Taiwan - April 2018
We spent 4 days of spring break visiting Taiwan, which is just a quick hour and a half plane ride from our home in Okinawa, Japan. Our first day in Taiwan was my son's 12th birthday, and after a plane ride and 30 minute train ride into Taipei, he wasn't so sure he was having a good time.
Luckily, the staff at Taipei Garden Hotel saw on his passport that it was his birthday and sent up a white fluffy cake to save the day!
Re-energized after cake, we ventured out in the city. I like to walk whenever possible in big cities - otherwise I don't feel like I get a sense of the place. So we headed out from the hotel down some streets to the local Buddhist and Daoist temple, Lungshan.
This was a very popular place, it was a festival day, and many people stopped by to light incense and leave food offerings for blessings. Photography was fine, except for in the inner temple, and it was interesting from a Lutheran perspective to stand back and just watch.
From the temple, we went back to the hotel and caught a taxi to the National Palace Museum. This museum holds the most ancient Chinese imperial collection, evacuated from the Forbidden City during the war with the Japanese in the 1930s. This huge palace still houses most of the imperial treasures from the Qing and Ming dynasties, along with others. Sadly, I found it incredibly boring, and I seriously LOVE museums. It's a collection more than a historical walk through Chinese history. Imperial treasures to the Chinese include carved rocks, wood, coral and some gems. We scooted through the packed place in about an hour and saw the most important treasure of the whole collection - a carved jade cabbage. If you have young kids, I'm not sure I can recommend it.
Back to the hotel for Reis' first 5-course fancy dinner and then off again in a taxi to experience a bit more Chinese culture. They dropped us right by the Taipei Eye - Taiwan's classic Chinese opera!
The group performs almost every night and - though a bit touristy - it was a great introduction to Chinese Opera, singing, Chinese folk tales, with some exciting acrobatics thrown in. We all enjoyed it. I highly recommend this for families visiting Taipei - it was easy to book, easy to find, only took an hour, and afterwards the actors posed for pictures!
The next morning, after breakfast, we hopped another taxi to Taipei 101, the 5th tallest building in the world and once boasted the world's fastest elevator! It's still fairly fast - 90 stories in 6 seconds.
The views were incredible but even more interesting was the large gold ball damper hanging in the middle of the building and keeping it steady in high winds and earthquakes! This was so interesting for us all! You can actually watch it sway in high winds! Most tall buildings have dampers that are hidden away.
On the way back from Taipei 101 we explored the subway system and took a few wrong turns. We ate lunch at the famous juicy pork dumpling restaurant, Din Tai Fung, credited with introducing xiao long bao dumplings to the world. This restaurant was a well-oiled machine. Though packed, we were in an out in 30 minutes and it was delicious.
We took some time to explore the streets. Every minute I expected Jackie Chan to come racing around a corner chased by some ruffians but alas, it didn't happen.
We did find our way to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. The plaza was a great place to hang out and people watch, and is popular with tourists for commemorating a villain or hero, depending on however you look at him. Though rejecting communism, he was also a brutal authoritarian. Anyway, his memorial hall is beautiful and impressive.
The next morning our private tour guide, Ron, picked us up at the hotel and drove us outside Taipei to the coast to an old mining village in the mountains - Juifen. Let me just say that I am not normally a tour sort of traveller. I prefer getting away from crowds and off the beaten path, ALWAYS. So a tour group would be the death of me and wrangling all those people is a huge waste of time. That said, if you can do a custom excursion cheaply, you are unfamiliar with the language, and you have a good-sized group, sometimes a guide is the best way to go. Do your research on companies (TripAdvisor is a good resource for travel companies) and know what you want to see.
The weather immediately outside Taipei's mountain-rimmed basin of humidity was cold, windy and wet. The green mountains were wreathed in mist - it looked about as mythical as you can imagine. First we explored a ancient Taoist temple, Quanji. Taoism is really interesting. You can ask important life questions of the temple god, in this case, the god of War. Then you throw moon blocks to receive your answer, depending on how they land.
Next our guide took us up into the narrow streets and alleys of Juifen village on the mountain. It was wet, crowded, chilly and unlike anything I'd seen. Most of the people visiting the popular main street were Chinese shopping for a festival day. These winding little streets and haphazard buildings inspired the Japanese anime, Spirited Away. We warmed up with a Taiwanese lunch and a traditional Chinese tea-drinking ceremony with pineapple cakes.
This was a full-day tour, and once we got back to the hotel, we walked out to experience the famous Taiwanese night markets. Let me just say that this was quite the experience. Maybe it would have been better if we'd found one of the more touristy markets, but we happened upon a small neighbourhood one and it seemed smelly, dirty and unappealing. Not knowing what any of the foods were and seeing them cooked in less than sanitary conditions left a bad taste in our mouths, literally. So we grabbed a pizza and ate in our room. Hey, we tried. And we won't give up. We'll try markets again sometime, I'm sure.
Our final morning in Taipei, we grabbed breakfast at a fun cafe Woolloomooloo (the owner is part Australian) we hit the Taipei Zoo and took some cable cars out and back across the mountains outside Taipei. Because a zoo is a zoo anywhere, I don't have many images to share from that. The zoo was well-maintained and held interesting animals for the kids, like camels and white rhinos. The Maokong Gondola carries people up to the teahouses in the mountains but we didn't have time to eat. The views were cut off by the ever-present Taipei smog.
That's Taiwan! Here's the rundown: very friendly and personable people, the city is easy to get around and fairly cheap to visit, service and amenities are good, streets are clean and pretty smoke-free, weather is humid and smoggy, Taiwanese food is delicious and there's lots of history here. I'm not sure we'll need to come back, but for a quick visit, Taipei and the surrounding areas are probably the easiest way to experience China without really experiencing China. But I'll let you know if we actually get to China (Hong Kong doesn't count!) One thing I'm noticing - many of these small islands (Okinawa, Bali, Taiwan) pride themselves on a unique history and heritage separate from their governing powers. It's interesting to me how a people reconcile this pride with living under outside control.
Our Experience Taipei Itinerary:
Day 1: morning arrival, stay in Taipei centre. Visit National Palace Museum, Longshan Temple, and Taipei EYE.
Day 2: walk out to local bakeries for breakfast, visit Taipei 101 first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds, taxi to Din Tai Fung or other xiao long bao dumpling restaurant, explore Chiang Kai-sheck Memorial and plaza, walk the streets and people watch.
Day 3: organise a day outside Taipei, whether the gold mines and village of Juifen or Pingxi to create, light and release some paper lanterns. Or follow the coastline and explore! Taipei sits in a basin and the surrounding countryside is worth seeing. Night markets for dinner!
Day 4: Taipei Zoo and Maokong Gondola in the morning. Both are skippable if you'd rather check out more of the city. Fly out in the afternoon.