by Dmetri Kakmi
Ever thought of visiting Taipei, the capital of Taiwan? Didn’t think so. Neither did I, until my friend Ross invited me to join him there for New Year’s celebrations. It’s off the beaten track and easily bypassed by most visitors to Asia. Yet it has beautiful beaches, spectacular mountains, amazing forests and a unique culture, all on an island that’s smaller than Tasmania. As a bonus, it’s cheap and you don’t encounter many Caucasians.
Our flight landed at Taoyuan International Airport. A cab or bus takes you to the city centre in about forty minutes. We opted for the latter option. It’s cheaper. The bus dropped us off near Ximen train station. A short walk delivered us to the family run hotel that was home for the next six days. It was late afternoon and cold when we hit the streets.
Ximen is Taipei’s cultural and entertainment hub. It dates to the Japanese occupation and still maintains a connection to its past. One end of Hanzhong Street is occupied by the newly restored Japanese barracks and park; the opposite end boasts the Japanese-built Red House theatre, a tourist focal point that also offers sanctuary to the lively gay district. The place was dead when we arrived but jumping by ten o’clock at night. Lip-smacking lychee martinis at Cafe Dalida served as a warm welcome.
The coming together of four ways in front of Ximen train station is Taipei’s Times Square; a sight worth seeing at night. It virtually crackles with billboards, lights, music, buskers and traffic. People stream in from all sides to enjoy life. It’s easy to get drunk on the youthful energy alone.
Cross Chengdu Road and you enter Ximending, a maze of pedestrian streets and alleys crammed with specialty shops, cafes, department stores, cinemas, bars, eateries and anything else you might think of. An amusing highlight is Modern Toilet Restaurant. We didn’t eat there, but it’s worth hunting down for a photo opportunity. The foyer is guaranteed to have you in stitches. Keep in mind that Ximending is dead until about midday. Go late in the afternoon or, better, in the evening.
My idea of absorbing a new country is to eat everything — well, almost everything — in sight. Aside from eating, I feel duty bound to do the usual touristy stuff: visit museums, art galleries and important national sites. Ross had other ideas.
For late lunch the next day we hopped on the efficient, cheap and reliable MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit system) and zipped across town to a cafe called Omelette To Go. It’s in Xinyi district, down a side street that runs off a busy main road. Renowned chef Ellen Ling, in trade-mark glasses and bandana, plied us with good humour, great coffee and delicious fluffy omelettes. Free of tourists it’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you’ve penetrated the skin of the city. Then it was on to Eslite, the department store with everything your heart desires: books, CDs, DVDs, designer clothes, food hall, etc.
As night fell, we headed to Guanghua Digital Plaza, near Zhongxiao Xinsheng train station. It’s not the sort of place I’d visit, but it has to be seen simply because there’s nothing like it in Australia. It’s a massive six storeys of computer components, wires, electrical accessories and everything that bleeps and beeps; a wet dream for electronics buffs and anyone looking for a taste of rampant capitalism.
At the end of every street soared Taipei 101, until recently the tallest building in the world. There are observation decks at the top, but I couldn’t be bothered wading through tourists to get there. Seen from a distance, Taipei 101 is alarming. It looms like King Kong, blotting out the sky, a mighty edifice that is a focal point for a proud city.
Plans for Sunday were scarpered by bad weather. We’d looked forward to driving to Wulai, a spa town in the mountains. Instead, local friends took us on an impromptu tour of the locations for a favourite gangster film called Monga.
First came the modest and sweetly snug Ching Shui Yen Tsu Shih Temple. Otherwise known as Temple Front. This little oasis is worth hunting down for the solitary, out-of-the-way experience it offers. It’s a glimpse into a city that no longer exists.
The other-worldly feeling is continued at Bopiliao. Virtually around the corner from Temple Front, it’s a well-preserved factory/warehouse complex, complete with worker dormitories. The length of the narrow street is geared to make the visitor feel like he’s stepped back in time. Coming out the other end is a shock of modernity.
We then drove to Longshan Temple in Monga, Taipei’s oldest district. Founded in 1738, the ornate temple is dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The finely carved stone and wood pieces draw worshippers and tourists alike. If you want to shake off the mantle of holiness, walk to the rather seedy Monga Night Market. It’s a block to the north. Daylight really shows up the grime.
The night ended at Pinxian Seafood Restaurant in Da’an district. The nearest station is Liuzhangli (don’t worry, announcements are made in four languages, including English). Take the MRT and walk the five or so minutes to the restaurant. It’s worth it. The train is elevated and completely automated. There’s nothing quite like the frisson of being sated on excellent food and drink and shooting rapidly above the city lights at night in a driverless train.
The first truly touristy thing I did in Taipei was visit the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. Chiang Kai-shek is the founding father of modern Taiwan. I’m glad we came here on our third day in the city. After narrow streets and alleyways, it was a relief to step out of the MRT and be confronted by a vast space that allows the eye to see distances and traverse grand vistas. To appreciate the monument, enter through the ceremonial gate at the western end. Walk between the National Theatre and National Concert Hall, to the memorial and the impressive museum beneath it. The surrounding park is a pleasant spot to relax and feed the biggest goldfish on earth. Impressive though it is, the shrine made me wander why humanity loves a ‘benevolent’ autocrat.
With that thought in mind we headed to the second truly touristy destination: National Palace Museum. This pagoda style building houses an impressive collection of treasures rescued from the Forbidden City, in mainland China. It can be seen in a leisurely three or four hours. Don’t expect it to be a relaxing, meditative experience though. It’s jammed with tourists. The Louvre has the Mona Lisa and the National Palace Museum has the exquisitely carved jade cabbage and pork that provided food in the afterlife for an empress. Unfortunately, we didn’t see them. There was a half hour wait. Instead, I derived pleasure from two outstanding scrolls: ‘Up the River During Qingming’ and ‘Festival by the river — a city of Canton’.
That evening I slaked my hunger at the Shilin Night Market. This renowned destination is a suburb and a half of street market stalls and roadside eateries. It starts at 6.30 p.m. and goes till all hours of the night. If you take the MRT, alight at Jaintin station, one stop before Shilin, and then follow the crowds or your nose. Bring an empty stomach and good walking shoes. I was impressed by everything, except the snake destined for the pot.
The next day we took the train to Taipei Zoo. If pandas are your thing, turn right at the train station and head for their concrete enclosure. I was more interested in the Maokong Gongola. The two obviously popular destinations are a short ten-minute walk from each other. In fact, at one point the gondola floats right over the zoo. You can look down and see what you haven’t missed. Use your MRT card to enter the zoo and the Gondola; no need to stand in line for a ticket.
The Maokong Gondola is a cable car transportation system that ferries passengers across the mountain. Take the Crystal Cabinet, with the glass floor. The slightly longer wait is worth it. Once you stop hyperventilating, you will enjoy the sensation of floating serenely over a deep green sea for for 4.3 kilometres. In the distance, other gondolas wind their way over forested mountain ranges and disappear behind cloudy peaks.
Maokong village awaits at the end. Head straight for the spring onion and egg pancake stall to the left of Main Street. Make your purchase and take a walk through the winding streets. Have a tea or coffee on one of the terraces overlooking the tea plantations and, on the way back, buy a Taiwanese pork sausage from the solitary woman on the Camphor Path. It’ll fortify you for the twenty minute trip back.
Then it was back to the hotel to rest before going out to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Taipei had been preparing for the big night for some time. There had been an air of excitement and anticipation while we walked round Xinyi area during the week. Now, as Ross and I made our way to Taipei 101 together with several million others, the buzz was at fever pitch. Crazy hats, food stalls, mouth-watering smells, bands on street corners. It was intoxicating and I began to lose my reservations about being part of a crowd.
Friends had booked a table beneath the iconic building. The fireworks that spew out of the 101 storeys are legendary, and we had front-row seats. Good Taiwanese beer flowed and there was time to sit back and be diverted by the free entertainment put on by Taipei City Hall. Minutes before midnight President Ma began a countdown that was taken up by the overexcited populace. The building turned into a giant column of alternating colours and, at precisely the witching hour, poured forth explosions and a river of fire that lasted an exhilarating 170 seconds. A big cheer went up from the streets and soon after merrymakers were either walking home or heading for the MRT.
For me, it was a fitting farewell to a fun and intriguing city. After running around for six days, I was glad to sit on an airplane for nine and a half hours and do nothing but eat and sleep.