When you haven’t slept in 48 hours, the moment your head touches the pillow, you sleep like the dead.
We flew to Taiwan on Friday on a 6.00 a.m. flight. That means that, given the world-infamous Metro Manila traffic, we had to leave our house in the suburb at 2.00 a.m. Despite web check-in. Just to be sure. Because who wants to pay for surcharges or, worse, be obliged to buy new tickets for a later flight?
Leaving at 2.00 a.m. meant we didn’t get any sleep at all. And it wasn’t like we had a relaxing day before we left the house. We hadn’t had a relaxing day in two weeks. We’re having a major house renovation and, to make sure that the girls would be comfortable enough while their father and I were out of the country, we took every effort to make the second storey habitable. In short, we were fixing and re-fixing, checking and re-checking, up to the moment we zipped our trolley bags close.
But because travel is exciting, we managed to survive on sheer adrenalin from the minute we landed in Taipei to the moment we dumped our shopping loot from Taipei 101 in the apartment sometime after sunset. We showered, we ate, we watched TV and then I stretched out. We were supposed to have a video chat with the girls but I couldn’t stay awake anymore.
Saturday. We woke up late. We had no strict plans anyway. Although Tamsui Old Street was somewhere in the itinerary, I didn’t intend to go anytime over the weekend. That’s when it gets crowded there. A weekday would have been a better option.
But, at a little 1.12 p.m. (according to the EXIF data of the photo above), the weather was perfect. A bit humid but not too warm. A breeze was blowing and it felt good on our skin. We spent a while at the smoking area on the sidewalk of Civic Boulevard between Taipei Main Station and Taipei Bus Station, and we didn’t feel like running toward the nearest building to hide from the sun. At noon. We decided it was the ideal weather for an afternoon in Tamsui.
I’m going to say it now. Pre-emption. After Tamsui, any plan to go night market hopping went pffftt! I’ve been to Shilin, the king of night markets in Taipei, and the Shilin experience pales in comparison to what we had in Tamsui.
The train ride to Tamsui
We entered Taipei Main Station and located the platform for the train that would take us to Tamsui.
The train was full. Standing room only but not crowded like sardines in a can. Besides, the air-conditioning inside Taipei trains is always optimal. I didn’t mind being on my feet during the first part of the ride. I had a better view of the suburban areas we were passing through. It was interesting to observe the cityscape as it turned more provincial as we moved farther away from the center of Taipei.
It was 17 stops to Tamsui and Tamsui was the last stop on the red line of the Taipei MRT. Speedy said he heard an announcement earlier that when we got to a certain station (I forget now which one), we were supposed to switch trains.
I thought that was strange because going to Tamsui meant staying on the red line. But the train stopped at a station and it felt that it was there with the doors open for a long time. Still, because we weren’t sure if we should stay or switch to another train, we didn’t move.
There was group of Filipino women, all engrossed with Facebooking, who apparently did not hear whatever announcement it was that Speedy heard earlier. Seven more stops, one of them said, and they’d be in Tamsui. And that was even more strange because I distinctly remember that we were nearer than seven stops to Tamsui.
Finally, we felt that the stop was too long already — the way trains are wont to do at the beginning of a trip. We hopped off and switched trains. The group of Filipino women stayed behind. Speedy said, “In seven stops, they’d be back at Taipei Main Station.” And that’s probably where they found themselves unless they figured it out earlier. Switching trains was the correct thing to do because when the train made it last stop, we found ourselves at the Tamsui station. It was 2.30 p.m.
Tamsui Old Street
Where exactly is Tamsui Old Street?
Tamsui is a district in New Taipei City. Strictly speaking, there is no “Old Street” — it’s more of a reference to the dining and shopping area that begins on one end of Gongming Street and goes all the way to Zhongsheng Road.
Parallel to these streets is the waterfront that is lined with more food stalls, restaurants and shops. I knew that from Google maps. We had a glimpse of the water but decided we should start by checking out the food and shops at Tamsui Old Street.
You know that feeling when you’re so hungry then suddenly you are confronted with the sight of food and drinks in every size and shape, and you can’t decide which one you want to try first? Okay, that was what we underwent for the first 15 to 20 minutes. You’d think that with our stomachs growling we’d buy the first thing we saw, but we didn’t.
There were egg tarts in three sizes: regular, small and mini.
Everything fried, skewered or not.
Freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.
Speedy asked me a dozen times what I wanted and I just kept walking on — taking photos and noting everything but not stopping to order.
Then, we passed by a bakery and the curry meat cake was so tempting. But the cakes were large and I wanted something small so we wouldn’t feel satiated too early.
When our eyes got so confused and we got even more undecided by the minute, we tried to let our noses guide us. To no avail. Our noses were just as overwhelmed as our eyes. It was almost 3.00 p.m. when we finally decided to take a bite. The clincher? Locating a stall of baked buns.
The filling ranged from meaty to vegan — green onions, cheese, taro, pork, sesame, red beans, peanuts…
I chose the one with green onions; Speedy had pork. Of course! We ate the buns right there in front of the stall. By the time no crumbs were left, we were still far from feeling full but at least our stomachs had stopped growling so horribly. We could pick out our next snacks more leisurely.
There was a fried chicken place where everything looked delectable. Fried battered chicken fillets served with different sauces and toppings. But the menu had no English translation so we didn’t know which one to choose. Luckily, one of the customers spoke English and he recommended the one with garlic. That sounded wonderful!
From the chicken place, we moved next door and bought drinks. Then, I suggested bringing the food to the waterfront. We could savor our chicken and drinks with a view of the water and the mountains beyond. Could anything be more perfect?
It was a short walk through a narrow alley from Tamsui Old Street to the waterfront. But on that alley…
Oh my goodness… oyster pancakes! Not oyster omelet like the ones you find at the night markets and for which Shilin Night Market is especially famous for. These oyster pancakes were meant to be eaten with the hand. No messy sauce to pour over it.
We reached the waterfront and found a bench to sit on.
Speedy opened the box of chicken, and… Oh, the chicken was lovely! The trick was to eat each piece of chicken with a few slices of garlic. That’s how to get full rounded flavors.
I unwrapped my oyster pancake, took a bite and snapped a few photos. Hmmm… the lighting was bad. And the oysters weren’t visible. That wouldn’t do justice to the oyster pancake at all.
I took a few more bites, made Speedy do the same then I turned around with my back to the water to get better lighting. Now, you get to see the oyster pancake in its full glory with oysters threatening to fall out of the pancake with every bite. Crunchy outside, juicy inside, creamy oysters with every bite. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that for the rest of my life.
We stayed at the waterfront for some time. Just staring at the water, watching people walk by, mostly young parents with toddlers in tow, and noticing how clean and well kept the area was. The sun was still high in the sky but there was a lovely breeze that never stopped blowing. It was a perfect afternoon.
Speedy was smitten. I bet that, at that moment, he felt the same way I did when Sam and I stumbled upon Hoan Kiem Lake on a Saturday afternoon. You get to see how the locals unwind, you experience what they can enjoy on a regular basis, and you feel a little jealous.
Why can’t we have something like this back home? A place to enjoy, a corner to escape the bustle of the city without spending an arm and leg to do so. And you wonder if there’s a chance you can move to live like that legally (without being pre-empted by the bad reputation of Filipino tourists who often become illegal aliens) and you know that it’s not a fleeting thought.
Ice cream rolls (with cilantro, if you please!)
The thought of dessert made us finally leave our bench. I so wanted to find the tower ice cream shop. We started browsing the food stalls and shops. We’d been walking a while looking for the tower ice cream when I saw something else. Something different. And I just knew I wasn’t going to get the tower ice cream.
What the heck was that? Ice cream on top of shaved peanuts and wrapped like spring rolls? And with cilantro? The strangeness made me crave it in a serious way. I couldn’t find Speedy who was still looking for the tower ice cream shop. When he found me, I was taking a video of how the the ice cream rolls were prepared. By that time, my mind was made up. I was going to have an ice cream roll WITH cilantro. Never mind the tower ice cream. That’s just eye candy anyway.
And just how was it? Unforgettable. The inclusion of cilantro might put off some people but trust me when I say that it is the cilantro that gives this delicacy its piquant flavor. The cilantro does not overwhelm. It makes the sweetness of the ice cream less cloying.
I later combined the videos of the ice cream rolls and tower ice cream.
Were we done with eating? Oh, not yet. But to pace ourselves, we did some shopping in between.
Then, I wanted to smoke. We weren’t sure where the designated smoking area was so we left the waterfront and went back to Tamsui Old Street. Speedy saw a policeman, asked where the smoking area was and he pointed us to a street corner where there was a bin for cigarette butts and general trash.
Pork scallion buns and bubble milk tea
Several meters from that street corner, there was a queue. We could see it from a distance. Smoking done, we decided to investigate.
We only pay attention to queues when it’s the locals lining up. If the people in that line were tourists, we’d pass. But these people looked like locals. I went inside to see what the fuss was all about.
Pork buns! Well, when it’s pork, no one has to make a verbal suggestion to Speedy.
Speedy was in the queue faster than I could decide whether I should take a video of the pork bun making process.
Can you see the amount of pork that goes into each bun? Too bad that the oven was in a dark corner of the bakery. The buns are baked in an oven that very much resembles a tandoor.
Pork scallion buns in hand, the next question was where were we going to eat them? On the sidewalk? Hmmm… There was no more relaxing spot to eat good food than with a view of the water. Besides, we passed by a bubble milk tea shop on the waterfront earlier and we really needed drinks to go with the pork scallion buns. So, back to the waterfront we went.
We located the bubble milk tea store easily. Four flavors were available. Peanut, sesame, cacao and matcha.
I chose cacao; Speedy had the peanut.
And, for the nth time that afternoon, we feasted. You bite into the bun and the fat from the pork oozes out and drizzles down your chin. It was only after we had demolished the buns and the bubble tea that I noticed there were food stains on the front of my white blouse.
Grease? Ice cream? Cacao? I didn’t know anymore. I tried to wipe it clean with wet tissues and I managed to get most of the stains off. But as soon as we got back to the apartment, into the washing machine (yes, we had a washing machine on the balcony of our apartment!) the blouse went. So, does mentioning the washing machine mean I’ve come to the end of our Tamsui adventure? Oh, no! Not yet.
I’ve read that sunset at the waterfront in Tamsui is spectacular. And I wanted to just sit there by the water and wait for the sun to dip below the horizon.
But Speedy pointed to the thick clouds on the horizon. The sun would be hidden behind them as afternoon turned to night. I had to see the sense in that although I wasn’t so sure that he wanted to leave the waterfront early to go back to Tamsui Old Street for more food and shopping. Not that his deep dark reasons mattered at that point. I’d take food and shopping over sunset photos anytime anyway.
Sampling delicacies at Tamsui Old Street
We said to each other that we really couldn’t eat more after the pork scallion buns and bubble milk tea. But we were wrong. Walking back to Tamsui Old Street, we started locating the shops we noted earlier where we would buy delicacies to bring home. But things looked different as it got darker.
We ended up going into shops we didn’t notice before. And there were endless samplers. For free.
There was even a bakery where the samplers were lined up like a buffet. And at the of the table, there was tea and, in the next room, small tables where guests can sit and think in peace if any of the products they have tried makes purchasing worth it.
Well, I say it that way because that’s exactly how we did it. We sampled three or four items, we loved the flaky pork buns that tasted like there were bits of sausages inside, and we bought a box to bring home.
After that, we resumed hunting for the shops where we meant to buy salmon floss (you’re probably familiar with the more popular pork floss but did you know there’s salmon floss and marlin floss too?), iron eggs, sticky peanut cakes and a few other things. The hunt lasted for something like an hour. We were tired. It was getting really humid and we wanted something cold. Or, maybe, we were just making excuses to have mango shaved ice.
That was the last thing we ate at Tamsui. It was past 7.00 p.m. and, if we were going to beat the throngs that would be taking the MRT back to Taipei, we had better get going.
The ride back to Taipei was easier as there was no need to switch trains. Our arms aching from the weight of the shopping bags we were carrying, we walked the short distance from Taipei Main Station to our apartment.
We had a lovely afternoon at Tamsui. I wouldn’t exchange that for visits to five night markets or even more. When we go back to Taiwan, I will book a hotel or an apartment at Tamsui for a night or two. That way, we will be able to experience the waterfront late into the night.