Our first day in Taipei started fairly late. Indeed, most of our days did. Partly because we’re both generally night owls, and also because Jess and Erik were at work from about 15:00 to 23:00, and we kind of adapted to their schedules.
Their place was a comfy modern apartment on Yong Kang Rd. The section just across the major street from them was famous for its restaurants and cafes and we started our day with what could charitably be called a late brunch (it was around 14:00) to get our first real taste of Taiwanese food. Steamed buns. Dumplings. Sesame paste noodles. A couple of different soups. Cake-y sweet bread. There was so much food that Erik and Jess had to go to work before we were done leaving us to finish it off.
Lunch with Jess and Erik
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Chiang Kai Shek memorial, a huge white marble building surrounded by an even larger park. Chiang was an early proponent of the Chinese Republic, which freed the people from the imperial yoke, then a general fighting the Japanese occupation, the leader of the anti-communist Kuomintang party who fought Mao and his comrades after the second world war, then finally the first president of Taiwan after the Kuomintang were forced off of the mainland to the island of Formosa.
We had a wander around the grounds, then headed up to the memorial hall to catch the changing of the guard ceremony. In terms of its pomp, ceremony and silly marching, it reminded me a bit of the flag lowering ceremony at the India-Pakistan border.
Downstairs on the ground floor we had a look around the CKS museum, which was rather more interesting than you might expect. Intriguingly, the two most memorable and interesting things we learned were about his wife: 1. she was quite the style icon (says Sarah) and 2. She was the sister of Sun Yat Sen (probably the one person even more important to the Chinese Republic than CKS himself.)
Sarah at the top of the steps to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial
The memorial from a distance
The changing of the guard. That’s Chiang’s statue in the background (he’s actually buried in a military cemetery nowhere near the memorial)
One of Chiang’s limousines in the museum downstairs
Day 2 was much busier. It began with a trip to the modern art museum. Sadly it was between exhibits, so we really just got to see some (cool) photos of Taipei by night and an arty feature film shot in the city. On a positive note, not all of the museum’s exhibits were in the museum. Several of them spread out into the streets, parks, underground malls and subway stops nearby, and were lots of fun to stumble across.
Big Pow. This guy was flanked by two smaller bright fibreglass sculptures (the Little Pows). All of them had speakers in them and you could plug your music player into a jack on Big Pow’s left shoulder and have them play your music for you
After the gallery, we took a wander through the city, including a street renowned for traditional medicine shops, another packed with incense sellers and a bustling retail street where we picked up a Taiwanese SIM card for our phone (no hassle, though as in China we still needed to have a copy of our passport made.) We also made stops at several temples along the way. The first was the matchmaker temple, where Taipei residents (especially single women and their mothers it appears) prayed to find their ideal partners. The second was the spectacularly ornate Dalongdong Baoan temple. Every surface of the the place was covered with delicate paintings, ornate carvings and gold leaf. The final one visited well after dark was Taipei’s Confucius Temple which, like the ones on the mainland, was more a serene garden with understated halls of worship at its centre than a temple as such.
Businesses in an older section of Taipei
Traditional Medicine street. Interestingly, some of the older sections of Taipei had very similar designs to the Chinese neigbourhoods in Singapore and Malaysia: streets lined with shophouses extending out above the sidewalks forming covered walkways. Unfortunately in Taipei these were most often used as impromptu motor scooter parks and were impossible to walk along forcing one to use the street
Shark fins and jaws for sale. Poor sharks. Stupid people.
It was interesting to compare Taipei’s (and as we’d later observe all of Taiwan’s) temples with those of mainland China. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Taipei’s temples were much busier than those on the officially atheist mainland. While China’s temples weren’t without worshipers, Taipei’s were positively swarmed. Also sharply contrasting was the fact that in “communist” China, most temples were very commercial places where even worshipers were obliged to pay admission fees. In Taiwan, meanwhile, admission to the temples was always free, and often provided free tea (we had some very yummy red date tea at the matchmaker temple) or incense for all who visited.
The front entrance to the Dalongdong Baoan. Across the road was a garden full of dioramas that even in the dark was quite pretty, and more fun than the temple itself
Lamps in the entranceway to the temple
In the evening we made our first visit to one of Taiwan’s famous night markets. Typically starting up around 17:00, the goods for sale vary from one to the next, but they ALWAYS include delicious food prepared at carts on the street and served either to-go or eaten on the spot. Some of the stalls are very popular. So much so that one we visited actually had a shop that spent all day shut up, only to open in the evening to function as additional eating space for the cart outside.
The night market by… err… night
Our day’s sightseeing concluded with a trip to the base of Taipei 101, formerly the world’s tallest building, and host to a mall full of the ridiculously expensive shops of the sort that I loathe. We declined to spend the $15 each to go to the top, so there really wasn’t much to do beyond taking a few photos then heading out to meet up with our hosts.
Taipei 101. As far as super-skyscrapers go, this one’s pretty attractive, but none of them has yet inspired me in the same way as the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur
We managed to hang around with Erik and Jess a fair bit (usually from 23:00 to 01:30 and 13:00 to 14:30!) during our time in Taipei, but this was their Friday night, so we decided to take advantage of it to collectively check out Jolly, Taipei’s only local brewpub. It wasn’t QUITE a brewpub in a technical sense, as due to an archaic law brewing within Taipei city limits is illegal, so they actually do all their brewing in a small facility just outside the border. Anyhow, the beers were okay but not spectacular. The best of their beers was a seasonal passionfruit witbier, which blended fruit, spices and Belgian yeast into a light and tasty beverage. The rest were okay, but uninspired… I’ve certainly had (and made) plenty of homebrew that comfortably eclipsed them in their respective styles.
The following day in Taipei was rainy (which wasn’t unusual. Winter in Taipei is pretty bleak.) so we spent it indoors at some of the cities less famous museums. The military museum. Again, it was interesting to compare it with the similar institution in mainland China. Although Taiwan is as fiercely nationalistic as any nation (probably largely because of its relationship with China) its museum as much more documentary in nature, and less full of the bluster and boast of the military museum in Beijing. Which made it a rather less interesting place to visit, despite the exhibits offering you the chance to act as an artillery gunner or to try out target shooting with laser replicas of the Taiwan army’s historical and modern weaponry.
The National Taiwan Museum (as distinct from the National PALACE Museum, which we’ll get to later) was small, but like so many small museums, really fun. Both of its buildings were architectural gems, one a Japanese occupation era structure with a British Victorian style interior, and the other a former bank building that was much more modern inside. Between them they housed everything from dinosaur bones to a photo-history of Taiwan’s rail network in the 1960s and 70s.
A dragon on Sarah’s arm! This was made with rubber stamps at the National museum. Tourist attractions all over Taiwan all have their own unique rubber stamps that visitors are meant to stamp in their own little scrapbooks or tourist passports. Or arms.
The dinosaur hall at the National Taiwan Museum
On day 4 in Taiwan we finally got around to what is undoubtedly THE top attraction in the city, the National Palace Museum. There’s not actually a palace in Taipei. The name stems from the fact that most of its pieces came from the Imperial Palace in Beijing, where it had been collected by the emperors for centuries, later becoming property of the national government when the republic overthrew the Qing emperors. In the 1930s the Kuomintang gathered all they could of the palace’s best pieces, and shipped them from place to place to keep them safe and out of the hands of the Japanese. When that war ended and it finally became clear that they weren’t going to win the Chinese civil war that followed, the KMT shipped the whole collection across the strait to Taiwan. It sat warehoused for over 15 years before the Taiwan government finally gave up on their dream of recapturing mainland China and built a museum in Taipei to house it.
The small portion of the collection on display was truly stupendous. As all of the major Chinese museums we’d visited, the ceramics were gorgeous. But at this museum, the wonders didn’t end there. There were jades, wood carvings, bronzes, ivory carvings, paintings and more, all of which were equally impressive. The most memorable bits were probably the famous jade bok choy and pork belly, both carved to use the natural colours of the stone to mimic the real thing (the pork belly in particular looked good enough to eat.) The oddest bit was undoubtedly the exhibition of treasures that Emperor Qianlong had taken a fancy to. He’d written poetry commenting on these. In some cases the poems were displayed beside realistic paintings of the items, but in many others he actually had his poems painted or even engraved on the artifacts themselves!
Unfortunately you’ll just have to take my word for how lovely the museum’s collection was, as photography wasn’t allowed inside.
The exterior of the National Palace Museum. The only photo you’re getting of it.
We’d been to one Taipei night market, but that evening we had dinner at the biggest and most famous of them all, Shilin. Retail of every sort abounded, with a focus on clothes. But we were there for the food. We wandered up and down the food streets, deciding that we’d only eat at places where people were queuing up for food. Not a big problem in Taipei, as the Taiwanese have a thing for “famous” eateries. An awful lot of the carts and restaurants had newspaper and magazine clippings about themselves posted on walls and windows. And as soon as more than a couple of people were waiting in front of an establishment, everyone else seemed to come to the conclusion that it MUST be good, and joined the queue as well.
Bacon wrapped asparagus and spring onion. Pepper pork stew buns cooked in a tandoor style oven. Red bean pastries. Fried, spiced and chopped up chicken schnitzel eaten with a stick. Taro ice cream. Sounds worth queuing up (five times) for, eh?
Pepper pork buns getting ready to hit the clay of the tandoor
We got up to quite a bit on our penultimate day in Taipei:
It began with visits to the weekend flower and jade markets. Both of them took place under an elevated expressway, which made a surprisingly pleasant home for them (not to mention very good use of the space.) All manner of flowers and ornamental plants were for sale (ranging up to full sized trees that brushed the bottom of the expressway above at one stall!) Orchids were a particular specialty and stupendously cheap (beautiful potted ones for the equivalent of NZ$2 or less!)
Meanwhile, the jade market was an absolute delight to walk through for the simple fact that we weren’t pestered by a single merchant in all the time we were there. They seemed entirely happy to just sit around chatting, eating, doing their own thing and counting on their customers to make the first move (not to mention that we probably weren’t their main target market anyhow.) The wares ranged from the sublime beauty of modern jade bi discs, to supremely tacky jade wristwatches.
Flowers in the flower market. Almost all of them for sale were living plants, not cut
A couple of the hundreds of stands at the Jade market
Following the markets we met up with Jess and Erik for a late lunch, then took a ride with them to work on the metro’s “scenic Wenhu line” as we’d seen it advertised on other metro cars we’d ridden on. It wasn’t particularly scenic but it was all above ground, which meant that it was a good way to see lots of the city. Including the city hall, where we disembarked and took a look around the Taipei city lantern festival and the Sun Yat Sen memorial before heading home via a great big city park where Taipei residents spent their Saturday afternoon indulging in everything from tai chi to roller blading.
Kids roller blading in the park (and their instructors showing off at the same time)
Our last day in Taipei was spent mostly outside of Taipei in the suburb of Danshui. This town at the mouth of the Danshui (“fresh water”) river is a popular weekend day out for Taipei residents. It was a perfect day to spend there. A bright sunny Sunday (the first nice weather we’d had since arriving in the city.) We had a very pleasant stroll along the edge of the river estuary on the boardwalk with thousands of others. The place had a carnival feel, which made the 25cm tall ice cream cone we purchased soon after arriving all the more appropriate
A bit further along was the historic district, dominated by Fort San Domingo which had served in turn as a Spanish Fort, a Dutch Fort and finally a British Embassy during the colonial period (which also saw the construction of the great European concession districts in Hong Kong, Tianjin and Shanghai.) The fort was a rather charming little museum filled with Victorian furnishings just as good as you’d find in any similar museum in NZ or Canada, and an amusing little exhibit explaining traditional western manners and customs to visitors.
Nearby was Oxford College named, rather surprisingly, not after the English town or university, but after the county in Southwestern Ontario where my mother’s hometown of Tillsonburg is located. This came about because the college was founded by Presbyterian Missionary George MacKay who was born there! It was a pleasant and shady, complete with water fountains and a few charming old brick buildings. A great place to sit and relax on a warm sunny day
Oxford College, Danshui, Taiwan
History aside, the thing Danshui was really known for was food. Its two main streets were packed with shops selling snacks, meals and delicacies of every sort. It had a fish ball museum for goodness sake!
By the time we’d made our way back there it was approaching dinner time and the area around the metro station was even more packed out with visitors from the city. So busy was it that the lines of motor scooters along the sides of the road had reached a density that it was very difficult to find a space between them to cross from the sidewalk to the pavement (which was itself full of pedestrians anyway.)
The food highlight of Danshui was A-ge, a specialty of the city. The popular shops could be picked out a long way away from the queues snaking out the door and onto the street. We picked one and joined the queue. The wait for the food was, if anything exceeded by the wait for a table. But when we finally sat down and tucked in, it was more than worth it. The A-ge was a big block of tofu stuffed with glass (bean starch) vemricelli and smothered in a delicious rich spicy-savoury sauce. Accompanied by fish ball soup (the balls were similar to the Fuzhou type, stuffed with pork meat) the meal was probably my favourite we had in Taipei.
The packed out dining room at the A-ge shop (as with all the best restaurants, customers took seats wherever they could find them, sharing with whomever was already at the table.) Note the big queue leading up into the kitchen.
Yummy bowl of A-ge. And a great deal at under NZ$1 each!
People, scooters and food. Everything that makes up Danshui’s main street on a Sunday afternoon.
“Iron Eggs,” hard spiced boiled eggs, another Danshui specialty
A-ge finished, and snacks along the main streets consumed, we sat by the estuary watching the sunset before taking the MRT back home for our final sleep before heading south.
This entry is of a fairly documentary sort, and doesn’t have a lot of the more broad discussion of the city that I often like to include. Rest assured that this will be remedied at a later time when I write about our return to Taipei
Thanks are, of course very much due to our friends Jess and Erik for having us while we were in Taipei. Especially in amongst their busy work schedule this was very generous of them. I’ve really not included much about our visit with them, not because it wasn’t very fun and great to see them again. Rather because, as fun and pleasant as it was for us, I reckon a lot of other readers might not be quite so enthralled by it. But this should not, of course, suggest that we’re anything but grateful for the time we got to spend with our friends.
Sunset over Danshui
Tags: Danshui, Llew Bardecki, Taipei, Taiwan