First Published on Free B&B, September 2017
As the national capital of the Republic of China (or Taiwan, to you and me) Taipei is a vast city and home to over 2.6 million people. Drenched in history and with a rich cultural heritage, it is the textbook modern Asian metropolis where east meets west. Ancient temples nestle in amongst modern skyscrapers; Bustling night markets lurk just blocks away from modern day mega-malls, and world class street-food stalls sit comfortably alongside Michelin starred restaurants. Add to the mix the fact that Taiwan has none of the often-prohibitive visa restrictions of the Chinese mainland, and it’s easy to see why tourism in Taipei is booming.
With 48 hours before we had to fly out, we were determined to get the most out of our time in Taipei and, as such, had booked ourselves into one of the snazzy new backpacker’s hostels that have erupted throughout the city centre. Based in the central Ximen district, we were strategically located just a few minutes’ walk from one of the numerous stops on Taipei’s outstanding metro system. Cheap, regular and – crucially – tourist friendly, we invested in a daily ticket and joined the throngs of commuters that inhabit the system at the crack of dawn. It was a crisp, clear winter’s morning and Elephant Mountain was calling.
Having taken the metro for the short trip out of the city as far as Xiangshan, any fears of not finding our way to the summit were soon allayed. It seems that the early morning pilgrimage to the peak is one that is enjoyed by many tourists and Taiwanese locals alike, for there was a constant stream of people making their way from the station, through the neighbouring park and up the steep and winding path through the forest. Providing early morning refreshment at the foot of the trail was an elderly couple selling orange juice, pressed fresh before your eyes. Nearing the top, we found a long and surprisingly orderly queue of people waiting to scramble upon a rock balanced precariously near the edge of the cliff – no doubt in search of the perfect Instagram photo! We followed our gut instincts and pushed on past the crowds, to be rewarded just minutes later with the most perfect panoramic view over the city, with the imposing form of Taipei 101 – once the world’s tallest building – taking centre stage.
Heading back into the city and it was time for an exceptional Szechuan lunch at Kikki’s, and small chain of restaurants around the city specialising in this spicy cuisine from the mainland. From there, it was just another quick subway hop to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, a symbol of the nation where the Taiwanese flag is raised and lowered every morning and evening. The vast courtyard is flanked by impressive oriental-style buildings and is a popular destination in its own rights for locals to come and practice martial arts. The memorial hall itself stands as a tribute to Chiang Khai-Shek, former President of Taiwan, and contains a small yet interesting museum of his life.
The rest of the afternoon was spent taking a quiet stroll through the streets and alleyways that make up Taipei’s historic Zhongshang district. A wonderful mix of old and new, the sights, smells and sounds made us realise that underneath it’s somewhat polished veneer, Taipei is above all a busy, functioning and slightly gritty metropolis. The beautifully landscaped 228 Peace Park provided some welcome relief to the hustle and bustle of town, and gave us the chance to rest our feet for an hour or so! As the sun began to dip on the horizon, it was just another short subway ride to the famous night market at Shilin.
Admittedly, the Shilin night market is one of the more tourist-orientated experiences that Taipei has to offer. Whilst there are plenty of more ‘local’ markets to be found, we were keen to experience the ‘big one’ and certainly weren’t disappointed. All of the usual market wares were on offer: fake electronics, reproduction T-Shirts and plenty of other trinkets aimed at the tourist masses. A particularly entertaining stall offered large buckets of live prawns and mini fishing rods for kids to try their luck – Anything they caught got barbecued for them on the spot! Opting for a slightly more traditional street food experience, the blow-torched cubes of beef, spicy Taiwanese sausage and steamed BBQ Pork buns were all a delight and made for a superb value evening meal.
Taking a slightly more leisurely start the next morning, we decided to make use of the excellent cycle hire scheme available throughout Taipei. With pickup and drop-off points across the city, you simply register at one of the terminals using a credit card, pay a few dollars access fee and you’re ready to go, much like London’s (infamous) Boris Bikes! Wide roads, dedicated cycle paths and very strict traffic rules make cycling in Taipei both fun and safe, and we had soon made our way to Longshan Temple, one of Taipei’s oldest Buddhist centres nestled amongst significantly more modern apartment blocks. For temple lovers, the Baoan and Confucius temples are both easily reached on two wheels and a great source of insight into local traditions and both still very much active to this day.
Leaving the old town behind, we peddled our way into the heart of the modern city, and the namesake Taipei 101. Officially known as the Taipei International Financial Centre, this vast 508-metre high structure is recognised the world over as a symbol of the prosperity of this great city. The basement food court offers a vast selection of simple, good value food from around the world, whilst the shopping mall on the upper levels would keep even the most intrepid shopper occupied for quite some time. For us, however, the main attraction was taking a high-speed elevator to the 89th-floor observation deck, taking a mind-blowing 37 seconds. The views from the top are breathtaking, and it’s well worth timing your visit to coincide with the sunset as the mountain backdrop is jaw-dropping. For those interested, you can descend a couple of floors and see the vast tuned mass damper system which keeps the building stable in the strong winds that can blow across the city.
With our time limited, it seemed only fitting to sample the nightlife on offer down at ground level. Whilst hardly a party destination in its own right, Taipei is not short of quality bars and restaurants, although those on a tight budget may struggle a little! The area around Lane 280 Guangfu South Road is a favourite hangout for locals and, over a few cold Taiwan Beers (when in Rome!), we decided that whilst it was certainly possible to cover large parts of the city in just two days, to really do it justice would take weeks. And seeing as we’ll be on the Chinese mainland later in the year, it’s a safe bet that we’ll be back soon!