Taipei: Monday â€“ Friday
Itâ€™s a joy to live an easy 2 hour flight away from Taiwan, a country boastful of its cheap eats and nights on the streets (in reference to its famous night markets of course). I spent a good working week in and around the capital and was left satisfied and saturated with holiday fun.ã€€There was nothing mundane, repetitive or routine about Taipei; everyday was different, a change from my usual â€œrepeat after meâ€ world of work.
We landed in the early evening as Taipei was waking. The sun was setting and the stalls were setting up. Taiwan is fruitful in its night markets; itâ€™s easy to stumble into one whichever area you seem to be in. We dived straight into the mother of all of them and the biggest in town, Shilin Night Market. Networks of streets overfilled with food, overflowing with people, overjoyed with custom. We had plunged right into what Taipei was all about. The variety of food ranged from jacket potatoes for the novice to whole squid bodies for the daring. The tangled smells of grilled chicken parts, fresh fruit and red bean filled desserts tied together surprisingly well. It was a great chance to taste all sorts of Taiwanese food in one, slightly overwhelming, street market.
Yes the food was tantalizing but there was a bit more to Shilin than food on sticks. Reams of brightly lit, girly accessory stores blared K-Pop and sold mainly shoes and phone cases, all as kawaii as ever. Iâ€™ve been to a fair few night markets and I have to say the sellers at Shilin were pretty tame. There was no hassling, haggling or harassing for a sale which left this tourist comfortable and happy to browse the stalls.
We clocked out from the bustle at the early hour of 10pm, instead of staying â€˜til 12 or 1am ingesting yet more grilled meats. The extra couple of hours spent sleeping paid off the next day.
It doesnâ€™t count as a holiday unless you take a day trip (or two). Takoro Gorge is south-east of Taipei city and close to the semi-rural town of Hualien. If you look up this gorgeous gorge (couldnâ€™t resist that obvious alliteration) you may find bucket loads of (chotto) expensive tours and one which features a 30 minute plane ride. But in reality you can get there easily, affordably and without a pilot. We took the TRA (Taiwan Railway Administration) for two and half hours (NT$800) and found ourselves in the inaka. It was a refreshing contrast to the busy happenings of the night before. The fresh air, sunshine and scenery were, unfortunately, all slightly ruined by the shed load of bus tours and bright yellow taxis; oh how tourism is an ugly necessity. We struck a good, yet slightly risky, deal with an English (Japanese, Chinese, Taiwaneseâ€¦) speaking taxi driver. We hired this self-proclaimed linguist/driver for NT$600 each for the day (a bit less than the bus tour).
The gorge is an immense mass of rock with streams flowing through the white-washed crevasses. Hollowed caves work as throughways for cars and double as a playground for swallows. Most of our time was spent peering over bridges comprehending the depth of the drop then looking far into the distance, somehow still managing to have the gorge in sight. I felt like a speck in the world as I was panoramically surrounded by stone.
Takoro gorge is in one of Taiwanâ€™s eight national parks and itâ€™s definitely worth a visit. On a sunny Tuesday, we were lucky to miss the designated bus tour times and have the gorge almost to ourselves; well it felt like it at least.
Another day trip planned (but this time much closer) was to the tea hills of Taiwan. Our 45 minute train ride was a steal at NT$90 and took us to the old town of Ruifang. From the characteristic railway station we taxied to Jiaufen to begin a little trek up narrow, stall-lined streets to the peak of tea heaven. It was like Shilin, but condensed significantly and offering a more alluring variety of food. Every other stall was selling Oolong tea and between them were cute wooden trinkets stalls along with more unique souvenirs. When we reached the top, a tea house seemed to have appeared, unnoticed. Tea and terracotta filled the walls of this vast, warm establishment, naturally named Jioufen Teahouse. We were seated with our own pot of water, charmingly boiling on coals, as we waited for our tea expert. The leaves were chosen and when the lady came, she went through the â€˜properâ€™ way to make a brew. We relaxed with a fragile cup of Oolong and took turns mimicking the procedure we had been taught just moments before. We left with tea leaves in a handy gift bag and set off for our next stop. (NT$100 per person for water, NT$400 for tea leaves).
Shifen (are you getting confused yet?) is a quaint railway town famous for pretty much one thing â€“ fire lanterns. You know those romantic paper lanterns that fly away into the sky. The latter half of the railway tracks were lined with fellow tourists releasing huge, colourful, personalized lanterns into the dimming sky. At NT$100 a pop we were straight in, paint brushes in hand. We spent an unreasonable amount of time decorating all four sides of the lantern with typical things like â€œTaipei 2013â€ but the idea was to write wishes and send them off to be granted. We posed for an unfathomable amount of photos from all angles before we handed our beloved lantern to the atmosphere.
The train ride back to the city was spent half dozing and half discussing what to wear that night. As a chic Asian city, Taipei brags about its ability to keep people entertained into the early hours. We had to see what all the fuss was about. Plus, Wednesday night was ladies night!
Luxy was our main contender for the night; the portfolio of A-List celebrities that have performed there was enough to gain our custom. Strangely, the best part of the night may have been exiting the elevator into the club. It was like being in The Matrix/Mission Impossible, green lasers everywhere, and when youâ€™ve had a few cocktails you think youâ€™re Neo himself. The club was a big rowdy party, Thor and Captain American were prancing around pouring unnamed alcohol into passersbyâ€™s mouths; the dance floor and stage were packed and at one point in the night a neon army of glowing dancers performed. It felt like Vegas. Bright lights, big city indeed.
What is your hangover food of choice? A Michelin star dumpling? Itâ€™s not mine either but we were heading to Din Tai Fung, a dumpling restaurant that originated in Taipei and is now selectively open in countries across Asia and North America. Itâ€™s in the basement of Taiwanâ€™s tallest building, Taipei 101, and has a ticketed seating system so you know itâ€™s worth it. People wait, staring at the screen, chanting their seat number in their heads, all for a tiny Asian delight, xiaolongbao. This dumpling is a steamed treat of half pork, half soup; a taste explosion in your mouth, a soup grenade if you will. The precision to which this dumpling is made earned its star. The fishbowl style kitchen encourages diners to watch the chefs prepare thousands of dumplings in a nothing-to-hide kind of way. Ten of these steamed goodies cost a modest NT$120 so there is no excuse not to try Taiwanâ€™s most famous product.
After lunching on the national treasure we significantly lowered our standards by touring the themed cafes of Taipei. First stop, the newly opened Barbie CafÃ©. Itâ€™s everything you would expect and blindingly more. Hot pink ferociously jumps off every wall and Barbie has been transformed into everything imaginable. It is an outrageous place, worth a looksie and a few curious photos. Next stop, Hello Kitty Sweets. We were geared up with our Kitty Chan glasses on and a hunger for desserts.
Much to our disappointment, the exterior was tired and dated while the interior was dirty and lacking fresh kawaiiness.Â My Kitty Chan brain made me stay for cake and a coffee, which was a mistake. Iâ€™m not sure it was even worth the photos. The very cheesy cheesecake and the mediocre coffee set me back NT$500.
To top off a touristy day we went to the top of Taipei 101 (NT$450). At one point it was the worldâ€™s tallest building, until Dubai decided to enter the fray of course. To get to the top of (what once was) the worldâ€™s tallest building, we rode the worldâ€™s fasted elevator, and between the 87th and 91st floors we were introduced to the worldâ€™s biggest Tuned Mass Damper (TMD), a huge ball of mass made to reduce movement in high rises, the future of earthquake proofing.
I felt a sense of achievement after hitting so many â€˜World bestsâ€™ in one place.
TGIF is usually the first thing I think, text or read on a Friday morning, but that Friday I wished it wasnâ€™t Friday. Every day of the week threw something different at me, creating the best mix for a 5 day getaway. I had only a few hours left on this city break and I knew how to best make use of the time; a last supper.
The other mouthwateringly famous, line-up outside for a table, type of food I had to try was Taiwanese beef noodle soup. A 10 minute taxi ride out of the city centre drove us, literally, into a crowd queuing outside a small, but full, noodle restaurant. The hearty noodle bowl came and food envy dissipated. The meaty concoction was incomparable. I was content with leaving now.
The place is heavily influenced by Japanese culture, unsurprising as their relationship is strong. Japanese is widely used in Taiwan, I would say more so than English. There were definitely a few times where my broken Japanese came to the rescue. The transport system is clean and efficient and the only real difference is the price, Taipei wins that round. The other very noticeable thing is the number of 7/11s around, sharing Japans combini culture. I guess Taiwan felt like a home away from home (away from home?).
100NT$ – 332å††ã€€(xe.com, as of April 31st)
Takoro GorgeÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â www.taroko.gov.tw
LuxyÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â www.luxy-taipei.com
Din Tai FungÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â www.dintaifung.com.tw
Hello Kitty SweetsÂ Â Â Â Â www.hellokittysweets.com.tw
Taipei 101Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â www.taipei-101.com