Taipei, Taiwan: June 28 – July 5, 2018
We weren’t supposed to be here. Well, at least not yet. We were supposed to be lying in our beds in our downtown Vancouver apartment, resting, after an exhausting 31 days spent hopping around two continents. We were supposed to be waking up the next morning ready to explore one of our favorite cities during its best season. Yet, we only stayed on the ground long enough to scarf down a Wendy’s hamburger and fries at the airport before boarding a flight in the dead of night.
It’s been night all day. We’ve flown for nearly 12 hours and now the sun is finally ready to welcome us to a new day. But it hasn’t formally said “Hello” yet. It’s just starting to whisper to us faintly through pitch black, then dim, then purple, and now slightly bright orange-ish blue skies. Below the city’s lights are enjoying their last hour of morning glory – the city of Taipei is opening its eyes after a brief summer night’s rest.
Flying over Formosa at 4:45 AM, we have no idea what to expect. We didn’t have time to create expectations. After receiving an email shortly after departing our last apartment in Spain just a month ago, we realized that we wouldn’t be staying in Vancouver for a month after our 31-day transcontinental adventure. The original plan was to visit Taipei for a week after Vancouver and then head to back Thailand. Without ever having been to Taipei, we didn’t want to commit to staying for an entire month. What if we hated it after a few days? Instead, we settled on visiting for a week to scope it out as a potential stop in future travels.
In less than an hour we are off the plane, through immigration, and then aboard the express train to downtown. This place is amazingly efficient. We knew Taipei would be different but we didn’t know how different. It’s Asian for sure but has many hints of European and American urban design. There’s a reason for that. The airport express train feels much like the train in Hong Kong. It’s fast, quiet, clean, and efficient. The cleanliness and the quiet are what are most captivating.
Arriving at the apartment of my wife’s friend (Maeva), who was actually still in Europe at the time), we drop our bags and head out the door. We have some business to handle before we start to explore this city as week-long tourists.
This Lady Ain’t Having It
This lady is driving me nuts. No, it’s not my wife. Well, at least not today. It’s this strict-as-all-hell lady at the Thai Visa Office in Taipei. Since we arrived on a Thursday and the timeline for applying for the 60-day Thailand tourist visa takes two days, we figured we’d leverage the jetlag and head to the office immediately after arriving the city. The thought was “let’s get this out of the way today, grab the visa tomorrow, and enjoy the rest of our time in Taipei.”
This lady wasn’t having it. It’s understandable. She was just doing her job, but did she have to be so ornery? After two tries and 3 hours of dealing with her attitude, her relentless requests for perfect paperwork, and the stifling heat and humidity that we endured running to make copies and print out emails at the local 7-11, we gave up. “Forget it, let’s just enjoy our time here and deal with the visa issues later.” We went home and slept. The jetlag had finally taken over.
Iconic – Both Inside and Out
Who knows how long we slept that first day. The jetlag and the stress of the day was enough to knock us softly and comfortably on our asses for quite a few hours. Perhaps that first night we went out for some food but whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to make a dent in my mental Rolodex. What did capture my mind’s eye was the sunrise the next morning from the rooftop of our apartment.
The view was spectacular. The sun rising softly behind the lush green foothills of Elephant Mountain, illuminating the iconic Taipei 101 tower and the rest of the beautiful Taipei skyline in the distance. This would quickly become my “thinking” spot for the next week and we would saddle up on that elephant just one day later. The city was starting to amaze us in many subtle ways.
On the plane shortly before we landed 24 hours earlier, I flipped through the EVA Airways magazine and feverishly tried to read an article that caught my eye prior to deplaning. Kang Muxiang, a Taiwanese artist, was being featured for his sculptures and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I had to go see it for myself. I’m usually not one to spend too much time inside of museum buildings and prefer to use the urban landscape as my walking museum. Fortunately, one of his signature pieces was outdoors and just a few blocks from our apartment. It was the first stop on our growing list of sights to see in the city.
To say that we were captivated walking up to the iconic Taipei 101 tower (formerly the world’s tallest building) would be nothing less than an understatement. Surprisingly the building doesn’t feel overwhelming like some of the world’s other tallest skyscrapers. Like the city itself, the building feels tall but not overwhelming – simple yet very unique – detailed but not excessive. We spent every spare minute enjoying the view of the building from different locations in the city – walking along the streets, peering from rooftops, taking pictures through sculptures at nearby corners, and simply sitting on a bench gazing up at it while the rest of the city walked by. We couldn’t get enough of its beauty.
For as much as the building itself is captivating, the artwork built using its former intestines is truly astonishing. By molding old, spare elevator cables from inside the building, Muxiang has created an array of sculptures centered upon the idea of life and rebirth. The work is truly amazing and his signature piece, “Infinite Life” took my breath away. Sometimes when I view works such as these, it really makes me think about how much we can accomplish when we have a vision and the will to make it a reality.
Take a Hike – The Best Way to Beat Jetlag
You have to be kidding! Some of these people look like they could be twice my age. Yet, they are climbing this mountain like it’s a molehill. At 6:30 AM we left the apartment for an early Saturday morning hike up Elephant Mountain. We love urban hikes and have hiked in many cities around the world – Hong Kong, Bologna, Valencia, Montreal, and Medellin, to name a few. We’re still fairly young, so we prefer to use our feet rather than trolleys or trams. But these people are my parent’s age and they are kicking my ass all up and down the sides of this mountain.
Sure, they probably hike it all the time – but still. It’s insanely humid and it’s only 7 AM. And many of them don’t seem to have water bottles. One guy comes crawling out of the bushes and he’s carrying a propane tank on his back. He has to be in his sixties, at least. We reach the top of the mountain (or what seems like the top). We aren’t quite sure. It seems to go on forever, yet there’s a particular view that we want to see. But wait, there’s an outdoor gym up here, you know the kind with the metal exercise machines that you often see in Asian cities crowded at dusk and dawn with retired folks doing their best to “use it before they lose it.“
Oh, now I’ve seen it all. These folks, probably twice my age, not only beat us walking up this mountain in the god-awful heat but they walked up here to do a workout. I’m done! Let’s enjoy this awesome view while I also wallow in awe of their timeless, physical stamina. The sedentary, aging society of America could definitely learn a thing or two from these folks.
Our Taste Buds are Taken Over
For us that mountain was more than a molehill. We hadn’t had a good workout in weeks and we hadn’t experienced this type of heat and humidity since we left Saigon 4 months prior. As soon as our feet hit the last step down the mountain, our eyes caught a glimpse of a magnificent billboard that led us towards a blessing – a vending machine. We attacked it with 20 Taiwanese dollars and feverishly gulped down a nice, cold bottle of water. Our prize for saddling up that elephant.
Walking the next few blocks, thirst quenched, fluttering the empty bottle between my fingers, we began to notice something uniquely strange about this place. There was barely any litter on the streets and locating a trashcan was like trying to find a nugget of knowledge in the brain of America’s current mouthpiece. We quickly learned that trash disposal is a ritual in this place and that one must be prudent in their ways of waste management.
Halfway home, we stumbled upon the first of many street food stalls brimming with locals and empty of any English-signage. You quickly learn in Asia, and especially here in Taiwan, that the best places are void of roman characters. From that first bite, we were hooked. The food in Taiwan began its addictive hypnosis on our senses.
On the plane, flipping through that same magazine featuring Kang’s sculptures, I also made a mental note to try the signature dishes of the area – beef noodle soup, turkey rice, and the egg and basil naan bread. Each of these simple treats I’ve had before in some form or fashion but in Taiwan, they taste different. They seem richer, more fulfilling, more balanced. Later, we’d try Taiwanese hamburgers, which are more like Asian-fusion sliders. They appealed more to my wife than me. That and the endless amounts of bubble tea she consumed on a seemingly hourly basis. Bubble teas; also, aren’t my thing.
I prefer a good espresso-based drink and that’s one thing that Taipei seems to lack. It’s not that the coffee is bad. It’s simply not very good. Well that and the fact that anything remotely close to a decent cappuccino or espresso-based drink with milk will set you back as much as three times what you’d spend in other cities for much better coffee.
The scene feels very new, very hipster, and exceedingly expensive. Most places we visit aren’t great places to post up for 2-3 hours on a laptop and if you do, they’ll make you pay for it. You might have to order 1 drink per hour or pay a surcharge if you don’t. This understandable yet annoying custom quickly led us to realize that this isn’t quite the place for a month-long stay in our future itinerary.
Tucked Under a Turbulent Past
We’re finally rested and the midday heat in the apartment is just too much to bear. It’s the start of summer and it’s hot both inside and out. Yet, it’s better to be outside. We decide to head out for the afternoon and explore the local parks and neighborhoods. We hop on one of the cleanest, quietest, and most efficient transit systems I’ve been on in the world. For less than $1, we zipped a few stations to our first afternoon stop – Liberty Park (formerly Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park).
It’s “formerly known as” due to the turbulent and often-confusing history of Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China). You may know it as Formosa – the island “discovered” by the Portuguese, later conquered by the Spanish and then ceded to the Dutch. Then after all of that colonial turmoil, it was seized by imperialist Japan in 1895 and held under the Japanese finger for 50 years.
During those 50 years, it became known as the Republic of China, yet it wasn’t fully independent until after the Japanese surrender from WWII in 1945. And even then, the tiny nation’s independence has been open for debate depending on whether you ask someone on the mainland of China (the People’s Republic of China), or on the island of Taiwan (the Republic of China), or even within the United Nations (of which Taiwan is no longer a member since China strengthened ties with the US back in the early 1970s).
After many of our days out and about, I returned home to dive into documentaries about the nation’s turbulent political history. I quickly learned the dichotomous nature of Chiang Kai-shek’s persona in Taiwanese culture. For some he’s the father of the Republic of China and to others, he’s the oppressive leader who instituted the country’s 42-year period of martial law and oversaw the political massacre known simply as “228.”
Needless to say, as Taiwan has become more liberal in the recent years (including becoming the first Asian nation to legalize gay marriage), Chiang Kai-shek’s stature in public culture has lessened. Now it’s easy to understand the move to rename the park of his resting place and larger-than-life memorial to simply Liberty Park.
The Last Day as Tourists
It’s a new day – our third day in the city – perhaps, our last full day of tourism. The more we travel, the more we find that usually the first 3-4 days in any new place is spent being a tourist. Then, slowly the eyes and behavior shift into surveying the place as a potential longer-term option. Without the eyes of expectation, we were simply waking up each day and starting to walk in the direction of our interests. Exploring the nature of the place and nurturing our hypnotized taste buds in this place of tasteful abundance.
No surprise that we start walking towards the daily emblem of our intrigue – Taipei 101 and from there, we soon end up in what appears to be a large outdoor collection of malls. There were at least 6-7 large, upscale malls clumped together, reminding us of the Bukit Bintang area in Kuala Lumpur. This is the upscale part of the city, near all of the financial buildings and high-end tourist attractions. Yet, as minimalist travelers, our consumerist desires are rather limited. After enjoying the quick, yet hot stroll, we hop on the train again to explore more down-to-earth parts of town.
If there’s one thing that I will forever remember about Taipei it is how walkable it is as a major Asian city. True, at this point, it is the most northern city that I’ve visited in Asia. But unlike most major Asian cities I’ve visited, it’s organized in such a way that you don’t feel the immensity of population. There are nearly 3 million people in the city, and outside of a few major attractions or busy periods of the day, the city doesn’t feel overwhelming.
It’s wide, spacious, and extremely organized. It doesn’t feel like the “mainland” at all and one begins to understand very quickly how being subsumed by the mainland and its culture would greatly change the feel of this place and the attitude of its people. The level of self-organization in lines at train stations and at outside food stalls is truly commendable. The passive disdain for opposing behavior is palpable. In many ways, the culture feels exactly the opposite of the mainland.
Our remaining hours as tourists were spent walking under an umbrella in clear skies (because, yes, it was that hot) from the Ximen Shopping District towards what little is left of the Taipei Old Town (Bopiliao Historical Block), then towards the famous Longshan Temple. The waterfall at the temple was quite the blessing after miles spent walking in the sweltering heat. For that reason, we decided to hop on the train to the University area for afternoon snacks.
We soon were reminded of the prudence required when consuming snacks on foot in this town. Walking through the National University, our eyes were captivated by the beauty of the campus but our minds were perplexed by the lack of places to dispose of our trash. Again, there was no litter to be found anywhere on the grounds in the absence of any trashcans. We walked through the entire campus, which often reminded me of the University of California – Los Angeles in many corners, and yet didn’t find a single trashcan. It wasn’t until we were outside of campus about to cross the street when my eyes caught a glance at a bin near the stoplight. Beauty is abundant in this city and it is carefully maintained.
The Eyes Have It
Long-term travel changes how you see a place. As travels evolve, one begins to observe places with a different set of eyes. At first, you experience the place with fresh eyes, seeing all the major sites and getting a feel for the different parts of town. In my experience, this usually occurs in the first 3-4 days of visiting any new place. But as someone requiring daily rhythms to be productive, after the first few days on the ground, the perspective changes. You begin to look for your spots – to get work done, to get some mental space, to get your daily fixes.
Taipei was a great experience – as a tourist. There were no expectations and so the city exceeded them all. Our decision to only stay one week on this first visit turned out to be ideal. For if we had stayed much longer than our 7 days, our love for the city may have diminished rather quickly, given the summer heat, lack of a good café scene, and the rising difficulties in getting by without the ability to speak/read Taiwanese or Mandarin.
That final night in the city, I went up to the rooftop to say one final goodbye to the emblem that continued to capture my eye – Taipei 101. I thought about how this city was a fitting welcome back to Asia after our last few months in Europe and the US. In the coming days, we were going to be diving headfirst back into the sea of organized chaos that is Vietnam. But before that, I took one last moment to look upon this dynamic city, mesmerized by the result of an experience seen through eyes absent of expectation.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.