Big thanks to Max, Tony, and all the others who tossed in bits of advice or recommendations. Another high-recommendation but less personal thanks goes out to Marshaln whose blog and archive was and is highly valuable in navigating Taiwan in search of tea.
I recently embarked on a trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong. I’ve been to Asia a couple times, but this is my first time traveling to both of those places. Needless to say I was rather excited, both to travel and to explore teas. I went with three friends, two from high school and the last one from college. The three friends have varying degrees of tea indoctrination. One of them is moderately into tea (MS), another (DW) drinks a ripe pu’erh from Yunnan Sourcing daily, and the third’s (JF) caffeine of choice usually ends up being coffee. A fourth (ZM) showed up for a few tea spots at the end of the trip and is a fairly regular drinker with broad(ish) preferences. I hadn’t planned on writing a report but when I got back and was bombarded with.. “James how was your trip?” “You might be talking about this on TeaDB soon, but I wanted to ask…“
Note: This report is mainly about traveling. We’re all well-rounded individuals that enjoy aspects besides tea and aren’t wholly obsessed with the leaf.. Right!?
Pros & Cons of Traveling to Taiwan
No shit, sherlock..
One thing I didn’t realize as a whole is how much lower the cost of living was than Seattle.
For instance… When we first went to Wistaria on our first day, it cost about ~$10USD/person to sit down and drink tea. That’s a good deal more than you’d pay at an American coffee shop, but it’s also less of a grab and go place and isn’t egregious. Most people seem to stick around for at least an hour and we stayed there for nearly three.
Now.. The cost of living in Seattle is rising quickly and is a frequent conversation piece (complaint) for many of us city dwellers, with rent rising by ~10%/yearly. The cost of a one bedroom in a newish Seattle apartment can easily rise to $1500-1600. Not quite New York levels, but it’s not cheap..
After staying in Taipei for ~10 days, it became pretty obvious that the cost of living is much, much lower than in Seattle. An inexpensive meal of ~$8 in Seattle would easily cost 100NTD (~$3). Rent seemed to be around $400, which is less than half of Seattle.. All of a sudden Wistaria seems closer to a place for the upper-middle class and tourists to hangout. How about one of those $200 beengs?
Disclaimer: The US is obviously a diverse and broad place with varying rents. My standards are Seattle which is somewhere beneath the most expensive cities in the country but above the average cost of living in most places in the country.
Cost of Living Relative to New York (cr. Numbeo)
|Excluding Rent||Including Rent|
Thanks to the technology of fitbits and iphones, I know that we averaged about 25,000 steps a day on this trip.. This is probably around 10 or 11 miles walking a day. Despite this, JF managed to gain 7 pounds in the 16 days we were gone.. Consider that the ultimate testament and compliment to the cuisine!
I could go on and on about the food. We took pictures of every single meal we had. Lots of soups, noodles, rice dishes, seafood, and of course stinky tofu. Plenty of street markets with cheap and decent food.
Minus the street vendors dessert ends up being more of a high-end affair. In Korea, JF and I began our shared obsession of waffles & ice cream from a street vendor in the neighborhood near our hostel. We spent all of Taiwan (& HK) attempting to recreate the experience. This was amazingly difficult as the ice cream is closer to a lighter sort of frozen yogurt rather than our thick, creamy, American affair. This also regularly resulted in our desserts costing more than our actual dinners. Screw sharing..
Bubble Tea (+)
It’s sweet, cheap and most importantly helps to fight the constant heat and humidity. It’s very findable in Seattle, but I drink maybe one yearly. But it really hits the spot out in TW.. I think they add lactaid to the milk to prevent lactose intolerance reactions.
No Tax/Tip (+)
As much as I enjoy using my overqualified engineering degree (just about all it does these days) to calculate tips.. It’s nice to not have to worry about these things.
Transit System (+)
Clean, efficient, and can get you around the city in timely fashion. What’s not to like? Seattle on the other hand is slow, riddled with hills, and decided to build our trains largely above ground/in the streets. Ughh.
Everywhere and cheap if you’re traveling in a group.
Relatively Casual (+)
This is a nice one for me. In Korea we tended to stick out like sore thumbs. Everyone had fancy haircuts and stylish clothes, whereas I was rocking my OFWGKTA T-Shirts. Hong Kong there’s a lot of suit wearing. In Taipei, our travel attire felt more appropriate and generally comfortable.
Note: Interestingly in Korea noone ever tried to speak to me in Korean. In Taiwan and Hong Kong I had to plead the ignorant non-Chinese speaking tourist several times.
7-11s & Taiwanese convenience stores (+)
Sounds silly, but allow me to retort…
- They sell cheap hot food there. My go to was the baozi. Also century eggs and hotdogs and if that’s your thing..
- It’s like a coffee shop. People study/hang out there (in Korea they drank soju there).
- Send packages.
- Pay bills + Tickets.
They’re also literally everywhere! Taiwan has the highest per capita convenience stores. This wouldn’t be in my top three reasons to go to Taiwan again, but top ten. Hell yeah!
Western Food Feat. Pizza, Burger King (++)
Turns out there isn’t much to do at Taipei at 6AM and when our plane landed we were immediately reduced to googling what the heck to do. We walked around and went to a western-fashioned coffee shop that seemed to be the only thing open. Two women were there. One was eating a whole freaking pizza. Welcome back to Asia!
One of my favorite things about Asia is seeing the takes on western things. These concoctions are sometimes clever or cool, and are also frequently hilarious. Burger King for instance has a hamburger + hot dog burger in a spicy curry sauce. I ate it in the Taoyuan Airport with the last bubble tea of our trip. It’s as glorious as it sounds.
Note: In the states, Pizza Hut is a dark, somewhat depressing place to enjoy a meal. In Asia, not so much. They are fancy, well-lit places.
Burger King (+)
They have a freaking curry hamburger/hotdog.
Don’t go in May, June, July, or August. It’s too hot. Hell hot. Or so I’m told. Don’t go in September. It’s typhoon season. Well then.. October it is..
In September, Seattle makes the transition from shorts weather to pants weather. It’s a fairly fluid transition and while summers do tend to run long, it usually is in the 60s (in September) before dropping to the 50s in October. By the time we left on October 2nd, I’d already made that transition and nearly packed for similar weather in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
As soon as we stepped outside to cab into the city my glasses immediately fogged up. Two minutes later my jean-covered legs started to stick to my sweaty legs.. JF, who just moved back to Seattle from the hot and humid summers of Washington DC immediately began to complain.. Call me a whiny Seattleite who likes my weather mild and grey, but this is a clearcut downvote.
We also spent two nights in Southwest Taiwan near Kaohsiung. Kaohsiung is nearby Tainan where a number of pu’erh makers are based (Chenyuan Hao, Xizi Hao, Yangqing Hao). Overall the weather is fairly similar to Taipei (northwest Taiwan), with it being perhaps slightly warmer. The weather as a whole helped to re-emphasize the sorts of conditions that they’re dealing with to age pu’erh.
Air Quality (-)
According to wikipedia, Taipei has above average air quality for Asia. This surprised me.. Perhaps I am lucky to live in Seattle nor have I see the worst of it in Beijing.
When half the group’s phones are alerting them daily that they are in a poor airzone, than I begin to wonder. Throughout our trip there was a smoggy haze that helped to mellow out the sun, but didn’t do much for the aesthetics of the city or air quality.
Note: We’ve gotten that air quality warning in Seattle just once this year.
I like many aspects of east Asia but music has never been one. Don’t like the historical music and can’t stand the pop music. I was glad to get back home and listen to my spotify.
In a lot of countries McDonalds has something different, inspired by the local cuisine. In India they have potato burgers and a mainly vegetarian meal. In Korea they have a bulgogi burger. I was excited to enjoy at least one meals at Micky D’s. Alas, it’s nearly identical to our standard American McDonalds.. I mean, Burger King has a hamburger/hot dog. It’s time to get your act together McDonalds..
The Three Teas I Brought
This is a preview of the next post which will detail more of the tea expedition…
I brought three teas along with me, all fitting into the middle range. The 1990s Bazhong that Origin Tea used to sell. This cake is a bit faded in appearance and has definitely seen some humidity. I’ve got about 1/4th of a cake left and it will very likely be awarded the dubious distinction of the first full-sized cake I’ve ever finished… (Yeah, yeah I know.). It’s not a great tea but it didn’t cost too much, is very functional, and I wanted to bring something with some degree of maturity as a benchmark for buying teas.
This was pretty helpful as all of the trad. stored/older teas I ended up buying ended up being safely above this benchmark. Now that I’m better stocked, I should really finish up the rest of my Bazhong before my standards get too high.
The final two teas were a pair of semi-aged teas recently acquired from Houde as daily drinks, the 2006 CGHT Yiwu Autumn Yesheng and the 2005 Mengku Mushucha. I enjoy both cakes and the CGHT gets the job done for me as a daily drinking, soft, semi-aged Yiwu tea. I also thought I might be able to try some cakes from some of the Taiwanese producers but that turned out to not be the case so I brought it as an OK enough point of reference. Perhaps next time.
I also enjoy the Mushucha (fans of the 2005 Mengku DXS will probably enjoy this) but I was also reminded how much the teas you’ve been drinking recently affect your perception. Before leaving Seattle, I had a few sessions with the Mushu. At that time, I’d been mainly drinking 5-10 year old sheng and those YangQing Hao teas that are being covered in my inbetweenisodes. When I drank the Mushu then, it was soft, sweet and fruity.
Drinking it during the trip, when my tea diet was primarily older pu’erh with more humidity, I’m rewarded with a far more significant bite! The unconditioned or uninitiated frequently complain about youngish pu’erh being bitter and I think my experiences hit on the same basic concept. Us pu’erh drinkers when drinking lots of young sheng will condition ourselves to taste through/ignore bitterness. In the end, this tea still has a lot of nice assets and is drinkable, but I’d prefer it with less bitterness. Will set my pair of cakes aside for a couple more years. I’ve got enough tea to be picky..
Now for my bigger mistake. I only brought one of those mechanical brewers without any cups. Every morning, I would usually make tea for our entire travel group in the hostel or Airbnb where this method works well. However, it made it unnecessarily difficult to test tea outside of the shops. While I managed to make it work, it was hard to brew in a manner which I was familiar and also restricted me to the crappy paper cups at the hostel. Note to self: that gaiwan travel set you already own is made for.. traveling.