Travelogue Hong Kong 2: Taipei (Taiwan)

TAIPEI
21-23 March 2014

It may seem extravagant to wedge a holiday within a holiday, but when you figure how far we are from home and the comparatively small hop it is from Hong Kong to Taiwan, it seemed foolish not to! Especially not when I’ve been promising my friend, Honey, for 8 years that I’ll come and see her!

We could not have asked for a better start to the day. Having intentionally slept with the curtains open, we awoke to the gorgeous mountain view from our 8th floor room (glass windows from floor to ceiling and wall to wall) at the Auberge. The weather had held nicely – although gotten a bit chilly – so we could see for miles and miles; the bay directly in front of us and to the left, the community encircling it and the mountains as a back drop.

Breakfast was another lavish affair, with variants of the same formula as the previous day. We ate our fill to fuel up for the journey ahead, which began with an easy connection bus from the hotel’s entrance (using our Octopus card, still on the same R100 we’d loaded at the beginning of the day before!). Hong Kong International Airport is easy to navigate, but huge, so it was good to arrive well in time so we could amble through the process of checking in and getting to our gate in time for our midday flight.

An hour and 40 later, we were landing in Taipei and, being well past lunchtime and with plenty of time to get to our 5pm meet-up with Honey, first order of business was the food court. 

I’d been operating on the assumption that we’d immerse in local culture (which really only means food) as we normally do… but it’s quite hard. Everything is so foreign! That might sound obvious, but the addition of the so-unfamiliar Chinese writing leaves you unable to even sound things out, let alone attempting to translate or speak back. We buckled and got McD’s. With a little more time and less pressure, the restaurant option mysteries started to clear. No regrets on the burgers, but I’d quite like to have tried the Japanese cheese curry (not paneer, a curry with a cheesy sauce). Still not traditional in the “when in Rome” sense, but intriguing nonetheless.

We decided to get a taxi into town since it was the NTS (Taiwan currency, we believe stands for New Taiwan Dollar) equivalent of R350 and the combination of public transport it’d have taken to get to City centre would’ve been damn close to that for the two of us.

We thought we were quite shrewd, avoiding potential language issues with the driver by getting a tourist map and circling our destination to point at… but were concerned when we were deposited at stipulated destination and there was no “big Starbucks directly opposite” as per our arrangement with Honey! Turns out we’d erroneously circled Daan Park instead of Daan and were a block off. We of course, didn’t figure this out immediately and there was some mild panic of us being completely lost with no idea of where we were going and our only means of contact with Honey being Facebook but we had no wifi access! And even though all the signs are bilingual, the Chinese symbols are so foreign that it’s completely visually cacophonous and you have as little idea of  where you are as you have of where you are supposed to be!

It was a joyous reunion when Honey did find us (as it always is with old friends… and especially when you’ve been lost in the prequel!) and a delight to find that her apartment was literally across the road from our meeting point. A great apartment too! A little free-standing cottage plonked on top of an apartment block, too cool! We got the tour, which was less of the studio and more of clambering over the pipes and stuff on the roof to see the spectacular views in all directions – including the famous Taipei 101 building at the end of our road, off to right and even clearer than the Sagrada Familia had been from our apartment in Barcelona! 

Honey was kind enough to plan to vacate her studio for our exclusive use, necessitating some minor housekeeping for our handover, starting with instructions on where to find the key (in the drawer at the entrance way), with the option to just leave it in the door if easier (on the outside! even if we’re out! Taipei is *that* safe) rather than running the risk of locking it in accidentally with the slamlock door. We were also advised that no toilet paper gets flushed – ever! – which would take some getting used to. And, on the fun side, tutored on how to operate the mozzie-fritzer electrocuting tennis racquet.

We then accompanied her on the trip to the laundromat (to tumbledry the bed linen) and got in some beers at the local 7Eleven, joking that we’d have to do a 7Eleven pub crawl like in Khao San Road in Bangkok! Inner city living with so many people has its conveniences –  amenities are close and service quick – and we were done and heading out for the evening within the hour.

Honey had arranged with some friends to meet at Hooters and we were soon enjoying a hearty welcome with pitchers of beer and deepfried delights. A really nice bunch of people, warm and welcoming, with plenty of questions about how we came to be in Taipei and lots of advice on what to see and do while here. We had a fab time, with lots of laughs over the hulahooping competitions being held periodically over the course of the evening.

The decision was then made to move on to a bar called On Tap, where we stayed for the rest of the night socialising, enjoying the 80s music, playing the (very PG) cardgame Uno, glugging (the very unimaginatively named) Taiwan Beer and knocking back Christmas In Your Mouth (a shooter creation with cinnamon, hence the name) and vodka jellybabies. A great (and long) night had by all! … and, as we were told it would be, easy as pie to hail a yellow cab – any time day or night anywhere in the city. Fortunately this fella wasn’t watching a dvd while he drove, as was the chap who’d brought us to On Tap! 

Saturday morning began – after a long lie-in and a big bottle of water – in the afternoon. Happy to have slept the morning away and feeling human again, we hit Subway for breakfast (at now lunchtime) and walked the length of Xinyi Road Section 3 to have a close up look at the Taipei 101. Surprisingly, lots of the shops weren’t open and, fortunately, there wasn’t the mad crush of people we’d anticipated would come along with a Saturday morning in town.  It was still a decent walk though, being a lot further away than it looked. I guess 101 stories of building can create that kind of optical illusion!

The Taipei 101 broke records in 2004, with tallest structure height of 508m, tallest roof at 448m and tallest occupied floor at 438m. It also had the fastest elevator (1010m per minute) – it takes only 37 seconds to get to the viewing deck on the 89th floor – and the coil from it is now mastered into a sort of balled artpiece at the entrance. Honey shared with us the cheat to bypass entrance fees by faking a visit to the Starbucks right near the top, but we passed and opted to just stamp our passports with the commemorative stamps in the lobby.

Back at the apartment, Honey called to update us with the day’s plans, which began with us catching the MRT from the Daan station to meet her and Shawn at Dongmen Station. Complacent now that we felt we knew the lay of the land, we had no trouble getting to Dongmen, but soon realised with horror that there are 8 exits from the station and we hadn’t made a plan in which one was the meeting point! Honey and Shawn had had the same realisation – probably at around the time we had – and luckily our “staying put” plan worked perfectly with their “split up and spread out” plan and we were soon happily reunited and jumping in a yellow cab and off to our next adventure. 

… which was the perfect calm to ease us into Day 2 – Honey’s friend’s baby’s 1 year birthday party, in the southern suburbs so we got to see the other side of town (where Honey works). We were by now – thanks to our longer-than-planned walk and the Dongmen shenanigans – 2 hours late for the party, which turned out to be a good thing as we got quality time with the hosts and selected guests of choice. 

We went straight from there to the Tong Hua Street nightmarket to grab some grub. Too awesome! Lots of fun, exciting and often indeterminable nibblybits! Highlights were the sausage on a stick butterflied and stuffed with spring onion, the deepfried battered prawns and pineapple, 2 types of deepfried mushrooms (neither look like ours at home) and squid balls… and the orderly 1-way pedestrian system that made moving through the bustling market easy and pleasant. Pineapple chunks (sweeter than home, tasting almost like undiluted cordial) and toffee strawberries (like toffee apple, but strawberries) for puds. All deeelish!

Honey had done a spectacular job of social butterflying for us, so it was soon time to scuttle off in the direction of her friend’s Greek restaurant, Yiamas, for a comedy evening with more of her friends. Lots of fun and laughs… especially when the (pseudo) magician duo were using props from random items on patrons’ tables for their skit and they happened across Shawn’s gun – a very convincing looking plastic number he’d won in the carnival at the market.

Then the coup de gras for the evening – around the corner to a gem of a place called Bob Wun Daye to watch a Taiwanese ska band. They were really truly excellent! And the venue was perfect – long, narrow, cosy, busy enough to be vibey, empty enough to easily get a drink… and a cocktail table right at the front for the best vantage point for us, Mary Bites Kerry’s newest fans!

Sadly, we had missed the start of the band’s set so all too soon they were done. But that didn’t mean the entertainment was over – people from the audience kept coming up, picking up an instrument and jamming with whoever was doing same and for however long they were feeling it. Members of MBK came back and joined in at times, but the most consistent gueststar was a brilliant bass-playing chap in skintight red trousers, with thick waistlength hair died platinum blonde and tied in a high ponytail, whom (for obvious reasons) we nicknamed Barbie… and took great delight dragging into a photo with us. He seemed quite flattered, in an aloof rockstar way. Christian had a pic with the lead singer from MBK, who seemed genuinely surprised (and very pleased) we were interested – and broke the bad news to us that they’d yet to release a CD, so there were none to buy. 

We were supposed to meet up from there at (yet another) bar, called Deviate, but our taxi driver misunderstood our direction and erroneously dropped us off so coincidentally close to home (and nowhere near the other place) that it seemed like a good reason to call it a night. At 3am, probably a good idea.

The next morning, once again, started in the afternoon. The moderate weather was a blessing to allow a good sleep and generous lie-in, and our faith in the accessibility of everything and the economy of the public transport left us quite confident that an afternoon was all we needed to fill in the gaps of the essential sight-seeing.

Honey came to us and we three headed out around 13h30 to catch the MRT to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial complex. It’s a big and beautiful area with the Opera House, the National Theatre and the Memorial building flanking a central quad.

We were very fortunate to be visiting on the weekend of the WWF Pandas World Tour, so there were 1600 model pandas in various outfits and poses displayed in the centre of the quad, with countless 6ft+ plastic pandas dotted about the place, each with a queue of people lined up to take a picture with it. A prime display of how the Taiwanese are as panda-mad as they are orderly and obedient. Or maybe it’s just madness in general seeing as they dress their kids as animals (in panda hoodies, lion onesies etc) and their animals as kids (full regalia including jeans, tops and socks – and we’ve seen a few in nappies!) and they’ll line up quietly to see the opening of an envelope!

In their defence, it’s a lot easier to bow deference in a nation where there are light panels outside (pristine and abundant) public toilets so that you can see on approaching which stalls are occupied and vacant. And where the little man under the pedestrian go/stop light quickens pace as you’re running out of time – even though there’s a perfectly clear digital countdown timer alongside him.

Back on the MRT, in search of lunch, we alighted at Taipei Nangong Exhibition Centre stop to eat at one of Honey’s favourite restaurants, a Thai spot in Red Square at Ximen shopping district. We soon saw why she likes it so much – quaint and friendly, completely run by one woman (literally: taking orders, cooking, serving, billing and cleaning) and the most amazing food. This kind of set-up could only ever work with people as pathologically honest as the Taiwanese – the temptations of abusing the honour system of helping yourself to drinks and volunteering what you’ve had when billtime comes would far outweight any concerns about “saving face”.

Our people are more of the “stuffing face” variety… as we displayed when we narrowed down the menu to just order the things we absolutely couldn’t live without – spring rolls and shrimp pancake to start followed by chicken green curry, beef masaman curry, breaded chicken in lemon and sesame, spicy pork mince and morning glory. A lot of food for 3 people (although we rationalised that onlookers might’ve been fooled that we’d ordered for 6 seeing as we had 3 of Honey’s friends join us by this time).

In desperate need of movement after our enormous meal, we had a wander around the market and shopping district, thoroughly enjoying people-watching the hordes of chavs with big hair and crazy outfits.

We made our way across to Honey’s favourite temple, LungShan, which has a magnificent “dragon water” waterfall at the entrance, where people cleanse in preparation for worshipping Buddha. The temple was founded in 1738, so has all the ornate detail and decorative intricacies of a bygone era on the walls, arches, cornices and elaborate roof murals. It is apparently dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy and is brightly decorated with all the snacks and flower offerings that guests leave for the gods (but that we surmise end up on the monks’ tables).

Spiritually fulfilled we ambled around the Snake Alley market, careful to avoid all the snake activities, really not wanting to see snakes slit end-to-end while still alive to be drained of its believed-to-be elixir blood. Vile concept and – while not a fan of snakes by any means – unconscionably cruel. 

Our sightseeing left just enough time for a flit past home before meeting up with Shawn (who’d been working) and (more) friends for dinner at a modest local diner, as authentic in its clientele as in its food. Low tables and simple milking stools, the 100 offered hundreds of dishes, mostly at 100NTs a plate – the intention being for the table to order a generous selection and share. Same with the beers that were served in quarts with each person having a small breakfast glass to pour into. Rounds and rounds of yummy food were delivered to the table, our favourites being the sizzling beef (in a thick oniony and peppery gravy) and the mackerel (light, flaky and buttery).

Starting to get the hang of the city, we opted to walk back to the apartment – chaperoned for the first bit by 2 of Honey’s friends, who fortuitously happened to be going in the same direction as us and committed to ensuring we took the only turn required on our route.

Monday morning, following Sunday’s shorter and relatively easier night out, started at a bright and breezy 9am. There had been much discussion over the course of the weekend about what we should do with our unchaperoned tour and we’d narrowed it down to Elephant Mountain in the morning and the Maokong gondola in the afternoon. 

Taipei had other ideas. 

On crossing to the Daan MRT station to start our journey, we were greeted with a flashing neon sign saying the gondola was closed for the day for maintenance. First Ngong Ping, now Maokong! Of all the luck!

No mind, we caught the train to Xiangshan anyway to do our morning climb, confident that a plan would present itself when the time came. Honey’s friend had left excellent directions to finding the start of the mountain climb, which is fortunate since it’s very poorly signposted.

We climbed the some thousand or so steps and were very pleased that our efforts were adequately rewarded with a gorgeous panoramic view of the whole city. We could see all the way down Xinyi Street to the apartment! And the massive cluster of buildings that is Taipei, hugged by the mountain bowl. It provided an excellent vantage point from which to plot our next movements.

We decided to catch the train to Tamsui, which promised a fishermans wharf and related activities, so it was down the mountain, back on the MRT (only 60NTs from one end town to the other!) and 40 minutes later we reached the end of the line to see what we could see on the Tamsui River. 

Which turned out to be not a whole lot, but still a good leg stretch and some fresh(ish) air, so no regrets.

The last thing on my list was a visit to a Jade Market. Poorly prepared, we walked past where the big market was told to us to be but, coming up blank, we ended up having to pop back to the apartment to do some research (which was only a minute away since we were on our road anyway). A quick Google revealed that the Daan Park market was the main one… but only opened on weekends! Fortunately, there is also a daily one a few blocks from home. 

A quick hop on the MRT and R6 and 11 minutes later we were at the market. Could definitely get used to this public transport thing!

Returning to the apartment less than an hour later, we found Teacher Honey waiting for us, so Christian nipped downstairs to the 7Eleven and we pulled up a plank on the roof for a sundowner (yes, the weather had held and it was still dry!) and a catch-up of the day’s events. We were so lucky to have Honey host us and lend us her flat – the casual downtime is always the best part of these holidays! 🙂

Finale dinner was another tapas style eating arrangement with some of the most delectable traditional Taiwanese food! Beef soup with noodles to start, spicy beef on morning glory, dumplings of every flavour, a beef tortilla thing… everything generously slathered or dunked in blackbean sauce, soy sauce and chilli oil. Ate to stuffed. Again.

Luckily it’s a city worth walking through, so we got to expend some of the food with a stroll to On Tap, the bar we’d been at the first night. We were, of course, far better behaved being a school night, but it was great to get in a last beer, review the fun weekend and compare notes for the future.

It was horrible to have to say goodbye – but hopefully it’s not for too long. And good friends are good friends, wherever they are. AND we have loads of new (and silly!) photos and memories to keep us going until next time.

What an excellent city! What a brilliant weekend! What genius people! Thank you, Taipei. We owe you one! 😉