Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fun Taiwan!




Caution: SUPER long holiday post ahead!

A few weeks ago, me and hubby decided it was time for a holiday and began the absorbing process of picking a destination. A public holiday on October 15th meant that taking a day off from work would give us a nice long weekend from 12th to 15th. Since we had only 4 days to spare, we decided to stick to somewhere close by. More often than not, at this time of year, our choice of holiday location is dictated by the unpredictable weather with monsoons and typhoons hitting different parts of Southeast Asia with gusto! After some discussion, we singled out Taiwan which would mark a maiden trip for the both of us.

While chalking out the holiday itinerary, aside from my usual travel beacons - Lonely Planet, Wikitravel and Tripadvisor, I thought of consulting with my local friends too. After asking around, I realized that around 98% of my local Singaporean friends had been to Taiwan, many of them even more than once. I wondered what it was about Taiwan that made it such a popular destination with Singaporeans and the answer was pretty simple - it is a nearby developed country that is culturally similar to Singapore. Not to mention, Taiwan is much larger than Singapore, is relatively safe, has good public transport, is comparatively cheaper and most importantly, renowned for their street food and abundance of dining options which is something Singaporeans share a passion for. My friends gave me plenty of helpful suggestions so my itinerary was ready within no time. For non-Chinese speaking people, I would heavily recommend preparing a detailed itinerary complete with the Chinese names and addresses of the places you intend to visit because I had been forewarned of the language barrier in Taiwan. Me and my husband booked our accommodation through Agoda and tickets on Tiger Air to Taipei only to find out that a typhoon had just struck Taipei bringing down a torrent of rain (lucky us, eh?!). I was anxious if this recent irksome development would ruin our holiday plans and kept my fingers crossed that it would pass by the time we landed there.

In characteristic fashion, I'm drafting this post on the flight back home to Singapore. We just spent 4 wonderful days in Taipei and I wish that we had stayed to longer because there was so much more that I wanted to see and do.

Ah....well! I'd just have to come back now, won't I? :D

Presenting my Taipei memoir....






Passport & boarding pass....check! Luggage....check! Novel....check!


A four and a half hour flight later....

Ni Hao Taipei!

We reached Taipei during mid-afternoon. The weather was partially cloudy but fortunately no signs of rain (whoopee!). After collecting our bags, we went to the Hi Life convenience store at the airport and bought two Easy cards to be used for the public transport services. After that, we grabbed a bite to eat at the food court located in the basement of the departure hall. Initially we thought of taking the train back to the city but having woken up early that morning coupled with weariness from the flight made taking a cab more compelling. Cabs are readily available in Taipei and that is something you can count on no matter where you are. We had booked our accommodation at the Park Taipei Hotel located at the at the intersection of Fu Xing S. Rd. and Xin Yi Rd, the center of Taipei City’s financial, cultural, and commercial districts. A 45 min cab ride later, we were at our hotel. Although cab fares in Taipei are in general cheaper than in Singapore, please keep in mind that cabs going to and from the airport have a surcharge which spikes the fare substantially. If you are on a budget, traveling light or aren't in a hurry to reach your hotel, I would suggest you take the train or bus from the airport to the city.

These are some photos from the Park Taipei Hotel. It is a lovely hotel with a spotless and elegant room (ours had the Taipei 101 view), the best room service I have ever experienced, decent breakfast, friendly staff and a great location. For detailed information, you could read my review of this hotel on Tripadvisor here.

The second photo shows the view of Taipei 101 that we had from our room :)



There is no time difference between Singapore and Taiwan despite Taiwan being considerably further to the East. Therefore, it didn't come as a surprise when it seemed to get dark as early as 5pm. After freshening up and getting some rest, we decided to visit Taipei 101. Armed with our precious itinerary and a map of the MRT line (which isn't required really), we set off.


The Daan MRT station was just across the street from our hotel so from there, we interchanged to the blue Bannan line at the Zhongxiao Fuxing station and got off at the Taipei City Hall station. There are plenty of signboards and instructions in English so using the MRT to get around is a breeze. From Taipei City Hall, you can either walk to Taipei 101 or take the free shuttle bus. We walked over to the imposing 101 taking several pictures on the way. Upon reaching we spent sometime exploring the mall which has high end designer stores. The tickets to the observatory deck are available on the 5th floor of the Taipei 101 shopping mall and once we got there, much to our dismay we we informed that the outdoor observatory deck had been closed due to strong winds (damn you typhoon!). We decided to come back another day as it would be a shame not to get a bird's eye view of the city from what once used to be the world's tallest building.









We took the shuttle bus back to Taipei City Hall MRT station and headed over to Houshanpi which is on the same blue Bannan line just 2 stops away from the Taipei City Hall. Exiting the Houshanpi station, a short walk later, we found ourselves in Wufenpu, the commercial shopping district. There were tiny streets and narrow lanes housing hundreds of small shops selling clothes, bags and shoes. The quality of the merchandise seemed questionable to me so I didn't shop much.




From Wufenpu, we walked over to the Raohe St. Night Market. It was the weekend and hence predictably crowded but we walked the entire length of the Night market taking in the amazing sights, sounds and smells! To me, there were foods which looked delectable and others that appeared outright terrifying! My friends had warned me that a lot of the street food was pork-based so I had better be careful of what I ate. Not all the night market stalls have sign boards in English and the local vendors don't speak much English either so we found it quite tricky to find something that we could eat.








After all that walking, we decided to head back. We got back to our hotel and then as per the hotel manager's recommendation, went to a lovely Italian restaurant just across the street called La Giara. A caesar salad, wild mushroom and asparagus risotto, gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce and a chocolate tiramisu later, we decided to call it a day. A full belly and aching feet begged a much needed rest although I was keen as ever to begin a new day to explore Taipei!


At 6am, I was awakened with a jolt by a ray of sunlight peeking through the curtains. After getting ready and a quick breakfast, we were ready to leave by 8:30am. We got to the Daan MRT station, interchanged at Zhongxiao Fuxing to the blue Bannan line and took the train to the Longshan temple station (6 stops away). There were some festivities and prayers being held at the temple and amidst a lot of chanting and incense burning, we caught a glimmer of the religious and cultural side of the Taiwanese. It was a beautiful and heart-warming scene to experience.











From the Longshan temple, we took the blue Bannan line to Ximen and interchanged to the yellow Xiaonanmen line until we reached the CKS Memorial Hall. This took only about 10 min as there were only 3 stops. The weather was gorgeous. It was partially cloudy yet sunny and breezy at the same time. I fervently hoped that the weather would stay the same during our entire trip. The CKS memorial was built in honor of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, former President of the Republic of China. It is a beautiful white structure spread out over a massive area. The National Theatre and National Concert Hall  that flank the memorial on either side, serves as attractive and colorful accents to the landscape.







After finishing up at the CKS memorial, we were in the mood for some shopping so we decided to go to the Sogo Mall that was close to our hotel by the Zhongxiao Fuxing station. We spent some time loitering around the mall, grabbed some lunch nearby and headed back to our hotel for an afternoon siesta.

In the evening, we planned to go to Tamsui Fisherman's Wharf to catch a glimpse of the sunset. This place is pretty far away from Taipei city so if you are planning to take the train (red Tamsui line all the way to the last stop followed by a ferry or bus ride to the wharf) then I suggest you begin your journey no later than 3:15pm (i.e. if you are staying at the city center) if you want to make it in good time for the sunset. We took a cab, got stuck in horrendous traffic and missed the sunset but we still managed to have a good time at the wharf. The bridge was lit up, there was a cool breeze blowing and the sea looked dark and mysterious. We took quite a few pictures of the Lover bridge and surrounding areas. Since we weren't hungry yet, we decided to have dinner at Ximending so that is where we headed next.






I must say I just loved Ximending. If there is one place in a Taipei that I would gave liked to spend more time, it would be here. The colorful neon lights, bustling streets, young crowd, tantalizing food stalls and unique sights make this a very interesting place to be. Check out that magnificent beast dog in the pic below. The thought of dog-napping seriously crossed my mind!






We hopped from stall to stall trying various things. Ximending wasn't as crowded as the night market so it was here that I really got to sample some delicious street food. I had the scallion pancake with egg (loved it!), the stinky tofu (didn't like it), Muah Chee (liked it) and the mango milkshake. There was a cop who showed up in between which sent the food vendors running helter skelter....dunno what that was all about! Anyway, for young travelers who are looking for a flurry of activity and a vibrant, buzzing scene, I suggest staying at Ximending.


After another long day, we were back at the hotel. I knew the next day would be hectic with a lot of walking about so we decided to hit the sack early.


I was looking forward to going to Jiufen because almost everyone I know who have been to Taipei rave about the place. Jiufen is also quite far from the city. I had done my research on how to get there so we took the MRT to Zhongxiao Fuxing station, took exit 1, made a U-turn at the Sogo mall, took the first left and reached the bus stop of the Keelung 1062 bus. There were a few elderly ladies waiting in line already. Just as we stood with them, we saw the bus approaching. My husband told me to sit on the left-side since that side got to experience the views on the way to Jiufen (something I had missed during my research!). Once the bus was full, it set if for Jiufen. There were no other stops along the way and the bus journey was pleasant and comfortable.



We got to Ruifang in exactly an hour and from there to Jiufen took only 10 min. I had read several accounts of people taking the train to Ruifang from the Taipei Main Station and then taking the bus to Jiufen but that sounded too cumbersome to me. I am so glad we took the 1062 bus because it was made our journey easy and relaxed. I would strongly suggest it to anyone staying in proximity of the Sogo mall.

When we reached Jiufen, the weather was slightly cloudy and there was the faintest of drizzle but that didn't matter as we made our sway up the narrow cobbled streets fitted with shops selling all kinds of Taiwanese delicacies, beverages and souvenirs. The views from Jiufen are picturesque. You see the lush green mountains and the deep blue sea and it paints quite a pretty picture. I sampled some locally made ginger tea that I liked so much that I bought a packet. I also bought some mochi, taro cake, peanut bridle, souvenirs and small gifts for my mum and sister. We visited a lovely temple as well.













After a very eventful morning, we were scheduled to go to the National Palace Museum in Shilin. We reached the museum at 1pm and spent 2-3 hours examining the exhibits. This impressive museum is home to more than 696,000 pieces of ancient Chinese artifacts and artworks that encompasses over 8,000 years of Chinese history from the Neolithic age to the late Qing Dynasty. In my opinion, you need at least a full day to appreciate the exhibits in this museum. But since we were short on time, we had to speed through a few of them. There is an audio recording available for most exhibits which gives you the story behind them and I recommend you take it if you don't have a guide to explain it to you.





We had a snack and coffee at the national palace museum cafe. We were scheduled to go to the Shilin night market but we were tired after an exhaustive morning and afternoon  so we headed back to our hotel. I had heard from a colleague who had just gotten back from Taipei that the Shilin night market was no longer what it used to be so I wasn't all that disappointed about giving it a miss. 

In the evening, we were back at Taipei 101 and this time to our luck, the weather was good and the outdoor observatory was open. We took the fastest lift in the world (ear popping!) to the 89th floor where we walked through the cavernous indoor glass observatory. The views were nothing short of mind boggling. We took some pictures but they are not very good because the sheer size of 101 makes everything look so tiny in comparison that you cannot appreciate the intricacies of the sprawling city below! We walked onto the outdoor observatory at the 91st floor and it was pleasantly chilly. We didn't bother to take any pics and just stood admiring the bright shimmering landscape surrounding us.

If you are interested, I suggest you read about the Taipei 101 because it is an engineering marvel in its own right. It was built by an Asian, a distinction not many can claim among the architects of the tallest skyscrapers of the world. It has withstood strong winds, typhoons and earthquakes with astounding resilience thanks to the damper which reduces the building's movements up to 40%. The mechanics of the structure although beyond my comprehension is something worth reading up on.




We walked over to a few restaurants and pubs nearby 101 and we sat at this cute little place called Ireland's potato where we sat in the shadow of the massive 101, chatting, mulling over our time in Taipei and devouring a ridiculous amount of fries!

A lovely end to a lovely day :)




Our flight back to Singapore was at 2:30pm and we were scheduled to check out by 11:30am. We had decided to do absolutely nothing on this day so after sleeping in late, a leisurely breakfast, watching a funny movie and me even getting some time to soak in a hot tub (something I never get time for at home!), we were ready to say goodbye to Taipei.

As my holiday has come to an end, I am reflecting on the past few days and here is a list of interesting trivia and observations about Taipei and Taiwan in general,

  • The shape of the main island of Taiwan is similar to a sweet potato seen in a south-to-north direction
  • Driving in Taiwan is on the right hand side like in the US
  • The fast lane on the escalators is on the left hand side, opposite to how it is in Singapore (probably related to the driving)
  • The MRT system in Taipei is a fast and efficient way of getting around. The Easy card can be used in MRT, buses and ferries
  • Taiwan has a ridiculously high number of convenience stores! In Taipei, there is a 7/11 around every corner. 
  • In Chinese, the number four sounds like the word for death. Four is considered to be an unlucky number here so it is common to sometimes see buildings without the 4th floor (as indicated on the elevator panel). 
  • The local people of older generations do not speak much English but most of the youngsters do. They are also quite friendly and try to help you as much as possible when you are lost or need the English explanation of certain terms. Keep your hotel visiting card so that a non-English speaking driver can understand where you want to go. It is good to write down the names if popular tourist attractions in Chinese to help you ask for directions.
  • The swastika symbol can be seen extensively throughout Taiwan and it holds no anti-Semitic connotations. It is a Buddhist symbol which could indicate the availability of vegetarian food.
  • If you are vegetarian, you can still find food at the night markets. Look out for the scallion pancakes, peanut brittle wrap with ice-cream, lemon aiyu jelly, shaved ice mountain, mochi, stinky tofu, muah chee, pineapple cake and don't miss the speciality drinks like white bitter gourd juice and bubble tea. Please enlighten me further if you are from/been to Taiwan so I can add on to this list.

Hmmmm....I was just starting to wonder why my hand and fingers are feeling numb and tingly and I realize that I've been rapping on my iPad for close to 4 hours straight! Looking at the bright side, all this reminiscing has made time fly! I will be landing in Singapore in a few minutes and after a lovely holiday, I feel rejuvenated and ready to get back to the grind. 

Thank you for sharing my travel journal. I hope you enjoyed Taipei through my eyes :)

Cheers,
Megha

5 comments:

  1. Wow..... what a place. After looking at all these photographs, I think I should make it to this place one day.
    That aerial picture ( 3rd last) is too good.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Super long indeed :D loved the post Megha! Looks like you had a great time :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow! Taiwan is full of great architecture (I like the towers), food and shopping options. Your pictures say it all. Great! :)

    ReplyDelete

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