We have to be in Japan in a week or so to start a workaway project, but needed to leave the Philippines because our visa was running out. The question was, where to go for 9 days?
We looked at the map, then looked at flight costs and decided that a quick visit to Taiwan could be fun. We hadn’t really planned on visiting Taiwan on our travels, and didn’t really know much about it… is it part of China? It is backpacker friendly? Are many signs in English or just Chinese? Is it easy to get around? We didn’t know the answers to any of this, but decided that the best way to find out would be to go.
Turns out that Taiwan is not part of China (although China thinks otherwise), it’s backpacker friendly to a degree but not nearly so much as the rest of Asia, most signs are in English, and it’s pretty easy to get around if you can figure out the trains.
As we hadn’t planned anything at all, and didn’t know anything at all about the place, we figured our first stop should be Taipei then work it out from there.
So here’s our thoughts on Taipei…
Getting around the city
If we spend any time in big cities, on the first day we always like to take the big red sightseeing buses. They take you to the most popular tourist destinations and help you to get your bearings in an unfamiliar city.
We got a discounted tickets on Klook.com and headed over to Taipei Main Station to find the bus. Main Station is the central point in Taipei for all transport – city and national buses, city underground (MRT), high speed rail (HSR) for the west coast and slower trains for the east. You can also get the MRT from the airport to Main Station, so it’s really easy to get into the city once you land.
The hop on, hop off bus took us on a loop through the city – if you don’t get off anywhere then it’s around two hours. There’s a less popular second line for the sightseeing bus (blue line) but we didn’t bother with that one.
It’s a really easy city to navigate around and felt really safe to walk around too, we never got hassled at all, no one tried to sell us stuff or scam us like you find in some SE Asian cities (and some European cities tbh), it just had a really nice feel about it.
The first place we hopped off the bus was Longshan Temple, built in the 1700s by Chinese settlers. It’s been constantly renovated and repaired over the years and still looks amazing. It was so incongruous to see such an ancient temple in the middle of Taipei’s skyscrapers and modern city streets, but that made it even more striking.
Like a lot of Taiwan’s temples, Longshan is used for both Taoist and Buddhist worship. They don’t mind sharing.
Even the surrounds were beautiful – with a waterfall and koi carp pool to one side, and an ornate dragon water fountain to the other. It was a total contrast to the city surrounding it.
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
Our second stop was the most impressive by far… the Chaing Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and surrounding monuments and buildings are just huuuge. The hall has brilliant white walls and bright blue roof tiles to represent the colours of the Republic of China’s flag (that’s Taiwan’s official name, never knew that). Chiang Kai-Shek was the first president of the R.O.C. and inside the building there’s a massive statue of him with a guard standing to attention on each side.
We timed it well and arrived at midday, so got to watch the changing of the guard. It was full of much unnecessary marching and gun-spinning but it was entertaining to watch.
In the surrounding area of the Memorial Hall, there’s the Concert Hall and it’s gardens. This area is so beautiful – we took a wander through the gardens on the way back to the bus stop and I couldn’t help but love it. The outside of the Concert Hall itself was busy with many groups of Taiwanese teenagers learning synchronised dance moves and sitting around chatting… it seemed weird to us but a nice healthy Saturday activity I suppose.
After that it was on to the world’s tallest building… or at least it was for a few years until Dubai stole the show with the Burj Khalifa. Taipei 101 also could claim the world’s fastest elevator… until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa stole that title too, the bastards.
Even though it’s no longer the world’s tallest building, Taipei 101 is the world’s tallest green building, as it’s very innovative and has plenty of energy saving features. It’s meant to look like a bamboo stalk, but I kind of think it looks like lots of those square chinese take out boxes, piled on top of each other.
We liked it anyway. The elevators whisked us up to the top in about 30 seconds accompanied by some nice elevator music and a starry ceiling, then out we popped in the 360 degree observation floor. The view was impressive, the whole of Taipei and the surrounding mountains spread out below us. It definitely made us both feel a bit lightheaded until we got used to it, after that we just enjoyed the view.
I wondered why the whole building wasn’t swaying more in the wind, but the reason soon became apparent. They have a huge mass damper at the top which is basically a massive golden ball 5 stories high in the centre of the building. The ball is suspended on steel cables and sways in the wind instead of the tower. I’m not quite sure how it works, but it looks super cool and stops the building from moving about and making you feel ill, so that’s all I need to know on that one.
Taiwan is known for it’s street food – basically all hours of the day and night I guarantee you can find bubble tea and some kind of weird fish on a stick. The night market culture is especially big in cities like Taipei, so obviously we had to check one out.
We waited until our second night in the city, as on the first night we were *still* ill from the food poisoning we picked up in El Nido. Nine days of runny tummies left us in no position to enjoy questionable meats from street vendors on day one in Taiwan, and meant we had no energy to spare by evening anyway.
However, our second day looked more promising on that side of things so we picked a market within walking distance of our hostel and set out to explore.
A 20 minute walk through downtown Taipei took us to Ningxia night market. It was mega busy and seemed to be mostly full of locals grabbing their evening meals. The stalls were packed close together in the street, leaving little room for the crowds to shuffle along down the row of vendors. There was everything from duck heads (yup, actual skinned duck heads) to squid on a stick, small intestine inside large intestine (animal unknown), fish soup, meat dumplings, fried potato balls, fruit juices and so much more, it was sensory overload.
We had absolutely no idea what most of the food was, as the majority of stalls didn’t have an English translation. Blakey managed to home in on the bubble tea pretty fast (not his first of the day) before we ventured into unknown waters.
We soon noticed that some stalls had huge queues of people lining up for whatever questionable yumminess awaited, so we figured if we joined the longest lines, we’d be getting the best food… right?
Well weren’t we in for a treat… I went for something that looked like potato dumplings with some cheese sauce over the top. Turns out they were actually weird fish balls made with god knows what. We managed to nibble a few but that’s about it. After that treat, Blakey found another popular stall so we dutifully queued up to try a different kind of fried ball thing with shredded pork in it… and a gross pickled egg yolk nestled in the middle as a nasty surprise for the unwary muncher.
It’s safe to say we did not have much success at our first Taiwanese night market. Although on the plus side, we didn’t get ill.
Taipei… worth a visit?
Absolutely 100% yes. It’s a great city. If you have a stop-over, or just want a quick weekend break and you’re over this side of the world, I would recommend it. You wouldn’t need more than a few days in the city itself, but there are loads of day trips and things to do surrounding the city.
The city itself is crazy for shopping – there are ridiculously huge underground malls and malls in big buildings and little shops in windy side streets and then a few more malls… I honestly don’t know how there is enough money being spent to keep all the shops going, especially the huge number of designer shops. Consumer craziness.
It’s also a strangely beautiful city. The skyscrapers and busy roads and metro system are all as per usual for a capital city, but then you have the temples and monuments, the underground streets, the surrounding mountains, the green spaces, the friendly atmosphere, the night markets… neither of us are city people but Taipei is definitely somewhere we enjoyed.