I think I’ve been duped. That was the first thought that raced through my mind as our taxi weaved in and out of traffic on our way to the hotel.
When Portuguese sailors first sighted the island of Taiwan in 1542, they named it Ilha Formosa, which means “beautiful island.” But there was nothing beautiful in the grey concrete buildings, lack of green spaces or the busy downtown traffic.
That’s the last time I’m taking 16th-century Portuguese sailors seriously, well-traveled or not.
But instead of moping around in our hotel room…
I mustered up the courage to venture — rather reluctantly and with the bubba clinging onto me like a frightened koala — into Shihlin Night Market, elbowing angry folks outta the way like a gangsta mom. #thuglife
Now I’ve been to many night markets across Asia but I always thought they were more trouble than they’re worth, especially with a baby. But the night markets in Taipei are a different breed altogether. They say you can’t visit the city without embracing the crowds and chaos of one.
I was all like “What the…?! How come I’ve lived all these years without realizing places like these exist?!”
You can stuff your face, play games, gamble, get wasted, buy loads of stuff you don’t need….TRY TOPPING THIS, HARRODS OR WESTFIELD!
Although we jostled with the crowds a bit, we still managed to taste test a couple of street snacks without catching anything nasty (I’ve been told that the Taiwanese dig Japan and everything Japanese, so this might be the reason cleanliness and hygiene is tops in this country).
There is nothing more exciting than discovering what unholy deep-fried concoctions are being peddled to those with stomachs of steel.
Think chicken butt barbecue sticks.
Pig’s blood rice cakes.
And then there are the creative parks. Creative parks are the shizz. These are basically abandoned factories / warehouses that have been remodeled into creative hubs in the city, and should come with a ‘Created for hipsters by hipsters’ tagline / warning.
While you can certainly attend a concert or an art exhibition while you’re there, its mostly about spending a ton of money on designer coffee (don’t snort) in hipster cafes and splurging on one-of-a-kind items in designer boutiques. I paid about 20 bucks for a single Frida Kahlo postcard which I’ve since misplaced but there ain’t nothing like indulging in a bit of conspicuous consumption to make one feel alive.
The bubba just loved running around the wide open spaces and giggling at the random, silly art installations.
Sadly, apart from these attractions and the National Palace Museum (which we skipped because of bubba), Taipei city itself is bereft of compelling sights.
I mean, sure, the city is littered with colorful Buddhist temples — we went toa handful of these, including the UNESCO-heritage BaoAn temple — but really, it’s like visiting a cathedral if you’re from Europe.
The grandiose-looking Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is sure to thrill those who are acquainted with the generalissimo and his contributions to a new China. The rest of us dimwits would probably enjoy the Changing of The Guards ceremony and strolling in the lovely, well-manicured surroundings…both of which shouldn’t take more than an hour of your time.
As for the Taipei 101, well…I mean…if ascending to the top of a city’s highest point in a high-tech elevator that goes from 1 to 89 floors in 37 seconds sounds more fun than interacting with the locals and creating meaningful travel experiences, then be my guest.
Once up there, you’ll get a glimpse of the city’s unremarkable surroundings and marvel at a big wind damper, which is essentially a big metal ball designed to keep this building from swaying around like the tall, thin reed it is during typhoon season. There’s also the Treasury Sky, billed as ‘a collection of unique jewel crafts’ because the Taiwanese, like their Chinese counterparts, love gold and anything gaudy.
There’s also Ximending, which is essentially a big outdoor mall set within the city’s pedestrian zone, but don’t expect quality products / clothes for the rock bottom prices you’re paying. Impulse purchases here are completely normal, given how distracted you will be by the fluorescent lights and loud Mando-pop music.
If potentially toxic Made-In-China beauty products and shoes that wear out within a week aren’t your thing however, you might want to make a beeline for the Ximen Red House — an iconic octagonal structure that’s home to theaters, shops and a rather evocative teahouse.
It is here that I went a little insane and spent close to a hundred bucks on a robot pedant fashioned from parts of an old computer (go figure). Now all I need is to find a Geek / Robot Convention to attend so I can flaunt my new acquisition.
There is only so much shopping and walking aimlessly around one can do before life starts to feel pointless, so we decided to check out Taipei’s performing arts scene on our final evening in this little city.
TripAdvisor recommended Taipei Eye, an hour-long show that is geared for tourists and fuses Chinese opera and dance. ’Twas good family fun, so long as you don’t expect anything intellectually stimulating. There were plenty of photo ops too: a meet-and-greet session with the casts before and after the show…
and a chance for you to slip into a costume, or three…
By day four, we were glad as hell to escape Taipei’s grit and smog. Although it’s easy (and extremely affordable) to hire a driver in Taiwan, we’d rather do it by ourselves since I didn’t fancy the thought of someone else catching me snoring / nursing / yodeling in the car. So we rented one for very cheap and le hubby drove.
Our first stop was Yehliu Geopark, a rocky cape studded with otherworldly rock formations that looked – according to the fellow who named them – like a “Queen’s Head”, a “Fairy’s Shoe” and a “Cute Princess.” (Dude was smoking something, alright). While they do look like their descriptions if you squint hard enough, the fact that these limestone rocks were still standing — and some like an erect penis — after millions of years of sun, wind and sea erosion were something to ponder on.
After oohing and aahing a bit, we headed inland towards Jiufen and Jinguashih, former mining settlements spilling from the country’s verdant hills like frozen lava.
Located less than an hour away, but world’s apart, these two little towns were still a scenic introduction to old Taiwan.
With is narrow bustling alleyways, numerous food stalls and a strange assortment of characters including badly behaved tourists, Jiufen was perhaps most well-known for inspiring Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.
You also have to climb a gazillion stairs to get around so le husband had to double up as a mule and carry our bubba, but he’s already got plenty of practice heaving my luggages in and out of hotels so it’s a-okay.
We had difficulty looking for a hotel in Jiufen that doesn’t look like backpacker central so we decided to base ourselves in Jinguashih instead. Though it was more of a hotel, The Adagio B&B was a lovely cocoon overlooking the rolling hills of the north.
And the price per night includes a multi-course Taiwanese-style dinner and breakfast, both of which were the highlight of our stay in Taiwan.
We spent a full day in Jinguashih playing tourists. The hotel is close to the Golden Waterfall, which obtains its name from the concentration of heavy metals in the area. However, I was more impressed with the fact that none of the Chinese tourists dove in to pan for gold.
There was also the Gold Archeological Park, which is not too informative but it’s fine by me since entrance is free and you could get yourself a miner’s lunchbox — yeap, they’re milking the theme for all its worth — at a restaurant that offers fine views of the surrounding bay while your bubba goes crazy in a Japanese garden.
There is also the Cyuanji Temple, which we liked more than any of the temples in Taipei, maybe because there is a playground to keep the children busy while you spent the time reflecting on your relationship with God, or Lucifer (whichever floats your boat hey).
And then you realize that maybe Taiwan isn’t such a bad place after all.
And you start looking forward to the next two weeks on this island.