Taipei Part I

13 Mar

We left the airport to beautiful weather reminiscent of early spring at home: definitely rain brewing in the atmosphere, but surprisingly warm. We hopped on a bus that took us into the city and from there got on the metro to the Dingxi stop by our hostel. Right away, a woman approached us asking if we needed any help and guided us to our hostel, after telling us it was a shame that we payed for a hostel already because we could have just stayed with her. While initially surprised by the genuine nature of this woman, it soon became clear that Taiwanese people are extremely friendly. We walked toward the hostel, Two Half Floors, which was on a lane off of a street. The tiny lanes that branch off streets have numbers themselves, which is slightly confusing. An address will have the house number followed by the lane number and then the street name. We made it to the hostel, down the most precious Christmas-lighted street, and walked into complete silence. No one was around in the home-turned-hostel, so we set our bags down, rested for a bit and then set off to do some walking around. First, however, we had to make a stop at a very popular spot around the corner from the hotel, which spits out different types of breads all day long to get ourselves some shao bing, basically a flaky, layered flatbread topped with sesame seeds. We opted to have an omelette stuffed inside the shao bing and also had a garlic-packed leek fritter on the side.


Taipei is amazing. Truly, truly amazing. We clocked a lot of miles that first day walking to Taipei 101 building, formally called the Taipei World Financial Center, which was the world’s tallest building from 2004-2009, until the building of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. The part of the city we walked through was quiet, because it was a Sunday or because it always has a beautiful calmness I don’t know. The layout is intricate, with plenty of little streets to walk down, the streets are exceptionally clean, and the public transport unparalleled. We walked sleepily towards the tower, gawking at the amazing looking food along the way. We saw the tower, which, while boasting a unique design, reminded me of a NYC skyscraper. We attempted to go into the mall, knowing that we’d need sweatshirts for our time here, but were way too tired to even attempt. We took the subway back to the hostel, where we didn’t move from our beds for the rest of the evening. The subway system is a mix of what I got in Malaysia and Singapore. Like Malaysia, it has a token system for one time rides, where you buy the token for a specific stop, scan the token to get in, and then must deposit the token to exit, ensuring that you’re in the right destination based on the amount the trip cost. Like Singapore, you can’t eat or drink on the subway system, resulting in spectacularly clean transport, the trains were always timely, and they have a secure door that prevents people from getting too close to the track. Additionally, the Taiwanese are so considerate and respectful, that the priority seats don’t even get used by all those young and able. While the sign simply requests that people stand and offer those particular seats to those in need, a train will be full with people standing and those seats remain unoccupied, simply to keep them available for anyone who comes on and actually needs them.  


The next day we decided to do a free walking tour, but since it wasn’t until 2:00 PM we hopped on the metro to go to Lungshan Temple, a Buddhist temple built in 1738 that also has halls altars for Chinese deities. It was definitely the most crowded temple I’ve ever seen, with hands grasping incense and coming together fervently in prayer all around us. The sound of wooden pieces hitting the floor brought my attention to kneeling people, holding two red, half moon shaped pieces, praying and throwing them to the ground, anxiously decoding the messages. We later found out that this is how people speak to the gods. The two half moon pieces have a rounded surface and a flat surface. After asking a yes or no question and throwing the pieces, you receive one of three answers. Both flat sides down indicates a no. Both rounded sides down indicates that the question is not clear enough or that you’re not asking the right question. One flat side down and one flat side up indicates a yes. We walked around the temple and appreciated all the Chinese New Year decor, with most displays boasting majestic looking chickens. For lunch, we headed to a famous spot for beef noodles. While still a soup, it was very different from the beef noodle soup I’ve had in Southeast Asia. The broth was a deep color, already spicy, and the beef was slow cooked in chunks rather than thin slices, and tasted of pot roast. While the beef was definitely too fatty for my liking, it was still a delicious dish. We then hurried over to 8 Percent, to quench Christine’s thirst for strange Taiwanese ice cream flavors with the classic black sesame, which, while overpowering at first, grows on you with its nutty aftertaste.   


We were running short on time and had to book it over to where the tour was meeting, arriving at 2:00 PM exactly. We were doing the old town tour, through TourMeAway, an organization started by young Taiwanese individuals who went traveling and loved the free walking tours in European cities. They wanted to do something similar in Taipei, encouraging tourists to learn more about the city and its history. The efforts clearly work because the group was massive. The tour was phenomenal and went over its stated two hour time slot. We learned so much about the history of Taiwan, which we were embarrassed to admit we knew nothing about. We had plenty of questions about the relationship between Taiwan and China, and our tour guide Tanya was happy to answer our questions without making us feel stupid. One of the most important stops on our tour was the 228 Peace Memorial, where we learned about the most tumultuous time in Taiwan’s history, the February 28 Massacre, occurring in 1947, just after World War II. During this time, Taiwan was completely under control of the Republic of China father 50 years of Japanese colonial rule. On this day, an Taiwanese widow was selling cigarettes on the street, which was an illegal action. A young Chinese officer came over to her and attempted to confiscate all her items from her as payment for doing something illegal. She begged to keep her things, but the officer refused and got rough with her, pointing a gun to her head and causing her to fall to the ground. In a country so respectful of the elderly, this did not fly. People came out to the streets during the commotion to ask the officer why he was harming the woman. The crowd became overwhelming for the officer, so he shot his gun into the air in an attempt to calm them. However, the bullet hit a man standing out on his balcony as he was observing that was going on below. He was killed and fell over his balcony. Distracted by the violent death, the people did not notice the cop sneaking away. He went to the police station, and the station locked its doors, avoiding any questioning from the civilians. They protested outside the Governor-Generals Office, and when the door was finally unlocked the crowd thought they would receive an explanation. Instead, a machine gun came out from behind the door and shot into the crowd in an attempt to disperse it. In Early March, troops from mainland China entered Taiwan, and went on a killing spree, shooting anyone in the streets and even breaking into homes to kill people. At the end of the Taiwanese rebellion between 3,000 and 4,000 Taiwanese were executed. Taiwan was placed under martial law for 38 years and 57 days, the second longest period of martial law in history behind that of Syria from 1963 to 2011. The Chinese government finally acknowledged and took responsibility for the incidents of February 28, 2947 in 1995, when President Lee Teng-Hui apologized on the anniversary of the incident. The memorial represents three groups of people coming together, the Taiwanese, aboriginals and Chinese. The center of the memorial contains a waterfall surrounded by molds of handprints, which visitors lean against in a bowing manner that pays respect to victims. 


We also had few other stops, such as a foot reflexology path, where we painfully walked along stones without our shoes on. It was truly painful and we couldn’t make it across the path. We learned that Taiwan has the largest gay pride parade in Asia, and will likely be the first Asian country to pass gay marriage. We also learned that the official name of Taiwan is The Republic of China (China’s official name is The People’s Republic of China) and that the Taiwanese cannot visit China unless they get a specific Mainland Travel Permit, as the People’s Republic of China does not consider the Republic of China passport as a valid travel document. We went to an ice cream place called Snow King on the tour, which Christine had wanted to go to anyway. This place has been making ice cream for 70 years, and doesn’t hold back on originality. Some of its more ridiculous flavors include pork knuckle, sesame chicken, wasabi and red kidney bean, among plenty of other strange vegetable flavors. I played it pretty safe with some fabulous taro ice cream while Christine got the wasabi, which was surprisingly tasty when you got over the feeling that you were simply eating straight wasabi. The tour ended in the young and lively part of Taipei, the Red House District, which people describe as a mini Times Square. Freezing cold, we headed into H&M to buy ourselves some sweatshirts, the first I would need in months, and headed back to the hostel. Christine went straight to bed that night, but I ventured out to Lehua Night Market, about a 15 minute walk from where we were staying. There were so many options yet all I ended up with was grilled corn coated in some brown caramelized sauce, which I could not figure out the flavor profile of, and then a bag of strawberries, which are in season in Taiwan.


The next day we ventured out of the city, taking the subway and a bus to Wulei, an aboriginal, mountainous area within the city of Taipei known for its nearby trekking routes. However, it started raining just as we got there, and we knew we were doomed for any sort of trail. We instead sat in a restaurant and drank a beer waiting for the rain to pass and watching the chef work his magic for all the food orders. Unfortunately, we weren’t hungry after our shao bing and shrimp dumplings for breakfast, so we sat and watched the different food coming out. When the rain settled a bit, we walked up to the waterfall and past the adorable aboriginal shops. After a bit of walking we went back down into the town. While I was waiting for a grilled chicken skewer, I got a whiff of the most perfect amaretto scent. I ventured across the street to investigate and found the smell coming from a big steaming pot of white liquid, which seemed to be some sort of almond milk. We bought one to try and quickly got another after tasting the slightly sweet, creamy, amaretto liquid. Seriously, it was one of the best things I have ever drank. We could not figure out the name of it and the people didn’t understand us, so we held our warm cups of heaven close and appreciated each sip while walking back to the bus stop. 

That evening we tried Tonghua Night Market. The crappy weather definitely had an impact on attendance of food stands and customers alike, but we did manage to try one of our favorite snacks in Taipei at this market: sweet potato balls. The orange balls are deep fried in a big vat of oil and served up in a cup with tooth picks. When you bite into them, the slightly chewy dough reveals a creamy filling that was probably a condensed milk filling if I had to guess. They were perfect, like a zeppole on crack. We were less impressed with our following purchase, which was pieces of sesame chicken accompanied by long white logs that we feared were fat. We tasted them and they tasted like nothing but bad texture so we asked Maggie, the owner of the hostel, what they were. They’re simply some sort of Korean rice cake. We then bought ourselves beautiful looking tarts to take home, including key lime cheesecake and egg flavors and ate them in bed. If you can’t tell by now, night markets are everywhere in Taiwan and some are so large you can’t even walk through everything in one night. They have endless options of the best looking and tasting food. While we were supposed to head to Taroko National Park the following day, we held out for another few days, because the weather looked bad and because we wanted to spend so much more time adventuring (and eating) in the amazing city of Taipei.

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