After saying our goodbyes to everyone at home, we took the train into NYC, did some last minute shopping, and headed to the airport to check our enormous hiking backpacks. In tradition, we had our last American meal at the airport at Buffalo Wild Wings and boarded our China Airlines plane – 10 seats wide!! After 19 hours straight of being on the plane, 5 movies, and 2 meals later, we landed in Taipei, Taiwan at 6am local time, giving us a whole day to explore.
The bus from the airport took us past all the suburbs of the city with lush green trees dispersed among small agricultural fields and monstrous industrial plants and factories between the stacks of houses and occasional temples. The first stop of our day was Taipei 101, the second largest sky scraper according to a brochure. Inside is an observatory and a huge ritzy shopping mall with some of the same stores you’d find in the US, like Coach.
It was much colder than expected in the city, around 40-50 degrees F, so we stayed inside as much as we could before taking the subway to the Western part of the city. The Taipei subway system is the cleanest, most colorful, well organized and American-friendly mode of transportation I’ve ever used. They had English translation of everything, no chewing gum (or Betel nuts) allowed, and TV screens.
Once off the subway, we walked to a random market selling everything from chicken heads to scarves. Walking through the food section, our noses were assaulted with all kinds of smells (good and bad) of fresh colorful vegetables and also the indescribable smell of heaps of raw animal body parts laying out in the market stalls. I try to be as culturally sensitive as possible, but it is definitely somewhat unnerving to see a bucket of chicken feet or cow tongues strung to the stall ceiling.
Somehow still with a full appetite, we headed to the market’s food court and attempted to order lunch from the many vendors without using any English. Using the pictures on the menu boards, charades and much pointing, we ended up with a noodle bowl and dumplings of what I was hoping was pork.
After a bubble tea for dessert, we left the market and walked to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, which towered over a square with two other massive traditional Asian-styled buildings, The National Concert Hall and the National Theater. My knowledge of Asian architecture is just about nothing, but if you picture the palace from the Disney movie Mulan, you’d be pretty close to what these looked like. The Memorial Hall was the largest building and had this grand white stone staircase leading up to a castle that had a statue of Kai-Shek inside, similar to the Lincoln Memorial idea.
After taking in the enormity of the buildings, we wandered through a few parks to the Presidential Office Building. It was a long baroque-styled building with far more color and details than our White House. Guards were everywhere surrounding the perimeter, but instead of being straight-faced and emotionless like the guards at Buckingham Palace, they would smile and nod at us.
OffMaps, which is a great app for any traveler, gave us a map of the city (without any wifi connection) that we used to find Longshan Temple, originally built in 1738. Picture Mulan buildings again, but with all these ornate wooden carvings of dragons, flowers and birds decorating the roof. Inside, tourists and locals took sticks of incense, lit it from a giant cauldron of fire in the center of the temple, and went through the various parts of the temple that housed statues of spirits. At each “station” people said their prayers, bowed multiple times, and left an incense stick burning at the feet of the statue. The smell of the smoke was overwhelming but had a relaxing quality as we sat mesmerized by the prayer ritual.
Next, we walked through a marketplace next to the Longshan temple full of gambling old men, more meat vendors, and stalls selling just about anything you could imagine from braziers to chicken feet. This wasn’t the biggest market though, so we took the metro to the infamous Shilin Night Market. The streets were lit up as much as Time Square, although I couldn’t understand what any of the signs were saying. We found ourselves in another meat market around dinner time, so we decided to be brave and try the cuisine. It was chaos in the underground market with vendors shouting at you and shoving menus in your face, pushing you back closer to the bucket of pigs hooves on the other side of the alley way. I was not feeling so adventurous, so I had peanut noodles, but Byron ordered fried squid by pointing and gesturing at pictures of food. We huddled in a corner of free space in the market to eat our food amidst the loud shouting and pungent smells.
After dinner, we accidentally ran out of Taiwanese currency doing Christmas shopping and frantically searched for an ATM to get just enough money for the train back to the airport. Three ATMs later, after much panicking, we got a costly money transfer and were on our way. Overall, Taipei was an incredible city with clean efficient transportation, public bathrooms everywhere (even if they’re squatty-potties ?), plenty of English to get around, and a very safe environment.