My time in Taiwan hasn’t been constant doom and gloom; there may have even been a three day period where it didn’t rain at all. That said, even when it’s not raining in Taiwan there is moisture in the air – at least in late summer. The average high temperature in August is 91F (34C) and the average low is 80F (27C), but that’s only half the story; in actuality that’s 91 degrees with a 50% chance of thunderstorm and a 100% chance of ungodly humidity. So, in case of an emergency and the sun does come out – what’s a guy to do?
Armed with a $3 umbrella and a pair of Teva sandals that have started to smell like a mix of sweat and rubber, I’ve been doing my best to pound the pavement around Taipei and get a feel for city life. Taipei is made up of 12 districts that total just over 105 square miles of land. In other terms, Taipei is 30% larger than Seattle, nearly three times larger than Paris, or just about 10% larger than Kuala Lumpur. With a city of this size – the only way to even attempt to ‘see the sights’ is with the assistance of a public transportation system – fortunately Taipei has that covered.
As I’ve previously mentioned, the MRT (train) system in Taipei is exceptionally easy to use. Written in both Chinese and English, the MRT map makes it easy to know where you’re going at all times. Tickets are paid for with an RFID card (same with the buses), and you can recharge your card at any of the 1000 Family Marts or 7-11s located …well practically EVERYWHERE in town. (You can also pay all of your utility bills at these places too…)
As of today, it’s possible that I might have gone to 10% of the stops on the MRT system. I’m slowly trying to figure out where to go and check out around town. In the meantime – here are some photos and stories from a few places I have visited.
Shilin (Red Line)
I’ve actually been living off of this MRT stop for the last two weeks. Shilin is famous for its night market – one of the largest from what I have gathered. In addition to its 4 to 6 blocks of narrow alleyways and storefronts that sell anything from shoes to sandwiches, there’s also a covered fresh food market with an underground basement that provides space for dozens of mini-restaurants. Walking through this underground area is an exercise in both patience and anger management – none of the 1000 people in this area will ever be in a hurry to go anywhere. Ever.
One of the best finds I had in the Shilin market area was a bakery. It was a little bit expensive for Taipei – with small loaves of bread costing around $2 – but the quality was fantastic and the selection was quite varied.
While roaming around Shilin, I also managed to accidentally take pictures of an advertisement that I wish I was watching. Check out the top right section of the three pictures below. Knowing nothing about the product, I can only assume it’s the Old Spice of Taiwan.
One other thing worth mentioning is how homogenous Taipei feels (to me at least). Walk down any street and you’ll find a 7-11, a coffee shop or bakery, someone making dumplings, hundreds of scooters, and a clothing store selling shirts in English that may or may not actually make sense. You’ll also most likely be nearly run off the sidewalk by either someone on a scooter, bicycle, or someone wearing glasses staring at a smartphone no more than 2.5 inches from their nose and completely oblivious of anything else going on around them. While each part of town is different in its own unique way…in a way so much of the city feels like a never-ending house of mirrors. While the pictures below are all from the Shilin area, they could actually be from anywhere in Taipei.
Ximen (Blue Line)
I recently stayed at a hostel in Ximen for a weekend. That hostel itself is a story…I booked a room at a place called Taipei Triple Tiger Backpacker on hostelworld. Upon arriving, the woman working at the hostel asked me if I wanted to stay at this location, or go to another hostel they have a few blocks away. She had pictures of it on her computer and her two biggest selling points were that there was both a common room and “white people” there. Although I was already sold on going to this new place, after a quick check of the quality rooms at Triple Tiger it seemed like a no brainer to move to the other place. That’s where I found this gem of a sign posted on the outside of a bedroom door.
As it turns out, I’m not sure if I would have described this place as a hostel. In actuality, it seemed to be an apartment for about six local Taiwanese guys and all of their friends who dropped by to hang out. There was a kitchen, a couple of bathrooms (one with no TP – I felt like I was back in Cambodia…), and two rooms with bunk beds for the “white people” who were traveling. The facilities were fine and the location was good – but overall it was just a weird experience. The entire thing felt like a giant hangout-house instead of a hostel, and I’m fairly sure I could have stayed there for a few extra nights than I paid for without anyone noticing. I actually checked-out by just walking out in the late afternoon and leaving my keys on my pillow.
As for Ximen…either the area is newer or just more commercial than Shilin and many of the other areas of town I’ve seen. Ximen is, ultimately, a large shopping district with dozens of storefronts offering everything from fried chicken (KFC or mom-n-pop style) to space for local artists to sell their stuff. The area is also famous for being the ‘movie theater’ district in Taipei – there’s an IMAX and three movie theaters all located next to each other in a row.
Walking around the Ximen area is something that can keep you occupied for hours if you’re into people watching and light food grazing. Although there isn’t a centralized food center in Ximen, I would estimate that there are at least 50 different places serving food within a ten minute walk from any of the MRT exits.
Just outside of the “Ximen-Center” are a number of narrow alleys and green spaces that appear to have been designated as street-art friendly. The subject matter and surrounding environment will quickly remind you that while the area may be “urban,” – it’s still Asia.
Yangmingshan National Park (Take the 260 Bus)
One of the extremely nice things about Taipei is that you are never more than 20 minutes away from complete solitude. There are a number of national parks and small mountains that are easily accessible from nearly anywhere in the city. While Yangmingshan National Park (which is free) provides one option, another is to take the brown line of the MRT out towards the zoo and hop onto the gondola for a ride up a mountain to an area where you’ll find a few dozen tea-houses lining the roadside edges of mountain and each providing a spectacular view of lush green forest …and a city way down in the distance.
Yangmingshan has more hiking trails than I was willing to undertake in one (scorching hot) day. There are also well over 1000 stairs waiting for you to climb. I actually counted 480 stairs up to the summit of one such trail. The sign (below) warning about deep water should really be a sign warning people about what they are about to get themselves involved with.
With all of the climbing and elevation throughout the park, I really can’t blame these folks for passing out after they made it to the spot I found them at.
While hiking through the park, there really isn’t a single good reason to race to the top. If you take the time to look, you’ll undoubtedly find another (much smaller) world to enjoy in the park that contrasts the massive mountains and peaks. I found quite a few spiders, lizards, and birds that I had never seen before during my day at the park.
Lastly, no trip around any Asian country is complete without at least a few absurd signs. Based on the sizes of the warnings, it appears that there is a larger problem with people bringing private desks to the park than with people urinating in public.