Taipei, days 9-11.
On Sunday we headed down to Alishan, or A-Li mountain, part of a mountain range about six hours southwest of Taipei (by car). There is a national park at the heart of the mountains, and we spent two nights at a hotel inside the park. You had to park in a public lot and take a shuttle bus into the park itself. I fell asleep in the car, and kept waking up to see more winding roads and endless green hillsides, until lunchtime, when we stopped at a roadside restaurant where everything was made simple of wood and bamboo and people were sitting around watching the World Series on a small tv. Outside the restaurant, sausages and slabs of what looked like pork belly were grilling on a barbecue; inside was quiet (except for the tv). The view was glorious, looking over hills and fields, with the mountains in the distance. Those fields were lined with rows and rows of tea-bushes, a neatly clipped, deep green. Like the vineyards of Italy, only with Camellia sinensis instead of grape vines. We would see these tea-fields all the way to our destination and back again.
We ordered lunch, slices of the grilled pork belly and crisp-skinned sausages, which are rich and chewy and addictive. There is sticky rice stuffed into hollow bamboo stems and steamed (I think), vegetables, and soup with bamboo shoots. It is all very simple, but very good, and everything else we eat for the next few days will have that same simplicity to it. I fell asleep again after lunch, and woke to find the world shrouded in mist. A shuttle bus took us to the hotel, all wood paneling and expansive views. Old and new blend together; the new entrance is flanked by gift shops selling local teas and crafts and leads to an elevator that sweeps you up to the front desk that is, strangely, on the fifth floor. Hot tea is brought to us in tiny paper cups as the concierge offers to wake us at 4 am the next morning so we can watch the sunrise. Alishan is famous for its sunrises, but I have no desire to crawl out of a warm bed at an ungodly hour to watch the sun rise over the mountains in the company of hundreds of noisy tourists.
Dinner is in the hotel restaurant, very pink, with dripping chandeliers and windows along one long wall. The food is good - cold tofu dabbed with the locally grown wasabi and a little soy sauce, braised game, and a lethally hot soup with bamboo shoots that burns my mother's face as she unsuspectingly bites into a bamboo shoot and is assaulted by a jet of boiling soup. Much commotion involving an earpiece-wearing restaurant manager, ice cubes, and burn cream ensue. (The triangular burn will disappear over the next few days). The next night's dinner is less dramatic, and not as interesting, culinarily speaking, but I am too busy thinking about the photographs I took earlier from the terrace on the hotel's sixth (and top) floor. The setting sun had turned bright orange; the sky was streaked pink behind the trees, and I climbed over the potted herbs placed around the terrace to get a better shot. I can still smell the lavender and rosemary on my skin.