Taiwanese food has a polarizing effect on people, much like most of the world leaders today. Either you will really love it or loathe it with equal gusto. But one thing you need to get used to is the smell( read stink). The fish oil that is a vital ingredient in every dish is omnipresent and inescapable. Once you are past that, the Taiwanese platter opens up to you and you to it! Taiwanese believe in reciprocity you see.
Taiwan is super modern, super fast, super niche, super connected and most of all super egalitarian. Everyone uses a metro. You would see a three-piece silk suit next to dodgy soccer shorts in front of you on the metro. And the metro; once you enter the city, you don’t need any other mode of transportation. Almost all the things you would want to check out her can be reached via the super-efficient metro.
I was there for a conference with a friend and we could see most of what the city has to offer in a week. On the first night, we hiked up the Elephant mountain (more like Elephant hill). The hike itself takes a not too stressful 20min hike and leads to various viewpoints facing the Taipei 101 building and the city views. We stayed for a couple of hours, soaked in the views before heading down to the Xiangshan metro station.
Directions: Arrive at Xiangshan station, the terminus of Red Line 2, leave from Exit 2 and continue walking alongside the edge of the park. At the end of this road, take a left and follow until the entrance for Xiangshan Hiking Trail (象山登山步道), total 650 metres, around 20 mins. Very peaceful.
For a late dinner, we went to the Raohe street night market. With its assortment of various smells and flavors, the food is quite inviting and confusing at the same time.
The next day we went to the National Palace museum. It is consistently rated as one of the best museums in the world. It treasures some pretty important awesome relics from China and Taiwan’s past. (Website) After a short bus ride, we arrived at the sprawling gardens of the museum. With over 6,00,000 artifacts, the museum itself is multi-tiered based on the nature of artifacts and time periods. You will need 3-4 hours to do this place justice.
There is a controversy about how the artifacts were procured. Chiang Kai-shek’s forces transported many valuable artifacts and documents from mainland China during the civil war. The Chinese consider them looted though. Anyway, now you will see here an array of metal artifacts, intricately painted vases, all kinds of valuable stones, historical books etc. And the Taiwanese obsession with everything Jade is pretty obvious here. Read more on the civil war here (Link).
For the uninitiated, the Taiwanese hot springs are quite an experience. The near boiling, sulfur-smelling, skin-tingling waters will leave you refreshed and revitalized. A visit to a hot spring offers much more than a simple wash. Both men and women are completely free to decide their own schedule, regimen, timing, and style. There is a considerable price range, although all offer the same basic change rooms, focusing on the essential enjoyment of a steamy, soothing soak.
The correct etiquette is to bathe before entering the communal springs, and soap and dirt should be kept out of the bathwater. Next comes a leisurely soak in the highest pool that is close to scalding your skin, where muscles kinda tighten before they relax and pores dilate. Then, it’s down one rung to a more tolerable temperature and then on for 3-5 rungs.
The thick smell of sulfur fills your nostrils and takes a bit of getting used to. You kinda semi-float in the dense waters. The whole experience is relaxing nonetheless. Beitou is the hot-spot for the hot-springs. It has various spas and communal areas to enjoy your soak in. We went to the communal Beitou hot springs and interchanged into all the pools. Though the sulfur stings even the most minor abrasions on your body, you do feel amazingly relaxed then on.
Essentially, for Taiwanese a visit to a hot spring is about far more than just getting relaxed; it’s a social outing, somewhere to gather with friends or family as a getaway from the stresses and strains of the outside world. Most close at around 8pm. There are other things to at Beitou. Check out the Plum garden, Puji temple, thermal valley etc. All these conveniently located close to the metro.
Taipei masterfully balances chique urbanization with revered cultural traditions. Among its steel skyscrapers and bustling metropolis lie the calming beauty of traditional temples, centuries-old architecture tucked among the skyscrapers. Again all of them are easily accessible by metro (Metro station: Yuanshan). The most beautiful ones we saw were the Longshan, Baoan and Confucius temples.
The Longshan temple was built to specifically worship Guanyin, the goddess of Mercy. The architecture is stunning. Close by is the Baoan temple, a recipient of UNESCO heritage award. It houses the famous dragon pillars with intricate carvings and paintings. The Confucius temple is dedicated to the most prominent philosopher of China and this temple does his reputation no harm. You can offer prayers here and take a moment to contemplate if you can take your eyes off the colorful surroundings.
The next day we headed to Tamsui. It is the place where the Taiwanese go on a weekend break. The whole area is studded with eateries, souvenir shops, play areas, and gardens. Its a good place for a family’s day out. (Metro station: Tamsui)
Another must see when in Taipei is the Taroko Gorge national park. It is situated in the eastern part of the Taiwan and covers more than 92,000 hectares of the Central Mountain Range. This park features high mountains and sheer gorges. Many of its peaks tower above 3,000m in elevation, with many natural wonders. The spectacular Taroko Gorge and the scenic beauty of Liwu River can be conveniently viewed from the Central Cross-Island Highway. The varied mountain peaks, numerous waterfalls, diverse plant forms and animal life, together with the indigenous Taroko people, create the rich texture of this unique natural ecosystem.
You need to take a super-fast or regular train from Taipei to Hualein. It’s a scenic ride in itself. The two-hour journey is pleasant enough. You then take a bus or a car into the national park for a day trip. Must see places in the park include the Eternal Spring Shrine, Swallow Grotto or choose among the many trails. Any trail that you may take, it’s absolutely picturesque. Check the pics below. Check the park’s website for the details of trails (Website).
As you ride, admire views of the Liwu River, which cut through the marble to form the deep, narrow gorge over millions of years. In all, the bus/car trip will travel through an impressive 38 separate tunnels, ending up at the Eternal Spring Shine. Here, small temples have been built to honor those Taiwanese veterans who lost their lives in the construction of the tunnels.
There’s more to explore in Taipei, if time allows you. Check out Yangmingshan park, Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall, Fort San Domingo, Taipei 101 building etc. You can easily let a week fly by here.
- Use metro. It’s cheap, fast and well connected.
- Some nationalities may get e-visa while others need to apply for a regular one. Check here
- Taiwan does not take USD, euros or any foreign money so make sure you exchange it. Banks open at 9 AM and you need your passport to exchange money. Some hotels can also exchange money.
- Tipping is not part of the culture in Taiwan. Some consider it offensive.
- Wi-Fi in Taiwan is easy to find, in fact, the island is one giant hot spot. There are 4,400 free iTaiwan hot spots for foreigners and all they need is a local number to register.
- One of the most popular things to do in Taiwan is the Night markets. Make sure to sample the food, play some games, eat, shop for cheap stuff and oh did I mention eat? Feel free to barter.
- Taipei has trillions of food stalls along its many streets where you can eat delicious / filling meals for as little as a 30NT$ (around USD1). Some things to try; Stinky Tofu, Beef noodles, Peanut soup, Oyster soup among others.
8. What I Read: ‘Taiwan- a political history‘ narrates the story of exploitation of Taiwan by the west and China and its importance in the global political game.
9. What I Saw: ‘Warriors of the Rainbow’ depicts the Wushe Incident, which occurred near Qilai Mountain of Taiwan under Japanese rule. Mona Rudao, a chief of Mahebu village of Seediq people, led warriors fighting against the Japanese. A must watch.