Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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Hong Kong dim sum

Last summer (2015) we had the chance to visit Hong Kong for the first time on our way to Taiwan to visit our daughter and her boyfriend, who also flew over to HK for the weekend to join us. As we only had 3 days to look around, I tried to do some online research on must places to see and things to join advance. One find on an online Time magazine article was a tea house serving traditional dim sum breakfast. Even though dim sum, as such, was not new to us, having tried it before in Malaysia, China and Singapore, and the youngsters, of course, in Taiwan, we wanted to try the HK flavour as we’d always liked it so much before. Another reason for choosing this place was that it was at a walking distance from our hotel. So off we went early on a sunny Saturday morning, after arriving the afternoon before. We loved the walk along the narrow streets and lanes of SoHo, up and down hills and stairs, and past colourful markets and stalls. Unable to read or understand any of the Cantonese signs around, I was brimming with excitement. It finally sank in that we were really far away from home.

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Lin Heung Tea House, 160-164 Wellington street, Central, Hong Kong

Described, rather unflatteringly, as the “Dim Sum Warzone” by a Singaporean food blogger, we found the Lin Heung delightfully eccentric. Most of the waiters seemed to be ancient, and a little bit grumpy – made me wonder how long people kept working in Hong Kong. Service worked quite efficiently, though, although it took us some time to find a free table in the totally packed place, even that early in the morning. In fact, as we entered there was such a hullabaloo going on that we had our doubts first whether we’d manage to get any breakfast at all. We’d been warned about this by several web sources, but in the end, we were quite comfortable even having to share the table with total strangers. It just came with the territory and added to the novel experience.

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No sooner had we managed to sit down than a pot of really dark brown, steaming pu erh tea appeared in front of us. Later on, we got bolder and went to order a few other teas among the several choices on offer. But what to do to get our food? Just had to look around and observe for a while, to get the hang of it. The waiters kept coming round with their trolleys stacked with bamboo containers and plates, howling loudly in Cantonese – possibly the names of all the dishes on offer. All you had to do was to go to them and get the ones you wanted. Mind you, not so easy for us poor foreigners who didn’t understand a word, and had to try and get the waiters to open the containers to see what was inside. They weren’t too happy about this, rushing around the slightly too narrow aisles between the tables. Another piece of advice: don’t be polite and wait for your turn, like any descent Finn would. You’ll never manage to get a bite! You’ll have to be fast, or all the dishes you’d like will be snatched by somebody else right in front of your eyes! Once we learned the ropes, we got to try all sorts, the savoury seafood and meat dumplings, as well as the sweet buns and more familiar spring rolls.  All very good, I must say.

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The noise around got louder and louder while more water was constantly poured into the cute, round-bellied tea pots, and ever more exciting dim sum choices kept appearing on the trolleys. Soon enough, our eyes started being bigger than our belly, and we realised that we were already too full. But what a great experience on our first morning in Hong Kong! A bit chaotic perhaps but in a positive, intriguing way. Certainly a welcome change to quiet and organised Finland. Happy and well nourished, we were ready to hit the streets and explore the new city for the day.

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One interesting observation: as the clientele seemed to be mostly middle-aged or above, hardly any smart gizmos were in sight, but instead, like in the good old days, people read real newspapers! How quaint! As far as we could gather, most of the customers seemed local rather than tourists, which is always preferable to us. Whenever we can, we try to get small glimpses into the everyday lives and culture of the local people in the foreign places we visit, to see and try something that we would never come across at home.

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I would definitely recommend a visit to this tea house to Hong Kong visitors. An extra bonus: in an otherwise fairly pricey metropolis, at least by Asian standards, this was easily affordable. No Michelin star quality, and very old-fashioned for sure, but good value. I would have been prepared to pay extra for the entertainingly fascinating ambience alone!

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Chasing high mountain Oolong tea in Taiwan

There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. – Lin Yutang

Coffee really is “my cup of tea”. But, being married to a Brit has taught me to appreciate tea, too. In fact, in our home, the kettle is put on dozens of times a day, and cups of tea are constantly on offer. Bad day at work, dear – never mind, have a cuppa, the universal remedy. In recent years, we have moved more and more into Chinese green teas, and latterly Taiwanese Oolong since our daughter moved there two years ago. No mugs of sweet, milky Indian black teas in our household!

Last summer we had the wonderful chance of visiting our daughter in Taiwan for two weeks. One of the musts was a visit to a tea plantation on the mountains as I’d always dreamed of seeing how tea grows. Taiwan is renowned for its teas – black, Oolong and green. Apparently, the conditions in Taiwan are ideal (temperature, humidity, altitude), which makes Taiwanese teas highly sought after by real tea connoisseurs.

THE JOURNEY TO THE MOUNTAIN

Quite the journey it was. Starting off from the southern city of Kaohsiung, we (that is four of us: I, hubby, daughter and boyfriend) first took the train to Chiayi city, from where we continued by bus up the Alishan mountain (literally Ali mountain – ‘shan’ meaning mountain in Chinese). Little did we expect how high the mountain really was, and we didn’t even reach the highest point of it! Our destination was only at an elevation of some 1,400 m, while the highest peak would have been over 2,000 m. Once we started the ascent, it felt almost like being on an aeroplane taking off. With totally blocked ears, we oohed and aahed the scenery and, higher up, spotted the first small tea plantations on the slopes. How delightful! At times I had to close my eyes out of fear, though, when the steep mountain sides seemed far too close on the twisty and turny roads. More and more mist appeared, the higher we got, and the air got cooler and cooler, which was actually quite nice, after struggling with the humid heat of June on lower ground.

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We had booked our B&B accommodation through booking.com, and the owners kindly offered to pick us up at a certain bus stop. Waiting for our ride, in the middle of the late afternoon mist, we were lucky to have a pick-up truck stop by, with tea picking ladies with their signature bamboo hats and special bamboo baskets, happily travelling on the open back. I’d read about the physically hard and meticulous job of these ladies, carefully hand picking each tea leaf, to ensure premium quality. It was a pity that the best picking season wasn’t until a month after our visit, so I didn’t manage to see any of these ladies in action.

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Soon enough, the son of our B&B owner arrived to get us, but wanted to take us to Fenchichu Old Street for dinner first because he said they didn’t have any provisions for evening meals at their place. At first we felt a little disappointed as we were quite ready to settle in for the night but the evening turned out quite good in the end. Lovely little village style setting on the slopes of the mountain, but also quite crowded and touristy.

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Strolling around the little streets and alleys, we found a nice-looking little tea shop that also offered tasting. In we went, of course! Our first taste of the genuine Alishan high mountain Oolong. Surprisingly mild, beautifully yellow in colour, and somehow curiously reminding me of the taste and faint smell of raw peas. Very smooth, with no hint of the slight bitterness of many green teas. In the traditional fashion, it was served from teeny, tiny cups, and the lady serving had quite an arsenal of little implements in front of her, to prepare the brew. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, nothing like the rigid and ritualistic tea ceremonies in Japan, for example. The hostess kept filling the kettle again and again, and pouring us more and more of the tea. It really was good, and we left with a few packets of it in our bags.

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For dinner, we tried the local speciality, ‘lunchbox’.  In the old days, when Fenchichu was an important half-way refuel stop along the Alishan Forest Railway, somebody came up with the idea of selling train travellers a quick lunch in a box (made of wood, bamboo or iron) that was considerably lighter and easier to carry to the train platform than the previous noodle bowls. The lunchbox tradition is still kept alive in some restaurants. The food itself was not exactly to our liking – rice with some vegetables, a piece of chicken leg and chewy pork – but it was very cheap. To wash down the rather greasy taste of the dinner, I just had to buy a selection of Taiwanese mochi. They are sticky rice paste balls with different fillings, such as peanut butter, black bean paste, or various fruit pastes. I adore the consistency and taste – one of my all-time favourite Asian desserts!

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It was a nice surprise for us that Fenchichu is actually one of the stops of the famous Alishan Forest Railway. We were really happy to get return tickets on it for the next day – something we had wanted to do anyway! Finally, at the end of the day, we were driven to our B&B in complete darkness through almost impenetrable fog. We had no idea where we’d arrived as visibility was almost zero. Luckily we weren’t the drivers on the tiny mountain roads!

B&B ALISHAN YUN MIN GI                                                                                                                          No.4 Shizhuo, Zhonghe Village, Zhuqi Town, Chiayi County 604, Taiwan

We had chosen our inn based on the fact that it had its own tea plantation. As we only had very limited time, staying on Alishan only for one night, we had to make sure that we’d at least see one plantation. After all, that was the main reason of our visit in the area.

We all stayed in one huge room, which was lovely, and tastefully furnished, with big windows in two directions, a spacious bathroom and a balcony, too. Everything in the inn was perfectly tidy and clean. Late at night, with the fog and darkness, we couldn’t see a thing outside. We were hoping to catch the rising sun early in the morning, though, and set our alarms, keeping our fingers crossed for the fog to disappear by then. Most Alishan visitors travel to a special spot, either by car or the Forest Railway to admire the sun rising from behind the peaks but, as we were unsure about the weather, we opted to stay at the inn and hope for the best. After a quick tasting of the inn-keepers’ own Oolong tea downstairs, on a magnificent wooden table, special the the mountain area, (and buying some more packets of tea!) finally, tired and with excited anticipation, we fell asleep in our comfortable beds.

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Between 4 and 5 am, we were woken up by excited cries from our daughter: “Come and see, the sun is rising!” The night before, none of us could have anticipated the spectacle that unfolded in front of our eyes. Gradually, the mountain peaks around, and the valley below started to take shape and get in focus. The colourscape kept changing until the fabulous, sharp panorama revealed itself in all its glory, in brilliant sunshine. In addition to all the visual splendour, the silence was almost deafening, especially after the bustle of busy Taiwanese cities. And all this, from the best possible vantage point, right there on our own balcony – how awesome is that!

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We took a short walk around the inn before breakfast, to finally get an idea we were had come to. For me, the new modern wing of the inn, where we stayed, looked a little bit out of place in that natural setting but, I must say, it served its purpose well. Tea grew all around, and the rounded rows of it could be seen through all the windows inside as well. In fact, the windows were like landscape paintings, depicting the surrounding beauty of the area. After a nice breakfast, it was time to go for walks in and around the many tea plantations.

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WHERE OOLONG GROWS

At last I had the chance to walk in between the rows of tea, touch the waxy leaves and try to get the very faint scent. It was easy to walk up and down the nice wooden stairs, provided on the slopes. You could even go for a hike in a bamboo forest nearby. And wherever you turned, there was yet another spectacular view. We were in heaven! One word of warning, though, for anyone going on Alishan: the cool mountain air is very deceptive – I ended up totally burning my arms (through the silly holes of my sleeves!), not feeling the heat of the sun in the mountain breeze. I should have seen it coming!

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While our youngsters preferred to do several hikes, we found another tea plantation down the hill, went to have a look, and ended up having one more Oolong tasting session around a wonderfully carved wooden table. More and more people kept coming in, and eventually it looked like we had the whole family tasting tea with us. It transpired that these people were actually related to our inn owners if we understood it correctly through the few broken English words our Taiwanese hosts tried to say. No common language but still we shared a fun time together. Just the sort of impromptu meeting that we so enjoy during our travels. And off we went, with more packets of tea to take back home.

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THE ALISHAN FOREST RAILWAY

Once the only way to get up and down the mountain, the cute red engines still chug along the steep mountain sides. Unfortunately, according to Focus Taiwan, after serious typhoon damage in 2009 and more just last autumn, the whole 70 odd km stretch has still not been repaired to this day. Opened in the early 20th century for timber transportation, the railway was turned mostly touristic in the 1960s. Twenty years later, in the 1980s, with the completion of the Alishan Highway, cheaper and faster buses started to take customers away from the trains. Today, it’s mostly diesel engines instead of the old steam ones but, nonetheless, it’s definitely an experience not to miss. The technology required to run a train on those steep slopes is amazing! Waiting for departure on the platform, there was an elated ambience of setting off on a grand adventure – and that’s what it truly was.

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The two-hour return journey down the mountain took us through bamboo forests, and more tea plantations on the slopes, dramatic mountain scenery and unbelievably lush greenery. The tiny carriages were cosy, and I noticed that the regular clickety clack of the train made several passengers nod off at some point. What a way to end our brief, but unforgettable, glimpse of mighty Alishan.

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And now, a year on, I still vividly recall all these memories and sentiments, the views, the sounds and the smells, every time I’m enjoying a cup of fragrant Oolong from Alishan.


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Family dinner

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I learned it in my childhood home that as a family, you gather together for dinner around the kitchen table, every single day. I carried this tradition on in my small family. Around 5-6pm, we used to have home-made dinner together all through the years our only daughter was growing up. A time for exchanging the daily news, and bonding with your nearest and dearest.

It’s been hard to let go of this special daily moment since our daughter moved out of the family home. Of course, I and hubby still eat together, most days, but it just isn’t quite the same any more. I think for me, dinnertime will forever evoke the presence of your family. The food can be simple or fancy, but it’s your family you’re sharing it with that really counts!

For this reason, I chose a family dinner picture for this week’s Photo Challenge. It’s a picture of the last family dinner we had together. Not at home but across the world in Taiwan, where our daughter has been teaching with her boyfriend for the last two years. We visited them last summer, and as our trip coincided with my husband’s birthday, we went for a special seafood dinner to celebrate, on Quijin island, next to their home town of Kaohsiung, on the south-western coast of Taiwan.

In the picture you can see the three of them enjoying the fresh, local delicacies from the Taiwan Strait waters. And by fresh, I mean REALLY fresh! On the island, it is customary to have the restaurant at the back of the fish shop that’s outside on the pavement. You either buy the daily catch to take home, or you choose what you want to be cooked for you on the premises. In the pictures below, you can see us making our picks outside the restaurant, and some of the produce on offer. My hubby absolutely loved this – the stranger and and more unusual the food, the happier he is. A perfect birthday dinner with family!

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The mini hotel concept

Mini hotels, cubile hotels, bloc hotels – whatever they are called in different parts of the world. Not really new, I’m sure, but new for me.

I had read about the tiny, almost coffin-life, Japanese cubicle hotels before, but never stayed in one. It’s no wonder this concept comes from the populous Asian tourist destinations, with not too much space to build on. From my limited experience in Asia, I’ve noticed that people spend a lot of time outside their tiny homes. They eat out, they go to parks to do yoga or thai chi, and spend their evenings in the vast night markets. There is simply more public than private space in many Asian metropolises.

My first experience in such a hotel was in Hong Kong last summer. We stayed in Mini Hotel Central, in the Soho district on Hong Kong island. The “mini” meant that the room was only big enough to fit a double bed in, leaving just a tiny aisle on one side, to access the shower and toilet. Just the basics that you would need to sleep while travelling. You might think it feels almost claustrophobic, but interestingly not. As you can see in the picture below, the toilet/shower space has fairly big windows to give light and add to the space. All in all, quite a cute arrangement.

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Rather than the personal room space, what the Hong Kong hotel had invested in was the lounge and reception area downstairs. There was a quirky, yet curiously pleasing collection of different furniture to sit on, and computers for customers to use as well.

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Like many other visitors, we also ended up spending more time sitting down there than cramped in the little room upstairs. The hotel didn’t have any breakfast facilities but provided vending machines downstairs. This was understandable as the South East Asian way of living is eating out, so there is a never-ending choice of various restaurants and coffee and tea shops, one more delicious than the other.

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Would recommend this hotel to anybody who wants just a place to lay their head for the night, and good value for money.