Bonnie Lin '19 - Introduction

Bonnie standing in front of a wall covered in pink flowers

Writing introductions does not get easier the second (or ninth) time around. I am a returning blogger for the academic year, after blogging for the Office of Admission during the summer of 2016. Even though I have had two years of blogging experience and an even longer streak of reading blogs, I wish I could say that communicating on this platform has become second nature to me.

For those meeting me for the first time, hello, my name is Bonnie Lin! I am a junior majoring in statistics with a focus on neuroscience. I am one of the numerous students hailing from California, but I am one of the fewer lucky ones from San Diego. However, this semester, I cannot relish the chance to witness the thrill of the first snow for some of my fellow Californians because I am abroad. With a twelve hour time difference, I am blogging from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, as an exchange student at National Cheng Chi University (政治大學).

My goals for this blog are to establish a more consistent publishing schedule, fire up my writing brain, and create a space for questions and reflections about Amherst. Whether you are a future, current, or past member of the Amherst community, I welcome you to follow me on this blogging journey. Together, we can challenge, grow from, and learn about each other and those around us.

Let's connect beyond this blog! Email me at linbonnieyz@gmail.com.

Celebrating Valentine's Day Every Day

I confess: I cannot compose haikus, odes, sonnets, or songs. Basically, I cannot produce any kind of poetry or any semblance of it. But... if I could, I would dedicate one to Val, our dining hall.

Affectionately nicknamed Val, Valentine Dining Hall has been Amherst College’s only dining hall. It has been that way to foster a common ground, an environment, for community building. While I was abroad, I had surprising moments of missing Val. In the midst of adding places to my “Want to Go” list and moving them to my “Been There, Done That” list on Google Maps, the college’s dining hall would creep into my thoughts.

Being the only dining hall on campus has its perks and its downsides. It is very convenient. Often, when students want to snack on something, they have their go-to cereal, salad, pizza, toast, or fruits. Being on the meal plan and having unlimited swipes here really help with that.  Also, consistently dining here helps me to more greatly appreciate occasional town outings. As the only dining hall, Val also gives all it’s got to receiving student opinions and making changes. It is very focused on serving students, its main patrons, to the best of its abilities. The dining staff is sensitive toward individual preferences, allergies, other food restrictions and will happily attend to requests and cook up alternatives. Students come in and out, often partaking in the activity of hanging out at the dining hour for long chunks of time, infamously known as “Val sitting”. Some days, I’ll realize that two hours have flown by with engaging conversations. Also, it is not uncommon to see faculty dine here. Whether they are quietly dining alone, waiting in line for food with their spouse and children, or chatting away with a student advisee, the dynamism of the community is undeniable.

At the same time, however, having to see the same faces day in and day, especially those that have similar dining times as you, can be stressful. Frequently, students find themselves running into unfamiliar acquaintances and internally debate about whether or not to strike up a conversation while waiting in line. Furthermore, sometimes, it leaves us with the short makings of small talk and the ubiquitous “We should grab a meal sometime” conversation ender.

Reading archived newspieces in the Amherst Student and checking their timestamps reminds me that I shouldn’t take for granted the features of Val’s current design. Amenities, like the vertical three-layered tray accumulator, the drinks station, and the colorfully-designed floor tiles, weren’t always there. Similarly, unless they were patrons before last fall, the first years didn’t get to experience the huge smoothie cups, the make it yourself smoothie station, salt/pepper shakers at every table, and the fruits around the middle pole of the server. These changes and hearing student opinions about them give me a sense of pride in knowing that there can be some sense of community built around the institution.

Overall, I am very thankful for my experiences with Val. Sure, some meals are not so satisfactory, but I don't have to worry about not being full and figuring out how to find my next meal. Sure, they may not deliver home-made quality for foods of other cultures, but I've loved trying out new things and expanding the boundaries of my cultural knowledge. And sure, it’s not ranked top or anywhere close in list for any college/university dining halls (I know you’re there, UMass), but I’ll still give it credit for being the best one on campus.  

"LDR with someone on the Hill"

Recently, I overheard a snippet of a Hill-phobic conversation between two Amherst students. One was complaining to the other about how any form of a relationship with someone who lived on the Hill would require a great deal of reevaluating the sacrificed time and effort. Immediately, the other student fervently responded with, “Yeah, long distance relationships don’t work for me either.”

The Hill consists of Marsh Theme House, Plimpton, and Tyler. (Fun fact: Amherst College no longer has Greek life, but the latter two were historically fraternities) It is a long-running “fact” that no sensible being would elect to reside on the Hill. However, during the room selection season of my first year, I chose a room in Plimpton. Yes, voluntarily. I could get a healthy, daily walk in, while having a psuedo-off campus residential experience, which would be a nice break from academics. In the end, because of room changes, I spent my sophomore year living in Morrow, my room being 40 seconds away from the dining hall. Nevertheless, there is little reason to exaggerate the distance between the Hill dorms and the main campus.

According to Google maps and weakly supported by previous experience, the walk between Valentine, the dining hall, and Tyler, the farthest dorm of the Hill, is about 0.4 miles or 8 minutes. For context, here are the distance and times for some other upperclassmen dorms: Hitchcock, 0.3 miles (5 minutes, including the average wait time for the intersection’s traffic light) and Greenway dorms, 0.3 miles (6 minutes). These are dorms that students will more willingly choose rooms in. Even though the difference is slight, the hill intimidates most students. The biggest complaint is that, especially during the winter and spring, it is dangerous to trek over icy ground, let alone on a slope. Still, the difference in times and distances doesn’t completely justify the appalling reputation that the Hill dorms have.

Studying abroad lent me new perspective. Because my host university was situated on the side of a mountain, the hills of Amherst paled in comparison to the magnitude and slope of the school’s main road. Though tiring at first, walking up and down the mountain to visit friends or attend classes, carved out time to engage with my playlist, ruminate on my experiences, or call someone from home. Through this simple but regular exercise, I recognized my privileges to afford a phone and Internet, to be able-bodied and in good health, and I was grateful. There are so many things that I forget to give thanks to, people, places, and things that I take granted for. In a way, the rethinking during my walks helped to put my mind at ease, but it also gave me the impetus to support others with as much as I could.

Conversations with the local folk in Taiwan about their experiences with education reminded me of ones at home. They could remember their daily hour-long walks to get to school and how it amplified their appreciation for their education as well as their respect for their educators. Similarly, in a conversation with one of the janitors in Merrill, the science library, he shared his teenage experiences, beginning his walk to school before sunrise. I agreed with him when he said we were very lucky to have dorms situated so close to academic buildings. Even so, he could empathize with students’ fears about establishing the new science center at the base of a hill.

This is not to brush off the pressing issue of creating intentional, accessible space for all students. Not all of the dorms or academic buildings are designed with accessible measures, like ramps, elevators, or Braille signs. A handful of students have put in a reasonable amount of effort to bring the administrators’ attention to these concerns, but the responses have been insufficient. More students should wean off the spoiled attitude and rethink our immediate complaints about how far our dorms are, and, instead, feed the energy into promoting the establishment of accessible campus facilities. Only with empathy and rationalism can we, as a developing community, include everyone and ensure a cohesive, welcoming environment.

On Being Back SP18

I’m back on Amherst grounds.

Most people thought I would be abroad for the whole year. (Somewhere along the road, I must have miscommunicated my study abroad journey) Definitely made for some entertainingly shocked expressions.

 

Because my semester abroad ended on January 15 and I was back at Amherst on January 20, very little time existed between the two experiences for personal reflection. Now entering the third schoolweek, I hope to share some events from and half-baked thoughts about being back.

 

My transition back came in the form of a series of obstacles. (Now, my return may not be generalizable, but it was still my experience returning.) Despite reaching out to the Office of Residential Life in December while I was abroad to inquire about moving in and storage appointments, I had received no promises about housing a day prior to my flight back to Amherst.

 

My friend and I stopped at Campus Police to pick up my room key, only to hear “You’re moving in too early, your key is not here with us.” I had arrived two days before my first class. I didn’t know how much later I was allowed to move back in. After a little discussion, Campus Police realized that my room key had not been returned since the end of the fall semester.

 

Although not ideal, this seemed to be more reasonable than expecting me to arrive on campus to move in ten minutes before classes started on Monday. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder why the school hadn’t created two copies of the key for this reason. Perhaps due to a mix of students’ habit to procrastinate and flexible deadlines at Amherst, I’m not surprised that keys are turned in late. When I asked Campus Police for a potential solution, they offered “Find a friend to stay with for the weekend”. Well, okay.

 

That isn’t to say I wasn’t stoked to reunite with my friends. I was simply hoping that with the risk of other complications, at least housing would be my guarantee. It was as if my school wasn’t ready for me to return. It reminded me of a thought I had tried to suppress up until then: how much I wanted to stay in Taiwan for another semester. This emerging thought dissipated temporarily when I received notifications from my friends, who were so willing to accomodate for my situation. They offered their pillows, blankets, and beds, and their openness to share really touched me. I was back in the lovely, student-powered residential community.

Before taking them up on their offers, I explored another option with my new RC. Alison ‘18, one of the RC’s of Mayo, listened and proposed a solution that we agreed would be best for me. On a last minute note, she arranged for my stay in an R&R room, a rest and relaxation room that I discussed in another blog post (#tbt to HerCampus, link here)

 

Even though the task of settling into my room for the semester had been suspended, I spent the extra time that I now had on seeing Amherst friends and talking to abroad friends. It was still hard for me to believe that just a few days ago, I was on a sweet, beautiful island floating on the Pacific Ocean. I missed my friends and family, but I didn’t want to admit that to myself. I convinced myself that I had too many things on my to-do list to remain in the past.

 

Finally, I gained access to my room on Tuesday evening and moved my things out of storage. Assignments were assigned, group projects commenced, deadlines crept onto my schedule, club meetings happened, and, as a result, I was hastily swept up in a flurry of work.

 

So, when people ask me the expected questions, “How was abroad? And how is it being back?”, the second question is far easier to answer. Being back has meant being in the presence of non-pixelated friends, trying to stay connected with study abroad friends, realizing that most of my class is abroad, and resultedly feeling like I am trekking foreign yet familiar land. Much like my first days in Taiwan, there is a sense of purpose and camaraderie that grounds me, but, at the same, there is a thin layer of strangeness that is unsettling. I was hoping that my blog posts from last semester would answer the first question. For now, I’ll just go with the oversimplified answer “It was amazing”.

Trek Out of Taipei: Alishan (The Delayed Taiwan Post)

Gloved hand holding train ticket

Dashing through the snow, in a carriage of a train, through the trees we go, sleeping all the way~~~

All but one of the phrases was true about my experience in 阿里山國家風景區 (Alishan National Scenic Area, Ālǐshān guójiā fēngjǐng qū). I’ll reveal the answer in a later part of the story. Taiwan’s most-visited national park since the 1920’s, Alishan was the destination of my family’s weekend vacation for the holidays. It has been the destination of millions of Taiwanese locals and international friends, as well as the backdrop of commercials for many film groups, which is where I recall first learning about Alishan. The masterful and alluring cinematography substantially raised my expectations for the place; I envisioned breathtaking views, a refreshing change of air, and extraordinary food.  

 

And it exceeded all of my expectations.

 

Upon our arrival, we were advised to incorporate these notable sites into our stay: the Cloud Sea, the sunset at the Ciyun temple, and, of course, the famous sunrise. A trip to Alishan was considered unsuccessful if we failed to get up to the sunrise viewing point. The other two sites, while their visual advertisements were stunning, failed to make it to our itinerary. Perhaps, due to bad luck, the weather was not favorable for the formation of the Cloud Sea. And we had to cut the day short because my grandpa was not feeling so good after climbing stairs all day long.

 

We were all exhausted by the time we returned to the hotel. We were practically sleeping before our heads had even hit the bed. It was a piece of cake to sleep early to wake up early the next day to catch the train. All of our alarms rang in synchrony at 4AM. We all crawled out of bed, and I looked out the window, shocked to see that other tourists were already making their way to the train station. The train wasn’t leaving until 5:30AM and the station was less than 5 minutes away, by walking. Although their ambition to beat the crowds was quite impressive, I thought it was unnecessary.


My family made it to the train station, where park rangers were shepherding tourists into organized lines. Temperatures in the low 40’s, cold for Taiwan’s standards, especially in the mountains, everyone around me were bundled up in their most intense winter gear. We all stood there, shivering, complaining about the cold and exaggerating about our heavy eyebags, until the train arrived and picked us up. I tried to stay awake for the ride to make the most out of my ticket, but the darkness stripped away the possibility of any good views and the ride was incapacitating. I fell asleep.

 

By the time threads of dreams were beginning to form in my mind, my family had stirred me awake; it was time to see the sunrise, or so I thought. It was a 20 minute train ride to the site, so we had to stand, waiting another hour before we would get any hint of the sun. Store vendors had strategically located themselves by the site, and we bought tea eggs and chestnut sweet potatoes while we waited. The sunrise wasn’t expected to appear behind Jade Mountain until a few minutes past 7AM. Jade Mountain is the point of highest elevation in Taiwan, despite its base being atop land vulnerable to frequent landslides. Records show that Jade Mountain’s elevation has been diminishing over the years.

Blue gradient sky, glowing mountains, crowds fascinated by the sight

Even so, over the years, the sunrise has continuously drawn a growing number of visitors. As we were waiting, we heard a man’s voice break through the murmuring crowd. A stout man  stood on the concrete ledge and loudly announced his title as our unofficial tour guide. He talked about the legendary and beloved cypress trees in the context of the Japanese occupation in Taiwan. Although we could only see his silhouette, he colored his storytelling and fact-sharing with vivid details and generous body motions. In no time, he was pointing to the mountain and telling us to prepare for the glorious seconds that we had traveled all this way for.

Silhouette of Cypress Tree and Unofficial Tour Guide

And the sunrise we did see. In Chinese, the sunrise was described as a spectacular sunrise that jumps as the rays sparkled and skipped at that elevation. Everyone had their phones out to take photos of peering sun as well as selfies as their faces reflected the transition from the cool sky to the sun’s warmth. Being a morning person, I had experienced other sunrises. However, seeing the sun pop out from behind the mountains, like a new leafling sprouting from the dirt, I realized how fast it happened. Time really felt like grains of sand just passing through an hourglass. Yet, when those moments were over and the phones went back into the pockets, it was as if the crowd was suspended in sheer awe and rejuvenation. It was a wonderful feeling, having started the day, charged by the grand source of solar power. Reasons to see a sunrise? You will be in a better mood for the entire day, you feel 1000% more grateful for Earth’s natural beauties, and it’s time’s offering a complimentary show.

First moments of the sunrise, sunflare

I could now understand why Alishan remains a favorite among locals and visitors, and what’s more, I didn’t even have to deal with the annoyance of snow, paying all due respect to snow.

Picture with mountain dog that resided in and roamed freely about the hotel

Exactly One Week Out 剩整整的一個星期

In about a week, I will be able to count my last hours in Taipei on the fingers of my hands.

And then after that, I will be able to count them with the fingers of one.

As the semester winds down and the workload fails to follow, I’m strangely suspended in the middle of tranquility and disorder. It’s as if I’m running on an escalator, against its motion--  sprinting down the electronically ascending steps, or bounding up its mechanical descent. I run away from one end only to find myself carried off, still to an end. In the same way, I try to run away as fast as possible from my deadlines, but the escalator still brings me closer to the end of my time in Taipei. If anything, the deadlines distract me from feeling the nostalgic pangs, but they also prevent me from completing my bucket list.

Actually, that isn’t completely true. Realistically, I know that the deadlines aren’t to blame; I am preventing myself from completing my bucket list. I could drop all of my academic responsibilities and make the most out of my last week. But I have to remind myself that I promised myself (and my mom) that the focus of this semester would be educational, cultivating opportunities to learn, etc. But, you don’t understand… going to all the places I want to go would lend me ways to learn, too, right? Right?

Maybe I should have listened to the wiser Bonnie, who warned against an expected whirlwind at the end of the semester, and taken her word of advice to complete all assignments a month in advance. But, there’s no use thinking that now. At the start of the semester, when I signed up for six classes and decided to audit a seventh, I set my mind to succeeding in them. I took diligent notes, organized every detail, updated my schedule to reflect the syllabi, and so on, not willing to let distractions through. Yet, as time passed, newly made friends loosened my grip on my schedule and introduced me to the fascinating city around me, my priorities began to shift. This shift cranked my work-play balance, originally extremely tilted to one end, to a more equal form. I spent more time getting hands on perspective of the culture, and, through that, noticing and respecting the differences between it and the one dominant in the States. I went out looking forward to collecting insights to share with here and have enjoyed every second of it.

However, when bunches of my friends headed back to the States, one week after the other, my work-play balance slowly regained its original form. As my calendar reminded me of impending deadlines and soon after falling into the flow of the professors’ style of instruction, I had to recalibrate my priorities and pick up the pace again. There are still so many experiences I have yet to reflect on, so many places I have yet to set foot on, and so many people I have yet to know better, but for now, I have to come to terms with not having a pause button. Not overcommitting and underperforming are the best choices I am making for myself now. It’s okay that I won’t be able to cross off everything on my bucket list this semester. For me, it’s more important that I contently cross off my one exam, two individual projects, three group projects, four papers, and five presentations, all to celebrate my longest semester yet. (Wow, the way those numbers worked out is too good to be accidental)

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Besides, it won’t be my last time in Taiwan. What if some restaurants on my “Want to Go” list disappear? Maybe they weren’t worth going in the first place. So, for now, I’ll bury myself back in work. Here goes the countdown.

 

Going Stag to Ichiran Ramen

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As promised, this is the article about my solo experience at Ichiran Ramen. Aggressively reputed to be the best ramen in the world, a chain opened in Taipei over the summer this year. Since then, the ramen establishment has attracted numerous locals and foreigners for the “Ichiran experience”. Supposedly, it is open 24 hours to reflect the Japanese post-clubbing tradition to consume ramen.

 

Anyway, the chain’s opening all day long, all days of the week do not mitigate the problem of overwhelming crowds. The Taipei chain apparently holds the record for the longest, continuous queue of customers for Ichiran Ramen, setting a new record of 240 hours of diners waiting just to try a bowl of their renowned noodles. Taipei’s record is a 22% increase from the previous record, which was held by the Hong Kong’s branch at 196 hours.

 

My friends and I leapt into the abyss, without knowledge of the chain’s popularity. As we talked about the aspects of Japanese culture that the ramen store encapsulated, I began to imagine a restaurant saturated with a looming silence and a mechanical atmosphere. Far from the truth, my expectations shattered when we turned the corner and arrived at a bright establishment, from which snaked an absurd line of chattering customers. I could not believe my eyes. I asked a restaurant server, who was standing outside, about our expected wait time, to which she responded, “About an hour and a half”. Mind you, it was already 10:30PM, and still, we were expected to wait an absurd amount of time.

 

The line immediately reminded me of the unreasonably long queues at theme parks. But, as one of my friends put it, “I mean, it’s slightly better than Disneyland but worse than Six Flags”. That and the wee bit of adventure left in us after visiting the hot springs were enough to catapult us in line with the others. We stood in line, hypothesizing reasons for the popularity of the restaurant’s philosophy, while trying to justify our decision to jump onto this time-consuming bandwagon. I thought, perhaps, the food tasted better from starving us patrons a little longer than we’d like. What’s worse, the restaurant did not take reservations.  

 

Thankfully, our actual wait time came up short of expected wait time. We waited a total of 45 minutes before waiters whisked us into individual booths.

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All Ichiran branches were designed this way, claiming that this distraction-free environment would obligate customers to focus on the details of their bowl of noodles. Nothing could stand into the way between people and their ramen. Traditionally, in Japanese branches, the establishment is dead silent. There is no audible exchange between the customers and the staff. The Taipei branch tries to imitate the original Japanese establishment as closely as possible. Instead of giving my order to a waiter, I filled out my individual preferences for my ramen, deciding not to add toppings and requesting a less rich broth, slightly-harder-than-al-dente noodles, and other particular tweaks.

 

When the waiter’s hand took my order and shut the bamboo blinds, I reveled in the subsequent silence for a brief moment. Loud chattering broke through from the adjacent stalls. Curious, I leaned back slightly and glanced over to my neighboring stall. Four girls who sat in the booths next to me chatted away….through videochat….with each other. Nonplussed, I returned my attention to my “cubicle” and tried to tune them out. Here I was trying to center my focus solely on the dialogue between the food and my senses. It was very hard to ignore the girls who had technically gotten their solo experience by dining in their individual stalls, but had also redefined their Ichiran experience to include each other virtually. Now slightly amused, I noticed the bamboo curtain in front of me rustling, lifting, and giving way to a bowl of ramen.

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I had watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a 2011 American documentary film directed by David Gelb, the night before. The sushi masters in the documentary talked about the energy held within food and the goal of master chefs to deliver food with its maximum energy. They also emphasized the importance of eating food as quickly as possible in order to transfer as much of the energy into our bodies. With this in mind, I felt like I had no time to waste. When my bowl of ramen arrived, I snapped a couple shots and slurped up my first spoonful of soup.

 

It burned my tongue immediately. I gulped down cold water to try to extinguish the burn but to no avail. Nevertheless, I didn’t wait for the ramen to cool. Spoonfuls of the Ichiran goodness went down (my esophagus) in flames. The rest of the ramen was history. When I finished, the empty, black bowl continued to give off steam, as if preserving the persistent spirit of the ramen.

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I walked out of the stalls with my friends and we paid for our meals. Everything was done with minimal verbal exchange. As if suspended by the recent solo dining experience, we didn’t burst the illusive bubble until we stepped out of the establishment. “So, how was it?”, we asked of each other. “An once-in-a-lifetime experience”, we agreed.

 

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***

P.S. I just found out that Ichiran’s first U.S.A. branch opened a day before my birthday last year (Oct 19 2016) in Brooklyn, NY. So if a solo ramen experience catches your fancy, you can consider making a trip to NYC and experiencing it for yourself. Just as a heads up, though, the NY branch has been getting beef (no pun intended) for its unreasonable prices. One person might pay $20 for a bowl that could be priced at $10 in Japan. With that said, if you should go, let me know how it is for you!

 

Trek Out of Taipei: Wulai Hot Springs

 

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What does Taiwan and San Diego have in common? Almost nonexistent winters.

 

Even in the middle of December, Taiwan has maintained its tropical warmth, albeit with downpours of rain. Like San Diegans, many Taiwanese folk dig out the standard winter accessories when the temperatures fall under 15 degrees Celsius (or 60F). As such, the streets are filled with puffy down jackets, marshmallow jackets, scarves, and, umbrellas, a unique element of Taipei’s winter. While it may not be cold enough to welcome snow activities and icicles, winter here still calls for many other traditions, like indulging in hot pot, dessert porridges, and hot springs. To take advantage of our class-free Fridays, my friends and I decided to check out the 烏來 (Wulai) area.

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In short, Wulai is an aboriginal town reputed for its natural hot springs and preservation of aboriginal culture, and it is located about an hour outside of Taipei. One of my friends and CIEE cultural ambassadors told us that Wulai earned its name when someone unexpectedly stepped into the hot spring and painfully let out an interjection, “Wulai wulai!” Although he was just joking about the town name’s etymology, it isn’t too far from the truth as the name is derived from an aboriginal phrase meaning “hot and poisonous”.

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At Wulai, there were both private and public hot springs available, but we opted for the most natural experience. Instead of soaking in the private bathhouses, my friends and I walked by the river, looking for the riverbank springs. People could build their springs from scratch by locating thermal sites on the river edge and then barricading that part of the river with stones. Although I mentally prepared myself for some improvisational construction, we found more experienced spring-ers who had not only set up camp already, but also welcomed us to join. The only condition was that we had to tolerate the first few steps of extreme heat. Because the natural springs were naturally heated by underground reactions, the temperature levels within the springs were quite uneven.Seconds through the piping hot rite of passage proved to be worth the several hours that we spent steeped in natural river water. Laying our heads against rock pillows, we quickly lost track of time to quietly observing the animated clouds and the enveloping forestry.

 

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After the sunset, we peeled ourselves off the hot springs and decided to hit the old street for dinner. Of the many foods that the aboriginal vendors had to offer, my favorite food had to be the rice cooked in bamboo. Already a huge fan of sticky rice, I was entranced by this dish because its cooking technique infused the rice with the bamboo’s natural fragrances. Plus, the last step before eating the rice included an element of splendor as the store owner used a machete to crack open the treasure chest, which released a satisfactory, steamy cloud.

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For dessert, I had a stick of honey and sesame baked mochi. I could not decide between the two flavors, but the store owner was cordial enough to include both toppings without extra charge. Can baked mochi please be a bigger thing in the States?

Although many vendors on the old street had practically closed shop after sunset, we still strolled through the alley, taking in the picturesque preservation of aboriginal Taiwanese culture. We sampled dozens of vinegars and millet wines, all crafted through aboriginal recipes. We purchased four of our favorite bottles of millet wines as unique souvenirs to bring home to continue embracing these new memories.

However, on the way back to campus, we made an impulsive decision to take a detour. As if the day hadn’t been eventful enough, we hopped onto the MRT and found ourselves in line for the famed Ichiran ramen, an experience that deserves its own blog post. But until next time...!

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(Hi Allen!)

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Trek Out of Taipei: TaiPingShan

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Several weekends ago, I visited 太平山 (Taiping Mountain, or Tàipíngshān). Taipingshan was one of the destinations for which Council on International Educational Exchange(CIEE), the study abroad program, organized personal transportation. There were more than 10 options to choose from and  CIEE students, like myself, could select the top three preferences and note the most suitable weekday. While I was not directly affected by the weekday condition, because I had purposefully avoided registering for Friday classes to allow for flexibility in exploring Taiwan, the trips being offered only on the weekdays was upsetting. Almost all of the students had class and could not afford to skip classes because of exams. Not only did this unjustly eliminate the the one-day trip, included in the program fees, for many, but CIEE required that four be the minimum number of students for each outing. Fortunately, a week after registering, I received the news that, the following Friday, three friends would accompany me to太平山.

Come Friday morning and, after a frenetic string of calls and texts, we dove into the start of the trip. Brimming with sheer excitement, our driver hyped us up for the two hour drive ahead. Inevitably, however, sleep overcame me as we experienced the transition from the city scenery to the rural areas. My nap ended abruptly when we pulled up to the gas station for a bathroom break. (Speaking of which, I have always wondered how some human bodies wake up from sleeping in the car just a few minutes before getting home, without another person’s efforts. It happened to me very frequently in my childhood, and because it was so fascinating and convenient, I thought that I was unique. Turns out I was wrong. If anyone knows the neuroscientific explanation, I would love to know it!) One of our first stops was along the bank of a river. But it wasn’t just any old river. It was the Milk River. And it was made up of clouds.

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We had gained some altitude at this point, so the cliff we stood on overlooked a thick blanket of clouds. Creative had earned its name Milk River because of its color and resemblance to a river, cutting through the canyon. Farther up the road, we embarked on the 台灣山毛櫸步道 (Táiwān shānmáojǔ bùdào, or Taiwan Beech Trail), which took us on a muddy trail for 3.8 km. All the driver told us was that “trees with yellow leaves” marked the trail’s end. With little knowledge of what was ahead and what we were looking for, we started the hike.

The words “太平” that made up the name “太平山” mean “too flat”, an ironic description for the trail’s dips and numerous elevation changes. However, we almost didn’t notice the intense changes because we were so taken away by the breathtaking views, their transcendental beauty augmented by the mist. Presumably, rain frequented this area, as the park maintenance team had established stepping stones, which expedited an otherwise treacherous, sluggish journey through the mud. The circular slabs of concrete not only served their function excellently, but they also served as wonderful subjects of an ethereal picture.

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On the way there, strangers on the way back cheered us on and almost all of them told us “You are halfway there!”. We believed the first few cheers but began to take the later ones with more skepticism. Even so, the ephemeral moments of connecting with these strangers reflected the nation’s values of unity and hospitality. While some might argue that no trip to a great view is complete without a panorama, I still don’t think that panoramas can fully express the all-encapsulating, humbling sensation gained from such an experience. Nonetheless, I will close this with one, with hopes that someday you, too, will make the trip out to TaiPingShan.   

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P.S. we did reach the beech trees. But I think that we visited too late in the season. From what other visitors had said, I had imagined seeing a glowing grove of trees decorated with pure, golden leaves. Whether I should blame my expectations, imagination, or bad luck with timing, I’ll leave this picture to judge for yourself.

 

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Trek out of Taipei: Jiufen



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Situated in the mountains of northeastern Taiwan, Jiufen (九份)  is a small town that packs in an alarming lot of magic and history. To get there, my friends and I took the MRT to Exit 1 of the Zhongxiao Fuxing (忠孝復興) MRT station and waited for the bus that came every 30 minutes. While the length of the bus ride neared two hours, it only costed about 80 NTD, less than $3 US. I’d say, the price was well worth the transit nap and the trip. image

The rhythmic pitter-pattering of the raindrops, along with the comfortably gray skies outside my window, made falling asleep even easier. Pity that when my friends and I went, an insomniac rain had been falling but did nothing to ward off the crowds of tourists. Despite my impatience with wet ponchos and umbrella rage, I had quite the Jiu(fun) experience.

Known as the model city of Spirited Away, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most famous animations, Jiufen didn’t fail to appeal to Miyazaki’s fandom. Its narrow streets were jam packed with fantastical foods, unfamiliar aromas, and in-the-wall stores boasting anime trinkets, like No-Face ocarinas; as if that was not enough, the repeated acoustic soundtracks of Miyazaki’s films spilled out of almost every storefront and overlapped with each other, running over the overall atmosphere. Senses clearly overloaded, I forcefully swam through the flooding river of tourists, resonating with Chihiro, the protagonist of Spirited Away, as she wastes no time and darts from place to place. Despite the overwhelming reminders of Jiufen’s ties with Spirited Away, I am still not entirely convinced that the ties are true. Allegedly, when the Japanese director and animator was asked to validate the popular rumors about his creation, he denied modelling the animation after this destination.

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Nonetheless, Jiufen maintained its Japanese influence in its eclectic architecture. The winding paths and cobblestone staircases, lit up with bulbous, hanging lanterns, did resemble the streets that Chihiro traversed in the animation. Check out this blogpost to see side-by-side comparisons between Jiufen and animation clips. Before the 50-year Japanese colonization of Taiwan (1895-1945), Jiufen’s history started primarily with the discovery of gold nuggets. People quickly poured into the mountainous area and ruthlessly tunneled their way to imagined fortune. The Japanese companies took over gold mining, and hundreds of workers settled into the natural crevices, creating the backdrop of the back streets that exist today. Yet, as mining stopped in the seventies, the town declined into a ghost town. Light peered into the shadows of the ghost town after its desolation inspired “A City of Sadness”, a famous historical drama directed by Hou Hsaio-Hsien filmed. Even more light poured into the town in 2001, after the success of Miyazaki’s animation, drawing crowds of visitors from all over the world, thus making it hard to believe that the scuttling streets had ever been abandoned.

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Occasionally taking oxygen breaks by stepping into quieter nooks, I dove into the sequence of browsing and shopping with other visitors. My friends and I tried Jiufen’s famous Hakka glutinous rice cakes and bowls of taro balls at one of the two most popular shops, 阿柑姨芋圆 (Ā gān yí yù yuán, Aunt Gan Taro Balls).

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The Hakka rice cakes were like nothing I had ever eaten before. There were salty and sweet cakes, and I bought a cake filled with salted vegetables. Its  green-ish, outer, sticky rice layer, paired with the savory vegetables inside, made for surprisingly enjoyable texture and taste. Unfortunately, one of my friends tried the rice cake filled with salted green bean, and, after giving it a skeptical bite, I cannot say that I would recommend it to others. Just before we bought our share of taro balls, we stopped by a neighboring bun store, not found on the usual tourist itinerary, and I don’t regret it at all. There were two dogs that freely roamed the place, and they practically spelled out C-U-T-E. I will pardon you from my gushing over their absolute adorable-ness and leave this picture here for your pleasure.

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We ended up enjoying the company of the bun store and dogs so much that we brought the taro balls over. Sheltered from the rain and having them around enhanced each spoonful of chewy goodness and not-too-sweet-but-just-perfect soup. Our last stop at Jiufen was a teahouse, where I enjoyed a puff pastry soup, which I justified by ignoring all of the food I had consumed and telling myself that my body needed a caloric restoration from climbing stairs. imageimage

 

Needless to say, just as the gloomier days of Jiufen’s history did not prevent it from attaining modern success, the rain did not make for an unenjoyable visit. Overall, the trip to Jiufen was  dizzyingly wonderful and one that surely challenged me to find order within chaos. I cannot wait for you to join me on other excursions, both inside and outside of Taipei.

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