I have to admit I knew almost nothing about Taiwan until a few months ago when we watched an episode of BBC’s life swap where an elderly lady from the British countryside went to stay with a Taiwanese clothes shop owner in her home town of Taipei. Even from this budget TV programme I was impressed with how modern, tropical and vibrant the city looked and this was totally at odds with the reputation that I think still exists in the minds of some Europeans who think of Taiwan as a far away backwater that produces cheap plastic products. How wrong we are.
One thing that worked against us all weekend was the weather. It rained more or less constantly and this did thwart some of our planned activities. One day we tried to climb Yangmingshan mountain and while it was relatively light rain lower down the mountain path, by the time we got halfway up a narrow ledge and past a pack threatening looking stray dogs it was torrentially raining and blowing a gale. This was pretty dangerous to be honest and we were not really dressed for this adventurous pursuit either. We decided we ought to turn around.
Much of the rest of our trip involved wandering around the colourful streets of amazing restaurants, street food stalls, shops and night markets. Coming from China, we were especially impressed by the range of brands and reasonable prices for clothing and shoes and although we hadn’t intended to come here for the shopping, we both returned to Shanghai with much heavier suitcases. The Japanese influence in Taiwan is obvious, and as Japanese fans, we loved it. We could get excellent Japanese food everywhere and the Japanese level of customer service and friendliness seemed to have rubbed off. Another brilliant thing is how late the shops are open. It seems like shopping is a social evening thing here.
I would name two other major highlights of Taipei. One was the excellent and huge baozi (dumplings). We especially liked the pork and cabbage and pork and mustard variety, but the red bean and taro versions were also delicious. We also tried some cute little pastries that are popular everywhere. They are basically a sweet crust filled with a wide range of savoury and sweet fillings – from Oreo cookie to sweet potato. A bit like a very simple canopé. Nice, but to be honest, no match for the dumplings.
Another highlight was our trip to the the Huashan 1914 Creative Park, which apparently used to be a winery and has now been converted into an ultra-trendy complex of independent arty boutique shops and food and drink places. A bit of a hipsters’ paradise. As luck would have it there was some sort of alcohol tasting event going on in a huge hall and in addition to lots of free samples of sake, whisky and wine, we tried several cans of varieties of Taiwan beer for the cost of a very cheap wrist band.
I haven’t spoken much about the main tourist sites of Taipei. We also did go to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall which is worth a visit and a bit reminiscent of Tiananmen square in Beijing. I won’t talk about politics, but needless to say, Taiwan’s recent history is pretty fascinating and seeing it brought it to life. We were intending to go up Taiwan 101 but sadly we couldn’t see the top of it from the bottom due to heavy cloud cover and we figured that the same would probably be true in reverse.
Despite the weather Taipei was amazing, but we would love to come back in fairer weather to see the spectacular backdrop of mountains and climb some of the viewpoints. We would also love to see some of Taiwan’s beaches!