Three days in Taiwan

6 Jun

There’s a lot you can pack into three days in Taiwan, from gritty street markets to ancient mountain-top villages, flashy skyscrapers to traditional tea houses.

The week before our departure this past February, the temperatures were in the high 20s with sunshine. Imagine our disappointment when it rained the whole time and was colder than Japan. We didn’t see as much as we liked but we did manage to eat as much as we could. Taiwan is a fantastic place to eat, with street markets galore, and a culture incredibly unlike Japan for being so near.

A back alley in Taipei.

A back alley in Taipei.

Jiufen

Perched on impossibly steep hilltops above the ocean, Jiufen is a magical place. The core is filled with traditional restaurants, shops and tea houses, that can be reached by narrow paths and never-ending steps.

Teahouse/restaurant where, the owner told us excitedly, the movie A City of Sadness was filmed. We were more impressed by the dumplings.

Teahouse/restaurant where, the owner told us excitedly, the movie A City of Sadness was filmed. We were more impressed by the dumplings.

We stayed at Golden 101, a charming guesthouse with a modernist design, run by a very friendly couple. They made us congee, rice porridge, for breakfast, with tofu, peanuts, pickles and pork floss to add in. As well as toast and peanut butter, possibly for our benefit.

As it was raining so hard, a thick fog had settled over the mountains. It was difficult to get a good view from Jiufen or really see much of anything. So we spent our time wandering the narrow alleyways, lined with red lanterns, under giant plastic ponchos, clinging to umbrellas, and eating as much as we could.

The first thing we tried was completely unlike anything I’d had before — a crepe filled with ice cream, cilantro, peanuts and pork floss. Strange but quite good. Pork floss isn’t eaten much in Japan, but I had grown quite fond of it after living in Thailand.

I felt like a dumpling when I left Taiwan.

I felt like a dumpling when I left Taiwan.

After a variety of dumplings and meat dishes, we entered the warm and traditional-looking Ah Mei tea house. As did hordes of others, needing shelter from the rain. We had a strange experience wherein numerous groups of Japanese tourists were seated while they wanted us to wait outside. We waited inside until they blatantly brought more Japanese in, until my friend gave a solid sumimasen! (“Excuse me!” — what people often say in Japanese restaurants). Everyone in the tea house turned to look at us, mouths agape, as I continued to speak Japanese to the waitress until she let us sit.

Despite the service, the teahouse is a beautiful space. It, and Jiufen, is said to have inspired the well-loved Japanese anime creator Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, the most successful film in Japanese history. (Check out these visual comparisons.)

Jiufen is just over an hour from Taipei. Taking bus 1062 from Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station is an easy and very cheap way to get there.

Taipei

Taipei is a major East Asian city, with a Southeast Asian look and feel. Motorbikes zip past scruffy street dogs, colourful store fronts and back alleys piled with trash.

We stayed at Apartment 10F, a great little spot near Taipei Main station. The owner and staff were incredibly helpful, even giving us a tour of the neighbourhood after we arrived. The guesthouse is new, with a clean design, and a full kitchen for guests to use.

Taiwanese breakfast of champions -- fresh soy milk and doughnuts stuffed with egg. It was dirt cheap and they were impresed by how much we ordered. We waddled out.

Taiwanese breakfast of champions — fresh soy milk and doughnuts stuffed with egg. It was dirt cheap and they were impresed by how much we ordered. We waddled out.

Night markets

Japan needs night markets. Well, really every place needs night markets. Taipei has markets seemingly in every nook of the city, from the big ones to the quaint neighbourhood ones. We visited one of each.

Piles of fried things at Shilin Market.

Piles of fried things at Shilin Market.

Ningxia night market was a ten minute walk from our guesthouse. It’s a smaller local market with mainly food for sale. It had a nice neighbourhood feel, but there were also some signs in English as well as a few foreigner’s wandering around.

Shilin night market is the biggest and most famous one in Taipei. It’s huge and sells many things from food to clothes to tacky souvenirs. There was a basement food court area with many stalls where we spent a good amount of time. Most stalls have an area with tables and chairs and great people watching.

Sausage party at Shilin market, with the stench of stinky tofu in the air.

Sausage party at Shilin market, with the stench of stinky tofu in the air.

Maokong

Hidden up in the hills of southeastern Taipei is Maokong, thought to be one of the oldest tea production areas in Taiwan. It’s a nice respite from the busy city. A cable car can be taken from the zoo to reach the top which is filled with tea fields and tea houses. There are many different grades of tea to try at many price points, but be aware they can get pricey. The process of making the tea is quite complex, done at the table, with many different vessels and utensils to make one little cup of tea.

Our view of most of Taiwan -- wet and foggy.

Our view of most of Taiwan — wet and foggy.

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