1Up Abroad: Taiwan Part 1

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So I didn’t expect I’d be doing another series of 1Up Abroad so soon after the last! Late last year I strayed from the usual pop culture talk and did a short travel series based on my time in Hong Kong (click for a link if you’re feeling particularly international). Well here I am with another round of 1Up Abroad, this time all about my time in Taiwan…if you couldn’t tell by the name. Like last time these won’t replace the usual 1Up Culture pieces, they’re just a bonus, and an excuse for me to relive my international gallivanting. But unlike last time these won’t be structured as ‘day-by-day accounts’ like last time, but rather each piece will follow a couple of general topics and experiences. For part one it’s all about Taipei’s grand architecture, it’s food, and surviving the traffic. So without further ado…

The first thing I noticed in preparing for the trip was the confusion. A lot of people seemed surprised that I was going to Taiwan, mainly because people didn’t really know a whole lot about Taiwan. And to be honest at first neither did I. I knew it was similar to Hong Kong in that it was both attached to and separate from China in one way or another, but why I’d go there wasn’t immediately clear. But after doing some research on potential next destinations, it quickly became a front runner. And after having spent some time over there, the reasons I came across definitely lived up to the promise. I kept hearing that it was a cheap place to spend time in, the people were friendly, it was beautiful and that the food was fantastic. And I can safely say all of that is absolutely true.

I certainly came across plenty of friendly people while I was there; whether it was general interaction with servers, being helped after getting hopelessly lost trying to find my hotel in Kaohsiung, or awkwardly sharing a table with a stranger over a bowl of ramen in Beitou (to be fair, everything I do is awkward), I didn’t come across any rude people while I was there. It’s not an English speaking country, certainly not like Hong Kong, but I ran into more people with a least a grasp of basic English than I was expecting. Not everyone will be able to, but more often than not they’ll do their best to help you. But despite this friendliness there was one thing I noticed. I encountered a lot of starers.

I had heard from people before going to Japan that I should expect to attract a lot of attention due to my height (I’m 6’5”) and my – well – whiteness. Admittedly I stayed almost exclusively within Tokyo during that time, and while I definitely did stand out I didn’t feel like people really gave a damn. They’ve seen people like me plenty of times before, so I was just another gaijin. It was the same in Hong Kong. But it was surprisingly different in Taiwan. Even in the heart of the capital Taipei, it often felt like there were eyes lingering on me as we passed on escalators or on the street. To the point I was wondering if I was dressed weird or committing some cultural faux-pas I wasn’t aware of.

Now it’s not like Taiwan was devoid of fellow Caucasians, even if it doesn’t receive the sheer number of Western tourists yet. They weren’t inundated but I’d pass by one or two every day. Now I can’t speak on whether they also had people staring at them, but I certainly noticed it. And it was young people too, those who were likely around my age – where as I had assumed previously that the older generations would be more likely for some reason. So either they were staring at me with disapproval that I wasn’t like the attractive white guys they would see in advertisements or American movies, or they thought I was one of those handsome actor guys. I’ll happily go with the latter mind you, but I do so fully acknowledging the unlikelihood of that point. Interestingly enough most of those white guys I saw were with Asian girls. So maybe they assumed I was merely on the prowl to become one of those guys, rather than some awkward big whitey on my own little adventure.

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One of the first things you’ll notice about Taiwan are the scooters. They’re everywhere. And perhaps more importantly, they’re basically the honey badgers of the automobile world – in that they just don’t give an F. Red light? Eh we can run that. People crossing the road they’re looking to go by? We can dodge them. Designated walking zones like in Ximendeng or Night markets still had scooters fly through them on occasion and even part of the footpath in Kaohsiung are used by them. Now I never felt like I was going to get hit by one, but you certainly have to pay a lot of attention crossing a road in Taiwan.

And the roads, especially on the main streets in Taipei, are big. It’s a surprisingly expansive city. Both Hong Kong and Tokyo, while big cities in their own right, feel very condensed and tightly packed. Taipei by comparison feels like it’s got a lot of wriggle room. The streets are long and wide, the buildings rather grand in size, and the whole atmosphere feels like they’re trying to show off a little. I don’t say that in a bad way either, but Taipei doesn’t feel like it’s trying to squeeze everyone and everything in.

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This size translates to its monuments. The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is massive – the pictures really don’t do its size justice – and that is compounded by the large grounds it sits on and the two equally impressive National Theatre and Concert Halls that stand on either side of it. Even the gate by the entrance is imposing, and the flat space dedicated to this area really helps to show off the buildings. It was the first place I really checked out in Taipei, and it certainly set the stage for a lot of open jaw gawking. With the amount of space the area takes up, it really doesn’t feel like it should be in a big city where land would be selling at a premium, but given the reverence for Chiang Kai-Shek, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Every hour at the Memorial Hall is a changing of the guard, allowing the guards to finally move as they go through what is over a ten minute demonstration. It’s all very impressive, but I’ll still remain more impressed by the other fifty minutes where they stay perfectly still. Though it is funny watching their helpers quickly fix up their uniform when they first take their post. The inside of the hall is impressive with a large statue of the man the hall is dedicated to, and downstairs holds a neat little museum which really serves to build the man’s ego long after death. It’s all free to enter to, which is always a bonus.

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When it comes to massive buildings, let’s not forget Taipei 101 either, a building that spent several years as the tallest building in the world, and while that record has since been eclipsed it doesn’t make the building any less impressive. You’ll be on the outskirts of the city (or on the other side of a damn mountain) and you’ll randomly see it pop up in your sights, reminding you that it’s there and always watching you. From the observatory I’d often feel my legs get a little weak as I looked out over the edge because of the sheer height. The elevator is still the fastest in the world for its height. You start from the bottom and then you’re there [/Drake reference] at the top in about 40 seconds, and you go quick enough and high enough that you feel the pressure changing. The top is typically touristy, but not badly priced given the views – though it is definitely recommended that you go when the skies are clear so you can properly appreciate the sights.

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At the bottom of Taipei 101 is Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese institution. Famous for their Xiao Long Bao, which is kind of like a soup dumpling, this place constantly appeared on ‘must dine’ lists I saw, and it made a great first lunch. You’re all but guaranteed to have to wait, but if you time it right you’re not standing around for too long. I walked past at about 1pm and it was a 45 minute wait, but when I decided to stop for lunch around 2pm I only had to wait about ten minutes. The food is as good as they say, and is fairly reasonably priced for what you get. Expensive for Taiwan, but comparing it to what you pay in Australia the cost-to-quality ratio is top notch. The Xio Long Bao is definitely worth a try, and they even give you a handy little guide in how to properly eat it (it’s not just enough to ram it down your throat like a savage, there’s like four steps to proper XLB consumption).

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Despite the great start to the trip when it comes to food, I didn’t spend a lot of time in restaurants. Just about every night I ended up eating at the various night markets, and the night markets in Taiwan are simply brilliant. Temple Street and the Ladies Market in Hong Kong were good for what they were, but they honestly don’t hold a candle to what is on offer in Taiwan. Of the four I visited, only one of them – Huaxi Street – left me disappointed. Shilin, Raohe and Liuhe (in Kaohsiung) were all great fun.

Huaxi, or Snake Alley as it’s also known, was honestly pretty bare and lifeless. It may have just been the night I picked but it wasn’t very appealing. It does offer some shelter so if it’s a wet night it does have that going for it, but I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise. I did walk past a cosplay shop, which can often be fascinating, especially when it seems ‘cosplay’ in Taiwan means sex shop. Now there were others I later saw that sold normal costumes, but from the outside it seemed the only outfits they sold were maid and schoolgirl. That might sound a little weird, but maybe I’m jumping the gun on the sex shop claim? Sure, but there were also plenty of dildos hanging next to said outfits…

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So onto the other night markets. What I liked about the others I went to (beyond the food) was the sheer amount on offer. Shilin and to a lesser extent Raohe was designed around plenty of other shops, so in between the typical standard night market options permanent location stores and restaurants worked in tandem. So you could go for a quick bite or sit down for something more substantial, and alternate between looking at cheapo clothing and a Nike store. Liuhe also offered this to an extent, but because Liuhe is a wider street the storefronts felt a little more separated from the actual night market.

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There are also games! I had a lot of fun at both Shilin and Raohe watching – and sometimes even trying my hand – at some of the games. There was some games I didn’t understand (one involving placing bricks on a game board eluded my brain) but I had a go at both shooting balloons with fake guns and shooting basketballs through rigid metal unforgiving hoops (take a guess which of those screwed me over haha) and for between 50-100 NTD a go it’s not bad for a bit of fun and entertainment. I also won a large cuddly teddy bear head, so there’s that.

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And then there’s the star of the night market, the food. All three night markets worth mentioning delivered on that front. You can generally make do without speaking Mandarin, simply pointing generally did the trick which made eating at night markets a breeze. I applied the long-approved saying of “If there’s a line, it’s worth the time” and wasn’t let down by any of my choices, from rice bun sausages to deep fried milk to the very popular Gao Xiong Papaya Milk Stand in Kaohsiung. I’m not going to tell you what to eat if you go to one of these night markets, just follow the crowds and your nose.

As for which night markets to go to, it really comes down to what you’re looking for. Shilin was the biggest of the three, it follows one street and then kind of diverges off down another, offering plenty of exploratory options. There’s also an underground food court which is pretty hectic, but worth it if you’re looking to sit and eat, or after something a bit more substantial. It also had the most games if that interests you. Raohe had the best atmosphere, and a solid mix of food and shopping. It’s also the prettiest night market with the lit up entrance next to an impressive temple. Liuhe won’t be on your radar unless you’re down in Kaohsiung, but offers up plenty of quality seafood options and is more food focussed in general.

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When it comes to eating, the general rule of thumb is to look for lines. In Ximendeng (which was my base of operations) there is a famous flour noodle place called Ay-Chung which always, always has a line, even though it’s just a glorified food stand selling one item in a couple of sizes. But the lines move quickly, and at 10.45pm on a Friday night I joined a line of 20 people and was up to ordering in about two minutes. There are so many options for eating in Taiwan, so if people are lining up for it there’s a reason.

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Speaking of Ximendeng food, it’s worth paying a visit to the Modern Toilet. Taiwan loves their theme restaurants, and the toilet themed franchise is probably the most well known. You sit down on toilet seats and eat out of plastic toilet bowls/urinals. It’s a quirky way to spend a lunch or dinner, and as long as you go in expecting pretty run of the mill tasting food it’s a fun experience. You won’t be blown away by the taste, but for a theme restaurant the price wasn’t too bad and it’s the kind of thing that’s worth doing at least once.

That’s part one of 1Up Abroad, but there’s still plenty more to come. I run for the hills and explore Jiufen, Beitou, Maokong and Taroko, get lost in Kaohsiung and even accidentally discover what the Taiwanese use as business fronts for prostitution! So keep your eyes peeled for more 1Up Abroad!

 

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