Taipei in a day (and a bit)

Once a year Taipei hosts Computex, one of the world’s biggest technology trade shows. Computex 2011 is looming on the horizon, so I went over last week to the pre-show press conference, meet some of the exhibitors and shoot this report. It’s a long way – 17 hours via Bangkok in my case – so I took the opportunity to delay my departure by a day to see the city.

Throw in a few hours after work as well and I got around a day and a half in which to fail to see all of Taipei, let alone Taiwan. So, in case anyone’s doing the kind of google research as I did before departure, here’s what I found.

The food

I didn’t eat any formal or expensive meals in my own time in Taipei, because it’s hard to be bothered when there’s so much good cheap stuff around. One specialty is a kind of spicy beef broth with flat noodles – if you like ramen it’s one not to miss, although dealing with chunks of stewed beef on the bone using chopsticks and soup spoon is a bit tricky.

Food stalls are everywhere, particularly around night markets, and the dumplings (usually pork, sometimes vegetable, a dozen for a quid or so) are great. Also on sale is a wide range of stuff-on-a-stick that’s fried in front of you. It’s all good. Oh, and also some kind of bun with meat and green vegetables inside (not a steamed bun, more like a bread roll). They’re fantastic and very filling.

Food stall in Shilin night market

Drink wise, there’s not much boozing in Taiwan, so I didn’t even get to try the local beer. Bubble tea tastes exactly how you wouldn’t imagine a combination of milk, tea, tapioca balls, flavouring and fuck knows what else to taste: it’s actually quite nice. Buy it from any stall with a picture of a frog and a vat of gloopy stuff on the counter. Cold coffee cans like those in Japan are available, but rarer – and watch out for the coffee flavoured carbonated drink in a can, which is utterly vile. Oh, and hot coffee shops are everywhere. Including bloody Starbucks.

The only problem I encountered was noodle stands – these are common, but menus are in mandarin and the choices too numerous for simple “give me one of those” ordering. Next time I need to learn some noodle-related phrases (“Give me noodles, please. Any noodles. Whatever the last guy ordered..”

Oh, and there are also lots of other cuisines available. Lots of Japanese food, including decent if not great ramenya, katsu, curry etc, and also many places selling risotto and pasta of various types. And KFC. No, I didn’t try it.

The transport

One of the best things about Taipei is the ease of getting about. The MRT system is everything the London Underground is not: modern, fast, clean, cheap and simple for tourists to understand (only a few lines, signs and announcements also in English). Even the MRT equivalent of an Oyster card is better – the EasyCard costs NTD500 (£10ish), of which NTD100 is a deposit and 400 is credit. No registration is required – just stick a 500NTD bill in the machine – and the barriers display your balance on every journey.

The MRT also covers a large area, with lines heading out into the suburbs – and in particular, all the way to Danshui (more later) and the zoo. It’s all you need to get around the touristy bits of town, but there’s also a comprehensive bus system if you can be bothered.

Taipei MRT (City Hall station)

It’s also worth noting that Taipei feels incredibly safe – even at night. Safer than London. I had no concerns about wandering around quite openly lugging £1800 worth of video camera during the day, and at no point at night did I feel even remotely threatened, or like I should keep my wits about me. The only bit of ill-behaviour I saw was what appeared to be a guy groping a passerby’s arse in a night market.

Oh, and the international airport is huge. Passing from the plane to the door took 20mins, while checking in took barely 30mins from the door to the gate. It also has, and I’m not making this up, a Hello Kitty departure gate (C3). It’s pinker than anything on the planet and quite surreal. The adult passengers awaiting their flight to Manilla appeared nonplussed.

The night market

My first opportunity to see the city came after a day working, but that’s fine when one of the main attractions in Taipei only opens at night. Night markets are all around the city, but I went to the most famous, Shilin – it’s in the north. Take the red MRT line north from Central Station, then get off at Jiantan for the easiest start.

Somewhere in Shilin night market

As well as one building dedicated to food stalls – all the market stuff mentioned above, plus stinky tofu and more – there are dozens of back alleyways selling clothes, bags, tat, stuff, junk, god knows what, dog costumes and the like. It’s like the anti-Westfield. Your goal: eat everything in sight without being run over by one of the mopeds that carve through the crowds at speed.

The temples

Despite visits to Singapore, Korea, China and Japan the novelty of oriental temples has yet to wear off for me – the architecture, sights and sounds are amazing. And temples are everywhere in Taiwan – some Buddhist, many serving various deities for various faiths, and one for Confucians. I visited loads, but a few are particularly good.

One, Longshan Temple, is massive enough to warrant its own MRT stop. I visited late one evening and it was packed with worshippers burning incense, leaving offerings (crisps, biscuits, apples) and – something I hadn’t seen before – dropping orange-segment shaped oracle blocks. It’s unmissable. On the other end of the scale there’s a tiny temple (Tien-Ho) tucked into the side of the street barely a block from Ximen station – and just around the corner from the biggest, busiest urban neon commercialist shitclasm I’ve seen since Shinjuku and Shibuya. Both are worth seeing.

Inside the Longshan temple

On my last night, though, I dropped into the (single, quite large) Confucian temple. I expected it to be different from most, but the reality took my breath away. Passing through the gate I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn – there was a deserted garden with a few lanterns – but I wandered through, down a passageway and into a huge courtyard with a similarly huge temple hall in the middle: illuminated, with the shine open but utterly deserted. No signs, no neon, no offerings, no incense, nothing – just a temple, elegant side halls full of plaques (one each for numerous disciples) and two enormous ceremonial drums.

Taipei Confucious Temple

The scene was made creepier by the silence – although just a hundred yards or so from a main road, the walls of the courtyard blocked out all noise. I walked around, and only as I was leaving did others show up – one worshipper, then a photographer. In any case, empty or not, the temple is beautiful and quite unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else in Asia so far.

The tower

It may no longer be the tallest building in the world, but you can’t miss Taipei 101 – it looms into view as you drive from the airport to the city. And so, despite misty weather through most of my visit, I had to go up. To do this you first have to find the correct entrance (take the low level elevators to the 5th floor for tickets), then queue. Don’t take a bag if you can avoid it – my rucksack had to go in a rather flimsy storage locker, although I saw larger handbags that were allowed in.

Taipei 101, from the city outskirts

The lift to the top, until recently the fastest in the world, is quite something – eighty-something floors in a few seconds, at over 1000m/min – and the view is as good as you’d expect, but the main attraction for me was, surprisingly, the damper. This humongous yellow metal ball, shifted on hydraulics, allows the tower to withstand wind, earthquakes and typhoons. It’s one of those truly gobsmacking bits of modern engineering, and you can get a good view of it.

Taipei 101’s main damper

Also gobsmacking is the fact that – like everything in Japan, and a lot in Taiwan – the tower has a chibi mascot character. Or rather, four. They are the “damper babies”, miniature damper balls with arms and legs, and they wished me a Merry Xmas at the top (side note: in Taiwan, Christmas trees have pure geometric forms). There’s an audio tour in English (free, didn’t use it) and a gift shop of staggering proportions (lots of stuff made from jade and some kind of red “coral” crystal) that you have to pass through to find the queue for the lift down.

The river

With very little time in town I asked one of Taitra’s staff what they would recommend seeing in one day, and was told Danshui – a town that marks the very northern end of the red MRT line. Getting there takes 40mins or so from Main Station.

Fisherman, Danshui

Arriving at Danshui you see what would be an amazingly picturesque view – a park, the river, fishermen, the mountain rising opposite – but for a huge construction site on the near shore. Walking down the riverside, though, you see the fishing harbour and what looks like it could, on the right/wrong (delete depending on taste) day be a bustling arcade. At 10am on a dull Friday in December, though, it was quiet and calm with almost nobody about.

Eventually you reach Fort San Domingo and the building that was the British Consulate. The old fort is small but well set out as a museum and interesting to look around, while the British building is fascinating – many rooms are decked out with their Empire-era fittings, all tea cups, ceiling fans and fine furniture. Upstairs there’s an exhibition space, currently devoted to the relationship between Taiwan and Canada.

A Canadian missionary, George Leslie Mackay (amazing story here), founded the first university in Taiwan – Oxford College, now Aletheia University – which lies just behind the old British building. It’s another amazing old building, with a beautiful formal garden in front. As I entered I blundered into a somewhat incongruous group of cosplayers in full getup (amine characters, soldiers and, er, Spongebob Squarepants).

Cosplayers, meet koi pond. Koi, cosplayers

It turned out they were participating in a special university day – some kind of festival. Just around the corner students were cheering their colleagues on the running track as they raced to the strains of some kind of K-pop or T-pop (is there even such a thing?) from the PA system.

Further still down the river, and quite a walk up into the hills, and you reach another fort – Huwei Fort. This one’s low, sturdy and businesslike, and you can walk around it to check out the tunnels, cannon emplacements and so on. Also up in the hills is a huge Martyrs’ Shrine, deserted save for a team of make-up artists outside the gate: it seems that the area is a popular place to take wedding photos, and I saw dozens of dressed-up couples being photographed around the area.

After the photoshoot, Danshui

Finally, Danshui has a bustling market street that runs parallel to the river near the MRT end. It’s full of souvenir shops, but there’s also a pretty temple with information about the town’s ancient lighthouse (the Japanese knocked it over during WW2, apparently) and some food stalls.

The Onsen

Onsen (hot spring baths) are one of the best things in Japan, and the combination of natural springs and a period of Japanese colonisation mean that Taipei has dozens of its own. The etiquette is a little different – many are mixed, so swimsuits are a must rather than a no-no, and bizarrely you have to wear a hairnet – but the concept is otherwise the same. A few stops down from Danshui is Beitou, where you can change for the special train (with carriages made up to look like the forest or baths) to Xinbeitou, nearest to the springs.

The Beitou-Xinbeitou MRT

Ten minutes up into the hills is a museum on the history of spa baths in Taiwan (interesting, built in an original bathhouse, almost entirely in Chinese but with an English pamphlet), and up beyond that you can get near to some of the hot water springs themselves – complete with amazing clouds of slightly sulphurous steam. It’s impressive, if not anywhere near Owakudani, Japan.

Between the museum and the source there’s a stretch of river where you can soak your feet in the spring water for no cost, but also the public bath. This costs less than a quid, with changing facilities – take your own swimsuit and towel. Unfortunately it also closes for several periods during the day, and I arrived just as it was emptying out for one. A half hour walk up the road I found Spring City – a somewhat posh hotel with outdoor spring baths.

Spring, Beitou

It’s somewhat pricey (800NTD, so £20 or so) but for that you get everything other than a swimsuit, at least 7 different baths and a nice view over the town. I could have stayed until closing, but even at 7pm the walk back (winding road, no pavements, no map, night time) was perhaps ill-advised. Nonetheless, Xinbeitou is absolutely worth the trip.

And that’s about all I had time to see, sadly. Taipei was a fascinating place to visit, and there’s obviously so much more to be found – maybe next time. Many more photos here.