Hong Kong, Singapore,
Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Bangkok, Tokyo — in the list of Asia’s urban hotspots, Taipei, in Taiwan, often gets dwarfed. But size, as always, is no indicator of what the place has to offer. The city has captivated me so much I’ve been there twice, much to the puzzlement of my friends. But, don’t take my word for it. Get a glimpse of the ride Taipei can take you on, in just 48 hours.
The party never ends
If you’re feeling particularly perky when you land in Taipei, head to Cashbox Partyworld. Taipei loves karaoke, and the Ximending outlet of Cashbox is testimony to that. Twelve floors of private suites to sing your heart out are open 24/7, and you’ll find budding singers there at any time of the day. While in Ximending, take a stroll down its streets. This is where all that’s hip in Taipei comes to hang out. You’ll see the uber fashionistas of Taiwan, open music concerts, LGBT bars and Taipei’s famous themed restaurants. While there’s a restaurant for every conceivable theme (prison, hospital, Barbie, Hello Kitty), the Modern Toilet takes the cake or, um, the turd. The shower head- and faucet-decor fittings are the mildest things here — all the dishes have related names (Baby’s Explosive Diarrhea or green curry; Hemorrhoid or shaved ice with strawberry syrup). Their soft chocolate ice cream, served in potty-shaped dishes, will remain a distinctive memory.
Daan Forest Park is a popular place to visit, and rightly so, as it is one of the few sprawling green spaces in the city. But, the real attraction lies adjacent to the park, at the kilometre-long Jianguo jade and flower markets. Both markets are located under a highway and are open only on weekends. The jade market, as the name suggests, is where you can buy jewellery and artefacts, crafted from the green stone that’s quite popular in Taiwan. Whether it is a souvenir or a gift for your love, be sure to take along someone who has a discerning eye and can haggle well. The flower market is a lovely place to visit, even if you don’t want to buy flowers. Take your camera along and shoot pictures as locals go about buying bonsai trees, cactus, orchids, lilies and other fresh flowers at really low prices. Another plus point: shoppers in this market seem to be a rather happy lot.
The Yangmingshan National Park is just on the outskirts of the main city and is easily accessible by the MRT and bus. If a national park makes you think of a rambling place filled with hiking trails that leave you with aching muscles and short breath, you’re in for a surprise. Yangmingshan has a regular bus service around the park, dropping you close to trails that are paved, well maintained and often filled with visitors. Nevertheless, the park is worth a visit for its natural beauty, an abundance of cherry blossoms and other flowers that breathe in the rich sulphurous soil of the region. In half a day you can do an easy climb. From there, head to the Beitou Hot Springs for a good soak in the healing waters of the region. While there are several resorts in the area with private spring-water pools, the staff at the public hot springs are sticklers for hygiene and make for a great (and cheaper) option, too.
Gadgets and gizmos
You’ve come to Taiwan; it’s unlikely you’ll leave without buying a gadget or two. So, where to go? Guanghua Digital Plaza. Six whole storeys of retailers of every possible gadget at considerably lower prices than market rates: PCs, PC components, stereos, mobile phones, CDs and DVDs, chips, cables, DIY electronic supplies, and much more. Be sure of what you need: sometimes the variety is so wide, it’s impossible for the shopkeeper to display, and he simply lists out models, specs and prices on a chart. You’ll find outlets for repairs and data recovery as well here.
You can’t leave Taipei without visiting the iconic Taipei 101, which held the distinction of being the tallest building in the world for six years, until the Burj Khalifa came up in Dubai. While the building is a structural marvel, the most exceptional part of the experience is zooming up in the high-speed elevator. Another spot you shouldn’t skip is the National Palace Museum with its breathtaking collection of Chinese artefacts from the Forbidden City, especially the meat-shaped jasper stone.
The legendary night markets
For such a small country, Taiwan has a large number of night markets, which is a great thing. Buzzing with stalls and shoppers, the night markets are best for people-watching and eating. In Taipei, head to the Shilin night market, one of the largest in the city, and get cracking on the street food. Oyster omelettes, stinky tofu (which smelled so much, I could hardly even taste it), pork blood cakes (I didn’t have the stomach for it), pretty much any meat on a stick, sausages and sticky rice — the variety for those willing to experiment is endless. I washed down my first taste of squid (it slithered straight down my throat) with my all-time favourite: Taiwanese bubble tea. The night markets also taught me to eat any dish like a local — with chopsticks.
Din Tai Fung (or dumplings to die for)
Din Tai Fung has outlets in various countries now, but the first restaurant was started on Xinyi Street in the 1970s. The restaurant is known the world over for xiaolongbao or soupy dumplings. A taste of the dish at the flagship outlet showed me why: the dumpling wrappers are of perfect thickness (or thinness?) and burst with soup and tender pork when bit into. The restaurant has been rated as one the best places to eat by every possible guide, and it seems everybody has heard — you’ll find long queues outside the restaurant at lunch hour, but the ever polite staff will manage to accommodate everyone.
Taipei has its amusing quirks as well, such as the musical garbage collection trucks (let me see you ignore its annoying tune), and the locals’ fascination with my healthy beard (Taiwanese men seem unable to sprout facial fuzz). But, the friendly locals, always eager to help, even if they speak little English, are the greatest attraction of this beautiful country. And, Taipei gives you a perfect glimpse into the culture and modernity that make Taiwan what it is.