Woah, travelling, is really a waste of time. When you’re moving between miles, trying to get from one place to another, there’s not much you can do to be productive but sleep and make a futile attempt to read. We left Kuala Lumpur’s LCCT airport at 10am, boarded a four hour flight, and only checked in at a hotel in Taipei at 6pm.
From Tao Yuan International Airport, we took a one hour bus to Taipei Railway Station and then hopped onto a taxi with what seems to be Taiwan’s most talkative taxi driver. I innocently asked the old man how long would it take to get to the hotel but instead of giving me an answer, he jumped into this long rant about tourists …….. It was the most entertaining, yet tiring 15-minute taxi ride of my life. Mr Talkative Taximan wants tourists to learn Mandarin so he can understand them, but during his 3 years living in the US he would not learn a word of English. It was at least reassuring to learn that the taxi drivers here are not crooks, as Mr Talkative Taximan reassured me repeatedly that no taxi driver in Taiwan would rip off tourists. That’s always a heartwarming welcome into the country.
Our hotel turned out to be more like a studio apartment in some random building converted into a rent-by-day room. A man, Mike, was already waiting for us. There was no lobby, Mike walked us straight into a dark elevator, down a grimy narrow corridor, past several locked grill gates and into a bright apartment. Immediately, Mike jumped into a loooooooong explanation about the room and places around town. Just as endless as Mr Talkative Taximan, I thought my ears would start bleeding Chinese characters soon.
Creeping into Taipei from the airport, my first impression of Taiwan was: dull. One of the very frequent passing monsoon was in town, the sky was grey and gloomy, the wind’s cold blows was like ice to skin, the rain drizzled endlessly. My first view of the country was through raindrops on a bus window, and that view would continue for the next few days. Under the clouds were plain fields scattered with square flat top buildings in faded blue and grey that grew more and more, higher and higher into skyscrapers as we drove into Taipei city.
It was only when we took a walk in XiMenDing Commercial District that my eyes popped with the excitement of being in a new country. XiMenDing was a square dedicated to trendy youths with a plethora of shopping, fashion, food, and neon street signs in rectangles of all sizes. I could finally feel the vibrations of the city beneath my skin, it was unmistakably Taiwanese, it was pulsating with energy, it was sweet with the melodious sound of the Taiwanese sing-song accent. Hey, I’m in Taiwan!
We took a stroll around XiMenDing, breathing in the energy. There were not many, almost no other white foreigners around, but I sure as hell heard lots of Malaysian and Hong Kong accents floating in my ears. Yearning for something more local and down-to-earth than what the small square has to offer, we set off in search of one of Taiwan’s many famous night markets.
We head off, on foot, to Long Shan. As we turned our backs towards vibrant XiMenDing, the flashing lights started to dim and fade into what real, normal, daily Taiwan is. We passed by old shops with their dusty display and tiny box tv capturing the souls of bored couples waiting for non-existent customers. We asked for directions and the friendly locals pointed us in several different directions that did not bring us to where we intended to go. So, guess what? we ended up in the wrong night market.
One hour later, legs tired and stomachs furiously growling (we haven’t had anything to eat since plane food), we finally arrived at Guang Zhou Night Market… but, it was closed thanks to the stupid rain. We walked a couple more blocks to Hua Xi Tourist Night Market, but it was just as sad. The exterior of the street was all dolled up for tourists, but it was empty and lifeless except for snakes in cages waiting to be decapitated by jaded old man for the delight of well, tourists.
Thank God we crossed this dodgy looking alley to the back of the street, there were signs of life! AND STREET FOOD! We jumped at the first sight of meat on a stick. Grilled chicken, pork, lamb, quail, deer, some other poor animal but it doesn’t matter because all six meat tasted like the exact same overpowering seasoning. We also had some sticky oyster omelette, comforting fish ball soup, the most disgusting meat dumping, and some sweet 8 Treasure Shaved Ice for dessert.
When we’ve satisfied our yummy tummies, we walked towards a bus station only to find an MRT station. What took us an hour by foot, took only 5 minutes by MRT from Long Shan Station back to XiMenDing Commercial District, where we came from. For the rest of the night, under the flashing street lights we pretended we were locals, milling around XiMenDing, enjoying the singing street musicians, enthusiastic magicians, and just a little bit of window shopping.
Our second day in Taipei was equally long, but satisfying. Endless walking around town and sight seeing, at the end of the day my feet wanted to run away from me. Now that’s a good sign of a day well spent travelling.
We started at the Red House which was seated right next to XiMenDing. A Western-style red-brick octagonal architecture built in 1908, it is now transformed into a contemporary performing arts theater. A hipster would approve of the Red House, it appeals to the youths with it’s play on pop-culture and a small gallery of antiquities. Fascinating as they were, the most fun I had in the Red House, was playing with souvenir stamps. There was a small stand with postcards and several Red House-themed stamps that you can ink onto your postcards or notebook as a little memory of the place. It’s a shame I left my notebook in the hotel. I later learnt to bring my notebook with me everywhere we go because almost every tourist spot in Taiwan have a little souvenir stamp station.
From XiMen, we headed towards Long Shan Temple, but bumped into quaint little BoPiLai street. BoPiLai street looks like one of those those old street you’d see in Taiwanese dynasty dramas. Pretty as it were, it was sadly, deserted. It would have been nice if the locals took opportunity of this beautiful preserved street to inject a little bit of energy into the place. Some stalls, performances, noise, something would do the place good. Suggestions aside, it was still a pleasant little detour.
We walked through a market near the temple that really puzzled me. It was a local market like any other, you have your butcher next to your hairdresser, next to your gold smith…? The arrangement was beyond my little mind, but it’s also what I love so much about travelling and bumping into random local quirks.
Long Shan Temple was beautiful. The temple was alive with locals going about their daily prayers. It was big too, with intricate gold carvings from ground to ceiling sparkling under the sun. Goddess of Mercy Guan Yin smiles peacefully as she sits in the middle of the temple, overseeing everything one and every activity going on around her. You can really see the local’s devotion to the religion, some asking for their fate, some sitting by the alleyway chanting the words in their prayer books as fascinated tourists stroll past them.
Next on the list was the famous landmark Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall as it was only one quick MRT stop away from Long Shan Temple. We walked out of the underground train station, turned left and walked into the Memorial Hall Square with four big Chinese-style buildings in each direction. On the North was the National Theater, South; National Concert Hall, and on the East End; Chiang Kai-Shek overlooking the sea towards China.
Reminiscence of the Lincoln Statue’s pose, the smiling CKS monument that was sitting behind two big gates was HUGE. Lucky for us, we climbed up the 89 steep stairs that represented his age at the time of death, just in time for the changing of the guards. About 5 young bald boys, in their handsome white army gear and slow synchronised movements showed great respect to protecting this great giant bronze statue of the former President of the Republic of China. The ceremony that happens every hour, was however, as boring as watching a snail cross the finish line. The only way I kept myself interested was by wondering if these boys who had beds of sweat rolling down their eyebrows were 18-year-old military trainees. How important is this mission to them? They looked so bored. Why do they need 2 young boys to guard a large bronze statue anyway? The entire hall was empty except for CKS himself. And he is pretty damn massive for robbers to cart away in a heist.
Beneath the ground where CKS’ statue sits, houses a museum, aptly on the man’s life. It gives an easy walk-through on CKS’ story, but I doubt the overview of Taiwan’s history is entirely accurate. China is a communist country after all, and many a thing have been censored and made to look better in the country’s favour.
After a bit of history, we tasted a bit of culture in the National Palace Museum. Needless to say, this was a giant gathering of Chinese art – calligraphy, pottery, ivory/rhinocerous horn carvings, everything and anything antique art that your Cina grandfather would want in his home. It would be fascinating to see if you’re unfamiliar to Chinese art, or if you are super fascinated with Chinese art, but the immense size of the museum becomes so tiring after a while. For Heaven’s sake it’s one of the largest museum in the world with more than 696,000 pieces of ancient Chiense artifacts dating over 8,000 years! Looking at the endless exquisite artifacts, I wondered how many more pieces were left to display in China, until I remembered how crazily huge China is.
When night rolled around, we satisfied our need to see a Taiwanese night market at the famous Shi Lin Night Market. The largest-ass night market that I’ve ever been to. The first thing I did was to hunt for oyster noodles! I must say, it did not disappoint. Frothy bubble tea, heavily seasoned foods of every flavour, clothes, bags, phone accessories to match every new pair of shoes could be found in the market. Even fun-fair games too! Remember the catch-a-fish-with-a-paper-net game that we used to play in school canteen days? It’s a nightly thing in Shi Lin. When in Taiwan do as the locals do, so we attempted the claw-a-soft-toy arcade machine, and of course failed miserably. There were a couple of HTC Ones and Samsung Galaxy phones as prizes in some of those arcade games but lets face it, it’s all a scam, A SCAM!
As you can see, at the end of the day, my poor feet that had only been walking across parking lots wanted to break. It felt like a drummer was playing a very erratic and bad drum solo in my calves. This was the moment I realised that I need to travel more to get used to this long-distance walking!