Currency:New Taiwan Dollar (NT$)
1 NT$ = 2.4p. £1 = 41.21 NT$
Time Zone: GMT +8 (7 hours ahead of UK summer time)
Music video for Taipei by 65daysofstatic
14th – 18th September
Our first impressions of Taipei were not the best. Our journey from the airport could’ve been a lot worse but the delays, the extra walk and the weather didn’t help. That evening we dumped our stuff in our room and, on the recommendation of Tom (the hostel owner), headed out for food at the Ningxia night market. It was a relatively short walk and by then the weather had calmed down a bit. I had read about the traditional Taiwanese night markets and was quite excited to delve into the experience. I was not disappointed but navigating the street carts and vendors was tricky with our lack of knowledge of written Mandarin. We found one vendor with both pictures and English text. I had the braised beef tendon ramen, which was far tastier than it sounds. Kate (a vegetarian that only recently began to dabble with a limited selection of fish) ended up with something similar after ordering a shrimp dish. I did my very best pointing and waving and the waitress took the dish away, picked the beef out and gave it back. Kate, very sportingly, began to eat her largely plain noodle broth, picking out the small bits of beef left behind, but then a short while later some shrimp won-tons were brought out in a bowl to plop into the soup.
After our noodles we stopped by a juice stall and had a cup of pure mango smoothie between us. This also gave us our first experience of the ubiquitous plastic cup topping machine. The cup goes in the machine and with one swift pull of the lever, out pops a sealed plastic film lid ready for popping your straw through. I have absolutely no need for it but I want one.
The next day we somehow managed to sleep in and only get going at 3pm. Nonetheless we had a productive day. There were a couple of bits and bobs we needed to find so we headed to Taipei Main Station (where we had walked from the previous day) to pick them up and find some lunch. We ended up wandering the Taipei City Mall, a vast line of clothes, bags, electronics and food stalls under one of the main roads from the station. We found a small food court with no English menu but a picture of what looked like (and turned out to be) mushroom spaghetti for Kate amongst the many meaty options for me. Also included with our meals (around £3 each) was unlimited sweet tea and miso soup. From the mall we headed through Ximending district towards Longshan temple. We ended up entering the temple during prayer time, which was a wonderful piece of luck as we really got to experience it in full swing with incense sticks everywhere and endless chanting. The building itself, as with Bangkok’s temples, is beautiful with an unbelievable amount of intricate detailed features from floor to ceiling.
From there we caught the metro to the Chiang Kei Shek memorial. When you come out of the metro station the first thing you see is a huge arched gateway, the national theatre and the national museum flanking a paved area on three sides. The fourth side borders a walkway through landscape gardens to the CKS memorial itself.
Up 89 steps (1 for every year he lived) is a grand building housing a huge statue of the man himself sat down, not unlike the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC. From my brief Wikipedia session and from what Lonely Planet tells me, he sounds like a bit of a badass.
It was getting late so we decided to venture towards Taipei 101 to see if we could catch the sunset from the top. Unfortunately this was a smidge optimistic as it was dark when we climbed out of the metro station. But Taipei at night was something that seemed like a good thing to see from what was once the world’s tallest building.
We first went to get some food from the food court within Taipei 102, found in the basement of the shopping mall that sits on the first 5 of its 101 floors. There was quite a selection and we ended up with a stir fry and some filled Belgian waffles each, the classic combo. Once full of food we made our way to the 5th floor where the observation deck experience begins. We joined the ticket queue that looked to be rather large but manageable. After about ten minutes a security guard asked us if we had booked tickets online. We said we hadn’t and we were informed we had been in the wrong queue. We were ushered to the back of a different queue and ten minutes later we ended up in this…
It may look like a large crowd but this is actually two different, very well organised queues. So after our incorrect queue we queued for over an hour to get our tickets. After this queue we queued to join yet another queue to get in the lift. The total queueing experience took around 2 hours. We were informed during queue number 2 that visibility at the top was 100% and considering the rain previous to and after our visit, plus the fact it was a national holiday, I see now why it was so busy.
The way to climb to the observation deck is by lift. Like the building itself this broke a world record when it opened. Unlike the building itself it retains the title of fastest lift in the world. It scales 84 floors in 37 seconds, reaching speeds of 37.7 mph. Once at the observation deck on floor 89 we realised very quickly what the fuss was about.
We enjoyed views like this from all 4 sides of the building before heading up the final 2 floors on foot to floor 91 at 390m. The final ten floors and spire, making up the other 118m are inaccessible to the public, but 390m was enough. On the way down we saw Taipei 101’s other remaining world record. Spanning the 87th to 91st floor, in the centre of the building, there is the worlds largest damper, weighing in at 660 tonnes. It’s purpose is to take the brunt of the incredible winds Taipei is used to during typhoon season.
After our 37 second elevator ride back down and a short metro ride it was back to the hostel to get ready for another busy day, that we hoped would start a little earlier.
Day 3 began at 10:30. The plan was to wake up at 9:30 however Kate’s phone had failed to update our time zone and we were very content in our unconscious state to carry on sleeping. We went back once more to the main station to peruse their many food options and after Kate grabbed a croissant straight away, after strolling round and round looking for a hint of the roman alphabet I ended up settling for what I thought looked a bit like a quiche but ended up being some kind of mushroom flavoured egg custard tart. It was maybe a little bit nicer than it sounds.
Our first attraction of the day was Taipei Zoo, famous for its pandas Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan that were gifted to Taiwan by China as a diplomatic gesture of goodwill.
We turned up on a scorcher of a day and it was something I was not particularly excited about. Kate had read it was 600 NT$ (£14.20) and I thought that there were better things we could do with our money. It turned out it was 60 NT$ and suddenly I was very excited! We saw bears, lions, tigers, giraffes, elephants, hippos and this little guy!
Because we live in a Western society we do not use umbrellas on sunny days. Despite all my praise for awnings everywhere, the zoo was severely lacking in them. This meant a lot of hiding behind trees and in gift shops. The penguin house was a highlight. About halfway through we got some orangey slushy stuff and it probably saved our lives.
Once our zoo experience was complete we headed to the top of the zoo to get the shuttle bus (read road train) to the south zoo gondola station. This was to catch a gondola to the top of a hill in the south of Taipei to reach Maokong.
Maokong is a hilltop region famous for its tea and it was once the biggest producer of tea in Taipei. It is now more of a tourist hotspot for the art of tea drinking and the fantastic views across the hills to the big city. We walked up the winding streets to a small collection of cafes and stopped at one on the hillside for a delicious pot of High Mountain Oo Long (mine) and Jin-Xuan (Kate’s) served in traditional Taiwanese tea ware.
After our tea we headed back to the station via some sausages on sticks (for me) to get back down nearer to sea level. At the Gondola station we noticed there were two queues: Regular and Crystal. I asked Kate what she thought the difference and an American chap informed us that Crystal cabins had glass floors, so we went for it.
Another slice of fortune, we ended up descending the hill as the sun descended beyond the horizon, giving us fantastic panoramic views of sunset over Taipei.
Although we had really enjoyed our culinary experiences thus far in Taipei, it was certainly not as straightforward to get vegetarian cuisine as it had been in Bangkok, and each mealtime had been preceded by a long battle with pictures of meat in bowls and pretty writing we couldn’t read. So that night we headed for the top result on Google for “veggie burger Taipei” – a New Zealand owned burger restaurant called KGB (Kiwi Gourmet Burgers) selling New Zealand craft beers and South African ciders. I had myself a beast of a chicken, bacon and avocado burger with an egg on top for good measure and a beer I’d never had before. Kate had a walnut and lentil burger with a cider and she was a happy lady. But I think I might have pipped her on that one.
After dinner we popped round the corner to a bar called Something Ales, a Taiwan owned ode to craft beers from around the world. I tried a couple of Taiwan beers, and Kate had the only non-beer option; a cappuccino. From there we ventured along the metro to a bar called BeerGeek MicroPub Taipei. This one felt a lot more like an expat bar, with a huge choice of English and American beers as well as a whole shelf dedicated to Tiny Rebel beers (from Wales of course). I had a Taiwanese craft beer, Kate got herself another cider and a super drunk yank. He informed us he was celebrating his birthday by enraging Israelis about his opinions on the West Bank. He also told us all about how he hates Japanese people because they’re racist. He left on his own shortly after, to our great relief. We needed to make a swift exit in order to make the last metro back anyway, but he certainly didn’t slow our departure.
Day 4 was an odd one. We spent the majority of the day strolling through the many underground malls around the main station, including the large one we had been to on our second day. After some clothes shopping, filling out a survey about tourism for college student and a few unsuccessful goes on the crane machines we decided to venture outside into the daylight. We had been warned of another typhoon approaching Taipei that day and at the top of the escalator we were greeted by blankets of rain. We stopped off for a coffee under a good sturdy awning and during this time I decided it would be a fantastic idea to venture in search of a Taiwan staple called stinky tofu. There is a street renowned for being the place to get it in the neighbouring New Taipei called Shen Keng Old Street, a short bus ride from the end of metro line 4. The half hour journey there was generally problem free, bar the horrendous rain. When we got to Shen Keng we quickly realised that stinky tofu was unavailable during typhoons. The street is about 400m long and is supposedly usually packed from end to end with vendors and punters. We walked the whole length (under some very nice old brick awnings thankfully) without the faintest whiff of the stinky stuff.
At the end of it we decided to cut our losses and get a bus back to somewhere a little bit more open. We saw a bus pull up just along the road so we headed in that direction to the bus stop. I knew there were about 5 different buses we could catch so it was just a case of waiting for the next one of those to turn up. 10 minutes went, 20 minutes, 30 minutes and no bus. Then, in the distance, I saw the yellow glow of mandarin. I couldn’t quite make out the number but our odds were good, seeing as there were only 1 or 2 that headed off away from the metro station. As it got nearer, the display changed to English and read “Out Of Service”. It was another 20 minutes before a bus (and 2 more, of course) turned up and took us back towards Taipei. We ended up eating in our favourite foodie hotspot, the train station.
After dinner it was straight back to the hostel in order to try our best to be fresh for our 3am start the following day for our journey to Japan.
Taipei family hostel was again a hostel close to transport, cheap for a private double room and highly rated on the old Hostelworld. It was an unusual hostel, basically a large converted flat close to an intersection of two main roads, with a small living room/common room and an area out the back containing the showers, sinks, water dispenser, toilet and urinal. The owner, Tom, would be there 9-5 and any problems outwith these hours needed to be solved by email, which was fine until we came back one night to a blocked toilet (the only available toilet for females). But our room was nice, with good air conditioning and our own personal flip-flops to use around the hostel. The location was fantastic and overall was a nice place to spend the night but we really didn’t spend much time there at all in the day (when we were awake).