Fei Cui Valley (翡翠谷)

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Nature makes us happy. It’s why we seek the outdoors, and look for untouched wilderness. This is no more apparent in Taiwan than now.

Natural Taiwan is really as good as it sounds. While some secret gems require a world of effort to get to, others are surprisingly accessible. It’s not everyday, you come across newly uncovered rock pools and a waterfall metres away from a road, and minutes from other popular attractions. Fei Cui Valley (翡翠谷) has been incredulously overlooked.

A couple of trips to Hualien (花蓮) ago, I wrote about magical Mukumugi (暮古墓魚), a pristine place to swim and relax in despite its increasing popularity. Those yet to make a visit however, will be disappointed to discover that due to damages from last year’s typhoon season, the area is closed for rehabilitation. Before you cross off all plans to visit Hualien though, minutes from Mukumugi is a place just like it – if not better.

Fei Cui Valley follows the Fei Cui Stream (翡翠河), just 1.5km east of Mukumugi Valley in Xiulin Township (秀林鄉). But unlike Mukumugi, it requires no permit to enter. At the time of my visit which was November last year, the valley remained known to only a few locals and even less to visitors. But to no surprise, it has gained more visitors since. Still, this place is very much untouched, and if it were not for the intrepid individuals of Taiwan Adventure Outings, which I had the pleasure to travel with, Fei Cui Valley would have remained eluded from me.

We hired scooters from central Hualien, and barely half an hour later we were taking the scenic route, zipping around local farms towards Fei Cui. The entrance to Fei Cui is actually a tunnel, so a short hike through there and some shrubbery later is all it takes to arrive at the stream’s edge (see below for details and map). We traced up the river and enjoyed lunch at the first beautiful rock pool before going for a dip in its perfect, crystal green waters.  Fei Cui (翡翠), by the way, means emerald.

Our lead guide, Ryan, took us past the first rock pool to see what else was waiting in Fei Cui’s wake. The ascension may take roughly 40 minutes, but the beauty that lie beyond the first main pool made every effort worthwhile.

We climbed like monkeys around and over giant boulders; slid on rocky crags as though they were natural slippery-dips; and swam in more shimmery pools of green, some deep enough to be the cooling oases we needed from the beating sun. Our grand prize for the long journey was a small but lively waterfall. As I later found out, this is the aptly named Zi Mu (子母) or, Child Waterfall.

All in all it was so much prettier than what these photos could make you imagine. I sometimes think back to the adventures I get up to in Taiwan, and it is always being in the outdoors that bring the biggest smile to my face. Fei Cui Valley is one of my favourites –  it’s that hidden outdoor sanctuary you need without the difficult access, which makes it all the more fascinating.

Beautiful, untouched Taiwan could be within an arm’s reach, all you have to do is be adventurous and venture just a little further!

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Our rocky ascension begins after a short hike through the green past a man-made waterfall. Photo courtesy of Lace He.
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After 40 minutes, this was our reward!
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This is the first large pool which had plenty of space for lunch before a refreshing dip
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A young blue-tailed skink is disturbed as we continue our trace up the stream
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Hazzah our coup de gras! Pictures cannot do it justice.

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Ridiculously clean water makes everyone happy!

Check out the whole TAO expedition of Fei Cui, thanks to fellow explorer, Guang-hui Chuan:


Getting there

It’s easy getting to Fei Cui Valley. A 30 minute scooter ride from Hualien is all it takes to get to the entrance. We didn’t choose the fast route, and went through small roads to see farmlands, which made our trip even more beautiful!

Once you’ve parked around Banyan Road (榕樹路), head towards the trail which hugs the river. It leads through a dark tunnel or bat cave (apparently bats make a home out of it in the winter). Continue through it and on to Fei Cui Stream. There are a few spots to enter the stream at the beginning, but we chose to hike in the jungle a bit before veering off to the left over a water way. Most locals will stay in the man-made waterfall area at the beginning. Go past that before hopping into the stream to start your trace.

This is where you’ll require to do more work. Trace up until you see the really beautiful swimming pool which you see here. After that there is a 10 minute jungle trail to the waterfall, or, you can continue tracing another 40 minutes or so to Zimu waterfall as described above.

Taiwan Adventure Outings

Be adventurous.

That’s the tagline of Taiwan Adventure Outings, or TAO, as its creators Ryan Hevern and Dustin Craft like it to be known. They’re all about bringing out that adventurous spirit in everyone whilst exploring Taiwan. What started out with two guys as a means to get outdoors and meet people became much more than a hobby group.

Apart from connecting travellers with small-scale local tourism initiatives, TAO ensures they give back to the community by hosting free monthly beach and forest clean ups. They hope that TAO travellers not only appreciate Taiwan’s beauty, culture and adventures but are also given the opportunity to contribute towards maintaining these well-loved locations. In fact, they are the brains behind Taiwan National Clean Up Day, launching this May 20, which is a collaboration with long-term hikers, other activity groups and local communities to make Taiwan more beautiful.

As mentioned, my enviable experience at Fei Cui is not mine alone and I owe it to these guys for showing me the way. If you like to explore Fei Cui with company too, TAO is organising another trip for the long weekend of May. For more information on these events, the friendly guys at TAO would be more than happy to help you out!

The Museums of National Taiwan University (臺大博物館群)

This month, National Taiwan University is welcoming visitors to enjoy its main campus at its most vibrant and beautiful. The 2017 Azalea Festival (台大杜鵑花節) is on until the end of this month, and no doubt, everyone visiting will want to take a couple of photos with these flowers in full bloom.

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While I’m very partial to azaleas, the university holds a few more secret gems that delight in different ways! On the same university grounds lie a number of museums practically unheard of. Housed in some of the university’s oldest historical buildings, they’re open to the public, and free!

During my year of study at NTU, these museums and galleries made intriguing places to relax in after class and I would recommend it to anyone who could spare even ten minutes. While everything is happening at NTU, don’t just walk down Royal Palm Boulevard and take selfies with the pretty azaleas. Take a gander in the following museums, and make your visit to Taiwan’s oldest and largest university even more worthwhile!


NTU History Gallery (校史館)

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A university that was established in 1928 is bound to have a wonderful collection of historical artefacts! What began with only two faculties and a combined total of fifty nine students, is now recognised as Taiwan’s top university, globally reputable for outstanding academia. Furniture, teaching manuals, and student records are here on display along with information about NTU’s chosen symbols (where you can learn of its patron flower, the azalea). The Gallery also depicts NTU’s most turbulent past, such as the student protests while Taiwan was under marshall law.

NTU Museum of Anthropology (人類學博物館)

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Small yet detailed, the museum allows you to see the lives of those who have called Taiwan home through the ages. Much of the collection is sourced from the era of Taihoku Imperial University which preceded NTU under Japanese rule. From clothing, hand tools, and wooden artefacts, to films, photos, and written accounts; the museum provides a thorough understanding of indigenous communities who existed long before the Han Chinese arrived. The Museum is right next to NTU History Gallery in the same building so team up the two in one visit.

NTU Agricultural Exhibition Hall (農業陳列館)

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credit of Wikipedia

NTU has its own farms and makes its own food. On the main campus you can wander over to the Experimental Farm and admire its crops and gardens. The university therefore takes Taiwan’s agriculture pretty seriously. The Exhibition Hall takes you through the best of the industry, new and eco-friendly technologies, and promotes more love for Taiwan’s green and natural. At the Agricultural Product Sales Centre, you could also purchase NTU food stuffs as well as the famous NTU milk. Lines are always out the door.

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NTU Museum of Zoology (動物博物館)

Extend your walk to Zhoushan Road (舟山路) and you might catch a whiff of something that smells vaguely like an animal farm. Follow your nose to the Life Sciences building (生命科學院) and you’ll find the Museum of Zoology. Despite the modern exterior, the museum’s foundations could be traced back to 1928 when the university first opened. Over 20,000 fossils and animal specimens from Taiwan and surrounding islands have been documented – most of which are on display here, including a baleen whale!

NTU Geo-Specimen Cottage (地質標本館)

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At first look, it’s easy to mistaken the Geo Specimen Cottage or Geological Herbarium as a house for the groundskeeper. Though well-preserved, the cottage was used only as a warehouse until the museum’s conception in 2003. Inside holds a modest collection of 3500 specimens of rock, minerals and fossils of significant geological value from Taiwan. You can look at these specimens under a light microscope, then take a stroll in its garden to see larger rock formations typical of the Taiwanese scenery.

Herbarium of NTU (植物標本館)

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This is one of my favourite places to walk around in on a nice day.  The Herbarium was one of the earliest that were established, and its focus was to collect and document Taiwan’s flora, which eventually reached an incredible 250,000 or so specimens. About 60,000 of these are indigenous to Taiwan and it was here that some of these newly-discovered species were named. There’s also an exhibition room archiving seeds and other dried plant specimens, but do not miss the outdoor areas, including the fern greenhouse.

NTU Heritage Hall of Physics (物理文物廳)

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Somewhere in NTU’s original nuclear physics lab lies Asia’s very first Cockcroft-Walton linear accelerator. Built by a professor and his young team of students during the Taihoku Imperial University era, the achievement sent shockwaves through academic circles in Japan and the rest was history. The Hall has been reconstructed to commemorate their achievements, and to house not only the main portions of the accelerator, but also a number of other impressive scientific resources from back in the day – including glassware hand-blown by previous physicists, and Hokutolite, a radioactive mineral originally sourced only in Taiwan.


Getting There: Here’s a map to help you find all these knowledgeable worlds with ease. The NTU Museum of Medical Humanities (醫學人文博物館), NTU Archives (檔案館), and the NTU Insect Museum (昆蟲標本館) are outside the main campus, but are also included for you to enjoy!

Opening Hours: Most of these museums are open 6 days a week, closed either Mondays or Tuesdays, and on public holidays. Hours of operation are usually 10am to 4pm with a one hour lunch break from 12 to 1pm. For accurate opening hours, view in Google Maps.

*unless stated otherwise, photos credit of NTU

I slept in a love hotel in Tainan, and it was the best place I’ve ever stayed in

At first look, Prince Hotel (太子大飯店) is not pretty at all. Fluorescent lights alongside chandeliers, a red counter to a green backdrop. The lounge in the corner is a couple of coffee tables and chairs, half of which are being used as a makeshift nail salon. Not far from its entrance are large signs quoting hourly prices. A telling sign of the kind of place, I have just stepped into.

This is the first love hotel I’m staying in. While many love hotels in Taipei are themed, luxurious and expensive, the Prince Hotel ranks barely three stars. But I imagine this place must have once been glorious. Situated on the corner of You Ai (友愛街) and Kang Le (康樂街) street of central Tainan (台南市), the white, seven-floor building looks impressively large and spacious enough to may have once been glamourous. Now dated and worn though, it has had to rebrand itself.

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My boyfriend had found out about the hotel on Agoda for 550 NTD a night (20 AUD), in already cheap and cheerful Tainan. We thought we found a good weeknight deal and were eager to stay in a conventional hotel. After camping in zero degrees in the Alishan (阿里山) mountains, I would appreciate a place where I could shower, a bed that isn’t the cold hard ground, and a toilet that doesn’t come with the anxiety of someone happening across my naked behind. This is not a conventional hotel. But regardless of the gaudy interiors and possible stink of sex, I am staying here for the night.

A smiley lady greets us with free water and green tea. Foreign backpackers are not the common clientele here, and even in the lobby we see only male guests. After a friendly chit-chat, we retreat to our room, hands full of drinks, and minds peculiar at what we might find there.

Sure enough, ten minutes into settling in we hear the undeniable sounds of sloppy, amorous passion coming from next door. Resonant and crystal clear, it was as though they were in the same room with us. He was, let’s just say, doing all the talking; while she, sounded extremely enthusiastic in agreement with whatever it was he had to say. We made a mad dash to do our laundry, leaving Mister and Missus next door to finish their business.

On the way to the rooftop laundry, we bump into another smiley lady – only this one stands motionless, and rather provocatively.

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Ah. What would entice you to wash your soiled clothes more than a portrait of a semi-nude lady inviting you to come hither?

Erotic decor and abysmal sound-proofing aside, this place does however, more than suffice for its price tag. There’s good running hot water with decent pressure, a bath tub to soak sore muscles, a surprisingly comfortable bed, clean sheets and pillows (we checked), and albeit not the best, a view of downtown.

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There maybe nothing remarkable about it, but this place certainly knows how to charm. Everything else the Prince Hotel has to offer, makes it an outstanding choice for budget travellers. Stay overnight and every guest receives a breakfast voucher up to the value of 60 NTD…a rather generous amount. Breakfast is served in none other than a local Taiwanese joint, located just downstairs and has one of the most plentiful menu items I’ve seen. You can find the much loved wan ge (碗粿) or rice bowl cake* here.

The hotel not only makes sure you’re well fed after your rest, it also ensures that getting in and out is as convenient as you need it to be. It provides free undercover private parking, or if you rather park on the street like we did, the hotel will pay for your parking tickets!

We worked out that with all the freebies, our total room cost plummeted to a measly 260 NTD a night (10 AUD). I’m not sure how they remain afloat making such little profit, but these extra services certainly appeal to patrons.

Yes it’s a love hotel, but there’s an honesty about this place that makes it easily likeable. Affairs in the boudoir happens pretty much anywhere, and for much more money…but here at the Prince Hotel, you can keep your cash, and still be satisfied. For sleep or otherwise!


 

Suitable for: Budget, open-minded travellers; couples who aren’t fussy about where they do the deed; and those who want laundry and nail care services right at their doorstep.

Getting There: Make the most of the free parking and drive / scoot there. But if this isn’t your choice of transport, catch any bus from Tainan Station heading to Ximen You Ai Street Kou, the nearest stop to the hotel.

No. 349, You’ai St, West Central District, Tainan City, Taiwan 700
+886 6 228 9171

Cost: around 550 – 680 NTD per night for a double room. You can book online, but in our experience, walk-in rates are cheaper.

Pro-tip: Ask for a non-smoking room with a window – and maybe one that isn’t next to anyone else’s. Or else bring ear plugs. Definitely try the breakfast menu downstairs.


 

*wan ge (碗粿): a homely dish of steamed rice paste topped with delicious meaty sauce. Commonly found in southern Taiwan but hard to come by in Taipei.

Grappling with Hungry Ghosts – Toucheng Qianggu Festival (頭城搶孤)

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My adventures with Taiwan’s folk traditions continues and this time I head to the usually quiet town of Toucheng, Yilan(頭城,宜蘭)to go see some burly men climb some very high spires.

Toucheng’s Grappling with Ghost Festival or Qianggu (頭城搶孤) is held every year on the last day of the Ghost Month. Wait, Ghost Month? Taiwan has a whole month dedicated to ghosts? Yes indeed, it does.

Ghost Month (鬼月) refers to the Hungry Ghost Festival, a grand belief that every year during the 7th month of the Lunar calendar, the gates of hell are thrown open, freeing ghosts and spirits to roam into our world. The thought of restless and transient spirits co-existing with humans is intriguing to not only the Taiwanese but also to most nations that share the same Taoist and Buddhist heritage, including Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan and Viet Nam.

The wandering ghosts(孤魂)are believed to be the ancestors of families who have forgotten to pay tribute, or are those who have died without proper burials. They meander the human world searching to fulfil what they have been missing, like food and entertainment. To appease them, believers present them with live performances and offerings, including animal sacrifices.

I’ve heard foreigners and even locals alike scoff and dismiss the idea of ghosts. “Just superstitions”, they’d say. Well sure they can be regarded as such in this day and age, but let’s not discount centuries of folk religion and whole cultures that have survived modernity and other influences, shall we?

Apart for its cultural and historical significance, I attended yesterday’s Toucheng’s Grappling with Ghost event because it’s a spectacle that’s also rare to come by. How many events do you know that have teams of men competing against each other to reach the top of gigantic pillars?

Pillars reaching more than 20 metres to be exact. For the main event of gupeng (孤棚), the base poles made from Chinese fir measure around 13 metres in height and 8 metres wide. To make it even more challenging, they are greased with what is reported to be butter but looks more like your average motor oil. With nothing but a few lengths of rope and pure grappling strength, each team consisting of five of their best make the slippery climb to the platform. Only to face another 8 metres of bamboo trestles to reach the top. You’d think that is a good enough feat, but whoever manages to get past those two stages must lop off the top that completes the towers. Only when they manage to take down the flag can they then be declared the winner.

Grappling with ghosts in this way is said to scare away bad spirits. Winning climbers receive much admiration and prestige…and are assumed great fortune for the rest of the year.

The following pictures may be too raw for some.

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Chinese Opera performances were seen at two different stages. Front row seats at such performances during Ghost Month are always vacant. Ghosts are believed to occupy them.
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Offerings are laid out by the masses as part of the ceremonies proceeding the Grappling event. Photo courtesy of Guang-Hui Chuan of GSquaredTravel
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A man offers his ancestors some incense. Guhun or lonely souls are believed to be restless because they have been forgotten by their families overtime. To prevent this, believers offer the proper rituals to the familial deceased.
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A rooster carcass lies pathetically on that of a tattooed pig.
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A row of animal sacrifices is a common theme at the event. A rooster rests on a pig, of which underneath hangs a live carp. If anyone can help me decipher the meaning of these animals placed in such a way, please get in touch.
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A decorated pig with a pineapple in its mouth is presented facing the giant spires for the Grappling
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The makeshift temple in which believers go to ask for blessings and safeguarding against evil spirits. Copyright of Guang-Hui Chuan.
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A priest throws blessed flower buds to the vying crowd hoping to catch them. Photo thanks to Guang-Hui Chuan
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I heard the commentator say the spires were constructed from 6am that morning, and greased with about 120 gallons (450 litres) of butter. Quite an incredible effort considering it was all ready in about 12 hours.
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Competitors get covered in grease as they go through phase 1 of the climb.
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Its not over… One competitor heaves himself over the ledge, only to climb another 8 metres of bamboo lattices.

Getting there: Forget the train, Kuo-Kuang Bus 1877 will take you straight to Toucheng in less than an hour. Main points of departure are from Yuanshan Station, Nangang Station or Nangang Exhibition Hall Station.

When: Going by the Gregorian calendar, this event will vary year after year. However it will always abide to the last day of the 7th Lunar Calendar Month. So you just have to ask Google for future dates and details. I find Googling the Chinese characters 頭城搶孤 provided the best results. If you get there around 9pm, that leaves you plenty of time to eat, drink and do. The grappling starts at 11pm.

Pro-tip: There are a few taboos that you should know if you are visiting Taiwan during Ghost Month. Not everyone is superstitious but it’s a nice to know. Because you don’t want to get reprimanded, out of the blue, like I did. (Whistling at night, as I passed an elderly man in a park. Oops.) Here’s a great video to watch.


As always, my greatest thanks to fellow adventurer and photographer Guang-Hui Chuan. Head to his website GSquaredTravel for even more amazing captures!

Legitimate Pasta, Middle of Nowhere, Taiwan

Giovanni and Coco Filippini greeted me with an ice-cold bottle of San Pellegrino bubbly water as I sat in their kitchen. Still dripping with hot sweat, I could already tell it was worthwhile taking a trip in the unforgiving heat for another visit to the island’s most underrated Italian restaurant.

On a previous trip to Taitung’s South Donghe (東河), I was so famished, I was willing to stop at any place that was open – a telling sign of true desperation and resignation to the lack of choice in a small rural town. A wrong turn led me to a front yard repurposed as a shaded alfresco, filled with local diners. I read the sign Trattoria, glanced at the freshly dolloped plates of linguine and ordered my own in pesto. It was so good I returned for dinner that same day.

Finding exceptional, authentic cuisine other than local food in Taiwan is a big deal. Huge. Even in the capital, you won’t be spoilt with choice. Yet, the quiet county of Taitung, which is literally on the opposite side of the island from any major city, has already enamoured visitors and locals alike looking for variety beyond noodles and dumplings. VICE previously covered authentic Mexican food in Taitung’s art-central Dulan. But South Donghe, home to some hundred residents, is best known as only a stopover for steamed buns. Hidden in a small suburban street, this really is the middle of nowhere, and Greensliding 133 joins a small number of eateries that dare to rebel against Taiwan’s local palate.

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Coco and Giovanni, the owners and chef, allow no excuses or shortcuts when it comes to serving dishes you would expect in an Italian home. They import as much quality produce from Italy as they could. The cheese, the oil, the flour, even the salt make long trips to get to their resting place in the seaside home.

Italian cooking is very simple. Pasta, oil, garlic, salt.
Sometimes that’s all you need. – Coco

Simple, yes. But if you don’t have the right ingredients;
if you don’t know exactly how to cook pasta, it will be shit. – Giovanni

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Greensliding 133’s quiet yet notable reputation of great taste stems from Giovanni’s Roman background. Having lived most of his life in Oriolo Romano, a quaint municipality northwest of Rome, his mother did what all Italian mothers were famous for – making sure her family was well fed on bonafide home-cooked Italian meals. When in Rome, you cook and eat like the Romans do, and so it was here that Taipei-born Coco was first acquainted with what true Italian taste was like. From Giovanni’s mother she learnt to make legitimate fresh pasta, cannelloni and of course, tiramisu.

The couple first met while surfing in Bali and began splitting their time between Taiwan, Italy, and Indonesia. They kept their traveling romance like this for years until the couple discovered they were pregnant. Taiwan seemed like the obvious choice as a place to permanently call home.

I love the people and the country. And you know, we’re close to the waves here. – Giovanni

 We can create our own life in Taiwan. Our own style. – Coco

And create their own they did. Giovanni already good with his hands in woodwork and hand-painting began designing and making his own furniture. The signage, the tri-coloured picket fence, and the dining tables and chairs were all handcrafted by Giovanni. Enter the living room and you will gaze upon polished wooden surfboards carved to different lengths and shapes. Alaia Hawaiian surfboards were hugely popular in pre-20th century but almost disappeared after synthetic boards were introduced. Giovanni is the only vendor of handcrafted Alaia in Taiwan.

With her husband’s own creative label already in motion, Coco set out to recreate what she ate in Italy in her own humble kitchen of 133 South Donghe, Taitung. Greensliding 133 was born and despite owning two businesses, the couple took no concessions when it comes to keeping up with the surf life. Mornings include a tag-team of surf sessions, and taking care of Anna Asia, their four year old daughter. By mid-morning, Coco would be in that same kitchen preparing for the day’s lunch and dinner.

Coco makes the dough like how they do it in Italy. She beats the egg swiftly into a whirling well of flour until the yellow blur turns a soft vanilla white. After a good round of kneading, throwing and patting, the dough is allowed to rest before Coco religiously rolls and cuts it into linguine. And that’s it really. Just flour and egg, hand-beaten and moulded into oblivion. She has no commercial appliances to help her. Each batch of dough, big enough for four servings, would take a good hour out of Coco’s time to prepare and make. Her many returning customers, most of whom are from surrounding towns like Chenggong, ensure they don’t miss out by calling ahead to order the fresh pasta.

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Though fresh ingredients are sourced locally, Coco doesn’t serve the pasta most city-dwelling locals are used to. You won’t find soggy, cream-laden pasta here. It is with this attitude to serve what she and Giovanni likes to eat that has made their restaurant outstanding. To me, Greensliding 133 is a relieving oasis to the ill-representing landscape of Italian cuisine in Taiwan – and one that is well-priced at that.

Eating is about enjoyment. I want everyone to learn and enjoy what real Italian food is. Greensliding 133 is about sharing this passion and that is enough.
– Coco

Before leaving, I sat at one of Giovanni’s tables enjoying a plate of fresh pasta that moments before Coco had made by hand. I could still smell the eggs she had beaten into it. It was flavoured with butter and parmesan and paired with a Tuscan white wine.

I have found little Italy in even smaller Donghe Taiwan.

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To secure your own fresh pasta, review the menu and pre-order via telephone or Facebook @Greensliding133


*All photos credit of Guang-Hui Chuan of GSquaredTravel
*first published with Ketagalan Media on 25 August 2016
*Chinese version is also published here