A week in Taiwan – the capital, Taipei

On Friday 25th May 2018 we woke up at 5am in Yangon to get to the airport and get a flight at 8:30am to Kuala Lumpur (KL). We had got a night bus to Yangon the day before with JJ Express and had been able to check straight into our room back at Shwe Yo Vintage Backpackers Hostel where we had stayed at the beginning of our time in Myanmar. After a day of relaxing and planning Taiwan we had a full day of travelling to go. We arrived into KL at around 1pm and had a long layover as our next flight wasn’t until 5:45pm. The flight was five hours long and it ended up being delayed by over an hour so we didn’t arrive into Taipei until nearly midnight.It was a straight forward journey to get to our hostel. We got the #1819 which is a 24 hour bus into the city from the airport. The bus cost us NT$140 (New Taiwan Dollars) each (£3.50) and the bus ran every 15 minutes. We had been lucky enough to get the last two seats on the bus which we were very pleased about as, even though it wasn’t a long wait until the next bus, we had been up since 5am and just wanted to get to our hostel. We got off the bus on Kulun Street and, for the last leg of the journey, we had to get a taxi which was metered and cost us another NT$140, the taxi driver was very sweet in helping us find our hostel too! We had chosen to stay at a hostel called Fun Taipei which was a modern hostel over a couple of floors in an apartment block and gave you a free breakfast of an unlimited amount of toast (they had chocolate and peanut butter spread), had helpful staff and good WiFi. It was around 1am when we made it to the hostel and finally got to get some sleep. After a long day of travelling we had arrived in Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan!

After a relaxed morning we headed out to start exploring the city. We would predominantly be using the MRT (their metro service) to get around and so bought a metro card for the next 48 hours which cost us NT$280 each (£7). The metros are really efficient and modern here and our card gave us unlimited travel for the two days which was ideal. It was a beautiful day with temperatures in the low thirties and it was a Saturday so the metros were pretty busy.

Our first stop was to Liberty Square (also known as Freedom Square) which houses the National Theatre and the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Liberty Square was built in the 1970s as part of the memorial hall complex for former Chinese President Chiang Kek-Shek who relocated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war. The Square has an enormous impressive stone doorway at one end and the hall at the other with the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall on either sides of it. The Memorial Hall is the main site in the area and one of the most prominent sites in all of Taipei. Apparently the main square is still a popular spot for people in Taipei to gather for ceremonies and festivals and is where Taiwan’s President will greet foreign signatories at red-carpet events.

Our first view was of the National Theatre which you see as soon as you step out of the MRT station. It’s a very large, beautifully carved building in a traditional Chinese style and it was actually one of our first views of all of Taipei having gotten straight onto the metro from our hostel. This building and the Concert Hall on the other side of the square were both completed in 1987 and look quite similar in their design – they’re very impressive.On one end of the square is the doorway to the memorial. This is a number of archways and is the entrance to the entire square. You then walk up the open courtyard to the memorial hall which is up a set of 89 steps, one step to mark each year of Chiang Kek-Shek’s life. The memorial hall is bright white with a blue octagonal roof and dominates the landscape. The roof is octagonal to mark the importance of the number eight in Taiwanese (and Chinese) culture. Inside is a statue of Chiang Kek-Shek which is watched by a guard on either side of it. What I liked about the statue was that he was smiling which isn’t very common in memorial statues. The hall also had a really nice ceiling which moves up into the roof of the building which you don’t notice straight away but is a nice detail to the otherwise plain room.Near to the memorial hall is the 228 Peace Park which was built in memory of the tens of thousands of people who were killed in and around February 28th (2/28) 1947 when Taiwan was put under martial law and faced a “cleanse of the countryside” after there had been public protests against police brutality. The martial law stayed in place until 1987 (40 years) and the park was built to provide a place of peace and reflection of the treatment the Taiwanese people had faced as well as a reminder in the hope of preventing its reoccurrence. The park was very peaceful with people relaxing and enjoying the nice weather. There was a cute pond in the park too with a shrine in the middle of it and I enjoyed the backdrop of tall buildings that could be seen in the distance – something I always like in a city park.

Ximending was our next stop of the day and is a popular shopping district in Taipei, particularly for teenagers. As it was a Saturday, it was really busy here which made us glad we went as we wanted to see it at its busiest. There were street performers playing music and magic and the whole place is full of shops and small food stands. What was surprising was the number of Nike and Adidas shops in this area with one street having two each within a few doors of one another. This is also where we stopped for lunch and tried a street stand called Prince Cheese Potatoes which serves a large potato croquette with a topping of your choice (I had broccoli and Niall had bacon) all in a bath of cheese sauce. It was good and a lot more filling than we had thought it would be, plus, anything that has cheese involved in it is a win from me. We later found out that this is a chain of street food and there was one right outside our hostel so I ended up having this again for tea one night during our stay.

We got back on the MRT and headed to Taipei 101 which is probably the most famous building in Taipei and dominates the city skyline. The 508 metre high building, one of the tallest in the world, looks like a series of boxes stacked on top of one another and is the financial centre of the city. The building also houses a very expensive shopping centre which has all of the designer brands you could ask for. We obviously didn’t buy anything here but it was a nice shopping centre to have a walk around and we headed to the top of the tower but decided against paying to go on the viewing platform as it was around £15 and our next stop of the day was going to give us the views we were after for free. Plus, you want a city view with the famous landmark in the picture, not something you can get if you’re in the landmark itself!

We walked from here to Elephant Mountain which has steps going up to viewing platforms that look out over the entire city. There are a number of different routes but we just stayed right on the path and found ourselves at the perfect spot which was also full of a lot of other people all waiting, as we were, for sunset. It was a really clear evening and you could see far over the city with the iconic Taipei 101 building in the centre of the skyline. One of the viewing platforms has a tree in the middle of it which was surrounded by benches. We had got there early enough to be able to get a great spot in the tree that meant we had an unobstructed view of the sunset. It was incredible to see the number of stands and tripods set up for people’s phones and cameras ready fo the sunset and Niall pointed about that a lot of them didn’t end up watching any of the sunset for themselves except for through their camera screens! We got photos too (Niall got some great shots) and I’m not saying you shouldn’t but it’s important to also savour the moment for yourself too.

The sunset was beautiful. After having uninspiring sunsets in Myanmar it was great to have such a nice one and we waited here for the couple of hours it took for the sun to set and the city nightlights to come on. It was great to see the city turn from day to night and you got why so many people came to this spot to watch the sun set over the city.

On our way up there had been some large boulders that people were climbing on to get a photo with the city in the background. What was crazy about this was that there was a very long queue for people to climb those boulders so that everyone could get that perfect picture. People much have been queuing for at least half an hour just for that photo which even for me who loves taking pictures, was baffling! I love watching a city turn on their lights for the night and we were given an extra surprise as the Taipei 101 does a mini light show when they turn on their lights where the lights dance up and down the building.

Once it was dark we headed back to our hostel which is right next to the Shilin Night Market. This is an absolutely enormous market which was extra busy with it being a Saturday night. The market has shops, food stands and lots of fair ground games such as popping balloons with darts or catching REAL fish from a tank (not quite the same as hook a duck that we have back home!) It was a great market to walk around and was so much bigger than we expected it to be so we were there for hours without seeing it all. For tea I got some cheese filled dough balls and a mango juice which came to NT$100 (£2.50) whilst Niall got a corndog and a giant deep fried chicken steak from Lucky Star Chicken for NT$80 (£2). The chicken stand had a really long queue to get it (a clear sign of good food) for the entire time the market was on. The stall must have made a killing and everyday we walked past the market in the evening there was always a big queue! We went to Shilin Market three times during our stay and the Saturday night was by far the busiest we saw it. One night we went when it had been raining really heavily and a lot of the smaller vendors hadn’t bothered to come out at all (this sadly meant Niall wasn’t able to get any more corndogs). Another night we went it was busier with more street vendors (there hadn’t been any rain) and we got good food at a stall that served deep fried cheese (my favourite). I had mozzarella rolls and Niall had a big hot dog covered in cheese (both NT$50/£1.25 each). I was obviously in cheese heaven and it’s really just a shame that we didn’t find the stall on our first night there meaning I only got to have it once during our stay!

It had been a good first day in Taipei with a really fantastic sunset. It was, however, a tiring one after our long day of travelling and it was good to get into our beds that night. The modern transport links, clean streets and skyscrapers were welcome after travelling so much of the lesser developed countries in South East Asia and we looked forward to seeing what else Taiwan had to offer us.

On our second day in Taipei we had more beautiful weather and so we had hoped to go up the Maokong Gondola which takes you to the top of Mount Maokong and has nice gardens at the top and views over the city. We had looked into it all and arrived at the gondola with no issues to find out that it was closed for maintenance. There hadn’t been anything about it being closed online which annoyed us at it had been a reasonably long journey on the MRT for nothing and was a waste of the nice weather that we would have spent more constructively had we known. After this disappointment, we made our way to the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine. We were lucky to arrive to see some of the changing of the guard ceremony. We arrived at 20 past 12 and got to watch seven guards perform a routine involving swapping places of the two guards at the main gate entrance and then lots of boot tapping and pointing of guns before the remaining five guards walked away. It was a good ceremony but I think we just caught the end of it. We have seen quite a few guard ceremony’s during our trip now such as in South Korea and India and I’m always amazed at how synchronised they are. At this ceremony even the tapping of their boots together sounded like one single sound instead of seven.

The Martyrs Shrine was built to honour the fallen Kuomintang soldiers after the Chinese Civil War. There are 390,000 spirit tablets in the complex honouring the soldiers and the ‘sacrifice they made against the communists in mainland China’. Just like the 228 Peace Park, this is another sign of Taiwan’s separation from Mainland China despite China still claiming Taiwan as part of their county (in the way they do with Tibet). We thought this would be something that wouldn’t be spoken about much but later in the week we met a lovely Taiwanese lady called Lilly and her husband (see next post on Taroko National Park) who explicitly told us that they weren’t Chinese but were Taiwanese in case we didn’t know and was very happy when we said we already knew before telling us Taiwan didn’t like China!

The front gate of the complex is where we saw the changing of the guard and this leads you into a large courtyard that has some shrines on the edges and then the main building which is also guarded at the back. This building has large wooden doors and some metal engraved murals that depict different war scenes on either side of the entranceway. We weren’t allowed into the main shrine but we think that you’re sometimes allowed as there were signs asking for you to remove your shoes so maybe we just happened to be there on a day it was closed for whatever reason. My favourite bit about looking through the doorway into the main shrine building was the two guards who were standing completely still (in the way the guards outside Buckingham Palace do) but they were getting their brow wiped by a shrine worker because it was around 30 degrees and so they must have been sweating a lot! It was remarkable how even as the worker came over with a little packet of tissues and wiped their faces, they didn’t move at all and the entire sight just looked very peculiar!

I really liked it here and the gateway of the shrine alone was very impressive in white stone with red detailing. As we headed back out of the shrine through the main gate we amused ourselves with the two guards at the entrance who stood opposite each other and didn’t smile or move at all. These guards were particularly funny as one of them looked like he was desperately trying not to laugh! We thought this was hilarious and so did some of the other workers at the shrine who were saying things to him while he stood there trying to keep a straight face. The other guard opposite to him was doing a much better job of maintaining composure and so he seemed to be winning what’s probably the longest staring competition in the country. These are really soldiers in the Taiwan/ Republic of China army and so, although I certainly wouldn’t mess with them, it was lovely to see a human element to them when the static, stern stance they have to take all day is there to show the opposite. I’d be rubbish at that job as I’m really bad at keeping a straight face so kudos to them for being able to do it as well as they can particularly when they have people posing in front of them all day too!

We exploited our MRT two day pass (we had already used it a lot that day making our trip to the gondola and back) and travelled around the city seeing the various temples that we had seen recommended online and on blogs. Our first temple was called Xingtian Temple and was really cool as when we arrived it was full of a lot of people chanting some sort of prayer or hymn. The temple was very pretty with lots of wooden structures carved with intricate designs and there was a strong smell of incense in the air. The chanting made the temple have an incredible atmosphere in a way we haven’t seen of many temples during our trip.

Our next stop was to the only Confucius Temple in Taiwan. There is a black plate in the skin hall that says “no religion” we the temple was very busy with lots of people queuing up to have blessing spoken to them whilst covered in the smoke form incense which they then took and places as an offering at the temple whilst they prayed. The temple had a nice entranceway with a waterfall but the interior of the temple was more simple in its designs than Xingtian Temple had been.

Finally we headed to Longshan Temple which only had us and a young family there, probably due to it being a lot later in the day. This was a nice temple with a walled courtyard that had a pond full of turtles. You then walked through a doorway into the temple structure that was in an enclosed courtyard. It was very peaceful here except for when the flights flew overhead and then that was all you were able to here! I bet the builders of the temple couldn’t have imagined it being the soundtrack of a flight path for the big jets of Taipei when they hose its location!

That evening we went to the Showtime Cinema to see Deadpool 2. The cinema had really small theatres with only six rows of seats and it’s probably the most intimate screening of a film I’ve even been to! It’s cool to have been to go to cinemas all over Asia and it’s been nice to not have to miss out on the new films that we want to see just because we’re travelling.

Taiwan has a strong culture for “small eats” where you buy a variety of different snacks and dishes, usually in markets, for your tea. Taipei has an abundance of night markets around the city to try with varying degrees of ease to visit as a tourist. Even at the markets we weren’t to which are pretty established in the tourist market, English signs or menus were sparse and so there are probably extra culinary delights that we missed out on just from not having a clue what anything was. Aside from the Shilin Market, we also went to Raohe Street Night Market during our stay in Taipei. As you approach the market there is a really cool temple called Shun Shan Tzu-Yu Temple. INFO ON THIS. All lit up at night made the temple look incredibly impressive (we didn’t see it during the day to compare) and it wasn’t just us who stopped to get a picture before heading into the market to find food.

Raohe Market is one of the oldest markets in Taipei and had a lot more local dishes (many we didn’t recognise) than the Shilin Market had. I found this market quite hard to eat at with the limited English and not knowing what was vegetarian but I also think that I was a bit too tired to enquire at all of the stands as I imagine they’d have been happy to translate what things were. Niall got to try a Taiwanese sausage which he enjoyed and also got some fried chicken with curry which was run by a stand that supports the homeless in Taipei. Like a lot or Eastern Asia (such as Japan and China), Taiwan isn’t the easiest place for being a vegetarian as meat features heavily in their diet. I don’t like mushrooms which features heavily in Asian food which isn’t ideal and it’s not impossible to find food, you just have to look a bit harder sometimes. One thing I could have had more of was tofu as that’s popular in Taiwan, particular their local delicacy called Stinky Tofu but I never ended up trying this – I always gravitated towards the cheese instead! Like South Korea, fried chicken is very popular here so that was great for Niall! Although I may not have always had as much variety, I always found food to eat and so it may have been more difficult that in places like Thailand or Vietnam but it certainly wasn’t impossible and I had some nice food here. Raohe Market focussed a lot more on food stalls than Shilin but was also a lot smaller so it was nice to come and see a different style of market. It was also very busy with locals so was good to see some of the eating culture in Taiwan.

Whilst we were in Taipei we probably saw more small dogs than any other city that we had visited! It was always good to spot a cute dog as we walked around town and we even saw a lot of dogs being pushed in dog prams which I have seen once before in the UK but not to the extent here as we even saw a giant golden retriever getting a ride in one! Aside from Japan where we saw people walking meerkats, rabbits and cats in the park, we hadn’t seen so many pets on our trip and on our train back from Hualien in our second last day in Taiwan we even saw a girl with a backpack that carried her cat in it with a little window for it to look out of!

Taipei was a cool city to explore and we had a good time here. Having night markets to explore in the evening and find different food to try is always fun and so we enjoyed that part a lot here – it reminded us on our evenings in South Korea. The culture here seems to be similar to that of Hong Kong where the customs and traditions have remained very Chinese in nature but with a western/Americanised influence such as their love for cheese, deep fried chicken and hot dogs. It’s also a very easy city to navigate around with the MRT being great although we were surprised by how big Taipei was and some of the journeys we did took a lot longer than we had expected.

For the rest of the week we would be venturing further out of the city to see what else Taipei had to offer. We had decided to stay in the same hostel during the entire length of our stay for ease and would only be doing day trips as opposed to extended trips to other locations around the country. The hostel was good and the location next to Shilin Market was ideal so it made sense for the time we had there, we were looking forward to exploring some more and, overall, things were going well in our trip to Taiwan.

Sending love x

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