A long weekend in Taiwan

Wednesdays are usually quite unremarkable, but the Wednesday on the 24th of October was different. Patrick, Daniel and I had a few days previous decided to go to Taiwan, so we had booked a very early plane there, and a return flight Saturday. We had prepared as much as to find a hotel in Taipei, and plan a rough itinerary of things to do with help from friends and acquaintances who had already been there, but it all turned out ok anyway.

A helpful sign at the airport, what to do in Taipei.

The reason we went in the first place is that Friday the 26th of October this year is Hari Raya Haji, one of the public holidays in Singapore, so we all had a bit of extra time on our hands. Plus, this is the last long weekend before the exams seriously kick in in November.

Sushi sandwiches.

Flying to Taipei turned out to be a bit further than we expected. Taipei is more than four hours away from Singapore, I guess we just mentally move everything closer together if it is far away from our usual reference points. (Try drawing a map of the world, and comparing it to the real thing. Did you honestly manage to get Africa the right size?)

Arriving at Taoyuan International, we discovered the airport was modern, empty and under renovation. We got through immigration effortlessly, and then faced the challenge of getting into Taipei. The airport is some 40 km outside town, and does not have a railway station. Very odd. But frequent busses travel into town, so we queued up for one. Everyone in front of us got into the first bus, but we had to wait for the second one.

Everyone else in the queue managed to get on board this bus.

While waiting, we discovered that Taipei has quite nice weather. It is warm, but dry, a welcome change from humid Singapore. In fact, we had nice weather for our entire stay, which was very lucky. The next bus eventually arrived, and drove us into central Taipei, dropping everyone off at the Central Station. At this point we had lunch in a foodcourt. I had a sweet red bean soup, Patrick had a rice burger, and Daniel had a hamburger.

Patrick and the riceburger.

After lunch we found the MRT line that would get us to our hotel. We got off at Longshan Temple station, and a very different sight met us. Taiwan up to that point was passing off well as a developed country, but this area of town felt more like backstreet Bangkok than anything else.

The area around the hotel.

Our hotel, the Ferarry hotel, located about 15 minutes walk from the station, was quite nice though. Clean and with very helpful staff. Recommendable if you don’t care about location (which you don’t need to when the MRT functions so well in Taipei). We checked in, dropped our bags, and then planned what to do next. Daniel suggested we find “downtown”, and I remembered one of my friends saying that was around City hall, so we got out the map, and planned how to get there.

Our hotel. Nicer on the inside.

Getting there was surprisingly easy, we walked to Ximen station, the other station close by, and were pleasantly surprised by the area. Kangding road, where our hotel was, didn’t feel nice, but this area did. Lots of people, scooters, bars, lit up advertisements, and a large open square flanked by a historic theatre-cum-arts workshop called the Red House. (Built as Taipei’s first public covered market in the early 1900s.)

The red house in Ximen.

We entered the MRT system at Ximen, and emerged above ground at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall station. Sun Yat Sen was the first president of the Republic of China, and as such the Republic of China, after their expulsion to Taiwan decided to honour him by building a large memorial hall. (Read up on early to mid 20th centrury Chinese history, fascinating stuff with the Nationalists, Imperialists, Boxers, and emergence of the Communists.)

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall and the CBD in the background.

The memorial hall is set in a park with good views of the CBD (central business district) and Taipei 101, the world’s second tallest building. This called for a photo, so we asked one of the friendly dancers (more about that later) to break out of his rhythm for a minute and take a photo of us. He kindly agreed.

Taipei 101 seen from Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. Daniel in the middle, Patrick on the right, me on the left.

At this point we decided to go hunt food, so we walked into the CBD and found a shopping centre spread across several buildings. Besides the A380 sky kitchen (a restaurant themed as its namesake airplane) we found a nice restaurant serving Xiao Long Bao, soup-filled steamed dumplings. Delicious food and nice atmosphere. Patrick claims the name of the restaurant was Shanghai Shanghai, I remember it as Shanghai Shangri-La. But the food was nice, and the dumplings were quite reasonably priced.

(There is approximately a picture for every paragraph, but it is taking too long to insert them, so please see the gallery at the bottom of the post for the rest of the pictures.)

A few things to know about Taipei: They provide free wifi in most public places, for locals and tourists alike. Very nice. They have a bicycle renting scheme, but to sign up you need a Taiwan phone number. Not cool. But we were very happy about the wifi, as all three of us seem to appreciate an internet connection. After the restaurant we found a nice spot with good connectivity and stood around for a bit checking email etc. Online affairs completed, we decided to head towards Shilin Night market. This was also on the MRT system, so onto the train we went again, and emerged at Shilin station.

In my opinion this night market is not really up to scratch with some of the other night markets that Asia has. The one in Chiang Mai had a lot of locally produced things that you might want to buy as presents, but this one seemed to have clothes, shoes and food stalls. It is true that the food stalls were quite nice, I had some glazed strawberries, but the prices were a bit high all things considering. One of the weirdest food stalls though must have been the one seen on the picture below.

Having walked through the night market, we headed back to the hotel, briefly considering whether to have a drink at one of the bars in Ximen, but deciding against it due to the high prices.

The next morning we got up quite late, just managed breakfast before they started removing the dishes, and then headed towards Taipei 101. Along the way we stopped at Longshan Temple, a beautiful old dual-denominated Taoist and Buddhist temple.

They had a lot of tents up, presumably due to a festival, we never found out. But it was quite peaceful, I could easily have spent a bit longer there. It was also clear that this was an actual temple in use, and not primarily a tourist attraction.

Again walking past Sun Yat Sen Memorial hall it was quite easy to get a bit overwhelmed by the height of Taipei 101, named as such because it has 101 floors. The tower rises out of a fancy shopping mall with more brand name stores than you can shake a diamond studded cashmere lined stick at, but not particularly worth taking photos of.

We were prepared for long queues to get up into the tower, but no such queues were there. It later transpired we chose the right time, when we came down again large squadrons of Mainland Chinese tourists appeared, led on by flag-bearers with megaphones.

Getting up through the tower is surprisingly fast. The tower is no longer the world’s tallest, but it still has the world’s fastest passenger elevator, travelling at 101 metres per minute (I see what they did there…)

Unfortunately the outside observation deck was closed, but the indoor observation floor on the 89th floor was open, so we spent a good hour or two looking out through the windows and reading the very informative descriptions about the building of the tower and the challenges faced during construction.

We had lunch at Din Tai Fung, a restaurant chain that has claimed multiple Michelin stars for their Hong Kong branches. Their Xiao Long Bao was, although smaller than the one from the day before, if possible more tasty. We were served by a well-spoken waitress who had grown up in Singapore, which was quite coincidental. And another thing I like about restaurants in Taipei is that they keep your teacup topped up with Chinese Tea throughout your meal for no extra cost.

Lunch done, Daniel had to leave us to attend to some business on his father’s behalf, so Patrick and I decided to investigate our options for travelling the next day. We were due in Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s second city, on the south-western coast of Taiwan) during the evening, and along the way wanted to visit some of the sights in Central Taiwan. But unfortunately the high speed trains only connect the big cities, and not the national parks, so the helpful people at the information desk at Taipei Central station said we would be in quite a rush to fit in both Alishan and Sun Moon lake in one day.

That known, Patrick and I then went to Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. This is a very large public park/memorial/cultural institution, containing the Memorial Hall itself, and the national theatre and concert hall, both huge Chinese style buildings.

We stayed here for quite some time, marvelling at the architecture and standing in the Memorial Hall itself. Quite a nice place. Inside the Memorial Hall is a museum, a gallery detailing the life of Chiang Kai Shek, the “generallisimo” (this was in fact a term used in the exhibition) and president of R.O.C. at various times during the 1930s and 40s, including during their relocation to Taiwan, and a large statue of him.

When darkness fell we yet again noticed the presence of dancers outside the concert hall and national theatre. Each troupe brings along its own portable loudspeaker, and then just dance, often routines. There does not seem to be a lot of interaction between the troupes, but they seem to be having quite a bit of fun, and to be quite good at dancing. Makes me wonder how they met up in the first place, since it does not seem organised from above.

Eventually Daniel reappeared, with Ted and Paul, two very nice Taiwanese young men, who he had met earlier through his dad’s contacts. We spent the rest of the evening with them, seeing Taipei by car, which meant we could go to more out of the way places. We eat at a local restaurant, which served delicious food, and went to the Palace Museum grounds. The museum was of course long closed for the day, but it was still possible to get a sense of the scale of the building.

We also passed by a famous hotel overlooking the river. Ted and Paul told us how this hotel was built by the president’s wife, and how there was a secret tunnel leading to a nearby military base. To round off the evening we had a drink at a rooftop bar in the shadow of Taipei 101. Ted and Paul were very helpful in helping us plan the trip we were going on the next day, recommending we take the bus to Sun Moon lake, and taking us to buy tickets.

The next morning we were up very early, aiming for the 7am bus to Sun Moon lake. We checked out of the hotel and got a taxi to the bus station. The trip to the lake was a good few hours, but quite painless. We arrived in the coastal tourist town of Shueishe, and picked up a few brochures to plan the rest of the day. We got lunch at a nice restaurant. We broke the first rule of eating in Asia, go where other people are, based on the fact that everyone else in the town is also tourists, so no one knows the good places, but it turned out to be nice food anyway. We had wild boar, which was thinly sliced, almost like roastbeef.

Sun Moon lake is tourist infested to a surreal extent, and it is supposedly even worse on Saturdays and Sundays (we were there Friday), but we got a boat across the lake to a pier lying below a temple at the start of a two kilometre forest trail. We decided to aim for the Ci’en pagoda at the top of one of the hills visible from the lake, a two kilometre walk. Unfortunately most of the walk was uphill with stairs.

Along the way there was a small market next to a small temple selling souvenirs and, among other foods, tea eggs, eggs that have been boiled in tea infused with mushrooms. Surprisingly tasty. The inside of the egg is brown from the tea that has seeped through the shell. We cointinued the walk towards the pagoda, which still seemed far away.

Arriving at the pagoda, I climbed up it while Patrick and Daniel sensibly had a rest. At the top of the pagoda was a spectacular view of the lake and the surrounding mountains, and a large bell just asking to be rung. So ring it I did, as did the small handful of other tourists who had made the trek up to the pagoda. This place felt much more peaceful.

Everyone having rung the bell, we headed back down the path, took the boat back to Shueishe, and after a bit of waiting around and my first bubble tea, got the bus to Taichung High Speed Rail station. This trip was a good few hours as well, but the train to Zuoying (Kaohsiung) was very fast, travelling non-stop at 300 km/h for about an hour and a half.

At the station we were met by Amber and her aunt, and went for dinner at a japanese themed seafood restaurant in Kaohsiung. I know this is getting repetitive, but the food was superb. And Amber’s aunt showed us how to shell shrimps in four movements, a skill that is quite difficult to acquire, but very useful.

The rest of the evening was spent touring Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city located on a broad river that they have branded as “love river.” We also met Amber’s uncle, and had a nice talk over some coffee and tea by the river.

We stayed at a hotel, and next morning were picked up by Amber and her aunt again. We then drove to Fo Guang Shan temple, where they have recently completed construction of a “Buddha Memorial Center” to function as both an outreach centre, temple, Buddhist university and primarily to house Buddha’s tooth, a relic that has been in the possession of a Tibetan monk in exile for thirty years, but handed over to the master of Fo Guang Shan monastery, Venerable Master Hsing Yun in 1998.

The complex consists of eight pagodas, a central stupa, and a large sitting Buddha. We were shown around by an Australian lady, who had converted to Buddhism some years ago. She told us about the construction of the place, done in large part by volunteers, and about Buddhism. Quite an interesting and monumental place.

We eat at a vegetarian restaurant in the welcome hall of the complex. The food was, unsurprisingly by now, good. But what was interesting was how the managed to satisfy the tastebuds fully with meat-like experiences (the umami taste I believe it is called) using mushrooms and other clever combinations of tastes.

Driving back to Zuoying station to get the two hour train to the airport, I was quite pleased with how much we had managed to achieve in Taiwan. And it is true, as everyone had told us, that we could easily have stayed for a few more days. Only negative, which I discovered at the station, was that I had lost my laptop. But everything was encrypted on it, and I had backups of everything in multiple places, so it was only an annoyance. Anyway, can’t really blame Taiwan for that.

Author: jpamills

Website: www.jpamills.dk

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