To Taipei or not to Taipei

April 22nd, 2014

Being one of those ex-pats without a fancy work visa I’m always looking for places to go for a quick cross border trip.  When Ive  inquired with my more well traveled friends about Taipei I’ve always received generally positive reports. They always talk effusively about the people and the food but when asked about further explorations its always gotten a bit vague. I was always waiting for one tidbit or lead that sparked my wanderlust but it never came. Everyone loved Taiwan but couldn’t quite tell me why. Indeed, I booked a ticket for Tokyo and left Taipei for another day. That day turned out to be the following morning when I realized that I couldn’t find a single hotel room in Tokyo for the coming weekend. I downloaded the Taiwan Lonely Planet and exchanged my tickets.

 

I found Taipei to have enough grit and history to satisfy my urban explorer side. Areas like Datong have small streets with colonial era architecture with buildings that range from restored to crumbling. The businesses on those lanes sell mostly traditional wares like Chinese medicine but include a cafes, farming tools, Chinese lanterns, vintage clothing, tape, wholesale paper cups and natural indigo dyed t shirts. Other areas like Yongkang Street offer a lively mix of restaurants and cafes. Yongkang fills up each night with students and families looking for some good noodles or inexpensive japanese food. The further one goes back, the more it changes into quiet alleys dotted with excellent cafes. Taipei is blessed with a cafe for every mood and the coffee tends to be quite good.

Taipei has an extensive subway system that make getting out to various outlying areas easy and cheap. Heading north out of town one can easily get to Beitou which is not only home to many public and private hot springs but also has some interesting hikes. I found myself drawn several times to the bathes not in the least because they were so easy to get to. The sulfurous waters seemed to heal my Beijing-cured winter skin. From Beitou is was easy to reach Yangmingshan National Park. The trail I took led me by many smoking fumeroles and geysers hissing sulfurous fumes up the mountain sides. Except for a few occasions I was left alone on the trail to think about the nascent forces underneath.

Somewhat further out on the same subway line is Tamsui, a port town that played an important role in Taiwan’s colonial history. Its become a bit of a tourist destination but still has its charms. The best thing I found there was an old Hakka Buddhist temple called Yinshan Temple. Its a lovely small temple where the patina of age hasn’t been replaced by shiny new paint or steam cleaned stone.

My timing for the trip was quite good ,as I was there during the Tomb sweeping holiday when families gather to clean the graves and pay respects to their ancestors. Fortuitously ,I had planned to visit Longshan Temple on the day just before the onset of the holiday. The temple was buzzing with incense and chanting but not yet entirely overwhelming. I seemed to be at the right place at the right time. Visitors consulted the I-ching by throwing halved crescent shaped wooden blocks and gave offerings.

Overall life in Taipei is well ordered and safe. The sidewalks are separated into bike lanes and pedestrian areas. The queue for the subway is strictly adhered to and there’s even a women’s safe zone along the loading platform. Nature too is protected. In the middle of the city there’s central park that has a bio-diverse pond full of birds turtles and squirrels. The one area where order seemed to breaking down was in the political arena. My first image of Taipei, getting off the airport bus was of hundreds of riot gear clad policemen loading onto buses. They had been coming from the national government area which was occupied by democracy protesters. The entire time I was in Taipei students were occupying a legislature building and surrounding area demanding a free and transparent discussion of China-Taiwan trade agreements. While some might’ve been wary of their tactics I think it would be fair to say that most Taiwanese were proud of this generation of students who weren’t so obsessed with their own issues as to forget about their country’s future. Another thing they were impressed with is how well they self-governed themselves. Occupy movements can become messy affairs but not in Taiwan. The protest movement provided everything from sanitation to back massages. Classes were still held, “sit-in” style on the streets.

I found Taiwan to be a place less focused on the pace of life or “getting ahead” and more focused on the quality of life. The students in the protest movement are in large part worried about how opening up to China will slowly erode their local businesses as well as ultimately threaten their independence.

 

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