Monday, 24 July 2017

Taipei City | Taiwan Part 1

     So, anyone who read my last post carefully, or who follows me on other social media, will know that since I've now finished my job in Hong Kong, I will be travelling through several Asian countries for the next two months, before eventually returning to the UK again. And my first destination is Taiwan! I'm staying here for five nights, with four full days at my disposal, which is longer than I typically spend in most places, so it's been a slightly more laid-back experience that usual for me. I looked into the possibility of exploring more of the island, but it was going to be tight even with five nights, so I opted to base myself in Taipei, but do a few day trips as well as explore the city. The city is part 1 of my Taiwan posts though, which I spent two full days exploring. Here we go!

Taipei 101 building, Taiwan

Day One
     I arrived in Taipei early evening the day before, but didn't do much other than check into my hotel. I'll be staying in various types of accommodation over the course of this trip, often depending on who I'm travelling with at that point. Taiwan is a solo adventure though, so I'm staying in Inn Cube 3S, a 'capsule' type hotel, with small rooms and shared bathroom facilities - I'm on a budget after all! It's very close to Taipei Main Station though, so it's been very easy for getting around everywhere. I slept in on my first morning since, as I mentioned, I had plenty of time in Taipei, and I still want to relax on this holiday too! From the hotel, I walked down in the direction of the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, a 20 minute or so walk away. The streets I passed through felt similar to most other big Asian cities, with lots of shops (local and international brands), busy traffic, and plenty of people. I've also noticed so far, and it's well worth mentioning, that the people here have been very patient and helpful whenever I've looked a little lost or not understood something (not that I have too often so far, since everything is written in English most of the time), unlike in some other places where there is little patience for English speaking tourists. Taiwan has also felt very safe, a big plus when you're a solo female traveller like me, and especially in Asia, where I stand out even more as a Westerner. To get to the memorial, I also passed through the Peace Memorial Park, which was a nice grassy space, with some interesting sculptures to admire.

Peace Memorial Park, Taipei, Taiwan

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, Taiwan

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, Taiwan

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, Taiwan

     I soon arrived at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, which was a much bigger structure than I'd been anticipating! The main hall is the huge white building, but there are two more halls (not open though), the entrance gate, and the large grounds all around it too. It took me a good few minutes to walk across the whole thing, especially in this summer heat (I have been a walking bucket of sweat for this entire trip so far!).The main hall hosts a bronze statue of Chiang Kai Shek, not a person I was familiar with at first, seeing as I don't know all that much about Taiwan's history! Fortunately, the lower levels of the hall have a small museum about his life, from which I learned that he was the former President of the Republic of China, before being ousted by the Communist Party, when he retreated to Taiwan, and from where he planned to reclaim the mainland one day (but never did). This was all free of charge too - Taiwan has been very cheap overall, which is great for my budget! I also had a quick browse of the gift shop, and already found myself a magnet for Taiwan (for those who don't know, I collect one for all the places I've visited around the world, so I'll have the best fridge ever one day). From there, I continued walking through the city, taking one of the main roads east, towards Taipei 101. I could've taken the MRT, but I wanted to get a feel for the city beyond just the major sights (something I've been unable to do on shorter visits, like to Beijing). It was pretty similar to most cities I have to say, and I was pouring with sweat by the time I reached my destination, but I was also in no rush, so the walk was more interesting than the subway would have been.

     Taipei 101 was visible quite quickly during my walk, being as big as it is! It's definitely one of the most iconic features of Taipei, and certainly the sight I was most familiar with prior to this trip. I'm pretty used to seeing huge skyscrapers these days, but I like the unique design of this one. I was also a big fan of the piano in the lobby, whose keys moved as if an invisible man was playing the music I could hear. Much of the building is offices, conference rooms, and a hotel, as far as I could tell, but the lower few levels are a mall, which I wandered around for while - though most of the shops were designer labels, a little out of my budget! I'd been intending to stop for a coffee or something, but found myself at the observatory ticket office before stopping off anywhere. I got my ticket anyway though - at NTD600, it was the most expensive thing I did in Taipei, but still not too pricey - and discovered that it came with a discount at the cafe next to the ticket desk. I decided to switch out coffee for bubble tea, seeing as it originated here. Turns out that the bubble tea I've had before was the pearls with liquid inside, whereas these were the original tapioca-like ones, which I quickly decided weren't my favourite - oh well, at least I tried it!

Statue inside the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, Taiwan

Grand piano in the lobby of Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan

View from the Observatory in the Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan

Super Big Wind Damper inside Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan

     The lift whisked us up nearly 90 floors in just over 30 seconds, and despite the claims made, this experience did not agree with my dodgy ears (I've always been susceptible to pains and infections and them popping, and all that fun stuff). The sensation faded pretty quickly fortunately, and I was distracted taking in the views from the 89th floor of the tower. There was an outdoor deck a couple more levels up too, but only half of it was open because of wind, and you had to peer through metal fencing, so the glass walls were actually a better option. I don't know Taipei well enough to recognise much of what I was looking at, but it was a clear day so I could see pretty far. Watching the planes land at the nearby airport (not the larger commercial one outside the city that I flew into) was a good way to pass the time, and I ended up just sitting there, taking in the view for quite a while. It was also nice to have a seat and be in the air conditioning after my walk earlier! The other interesting thing was the 'Super Big Wind Damper', whose sign caught my eye with a name like that. Turned out, there's a massive weight suspended in the middle of the building, which swings during typhoons and earthquakes, to stabilise the whole structure. Eventually, I descended again - down turned out to be worse than up at that speed! - and then spent a little longer inside the 101, getting some early dinner from the large selection in the food court, before heading to my final destination of the day.

     From the 101, it's only a short walk east to the Elephant Mountain hiking trail, a popular choice for sunset, which is what I'd been waiting around for. It's not a long or difficult trail, only taking around half an hour, and it's paved stairs the whole way, so I managed it just fine even in my flip flops. However, even at 6pm it was over 30 degrees, and I was quite literally dripping with sweat by the time I reached the top - this is also when one of the benefits of travelling solo became apparent to me, as it was only strangers who saw me in such an un-glamorous state. I was a mess, quite frankly! The sunset was well worth it though. A few people had climbed up onto the large rocks lower down the path, to get an unobstructed view, but most people were on the viewing platform, although it wasn't too busy luckily. I sat and waited for the sun to get lower, before moving forward to get a good spot, which is when being tall comes in handy again, as I could just lift my camera over people's heads! The sun setting with the iconic outline of the 101 silhouetted against that was an impressive sight, which continued as the city lights came on during my descent, and I'm very pleased with some of the photos I got. The only downside was, being the idiot that I am, I forgot to put on bug spray, and was definitely sporting several bites down my legs by the time I got back to the bottom of the hill!

Sunset from Elephant Mountain, Taipei, Taiwan

Night skyline after sunset from Elephant Mountain, Taipei, Taiwan


Day Two
     This was a similarly lazy start to the day, as I had plenty of time to see everything on my list, especially since my plans extended into the evening again. I left the hotel late morning, and started walking in the opposite direction to the day before, towards Ximen. I'd read online before coming that this was a popular 'sub-culture' area, similar to Harajuku in Japan. Sure enough, there was a large anime sign welcoming you to the area, but I didn't think the rest of the pedestrianised street was of particular note; it was mostly a lot of big brand shops, with a few smaller restaurants and a couple quirkier shops scattered along it. There were a few fun pieces of street art, but not much else I'd say. I carried on along some quieter roads, before eventually reaching my destination, Longshan Temple (sometimes spelled Lungshan). I've seen my fair share of temples over the last couple of years, so these days I'll only prioritise the main ones in any new places I visit, and this one came up nearly every time I searched for the main sights in Taipei. The smell of incense hit me straight away, as I was greeted with the familiar sight of people praying to Buddha statues, holding their incense sticks in front of them, before planting them in the holders around the temple, and the many tables laden down with fruit, flowers, and other offerings (a lot of crisps at this one I noticed!). The small waterfall in the entrance courtyard was a nice addition, and I was also a big fan of the carvings in the black stonework, which were very dramatic next to the red lanterns and gold roof.

Ximen district, Taipei, Taiwan

Street art in Ximen district, Taipei, Taiwan

Longshan Temple, Taipei, Taiwan

Details on Longshan Temple, Taipei, Taiwan

      I wandered around the temple for a while, but it's not a big structure so it didn't take too long, before returning back in the direction I'd come from. I passed through Ximen again, in case I'd missed anything there, but that didn't seem to be the case. I ended up near the Peace Park again - I'd been heading in the general direction of my hotel, but without the intention of actually going back there - and so decided to have a look in the National Museum there. I'd skipped it the day before, as museums aren't often top of my priority list, but I had plenty of time to spare. I also remembered seeing a museum mentioned a lot during my research online, but that was actually the Palace Museum, which was more out of the way, so I never made it there. It turned out a lot of it was closed for renovation, so the only exhibition open was about stone formation artwork (it's mostly a natural history) museum, which was actually really pretty, and not at all what I'd been expecting. It wasn't a long stop off for me, but it was something a little different.

     After a pit stop in a cafe for food and caffeine - I do love that Taipei has a bigger choice of cafes than just Starbucks, an area in which Hong Kong is quite limited - I hopped on the MRT and set off for the Lin An Tai Historic House. To get there, I had to get off the red line at Yuanshan and walk about 20 minutes there. I didn't mind this of course, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the route took me through the Taipei Expo Park, which had lots of fun things to see along the way. First was a Farmer's Market, mostly selling fresh produce, so I didn't purchase anything, but it was still fun to walk through and look at what they had - you don't see nearly so much dragonfruit at markets back home! The next park had several art installations, and I was a big fan of the tin farmer, his tin dog and tin livestock - can I get that in our garden for my dad and brother some day? Then I passed through a flower tunnel, and past several Pavilions, with names like 'Pavilion of Dreams' and 'Pavilion of Future'. It all made for a much more interesting walk than I'd expected! The historic house was also pretty interesting, though you could only learn so much from the English pamphlet - a guide would tell you more, but I wasn't paying for one just for myself, and enough of it was similar to historic houses in other parts of Asia, that I had a general idea of what a lot of it was for. The house itself wasn't that big, but it had large gardens attached, including a pond with pavilions and bridges around it, and even a small waterfall, which you could climb up the back of (it was artificial, I should add) and sit at the top. This was another free attraction, and what I really liked was all the activities on offer, aimed at kids on their summer holidays. It was clearly for kids, and all in Chinese, but it was nice to watch children doing DIY crafts, painting beside the pond, playing with traditional games, and performing in the choir show taking place. I'm so used to seeing kids glued to their phones all the time, that this was a refreshing change!

National Taiwan Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

Farmer's Market at Taipei Expo Park, Taipei, Taiwan

Tin farmer art exhibition in Taipei Expo Park, Taipei, Taiwan

Lin An Tai Historic House, Taipei, Taiwan

     I made my way back to the MRT, retracing my steps through the park, and returned to the hotel to rest for an hour or two, before my final destination of the day. It turned out that one of my co-workers from my most recent job (she has also finished there now) was in Taiwan at the same time as me, though only for three nights; we were actually on the same flight here from Hong Kong! She was on a trip with her aunt though, so we weren't planning on spending all our time together, but we did want to see each other again before she went back to Hong Kong. We'd been at some of the same sights over these two days already, but kept missing each other, so we made a plan to meet up and visit the Shilin Night Market. Taipei has several night markets, and loads of street food on offer, but this seemed to be the biggest and most popular. She and her aunt also speak Cantonese and Mandarin (though the Taiwan Mandarin dialect is quite different they said), so they were a great choice for going to a market, the sort of place I most commonly run into language barriers, and could explain to me what lots of the foods were. The market was very, very busy, so it also helped to be there together, so we could chat to distract ourselves - we both agreed, we'd have gotten annoyed far quicker had we been on our own! We wandered along the food street (there were a few stalls selling other things, but the majority was food), stopping to take photos of some of the more unusual offerings, while debating what we actually wanted to try, since there was no way our stomachs could take everything! We ended up getting some large skewers of squid first, which we munched on standing at the edge of the street - they were a little chewy, but otherwise good! She had done more research into Taiwanese food than I had, and recommended beef noodles, so we found a place selling them, which conveniently had air conditioned seating upstairs too! The noodles were very good, even though I was too full to finish it all. We managed to squeeze in some desert though, in the form of fruit drinks (I decided against bubble tea with the tapioca pearls again), and I had a very refreshing strawberry smoothie! We wandered back through the market, passing by game booths and lots of stalls selling packaged foods, not choosing to buy anything else though, before making our way back to the MRT.

Lin An Tai Historic House, from the top of the waterfall, Taipei, Taiwan

Street food at Shilin Night Market, Taipei, Taiwan

Street food at Shilin Night Market, Taipei, Taiwan

Beef and seafood noodles from Shilin Night Market, Taipei, Taiwan

     She was heading back to Hong Kong the next morning, so we said our goodbyes. She's also moving to Canada soon, and it definitely made me stop for a second and appreciate how many friends I've made all over the world in the last few years. I don't speak to a lot of them all the time - I suck at staying in touch with people! - but Facebook makes it easy to contact them again, so I look forward to the times when I end up in the same country as some of them again! I went straight to bed back at the hotel, since I still had two more days to explore Taiwan. Taipei was definitely fun, but I'd been to most of the main sights in those first two days, so I was eager to start venturing further afield - but that has to wait for Part 2!

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