Taiwan - Taipei: Waiting for the man

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November 21st 2018
Published: January 26th 2019
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Today we were travelling to Taiwan. We had another Cathay Pacific plane, we took off at 9.15 am and arrived at Taipei Airport 30 minutes ahead of schedule at 10.45 am. We had another British pilot (they get around!) and the clocks went back an hour. So far so easy. But then the queues at Immigration were massive and, despite no visa being required, it took forever to get through the photo and fingerprinting process. As a result our luggage was waiting for us by the time we got to it, so there was that ...

Our prep indicated we needed to catch the NRT airport shuttle into the city. We found the booth where foreign travellers could buy their tickets but we had to use our credit card, despite having a small amount of local currency, because no cash was taken. We were given a token, rather than a ticket, and it cost us 145 TNDs (about £4) each. At last we were back to a currency without masses of zeros on the end that I just might be able to convert and make sense of! We ended up catching the slow train, rather than the express version, but I was quite happy with that as it gave me more time to sight-see.

First impressions were that Taiwan is very green. There were lots of trees and grassy areas even in built-up places. As many roads as possible, and the railway lines, were elevated to allow as much space as possible at ground level. The journey was efficient and pleasant.

We had booked an apartment for our stay in Taipei because hotels were really expensive and the rooms tended to be very small. We'd used the usual channels (Booking.com/Hotels.com) to do this to avoid getting into all the personal interaction associated with AirBnB and the like, but we hadn't escaped that altogether and had had various bits of correspondence with the owner who didn't comprehend that different countries operated in different time zones and kept getting miffed when he didn't get an immediate response to something he sent in the middle of our night! His English wasn't brilliant either; indeed his first few e-mails were in Chinese and we simply didn't understand them! Even when he sent them in 'Chinglish' we barely got the basics but we had figured out that we needed to get to Starbucks in the QSquare shopping mall in the middle of Taipei. OK - how hard can that be? Well, quite hard as it turned out! Armed with instructions and directions Steve had prepared before leaving home we got off the shuttle at the very last stop and descended into the depths of an underground market area. It was vast and teeming with shoppers and trying to work our way round this maelstrom of humanity with two suitcases was really difficult. We could make no sense of the numbering system of exits, and it was made worse because we were looking for two of them - Y3 and M1, which were, we think, the same place depending which direction you were coming from!

We had been told to meet someone (we weren't sure who but we thought it would be the man we had been corresponding with) outside Starbucks at 3 pm-ish; we had stacks of time but envisioned ourselves being lost in a permanent swirl, going round in circles, and being late. As it turned out, we eventually stumbled across the correct exit, more by good fortune than anything else and, after lugging the luggage up several flights of stairs (we later found an escalator that would have saved us all that effort), we exited into QSquare, early. Steve decided to use this time to find an ATM for some more ready cash, to pay for the apartment. I almost had a panic attack at the thought of being 'parked' in a strange place again, but couldn't face the thought of battling our way through ALL THESE PEOPLE again and tucked myself into a corner near Starbucks but away from the masses until he came back. I eyed up all the men, wondering if one of them was OUR man until Steve eventually returned with cash in pocket, after initially struggling to find an ATM that could deal with Mastercard and international transactions.

Shortly after 3 pm I noticed an older woman on the edge of my peripheral vision. We smiled at each other, as you do, but I tried not to engage with her as I was still watching for The Man. The older woman eventually approached me with a piece of paper in hand. Go away, I thought, I'm busy looking for The Man. She was persistent, though, and eventually got me to look at her piece of paper which ... had our names on it. Yes, that's us! She was joined by a younger woman who explained we had arrived in the middle of a celebration period, the place was buzzing as a result, prices were three times more than usual, and all would return to normal in a day or two. She used a pass to take us through an unobtrusive side door of the mall aaaaaand - peace. It was like being in a parallel universe! We went up to Floor 5 in one lift then on to Floor 7 in another, using the key fob to allow us access. Welcome to Room 5, Floor 7 of the Taipei Beautiful Apartments (also known as Q17 for some reason I didn't understand but was way past caring)! The two women gave us lots of information about the lights, the washing machine, the locks, the cooker, the A/C, etc, because now the instructions were in Chinese and we were just as clueless in that language. Despite their best efforts it took us ages to figure out the A/C and the washing machine was almost beyond me, but at least our clothes saw water again, though I suspect I did them on a cold wash which wasn't brilliant.

It turned out that QSquare is THE place to be in Taipei. There is a bus station integrated into the complex, and the trains are accessed via an underground route in the basement. The shopping mall covers several floors and above that are some fairly exclusive apartments built in two quads on top of the mall. It is modern, centrally located and our apartment came with all mod cons including a balcony from which I could waste many hours watching the world outside. Sadly, it didn't have a Japanese style loo as I had become quite experimental with those, just pressing any button to see what happened, with some surprising results at times!

On our first evening we strolled the streets nearby, looking for somewhere to eat. We couldn't find much other than fast food outlets but noticed that the shops were a strange mix, with motorcycle repair shops sandwiched between upscale clothes shops and bakeries. We later discovered that QSquare has a whole floor of restaurants offering a huge choice of food, with a Jason's supermarket tucked into the corner for other essentials (things like Taiwan beer, which is quite drinkable!) so there was absolutely no need to leave the place if you didn't want to. Most of the apartments are privately occupied and I became very familiar with the lady who walked her three dogs in the quad below, having transported them down in the lift in a pushchair (they were small dogs, thankfully!). The Cat Lady opposite had two cats and she had bedecked her balcony with climbing frames, scratching posts and cat baskets and my heart was in my mouth on some occasions, for fear that the cats would fall from a great height during their playtimes. Mrs Walkroundincircles was admirable in her determination to do her daily 10,000 steps and Billy No Mates just went to work and came back home again but would make good husband material as he cleaned his apartment every evening, from top to bottom.

We spent some time mooching around to get our bearings and to try to find the HOHO bus stop for a future trip and the train back to the airport when that time came (we were completely disorientated on arrival and there was no way we could just retrace our steps on that one!). Finally we were back in the Land of Human Interaction. Even though we were happy enough just pootling about, people went out of their way to approach us and offer help, from the cleaner who waved her broom in the direction of the train platform and mimed going down the stairs, to the chap at the Taipei Main Station who insisted on telling us all about the tea promotion event currently taking place on the concourse, to the security guy at the entrance to our apartments who never failed to greet us with a 'Ni hao', an enquiry about our plans for that day and the offer of a brolly, because it rained a lot while we were in Taipei! And all done with a smile or a jolly wave from everyone. Gradually we began to get a sense of our immediate surroundings but the basement market area, which was also the main access point, remained a mystery to me throughout our stay, though Steve got more of a sense of it, which was handy.

We did the HOHO bus trip on a day it didn't rain. The bus was quite popular and the windows were covered with stickers proudly proclaiming it to be the Taipei Sightseeing Bus, but they actually got in the way of those on board the bus who wanted to sightsee! I swapped seats every time one with a better view was vacated but had to be selective because the bus was fitted with a spray system that drenched everyone in a fine mist. What is this? It's the first fine day since we got here and still you try to get us wet! We were told it was to keep us all hydrated - I had thought it might be a way to disinfect us all, like they sometimes do on planes.

We did the Red Route first and saw the MRT station, the Red House, the Memorial Hall, an intersection, another station and another intersection(!!), the Memorial Hall again and several other stations. I forgave them a lack of interesting sights, though, because another thing we saw (and the best, for me) was the Taipei 101 Tower (the Taipei World Trade Centre) which was most impressive indeed. I couldn't get enough of it.

We had to swap buses to move across to the Blue Route sightseeing bus. We had noticed that the people in Taipei only ever crossed the road on a 'green man' signal. That, or they followed the instructions of the men with the batons who patrolled the entrances/exits to buildings and always stopped the traffic in favour of pedestrians. How they could afford to employ all these Men With Sticks was beyond me, but I liked them because it takes forever for traffic lights to change in Taipei and, if you are a pedestrian, that becomes a bit tedious and promotes risk-taking activity. Anyhoo, we had to cross a road to get on our next bus and, being the well-behaved tourists that we are, we waited at the crossing for the lights to change and the green man to illuminate. Eventually the bus guide came to see us safely across the road, explaining that the green man never illuminates on this particular intersection and we would, quite literally, be waiting there for ever if we didn't make a move ourselves!

After repeating part of the Red Route initially, the Blue Route then showed us the Ambassador Hotel, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the Shilin official residence and the National Palace Museum. All very splendid. Unfortunately, we then saw all those sights again as the bus just turned around at the top of the street and repeated the same route, but in reverse order. I guess they don't have too much that they think will be of interest. There was some mention of an 'eye' in the literature, but we never saw that. We did see a very impressive, enormous hotel where the great and famous stay when in Taipei and some very posh houses that must cost a small fortune.

What else about Taipei? Well, we almost set the place on fire because we couldn't understand instructions. The bathroom came with a high tech lighting control panel that wouldn't look out of place in the space shuttle. It had soooooo many buttons to press but they were all in Chinese and, when all you wanted was enough light to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night, it generated enough swearing to wake the dead, never mind the person who had been fast asleep six feet away but was now experiencing a flashing light show that could give Blackpool Illuminations a run for their money. We took to adopting the 'pot luck' approach and just pressed buttons at random. If we were lucky and a light came on, so much the better.

Anyway, Steve was having a shave one day when I noticed a smell of burning. I checked the cooker, the oven, the washer (not as crazy as I sound, I've heard washers are prone to spontaneous combustion!), until only the bathroom was left. Steve had been shaving with the door ajar. Sadly, that meant the door was just below what turned out to be a heat lamp in the ceiling and the smell I had noticed was that of smouldering timber as the wooden door slowly got hotter and hotter. Geez! We soaked the red hot door with a sodden teatowel and removed the heat lamp so we could clean up the scorched light fittings. We turned on every extractor fan we could (it turned out there was one in the bathroom as well as the kitchen but we didn't discover this until panic set in and we were frantically pressing every button possible on this stupid control panel). I sprayed the room with deodorant which was the closest thing we had to air freshener, but it did little to remove the smell of burning wood and I fretted that it too might be flammable. In the end we decided to stay in for the day to ensure the smouldering timber didn't eventually ignite, but also to tell the housemaid (it was she who had met us outside Starbucks) that we didn't need her services today, thank you, and smell? What smell? No, I can't smell anything .... I think no significant damage was done in the end, so we didn't fess up after deciding that the scorch marks simply looked like a slightly darker grain in the wood!

We had gone to Taiwan because on this occasion it fit nicely with our travel plans. Steve said he thought it would be a place of cheap watches and electronic gadgetry but then he had thought Korea would be a place of high tech wizardry and we struggled to even get a camera card there so he was wrong. However, Taipei market did do some good looking but cheap watches so Steve was able to get one to replace the one he was currently wearing with a strap held together with an elastic band, so there was that. In fact, the markets were really good value but, as always, we had to constantly consider the weight of anything we bought in relation to getting it back home so shopping was very restricted.

We really enjoyed Taipei. The weather wasn't brilliant but we were able to do and see what we wanted and use our time there to catch breath and catch up (with things like laundry and admin relating to future travels). The people were really friendly, the sights were sufficiently different to be interesting and the pace of life was so fast as to be exhausting just to watch. Finally, I can confirm that the Taiwanese love to shop in both exclusive designer outlets and in bargain basement markets. Impede them at your peril!

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