop terrace of an unbelievably posh hotel whose name I never learned.

Incidentally, said hotel's breakfast buffet was nothing short of bitching: we're talking fresh fried over-medium eggs, vegan doughnuts, brie-filled loaves, salmon with capers and dill, and semi-competent coffee, which for Taiwan is a big achievement. For some reason Taiwan knows how to do the buffet. I believe with conviction that it has Vegas beat by a comfortable margin.

Unfortunately there are no pictures of this particular meal. Because sometimes, you just gotta say fuck it dude, I'm just going to eat this buffet.

Riyuetan's got the full arsenal of tourist trap accoutrements, tour boats and canoes and overpriced snack foods and gift shops whose decor far surpass the actual wares. The crown jewel must surely be the 10-minute gondola ride that takes you from the main drag to the Jiuzu Culture Park, some kind of Taiwanese aborigine-themed entertainment facility with roller coasters and large dioramas, and which entertainment facility we thankfully declined to explore.

But you better believe we rode the gondola. The staging area for riders was the kind of tourist clusterfuck that inspires all kinds of polite elitist rage in the urban visitor who's been up since 4AM. Imagine windy queues filled with stocky, perspiring hicks pressing up behind you for no apparent reason and gurgling dialect directly into your ear, screeching hags with bad dye jobs waving their canes over the railing at godknowswhom, and whole clans of line-cutters stealing their way past you so they can get one or two gondolas ahead.

"Why can't they just organize this line better? I hate how they've set this up," said my uncle. "It's not the setup I hate," I replied. "It's the people."

But if you are agile enough to poke your camera out the side glass of the gondola, you get views like this:

Among Taiwan's scenic spots, Riyuetan is supposed to be especially pretty, but based on what I've seen, huge swaths of Taiwan look exactly like this: skylines of cascading hills peeking through fog, clouds that seem to imply rain, and then GREEN. Everything is so green.

I passed out in the car at some point, and when I next opened my eyes we were sitting in the parking lot of 中台禪寺 (Zhongtai Chan Si), an opulent postmodern Versailles of Zen Buddhist temples. Let's just say that ol' Hsi Lai Temple back in Hacienda Heights has some catching up to do.

A huge and really quite impressive statue in the entrance hall. And there were four of these things. I have no idea who this is or what he/they represent. At some point very early in my career as an explorer of Asia, I elected to stop worrying about the details of the religions of antiquity. It became a little too difficult to track Buddha of X, or Monk Y who Delivered Wisdom Z. I was like, somebody get me a spreadsheet, please.

More really impressive and large statues. Despite what I said above, I do happen to know who the guy in the middle is.

This side hall contained the entire of lineage of prominent Buddhist sages, some of whom may or may not be considered Buddhas themselves. The fellow seated center-left was involved in the founding of either the branch of Buddhism practiced by the temple, or the temple itself.

This is how my aunt, uncle, and their two sons roll: we get up at 4AM, spend 2.5 hours on the road, eat kickass buffet, ride boats and gondolas amidst lots of greenery, look at huge statues, and then storm back into Taipei around 5PM to eat pastries and cake at a fancy Western bakery for dinner. Yeah.