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Published: March 29th 2018
Accidental tourism is when you turn a corner a find yourself at some momentous location or event. Cheater tourism, as we coin it, is doing a drive by and calling something “done.” Like if you have a stopover in Dubai and never leave the airport, have you been to Dubai?
Taipei may be in a class of its own that we’ll need to label. Scattered tourism, maybe? When we sat overlooking Ho Chi Minh City over a month ago and decided we should plan the rest of our two months, we blocked out stops a week at a time. When we backtracked on the calendar from our Hong Kong departure home, a week was orphaned. Squeezing our fingers together on Google Maps to get a view of the region brought our eyes to Taipei. Are you interested? Don’t know, are you?
And here we have spent a week. After our swish and coddling experience in Bali, anything would likely be jarring. Our AirBnB apartment is first seen at midnight after a late flight and long layover back in KL. The address is Alley 167, Lane 30 - and it is an alley. A metal industrial door lets us into
to a scooter parking bay with the push of a button. The fluorescent light turns on with our arrival and a grim set of irregular stairs with grimy walls up a flight takes us to another punch-key door. Within are doors to three units, and our opens to a slim sliver of space, nicely done to the eye but something makes us uncomfortable from the start. For John, it was a window that lets little light in and puts you eyeball-to-eyeball with a metal-gated window in the neighbouring building 8’ away. For me, the dark bedding makes me wonder. For us both, a few misses in the bathroom cleaning are a drag. And the wet/dry bathroom is a mode we haven’t used in a while and we have never mastered - a spray hose to bath and by accident, hose down the whole diminutive bathroom.
Kelly emailed that next morning to ask “how’s Taiwan”? John’s response. ”Got in the apartment (long closet) last night about midnight. Neighbourhood looked sketchy. However, in the light of day look pretty cool. Going exploring today.”
Arrival done, we start to acclimatize. Our apartment building is exactly like every other one. The ground
floor for utility/garage purposes, if it’s not a business. The residences above. Our location couldn’t be better. Our alley and lane are in the Yongji Road area, which puts us a block walk to an incredible street food district and a 15 minute walk to Taipei’s answer to KL’s Petronas Towers, known as Taipei 101 - a landmark designed to honour bamboo, but for me, I say with some apology that it makes me think of a tower of Chinese takeout boxes. It’s all in the eye
of the beholder. It is a pretty building that photobombs your view all over the city.
Geographically, Taiwan is situated on the political equivalent of tetonic plates. Its history is peppered by Chinese and Japanese control, with a brief period of Dutch colonization thrown in. Democratic reforms in the 80s, led to its first direct presidential election in 1996...and with the newly minted lifetime head of China putting Taiwan on notice not to stretch its indepence too generously, how long the stability here will last crosses the mind. A place where nationalists might sleep with one eye open.
The vignettes of our experience here are what we will carry with
Our Roman-alphabet language is a challenge; but pantomiming is universal. Few people speak English and signage is mostly in a Taiwanese version of Mandarin...I think. We greet, thank and say ‘no problem’, but not much else. Rather than restricting our experience, this becomes the basis for some of our most memorable occasions.
Finding breakfast that first morning left us a bit bemused. A walk to our street food area finds that most of the metal garage door-type closures are down. One place looks hopping with staff cooking, serving and bustling but we’re told they don’t open till later. Back out to the street and we stand while we figure where next. A beaming, small-statured man comes out behind us. Breakfast, he asks? English! He shepherds us down the street to a breakfast bar that we end up frequenting each morning. I take pictures of other people’s food, with their assent, and the picture is how I order tomorrow’s selection.
This same man welcomed us with warmth and old-friend style recognition when we returned for a buffet style lunch a few days later. I am finger-wagged when I lift my tray to be served and receive a
demonstration to point at the items I would like and push the tray along the track - the servers will do the rest. While we were eating, the skies opened and our adoptive parent scooted out back and brought us an umbrella. No problem returning it, he seemed to say. Though we did a few hours later to great smiles.
Which brings me to umbrellas. The small things you might ask a guide if you were with a tour, go as unverified surmises. But I would bet that umbrellas are considered communal assets. Many, many public serving stores and restaurants have an umbrella stand outside with a bunch of unmatched umbrellas. Wouldn’t it be neat if you take one when you need it and drop it off whenever the weather changes at another location?
Most high-end store staff politely gazed beyond us as we blithely walked by...we bespoke our means, I’d say. One such meticulously turned out woman, beckoned us in and offered us each a tiny scroll with a blessing on it - mine was about gratitude and John’s about service. She and her colleague both bowed their heads with smiles as we went on our way.
Another lovely encounter was at the subway. We loosely planned a day trip to Juifen, a gold mining town from days gone by that has retained its old world charm, high on the hills on the Pacific. We buy the Metro token which’ll take us to a stop where we’ll catch a train and ultimately a bus for the last leg. We barely enter the Metro and are standing on the train landing deciphering which direction we should go. A open-faced woman approaches and asks, in great English, if she can help. She hasn’t heard of Juifen but offers to take us to our stop and where we might be able to find someone who knows. Off we go. In the end, she takes us to two bus stops to find the right one, a taxi says the next bus is in two hours but he’ll take us there for $50 (we decline) and then she finds a group of three Taiwanese women from another town who want to go to Juifen too. Bartering away, we share a cab and off we go. Our subway adopter wouldn’t leave us until she was sure we were on our way.
As sidebar, while on the subway our helper suggested we go to a more popular site that she wrote down as Zwafen....turns out it is the same place we were trying to find. Romanizing another language is fraught with confusion at times.
We glom on to Google Translate for the first time this trip. Loaded on our phone, you activate the camera and hold it over the Taiwanese signage - the translation, awkard as it may be, pops up. It helped us figure out the dryer, menus (which rarely have pictures here) and directions. Darn cool.
People seem truly delighted to connect with us - perhaps because there are few westerners here compared to other Asian countries we’ve visited, perhaps because we are silver-haired and larger than life (alas). The women we drove to Juifen with asked if we could take a picture together; the young woman who cut my hair asked if she could take pictures of my hair from every angle. We are asked by strangers once in a while to take a picture with them.
A couple of young school boys strike up a conversation as I try to order dumplings at a stand-up
stall. They are fearless in trying their English and are charming in their openness. They figure out the prices for me and place my order, on a dim sum-like order form. The not-much-older fellows serving me use their fingers to explain how long they’ll take to cook and what condiments they’d recommend. Something about moments like these delight me and buoy me for hours. We had endless numbers of similar interactions throughout our days here.
One other indescribable joy here. The mornings are bright, fresh and hold a tangible feel of a new day with people dressed for work or grandparents walking kids to school, biking or scootering to their places, older folk stretching in parks, and businesses rolling up their doors for the day. We’ve taken to getting a coffee and sitting on a sidewalk to watch each day unfold. When a traffic light turns green, the motorbikes roar ahead of the 4-wheeled vehicles and the roar sounds like LeMans. Street theatre almost. And the same for evenings. Many businesses don’t open till 11 in the morning, so nightfall is the pinnacle of the day. Warm, soft air blowing with people everywhere buying their dinners or meetings friends.
Gentle bustle. Wonderful to watch and be part of.
As for our sight seeings, Jiufen was a lovely day, even more for its drive to an Amalfi-coast like region of winding roads and buildings cut into the hillsides. The density of tourists (mostly Asian) on the two famous old-style narrow and lanterned streets cut a sharp contrast to Taipei.
Density is a word that pops up for Taipei traffic too - as in, where is it? There are lots of motorbikes, cars and busses, but roads seem almost under utilized most of the time. Perhaps a result of great road infrastructure and public transit, but perhaps something else. Another question we’d ask a guide.
We trip over some random delights too. A 24-hour, multi-storied bookstore (Eslite) offers a whole room for just their pencil offerings. Its extravagant and lush in stationery, gifts and books. Our Metro rescuer pointed out a upscale mall with a Japanese garden on the top floor - we circle around later to check it out. Another time we stumble upon a pedestrian only area that goes for blocks near Taipei 101, which offers every high-end store possible from Tiffany’s, Chanel to
We decided our limited wardrobes might need some warmer options for Japan in the spring time. Two factors limited our success - the “moderate” department store suggested on Google turned out to be a mall with stores like Armani and Cartier. Ca-ching. Night markets turned out to be more in our price range, but sizes were mini. Thwarted, our suitcase remains exactly as we packed it.
The Raohe Night Market turned out to be one of the most amazing street food experiences ever. The range of specialties blew our minds - from tripe to octopus on a stick, dumplings to unknowables. A sensory delight.
Now that we’re familiar with the dandy subway and bus system, off we went for a jaunt to the National Palace Museum. The ‘palace’ refers to China’s Forbidden City and artifacts originating from there millennia ago in some cases, and rescued repeatedly until they turned Up in Taiwan - still a sore point to the Chinese. Rated fifth best museum in the world, I skipped over who decides such thins on based on what criteria, and just enjoyed the articulate and engaging guide and the amazing jade, ivory and bronze
artifacts she introduced.
We leave Taipei with a funny sense that we could have shaved our time by a day or two, yet the people interactions were priceless and seem to fill the amount of time we were here. The city seems naive to the things that tourists look for (for instance, the hop-on-hop-off has Metro stops listed as most of its highlights), but that in its own way is charming and engaging.
So, yes, Scattered Tourism seems to capture our approach and experience here. But like an Easter Egg hunt so many chillens will be doing this weekend, we found treasures along the way.
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