Taipei (and around), Taiwan
18.12.2014 - 24.01.2015 15 °C
Some things just don't go: choc ice and chips; fish fingers and custard; me and fashion; Big Brother and intellectually stimulating television. The same can be said for capital cities and nature. However there are always exceptions. Come to the diary room and I will let you know more.......
I arrived at Taipei airport on the Air Asia jet. As I emerged weary eyed I noticed a line of chauffeurs brandishing pieces of paper with the names of their business clients; waiting to take them to 4 star palaces (well palaces to me). For a brief moment I had visions of pretending that I was Nigel Smethhurst, Commercial Director from Amalgamated Corrugated Roofing PLC. After raiding the mini bar, briefcase full of towels and toiletries I would declare at the next day’s meeting. “Give everyone a day off”. “Next Friday is compulsory naked day for everyone”. That’s a thought!
Taiwan was an afterthought for my trip. We had been to Hong Kong at the end of my trip the previous year and loved it. I didn't know much about this small country that had been invaded by the Spanish, the Japanese, the Chinese and the odd tourist. Now it's sovereignty is debatable as Taiwan largely disputes China's claim over it. Still therefore loosely within China's grip it manages to be one of the most liberal countries in Asia and is perhaps a democracy functioning within a dictatorship. Less frantic, less crowded, greener (2/3rds of it is forest) and cheaper to live than Hong Kong, it is therefore an attractive place for people to live. I however did speak to someone who feared that this lifestyle could be shattered, that the country could face the same clampdown on democracy that Hong Kong had suffered. Let us hope not.
Just like the Made in Hong Kong stamp, anyone of a certain age remembers the 'Made in Taiwan' stickers on the pathetically unrealistic rubber spiders we had as kids that we used to hide in the girl with the sweaty palms' desk at primary school. If you are a little younger you probably think I have lost the plot and just ignore that little bit of rambling nonsense. Anyway I 'toyed' with the idea of Taipei after I discovered that Emirates charged hardly any more to fly back from Taipei and it was only a cheap and relatively brief flight away from Manila. The weather would be much cooler than the Philippines but much warmer than the UK so a stepping stone back to cold Christmas in blighty. But alas these days no cheap toys to take back.
I thought that perhaps I had made a mistake nevertheless and that exactly 6 days (less 30 minutes) in Taipei, the capital, may be a bit too long. Certainly upon emerging on the streets after the relatively short flight I was not instantly impressed. Well it was a bit overcast. For a developed country it looked architecturally drab. Although this was thanks to the usually esthetically challenging grey box approach to building of communist states (the Chinese) and the misplaced need to remove some lovely Japanese and colonial buildings. I clearly hadn't properly explored then. Despite seeing a number of homeless people in their neat boxes around the station (a vision that stays with me) it does not strike me as a particularly poor nation. It is just not as immediately appealing like Hong Kong. It does not have the glitz and the glamour of the modern Hong Kong sky line. How much did I underestimate the country?. The greyness evaporated and rich, colourful rewards of Taipei were quickly revealed.
Location-wise, unlike my accommodation in Dhaka, I had made the right choice. I had a single room in what appeared to be a converted apartment block. By no means flashy but clean, and only a stones through from the station, hence also access to the marvelous MRT network.
The MRT framework is the network of veins that pump the blood around the city. It is fast, clean, safe, a little crowded but will take you to the far outskirts of the city. The longest journey I did on the MRT during this brief stay was to Danshui, 40 minutes and a mere £1 dent on my budget. Better than the London rip similar journey. This is a historic town on the banks of the river (you guessed in Danshui). As you emerge on the train you would be surprised to see a large Mangrove forest. As it is such an accessible place, this nature reserve can be toured by bike or foot on an endless boardwalk. A short walk from the station and there is a huge dormant volcano Guanyinshan. A pleasant riverside walk past street artists and museums takes you to Fort San Domingo, was established by the Spanish; it was later controlled by the Dutch, Chinese, British and Japanese.
Back in Taepai city centre, so the skyline is not the Manhatton of Asia, though it does least have the 4th tallest building in the world, Taipe 101 at 508 metres. It took a full 37 seconds to get to the 89th floor on the fastest lift in the world. Once at the top the weather was a bit overcast but at least you come to appreciate the huge scope of the city. You can also marvel at this feat of engineering. A huge yellow ball inside the tower is a bit like something from a sci-fi movie. It sits near the top of the tower and is designed to take the impact of acts of god. Apparently it can withstand winds of up to 134 mp. I can also survive the strongest earthquakes likely to occur in a 2,500 year cycle.
Upon leaving the safety of the tower I fancied a walk to get a perspective of this unusual temple inspired structure. I took a walk half way up a hill and then just carried on walking for a full 3 hours plus, accompanied by 2 Taiwanese born guys. One was retired and now living in the states. It was good to get two different insights on the country.
Taeipi is therefore an urban walker’s paradise. The paths are so well signposted that you hardly need a map. There are walks everywhere, often encompassing nature reserves, including a wetland nature resort popular with birdwatchers. A different walk, this time up the highest mountain in the locality, took me to a height of 1100 metres after 3 hours on a rainy Sunday. It was good to see a stream of stoic walkers braving the constant drizzle. Getting to the summit, the trig point was crowded with locals taking selfies were taken over the backdrop of a white. Too cold to stay long, I descended and was shortly alerted by the mighty whiff of eggs. No not the annual walk of the Taiwanese Flatulent Society. It was the mountain that farted. This was sulphuric steam coming off a fissure, reminding me that it is a volcanic, potentially volatile island. A byproduct of this geological activity was much welcome. After finishing the walk I boarded a bus and immediately started to feel a little cold. Fortunately I was reminded of some hot springs on the outskirts of town. After 3 hours in a 37 degree pool I had certainly warmed up.
There is plenty else to see in Taipei including exquisitively carved 17th century temples. There is Longshan Temple, Taipei City Baoan Temple - Taipei City Baoan Temple. You can explore some of the old streets and wander around the night markets and get assaulted by the stench of stinky tofu. There are the glitzy bright lights around the Ximending district. Other impressive sights include the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Zhongshan Park National Palace Museum (Check out the ming Vases) Ming vaces. Did I also say that there is a Museum of Drinking Water?.
If you do want to grab a drink between attractions you can also check out a ubiquitous 7/11 store, a kind of Co-op late shop with cafe pretentions (ie sit and eat your purchases). Sometimes there is one every 100 metres. They are welcoming places though. Upon entering the shop the assistant will say something that sounds like "meeow". Please do not reply with a "woof woof". Do not say "here tiddles". It is just the rather high pitched chinese accent uttered by the polite and civilized people of Taiwan.
Alas I had to leave behind those cute smiles from convenience store ladies. At about 11.30 pm on Christmas Eve my Emirates flight was ready to take me back to the UK. I felt like a dog being forced back into its kennel after a run on a sunset bathed Philippines beach; or sprinting through colonial Indian park, or just a walk through an oriental city where the street corners are humming with the essence of incense, fresh and fried noodles. I was not ready to go back. I flipped through my passport one more time. There is one consolation though. There will be another trip ahead. There is no way that my passport will gather dust. The airport bus was waiting. Then maybe 16 hours 2 flights, 6 movies later on Christmas Eve I arrived at Manchester Airport. As the 369 took me through the depressing streets of Whythenshawe on my way back home, “there will be another trip” was playing in my head like a Buddhis Mantra…….. Soon I hope.