There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.Robert Louis Stevenson
Nov 17-22 2015
After our stopover in Beijing, we boarded our flight for our first destination in Taiwan, which was naturally the capital and largest city of Taipei.
We would stay at an AirBnb located in the Daan neighborhood, an important educational, commercial, residential and cultural district. The apartment was small, but comfortable, more importantly it was centrally located to most of the cities attractions, surrounded by bustling outdoor markets that were full of colorful sites and smells.
One of our first destinations was a visit to Taipei 101, a skyscraper that recently was the world’s tallest. We rode the fastest elevator in the world up to the viewing platforms and got an amazing view out across the city, excited to explore everything down below.
One cool feature was being able to see the giant tuned mass damper, a 660 ton steel pendulum that sways to offset movements in the building caused by strong winds. It is an important feature due to the many typhoons that the city experiences. The damper became such a popular tourist attraction that masco, Damper Baby, was created. Four versions of the Damper Baby; Rich Gold, Cool Black, Smart Silver and Lucky Red were designed and made into figurines, souvenirs and becoming a popular local icon, a website and comic book.
Another interesting thing about Taipei 101 is all of the symbolism incorporated into the structure. The height of 101 floors commemorates the renewal of time while it also evokes the binary numeral system used in digital technology. The main tower features a series of eight segments of eight floors each. In Chinese-speaking cultures the number eight is associated with abundance, prosperity and good fortune. The repeated segments simultaneously recall the rhythms of an Asian pagoda, a stalk of bamboo and a stack of ancient Chinese ingots or money boxes. Four discs mounted on each face of the building where the pedestal meets the tower represent coins, with many additional shapes of squares and circles are incorporated to reach a balance between yin and yang. At night the bright yellow gleam from its pinnacle casts Taipei 101 in the role of a candle or torch upholding the ideals of liberty and welcome, the light’s displaying a different color of the spectrum each day of the week.
After visiting the tower we took a brief walk around the surrounding Xinyi district, the shopping and financial hub of the city, before hoping the subway towards the famous Longshan Temple.
Along the way to the temple we stopped to eat at the original Din Tai Fung, very affordable and specializing in xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings). Having been named a top 10 restuarant in the world by The New York Times, and receiving Michelin stars, It now has branches in other parts of the world. It lived up to the hype and I still get cravings to this day.
Continuing on, Longshan, a Buddhist temple built in 1738, served as a place of worship and as a gathering place for the early Chinese settlers. The temple has been destroyed either in full or in part in numerous earthquakes and fires but Taipei residents have consistently rebuilt and renovated it. While at the temple we observed some of the rituals taking place and admired the craftsmanship of the building.
Afterwards we would walk around the nearby night market before renting some bikes and heading back to our apartment. The city has an easy to use bike sharing network that we signed up for and would use numerous times during our visit. On our ride back to Daan we passed by the lit gate at Freedom Square and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, places which we would later return to visit.
To finish off the night we stroll down the nearby Yongkang Street to visit the Shida night market, getting our first taste of the Taiwanese dessert known simply as snow. Whereas traditional shaved ice is made by grinding ice, then flavoring it with fruit syrups or condensed milk, snow ice starts out closer to ice cream. Flavorings such as green tea or mango are mixed into a base of milk and water, then frozen into cylindrical blocks that look like giant candles. The blocks are mounted onto an ice shaver, which slices it off in sheets, thin enough that they melt in the mouth, much like cotton candy.
The next day we would get up early and head back to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial that we had passed while riding our bikes the night before. We first toured the museum before heading up to the memorial itself. The memorial was eerected in memory of Chiang Kai-shek, former President of the Republic of China, Taiwan. The monument, surrounded by a park, stands within the large Liberty Square. The hall and square became the hub of events in the 1980s and early 1990s that ushered Taiwan into its era of modern democracy.
After watching a changing of the guards at the Memorial, we decided to jump on the subway and head toward the Maokong Gondola. The 2.7 mile long gondola line quickly ushered us from it’s base near the Taipei Zoo up into Maokong, literally meaning ‘Cat Sky’. The area is known for being a former large tea growing area, with intertwining footpaths you can now hike that had been used to transport tea. We hiked along the crest of the hill which was lined with many tea houses, stopping to take a break and indulge in the drink at a couple of different locations. Perched high above Taipei, the tea houses offered excellent views of the city below.
On the return trip back down, we visited Zhinan Temple and other attractions along the way. The Taoist temple’s main deity is Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals, and is most famous its stairway of “1000” steps up to the Tudigong Shrine. The buildings were all amazingly intricate in wood work and other details, and set in beautiful surroundings that made the steep climb worth it.
Once back at the bottom of the gondola we hailed a cab and headed for the famous town of Jioufen, located in a mountainous area outside of Taipei. Jioufen is famous for being an old gold rush town and as the inspiration for famous Japanese animation producer Hayao Miyazaki. Now it is filled with many little shops and restaurants as you climb up steep narrow stairs of Old Street and the surrounding maze like alleyways. Along the way we had to sample some of the towns famous Glutinous Rice Cakes, Hongzao (Oxo Cubes) Meatballs, and hot Taro Rice Balls. Once we reached the top we were rewarded with beautiful views out to the sea.
Climbing back down the red lantern lined stairways, we hailed another taxi and headed for our next stop, the Houtong Cat Village. Set alongside the Keelung River, the former coal mining village of Houtong has been since been taken over by hundreds of cats! In 2008 a local cat lover organized volunteers to start offering abandoned cats a better life. They posted the cats’ pictures online, resulting in an overwhelming response from other cat lovers around the nation. Soon, Houtong became a center for animal lovers as word spread, and the number of cats living there increased, reviving a declining village, and transforming it into a tourist destination. The town really gets into the theme, with a paw print route that you can follow, leading across a cat themed bridge, from the train platform that has it’s very own ‘Station Cat’. A wonderful place, and luckily not very crowded when we visited as it was the evening, allowing us to hang out with the many cats as they relaxed while chatting with some of the locals.
After hanging with the felines we boarded a local train for our last stop of the day, the small town of Shifen. Shifen is famous and well known for it’s lantern lighting ceremonies. Once used as a signaling system for those living and working in the railroad industry, visitors today paint their wishes with calligraphy before releasing the lanterns into the sky. It was a lot of fun and a beautiful site to see as we let our lantern float into the sky along with hundreds of others. I couldn’t help but purchase some fireworks as well, and shoot some roman candles off a nearby bridge to the delight of those nearby. Unfortunantly we were having too much fun and missed the express train back home, but luckily were able to catch the last local train, not minding the long ride back into Taipei, which allowed us to rest after a busy day.
For our third day in Taipei we would tour some more of the cities many neighborhoods, including the oldest part of the city, Datong. In Taiwan’s mad rush to modernize, much of its historical architecture has been torn down or glazed over with tiles, fortunately, some communities have recognized the significance of their old thoroughfares and taken steps to revitalize them. We started off along Dihua Street, the first, and therefore oldest street in Taipei, going back to Dutch rule in the 1600’s. The street is packed with shops selling ginseng and all matter of dried goods for food and medicine such as fruit, nuts, and mushrooms. We wandered around for quite awhile, Maggie checking out some of the boutiques while I marvelled at the well preserved architecture.
Eventually, we would make it north to a temple at the 2,000 year old site of the original home of Confucius. We actually enjoyed it more than Longhan as it was much less crowded while having an even more remarkable historic importance.
Following the Confucius Temple and Datong we boarded the subway north for Tamshui, another well preserved historic part of the city, set along the Tamsui River. Due to its proximity to the sea, that area is packed with stands offering a cornucopia of seafood such as grilled squid, crab, shrimp rolls, fish ball soup, fried fish crackers, and Tamshui’s famous ‘iron eggs’. The eggs can only be chicken, pigeon or quail eggs, flavorful and appearing shrunken due to a recooking and drying process. The area had a carnival like atmosphere, full of street performers, boardwalk games, and people out and about enjoying the weather.
Following a stroll along the water in Tamsui, we went for some relaxation at nearby Beitou, an area famous for it’s hot springs. Although there are public spring options, we decided to go to one of the highly rated private facilities, Spring City Resort. We ended up falling in love with the warm and refreshing water, a water park for adults, with multiple pools each offering different temperatures and water features to relax and massage you. We would end up seeking out additional hot springs along the rest of our journey through Taiwan, including returning to Beitou for the last night of our trip.
We finished off the eveing sipping some cocktails at Ounce, a speakeasy hidden inside of a coffee shop. Behind a secret door, we found a place heavy on the dark hardwood with dim lights, and serving delicious cocktails.
During the last day in Taipei for this portion of the trip, Maggie would spend most of it working from a coffee shop, while I rode a bike around the city. I first checked out the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and nearby Songshan Culture & Creative Park. I then spent some time watching aircraft buzz overhead as they came in to land at the Songshan Airport.
The highlight of the day would be the fantastic dinner we had at Addiction Aquatic Development, a collection of fresh seafood vendors and restaurants in the Zhongshan District. We wandered around the market for a bit watching as different vendors prepared food and the locals shopped for the freshest of fish. With our mouths drooling we finally picked a place and sat down for some outstanding crab along with other delights from the ocean that included oysters and sushi. A lovely end to a wonderful day.
The next day we would eat at Din Tai Fung, once again, before heading to the gigantic and somewhat confusing Taipei Main Station to board the bullet train south towards Tainan City. You can read about the rest of our adventures in Taiwan in the posts Southern Taiwain and Taroko Gorge & Highlands.