Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Taipei, you touched my heart

Jioufen, Ruifan district, New Taipei City, Taiwan

Wherever you go, go with all your heart. - Confucious.
Travel is always a good idea for rejuvenating the mind, the soul, and for new ways of engaging with the world. But traveling to totally foreign lands, where one lacks the vocabulary to understand the simplest of things, like road signs or even readymade foods can become an exercise on self observation and reflection. I was in Taipei last week and it was a singularly unique experience.

Da'an District, Taipei City

Da'an District, Taipei City

Taipei is a city of nightmarkets, scooters and majestic views. This being my first visit to Asia, I came expecting to find all that is different and unfamiliar but was surprised to find something curiously familiar. The back streets lined with timeworn apartment buildings, decked out with lush, green plants looked lovingly lived in. With charming architectural details like metal doors and traditional roof tiles and finials, the modern city streets revealed to the casual tourist this was Taipei as opposed to Istanbul or Athens. 

Da'an District, Taipei City

Roof of a historic teahouse behind our apartment, Da'an District

There is a serious cultural heritage built around food in Taiwan - I was told "Even Italian food tastes better here". Considering the fresh ingredients that are available at every corner of the city and the tradition of preparing everything fresh, from scratch, the superior quality of everything edible should not come as a surprise. 

Yingge District, New Taipei City

Yingge District, New Taipei City
One of the biggest tourist attractions close to Taipei is the Yingge District, located in New Taipei City, 30-40 minutes drive from city center. The area is famous for its ceramic and porcelain production as well as studios and shops specializing in arts and crafts. Even the restaurant we dined in was an experience in artful elegance. 

Yingge Old Street, New Taipei City
Fugui-Yingge is a gallery/restaurant located on Yingge Old Street. With some of the most elegant displays of art and sculpture, it is one of the most beautiful spaces I have ever encountered. Although everything in it is in Chinese, their website is worthy of a look (link) The food, presented in a very stylish way was good and offered more modern (western) interpretations of Chinese cuisine. Although the meal is very enjoyable, there is a very serious dilemma in dining at a restaurant such as this since the food stalls right outside are too tempting by far.
Outside the Restaurant/Gallery Fugui-Yingge

The view from the private dining room at Fugui-Yingge
From small neighborhood shrines to majestic temples situated on mountain tops, Buddhist or Taoist temples crown the landscape in and around Taipei. Although the theological distinctions between the two are so blurry that I was told by the locals it would be something only theologians could decipher, my super simple interpretation is that the Buddhists pray to Buddha while the Taoists honor their ancestors.

Lungshan Temple, Wanhua District, Taipei
A visit to Lungshan Temple, located in the Wanhua district, very easily accessible by subway (only a couple of stops from city center) can provide the foreign visitor not only a glimpse of the way Chinese temples are built, decorated and utilized but also a great understanding of Chinese religious tolerance. Inside you will find shrines dedicated to the Buddha as well as the many gods, goddesses and ancestors that the Chinese honor and pray to.

Dragons and Phoenixes are the roof finials on most Taoist temples
The original temple was built in 1738 by immigrants from mainland China who were the followers of the ancient Lungshan Temple in Chin-chiang county of Fukien province, as a local branch in Taipei. The building that stands today was built between 1919 - 1924. 

This is very busy, crowded temple with people praying to Buddhist deities as well as Matzu, the Goddess of marine voyage, Gods of literature, and even Lord Kuan, the God of war. I was told that the temples outside of the city are usually either Buddhist or Taoist but temples near marketplaces and centers of town tend to be mixed to accommodate all the people working in the area.

Detail from carved columns, Lungshan Temple 
There is a street adjacent to Lungshan temple, Lane 224, Herb Lane, a market since the Qing dynasty that still retains its original width and vendors that look and work as they did since then. Visiting Herb Lane is a scrumptious experience with wonderful smells and colors in a simple lane packed with all kinds of plants and herbs.  

Herb Lane which looks the same as it did for centuries

A cure for everything can be found in the stores that have been here for more than 100 years.

The National Palace Museum in Taipei is an encyclopedic museum of Chines art and culture with only a small selection of rare works on display. It is a vast museum that I could spend days in if given the chance. The treasures of the Chinese royal family were moved to Taiwan from 1948-49 for safekeeping. Of the five shiploads of treasures only one remained in China while the rest are in the collection of the National Palace Museum.

National Palace Museum, Taipei

No photography is allowed in the museum so I can only share the photos I took outside and the restaurant which provided an artful feast. One of the most interesting offerings at the Silks Palace restaurant were the foods that duplicated some of the most famous treasures in the museum.

Dongpo meat presented as the meat-shaped stone
(Silks Palace Restaurant)
Meat-shaped stone, 1800-1900, Qing dynasty
(National Palace Museum)

Jadeite Cabbage with Insects Made with Fresh Chinese Cabbage Hearts

Classic Desserts in Chinese Curio Box

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial hall is a a national monument that is dedicated to the President of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek. It is a vast square surrounded by a monumental gateway, the National Concert Hall and the National Theater  and the main memorial that also serves as a convention center.

Front gate of the Chiang Kei-shek Memorial Hall Square

Chiang Kei-shek Memorial Hall
The National Theater

Dadaocheng is a very interesting historic district in Taipei. An important trading port in the 19th century, it was home to tea-traders starting in 1851. The most famous street in Dadaocheng named, Dihua Street lined with stores selling dried goods, herbs and local products is reportedly the oldest street in Taipei.

Dihua Traditional Dried Goods Market
 Walking around Dadaocheng, one should utilize all their senses. The whole area is a cacophony of smells, colors, tastes and sounds. What was once the homes and stores of wealthy families involved in trade, are being restored and utilized in many interesting ways.

Dried seafood used for cooking
Hsiahi City God Temple, Dadaocheng

The beautifully restored store fronts are home to cafes, teahouses, galleries as well as many unique shops. A trip to Dadaocheng provides great opportunities for shopping and a feast for the senses that is seeped in history. Taipei is a relatively new city, having been developed mostly after the 1950's, but Dadaocheng was able to provide what felt like an authentic experience of the city's history which was a great way to end this memorable trip.

Courtyard behind a store selling tea, Datong District

I went to Taipei with an open heart and left feeling its magic in my soul.  
Datong District, my rendering dedicated to Kuo Hsueh-Hu

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Gumusluk, the artsy Bodrum.

I have already written on this blog about how Gumusluk is my favorite out of Bodrum's many charming bays but I wanted to share a few thoughts from this year's outing as well. I find Gumusluk to be 'the place' for me because it has all I love rolled into one quaint place, art, color, Roman ruins and phenomenal sunsets. 

When Gümüşlük is mentioned, most people will start to talk about the many fish restaurants that line the shore. There are great places to go out to dinner, as there are in many places in Bodrum, but my experiences while visiting during the day have always been exceptional.

There is a çay bahçesi (tea garden) that is at the very center of the little town. It is a non-pretentious establishment that serves sandwiches, drinks as well as lokma (fried dough balls drenched I syrup).

The Çay Bahçesi is very reasonably priced with a great view of colorful boats and the town on one side and Tavşan Adası (Rabbit Island) where the remaining  Roman ruins are still visible, on the other side. 

Gümüşlük was built on top of the ancient city of Myndos which is being excavated by archaeologists. It is possible to walk across the shallow sea and reach Tavşan Adası, by following the large marble slabs which a local fisherman referred to as the King's Way. Unfortunately, it is illegal to go on the island but reaching antique ruins by walking on water is still really cool.

Art, nature and history are everywhere in Gümüşlük in perfect harmony. The very air seems to invite creativity. There are trees artfully decorated trees that grow in the middle of the sea, sculptures that interact with nature and the ancient ruins, as well as art studios, jazz bars, and music festivals.

Just walking along the shore, one enters a magical world full of color and creativity. I especially love the decorated trees and the different colored straw umbrellas each establishment use to differentiate themselves from one another.

Satsuma Beach Club

With its hand-picked vendors who are required to produce hand-made articles in-situ for their stands in the small çarsi (market), Gümüşlük is also a great place for shopping. I saw a guy who made silver jewelery similar to the coins excavated on site, a lady who made hand-painted cotton t-shirts and vests, all kinds of personal accessories as well as pretty decorative items for the home.

It is fun to just walk around, taking pictures and enjoying the view but when it get's too hot, the best thing to do is to take a dip in the cool waters of the Aegean. There is a public beach as well as bars, restaurants and clubs or small hotels along the shore with sunbeds and umbrellas. These places are good to grab a bite to eat or a drink and even free wi-fi. After walking around for a couple of hours, I stopped by Satsuma Beach Club to change into my bathing suit and just jump in the water. This place had the very clean showers and changing cabins and restrooms. After swimming, I sat at the restaurant and had some tea and sandwiches. You can charge your phone and use the wi-fi and go back to another dip, if you feel like it. 

My little afternoon get-away in Gumusluk was so lovely and picture-perfect that it left me feeling wanting to slow-down time and just savor it forever...

How to get there:

Just take a dolmus from Bodrum, Turgutreis or Yalikavak to Gumusluk or drive and park in the parking lot at the entrance of the town. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

From Window Shopping to one of the Greates Underwater Archaeology Museums in the World - Funfilled Bodrum Center

View of Bodrum from the Crusader Castle (Bodrum Underwater Archaeology Museum)

Bodrum is a peninsula lined with quaint bays on the coast of Turkey's Aegean shore. In the 1970s when people from the big cities like Istanbul or Ankara started to come here for summer vacations, they used to come to the center or the immediate periphery of Bodrum but these days people prefer the different bays like Yalikavak, Turgutreis, Gumusluk or Torba. However, the city center, which lacks decent beaches, is still a great place for shopping and entertainment.

The iconic windmills are decorated with the colors of the landscape
Tuesday is the day for Bodrum Pazar, which is supposed to be mainly for textiles, so I decided to brave the scorching heat to go into town and make a day-trip of it. The dolmus (minibus) I took into the city let us off at the bus depot, which was bordering the area where the bazaar was setup. Unfortunately, this market turned out to be a big disappointment, since it was too hot and stuffy to bear and all the vendors I was interested in told me they also came to the Yalikavak Pazar. I left the area immediately and started to walk towards the marina and the Bodrum castle by following the signs.

It would take probably about 15 minutes to get to the castle from the bus depot but I took my time, looking at souvenir shops, talking to the locals and taking lots of pictures.  Even if you don't buy anything, the shops are so colorful and fun that it becomes a very enjoyable way to pass the time.

The vine-covered walkway in the shopping arcades provide a cool respite from the summer heat

There are many great bays to swim near the Bodrum peninsula and the marina is the place to find just the right boat. It is possible to signup for a boat-trip of 20 or more people (depending on the size of the boat) or rent one for the day or even the week, privately.

The view from a mosque courtyard

 Once I reached the water, I turned left and waked towards the castle. The Bodrum Castle is a Crusader Castle that serves as the Underwater Archaeological Museum. Since I visited it many times including just last year, today all I planned to do was to sit and drink tea in its cool cafe surrounded by artifacts from antiquity.

There are several stalls that are situated along the walkway outside the walls of the castle. When I visited last year, I was in a hurry to get to the museum, so I couldn't stop and look at any of them.  There was a glassblower who made the prettiest beads right there. I was happy to see that he was still there. 

The glassblower made evil-eyes as well as glass jewelery
Natural Sponges for Sale
Miniature traditional Bodrum houses
Bodrum Underwater Archaeology Museum has a great bookshop and a shady cafe that I did not get a chance to sit and enjoy last year since the museum was closing when I was leaving. This time, I went to the bookstore and the cafe first.

Bodrum Castle Underwater Archaeology Museum Cafe
I bought John Freely's book The Western Shores of Turkey: Discovering the Aegean and Mediterranean Coasts in the bookstore and went to the cafe to enjoy a glass of Turkish tea with tost (Turkish grilled cheese). This cafe is really a haven from the heat and the hustle and bustle of the rest of Bodrum. Even though my plan was to just sit there briefly and then continue on to the Mausoleum I ended up going into the museum and staying for a couple of hours. The Mausoleum and the antique theater will be another excursion on another day.

Bodrum Underwater Archaeology Museum
Altar for Sacrificial Offering

Vessels found in the 11th century Serce Limani Glass Shipwreck
The minaret of the chapel-turned-mosque, courtyard of the Bodrum Castle
The chapel used by the Crusaders was turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest