Published: August 13th 2010August 10th 2010
“This is beyond a joke,” I said, sweat dripping down my face, my t-shirt already sodden. Since getting off the airport bus at the central station, Angela and I had dragged our suitcases through the neon-lit city centre of downtown Taipei, wondering how the hell we would ever find the hotel. Twenty minutes later, after lugging the unluggable luggage up and down an underpass, I was ready to give up. “This map is fucking useless!” I exclaimed, droplets of moisture spraying from my nose as I whipped my head from side to side like a man possessed. ”We’re totally lost and totally hot and we should’ve just got in a bloody taxi!”
It’s nearly always the same though. Either go for the expensive airport taxi, or, because we thought we were experienced travellers, go like the locals and catch the dirt cheap bus. Besides, on the map, the hotel didn’t look too far from the central station - just along that street and down that road, but factor in some tropical temperatures, some hellish humidity, and a truly pathetic map, then disaster was always going to be around the corner. “Damn Taiwan!” I snarled, passing by a building which turned
out to be one of the few remaining original city gates. “And damn this map.”
The only real thing I knew about Taiwan, apart from the fact that it was also called the Republic of China, was a lot of electronic toys from my childhood had been made there. In the late Seventies, Taiwan became synonymous with cheap but high-tech goods, and it seemed nothing much had changed. Today, its exports had made it one of the richest countries in Asia, even if it hadn’t yet made it onto the tourist map.
“Fucking hell!” I said as we dragged our suitcases past an endless array of camera shops. Did they really need so many in one concentrated area, I though bitterly? “Where the hell is the bloody hotel?” Just then a pedestrian approached us, a man on a bicycle, asking if we needed help. We nodded gratefully and he looked at our map and pointed along a street. We trudged off and within minutes were lost again.
A young woman came to our assistance, as did a middle aged man who used his phone to call our hotel. Even a passing taxi driver offered his help too,
and thus eventually, even though we didn’t have a clue where we were, we eventually arrived in Paradise, or the two-star Paradise Hotel, to give it its full name.
The next morning was rainy but humid with the odd rumble of thunder thrown in for good measure, but now that it was daylight we had the opportunity to see what downtown Taipei was really like. The Paradise Hotel was a basic affair, smelling of dampness along its corridors, but it was located smack in the middle of a bustling street, complete with food vendors and shops. Just along from it was a teeming shopping arcade full of young people out to bag a bargain. “It reminds me of Hong Kong, or maybe Bangkok, with a bit of Hanoi too,” I said as we passed chop shops, peddling their food to passing pedestrians. “It’s like chaos trying to escape the order.”
Scooters whizzed past us as we tried to cross the road and yellow taxis seemed to be everywhere. The cars seemed modern and the roads and pavements of good quality. Starbucks, McDonalds and KFCs were also in abundance and people were everywhere, but hardly any of them were
foreigners. The city looked booming, but in need of a bit of a paint job. Whereas Tokyo had been clean, cultured and classy, Taipei was more your rough and ready city in Asia, not afraid to show its grime. Angela and I caught the cheap and efficient subway to our first tourist site of the day - the Kong Miao Confucius Temple.
Built in 1925, it was a beautiful complex of temples and shrines and it even had a man playing a Chinese-style flute for added atmosphere. The roofs of the shrines were particularly impressive, curving upwards in that particular Chinese style that looked so distinctive. It even had a Confucius Gift Shop and a little park adjoining it, complete with fish ponds. Suddenly the loud roar of a jet engine cut through the tranquillity and we looked up to see an airliner making its approach into nearby Songshan Airport.
Next door was the two-hundred year old Baoan Temple, dedicated to the God of Medicine. This shrine was perhaps even more impressive than the Confucius Temple, filled with paper lanterns and people praying. A large table was in front of the shrine was festooned with fruit, flowers and
even money, all offerings to the temple. Angela and I were not surprised to find that we were the only tourists in attendance.
The heat was really intense and my t-shirt was already soaked. Above us, thunderclouds were forming and so to escape the tropical onslaught, we caught a taxi to the Grand Hotel, possibly the most famous hotel in Taipei. When we arrived we regarded the massive Chinese Temple standing before us, quite magnificent with its red and orange exterior as well as its Chinese-style roof, apparently the world’s biggest. We entered its air-conditioned interior and sat down; dismayed to find that unlike the rest of Taipei the prices inside the Grand Hotel were not cheap.
While we sipped our $200 (four pounds) glass of orange juice, we got the guidebook out to look for other places to visit. “How about this?” I said to Angela, pointing at a photo showing a troop of splendid-looking soldiers all about to change the guard. “It’s called Martyrs Shrine and it’s not far from here, but we’ll have to hurry because they only change the guard on the hour.” From the Grand Hotel, we caught a quick taxi (driven by
a maniac) to the shrine, looking forward to seeing such an exciting spectacle.
“Was that it?” lamented Angela as we traipsed back to the archway leading out. I nodded glumly, putting my hat on to keep off the rain. It was nothing like the book had suggested consisting only of two teenage soldiers stepping off their blocks and marching to some guard house, all the while being instructed by another man wearing a white shirt who had a baton in his hand. A big let down really.
We headed across town towards one of the tallest buildings in the world - the mighty Taipei 101. Full of financial companies and designer goods malls, it also had an observation deck, but we decided to give it a miss for two good reasons. Firstly, the overcast weather was not conducive to panoramic views of the city, and secondly, we’d already been up massive skyscrapers in Toronto and Tokyo on our trip, and a third seemed a bit like overkill. “I don’t know whether it looks good or it looks rubbish,” I said as we looked up at the strange tower. It looked vaguely Chinese in design but a bit block-ish,
like a child had built it from upside down green cartons. But it was hard not to be impressed with the scope of Taipei 101 and the city as a whole, especially bearing in mind that as late as the 1960s, the city didn’t even have a full complement of paved roads.
That evening we caught another tube to the Shilin Night Market, meant to be Taipei’s best. Before hitting the stalls though we decided to get something to eat, bypassing street vendors selling noodles and tentacles, and instead opting for a traditional Taiwanese restaurant located not far from the market. Boiled cow’s hoof
was one of things on the menu, as was stir fried pig kidney with chicken testicle
, all accompanied by photo of the delicacy in question. It surprised me to know that the testicle of a cock looked like a large piece of garlic, and just as I was pondering this delight, I turned the page to be confronted with the piece de résistance of the menu, the mouth-watering, fish lips in casserole
. Mmmm, which one shall I choose? Despite the menu, or perhaps because of it, the place was packed out with locals, all
rubbing their chopsticks together in great anticipation of the feast ahead, and as Angela and I placed our order a couple of waitresses rushed over to see what we had chosen.
The meal turned out to be horrible, even if it was just beef curry, and soon we were headed for the night market. More or less as soon as we stepped outside a crack of lightning lit the night sky, followed by some bone-shaking thunder. Simultaneously, a sheet of tropical rain descended upon us, coating us in fat blobs that splattered and drenched us as we sought refuge under the awnings of the market. As we stood there taking stock of the situation, one of the flimsy plastic coverings above us collapsed under the weight of the collecting water, drenching a poor woman just in front of us.
“I reckon night market in Taiwan means food stalls and stupid fairground games,” Angela said as we wandered with the crowds. The rain was still hammering down making the small market even more crowded than usual. But instead of the bargains we’d been hoping for, Shilin Night Market seemed to be an endless array of shoot the balloon type
stalls and noodle eateries. After being jostled for the hundredth time, we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel.
The next morning, after a suggestion by Angela, we caught a train to the most northerly point on the subway system, to a town called Danshui. It was more like a suburb of Taipei, but it did have a coastline on the East China Sea as well as scenic mountains in the background. It was clearly a popular destination for the people of Taiwan because families were out and about and boats plied the harbour. We caught a small ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf and as we sat down for the short journey we were approached by an elderly Taiwanese gentleman who wanted to take our photograph. After taking it, we tried to have a conversation in broken English before he gave up and sat down across the aisle.
“Where is everyone?” I said as we alighted from the boat and began walking along a pretty harbour with a white bridge as its centrepiece. Where the elderly man had gone, as well as the handful of other passengers, we couldn’t ascertain, but as far as
we could tell, Fisherman’s Wharf, though charming, was a bit dead. Only later would we learn that Danshui had an old Dutch fort, an old Presbyterian church and a few temples, but by then it was too late because we were on our way back to Taipei.
On the way back to the airport, we mused on our trip to Taiwan. We both agreed that as a tourist destination, it was a bit lacking - there wasn’t that much to actually see. Additionally, perhaps because of the time of year, there was a certain ripe smell to certain parts of the city, which made us wrinkle our noses on numerous occasions. But the worst thing for us was the food, or lack of food to cater for western palates. Finding anywhere that wasn’t a street side vendor, a tiny place filled with locals eating noodles, or a restaurant catering for people with a love of intestine, was a hard job. Angela summed up the visit to Taipei. “I’ve enjoyed being here for a few days, but I wouldn’t ever come back.” Strengths:
-Very friendly and helpful people
-Efficient (and cheap) subway system) Weaknesses:
find your way around
-Rain and thunder of August
-Not that much to actually see
-Smelly at times
-Traffic is pretty bad
There are more photos below