Taipei off the tour bus: bring your note cards
Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. As a child, my knowledge of Taiwan was limited to the “Made in Taiwan” sticker attached to my walkman, which later in high school morphed into “the country that made cute stationery,” based on letters I received from my pen pal Cissy.
Guide books for Taipei depicted historical monuments and day tours out around Taipei county, such as visiting the Wulai Aboriginal Folk Village, where people can have a first-hand look at the culture of the island’s natives before the Chinese moved there. However, that information conflicted with images I saw on television at New Year’s ― in particular, footage of young crowds reveling next to a building that is supposedly the tallest in the world. It looked pretty modern and savvy. So what is Taipei, modern or medieval?
From what I saw during my three days there, Taipei is a mix of China, America and Japan, with bits of Europe tossed in. I’m sure the city used to look more traditionally Chinese, but recent developments have turned it into a modern hybrid city.
Next to Starbucks, for instance, sits a temple for the god of land. The Japanese character Hello Kitty is plastered everywhere and even used as the mascot for Taiwan’s EVA airline, yet cafes serve traditional English afternoon tea, complete with a three-tiered pastry, mini sandwiches, muffins, biscuits and clotted cream.
For a quick and comfortable look of the city, the “City Day Tour,” offered by a number of travel agencies and run by an English-speaking tour guide, visits the main tourist attractions (and passes by the rest). It focuses more on the historical and traditional aspects of the city, stopping at places such as the Martyr’s Shrine, where Taiwan’s war heroes lay, and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a huge complex dedicated to the founder and “father” of Taiwan.
Also included in this package tour is the National Palace Museum, which locals boasted was the “Louvre of the East.” This museum has a huge collection of Chinese artifacts and art ranging from intricate jade carvings and porcelain to calligraphy, which were transferred (or stolen, take your pick) from Beijing to Taiwan in 1949, when the Communists took over mainland China.
Apparently, the collection is so vast that only an small portion can be on display at once, which is why the museum is being expanded to house a larger collection. Fortunately, this renovation was taking place during my visit, and I was spared having to spend several hours in the museum, getting instead to conveniently have the creme de la creme provided in a side building.
The temples are not only an astounding sight, they’re also a ubiquitous one. While some of the more famous ones, like Longshan Temple ― which is beautifully illuminated at night by candles and lanterns ― are mandatory tourist stops, there are practically temples around almost every corner, dedicated to Buddha or to hundreds of native deities.
According to my guide, most Taiwanese are superstitious, if not overtly religious, and pay frequent visits to temples, with a god for each different purpose.
For a more personal look at the city, however, step off the tour bus and head to one of the numerous night markets, which sell everything from cell phones to snake meat.
Huaxi Night Market is one of the more tourist-friendly markets; those familiar with Namdaemun Market in Seoul will feel right at home. If you’re going to wander around at night, though, keep in mind that Taipei gets very cold when the sun sets.
There were many different stalls selling snacks and food that can only be described as “Taiwanese” ― the unique flavor of diverse Chinese food that you can taste in Taipei is an epicurean delight that people told me was popular around the world. Although difficult to generalize, I found Taiwanese cuisine to fall somewhere between northern Chinese and Thai food.
One of the more memorable places is the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, which inexplicably most tourist books and Web sites fail to place in their most-recommended lists. For art lovers like myself, however, this museum was special because the artwork on display was done entirely by Taiwanese artists, a local touch that would be hard to find anywhere else in the world.
It was interesting to see how Taiwanese artists were influenced by Chinese art, and later by Western art, and yet developed their own style that was so distinctive from that of China or Europe. It was like the city in general, in terms of how Taipei is a fusion of Oriental and Western cultures.
When you’ve had enough of art and are ready to start shopping, head to the Xinyi district― a new shopping area on the east side of town that didn’t even show up on my tour book (I should ask for a refund). This zone is the home of the Taipei 101 Building, which is now the world’s tallest building, although it will soon be bested by an even taller structure in Shanghai.
The building is a magnificent display of modern architecture, in that it’s composed of glass and steel, but it adopts Asian motifs to give it a Chinese look. A super-fast elevator whizzes passengers up to the 89th observatory floor. The tower also has expensive restaurants and office space (of course), as well as a food court and boutique shopping mall.
In fact, shoppers could easily spend an entire day (or more) in the Xinyi district. In addition to the Taipei 101 Shopping Mall, there are several other huge malls within walking distance. European and Japanese brands are even more prevalent than in Korean department stores. The goods are still pricey, espcially if compared to how much they would cost in their country of origin, but they’re still cheaper here than in Korea.
Surprisingly, fewer Taiwanese spoke English than I expected ― especially the taxi drivers ― which can be a really hassle when you’re lost. The roads, however, are not complicated, so if you have a current map (and you know how to read it) you should have no trouble with basic navigation. Fortunately, the subway is a new and clean, with signs and announcements of stops in English.
Fluent Korean speakers should be able to read and write Chinese characters to a certain extent, which was a huge help, although the pronunciation is different. Eventually, I started writing down the name of my destinations on a piece of paper, which I would show to the taxi driver or whomever I was asking. For Western travelers, this is probably the best advice possible: be armed with note cards that have the name of your destination written in Chinese!
Travellers to Taiwan are usually warned in advance that the traffic is terribly congested; coming from Seoul, however, road conditions seemed almost pleasant.
One reason for this is probably the huge number of people who ride motorcycles. In fact, so many people drive motorcycles that roads have separate sections for them; at a red light, the front section of the road is designated for those on bikes. This seems to greatly ease the flow of traffic.
During the City Day Tour, the guide apologized for the bad traffic in some areas. I craned my neck around, trying to find where the bad traffic was. Compared to the gridlock and crowds in Seoul, Taipei seemed to be a peaceful, if somewhat unoccupied, city. Looking down on the streets from the top of the 101 Building, Taipei’s traffic seemed to be neat and orderly.
If there’s a bad thing about the city, though, it’s that the place gets wet. Drenched, really. Taiwan receives a lot of rain and as a result, the city has a moldy smell, like a stinky umbrella.
Unfortunately, this dampness is apparently a year-round thing, but the overall gray and lichen-green color of the city is an intriguing characteristic, as if a traveller could peel back the layers of fungi and peer into the root of Taipei.
by Wohn Dong-hee