Thursday, March 27, 2008

Taipei: A vibrant city with friendly people

The following is my first stab at travel writing. A version similar to this will appear in the April issue of the Courier, the magazine of the Shanghai Expatriate Association. I tagged along with Josh to Taipei when he had a business trip there earlier this year. I explored the city on my own for a couple of days. Lots of walking through a variety of different neighborhoods. with locals willing to help when I couldn't find my destination. Then Josh and I headed up to the northern coast to do some hiking and relaxing in the hotsprings. We ended the trip back in the city with an evening stroll through some of its busiest parts.

In general, the people in Taipei felt more at ease than the Shanghaiese. There really wasn't any pushing in the subways or cutting in line. Taipei at 2.5 million is a small fraction of the size of Shanghai, which could explain the more laid back atmosphere. But the explanation most likely points to the fact that its people progressed in the absense of the the cultural revolution and communist rule.

Anyway, here's the story...

While Taipei isn’t usually considered a tourist destination, a recent visit revealed a vibrant city of 2.5 million teeming with fascinating cultural sites.

The city can look over run by industry in some parts, but you’ll quickly be won over by its upbeat energy in its neighborhoods. The capital of Taiwan is known for its friendly people and safe streets.

Taipei’s location in between lush mountains makes it a place where you can get it all in one vacation. Learn more about a culture dating back thousands of years, experience nightlife in the clubs or lively street markets, or discover the city’s new modern upscale avenues. Less than an hour away, there’s hiking in lush thick forests and the opportunity to relax in soothing hot springs.

The extensive Mass Rapid Transit System or MRT ( is the best way to get around. The MRT is cheap, easy to use, and clean. Make sure to pick up a “Taipei City Travel” from a Taipei Metro information desk, which outlines sites along each of its stops. Trains typically run from 6 a.m. to midnight.

City Trek

On your first visit, a trip to the top of Taipei 101 skyscraper at 508 meters will give you an expansive view of the city and its surroundings. The building – one of the tallest in the world – stands out amongst the mostly low lying structures in the city.

The skyscraper is designed after the shape of bamboo, which represents fast growth and flexibility in Asian cultures. It’s also divided into 8 sections, 8 being a number associated with prosperity in Chinese culture. Attached to Taipei 101 is a high end shopping mall with cafes and one of city’s largest English book stores. It takes about 15 minutes to walk to Taipei 101 from the Taipei City Hall MRT Station. The ticketing booth and entrance are located at the 5th Floor of the Taipei 101 shopping mall. (No. 7 Hsinyi Road Section 5; Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 pm daily; Admission: 400 Taiwan dollars adults, 370 children).

Another essential place to go to is the National Palace Museum. It boasts one of the largest collections of Chinese artifacts and artwork in the world. The museum reopened in 2006 after an extensive four year renovation project. It features artifacts such as bronze, glass, and traditional paintings in well laid out exhibits with Mandarin and English descriptions. From the Jiantan MRT Station, the Red 30, 304 bus goes to the museum. (221 Chih-shan Rd., Sec. 2; Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, extended evening hours: every Saturday, 5:00 to 8:30 PM (during extended evening hours, free admission); Admission: 160 Taiwan dollars)

A stop at the Longshan Temple gives you a look into how the Taiwanese take a break from hectic city life. As you enter, the posts and beams of the temple have intricate carvings along side the multiple statutes of gods inside. Those coming to seek guidance fill long tables with a variety of offerings including fruit, flowers and potato chips. Street food vendors offer local foods and shops sell various goods outside the Temple. The temple has its own Longshan Temple MRT stop.

Two exciting neighborhoods that capture the more youthful part of the city are near National Taiwan University (nearest MRT station, Gongguan) and Ximending Circle (Ximen MRT Station). You can find cafes, bars, trendy boutiques, and book stores in both areas. The National Taiwan University streets tend to be quieter with its students and scholars.

For an early evening stroll, the Ximending Circle area sometimes has live rock bands playing outside near Zhongshan Hall. Nearby local artists displayed their funky artwork and jewelry for sale. You can also sit down for a drink and people watch at a row of bars with outdoor seating in a large courtyard near Zhongshan Hall or a restaurant in the pedestrian zone.

By sundown, the Shilin Market turns into one of busiest areas in town. Locals and tourists patiently walk in single file lines to peruse goods and grab a tasty late night snack. The market Рthe largest in the city - has one street that stretches down to the north with items such as t-shirts, the latest fashions, and shoes. Next to this is an indoor food court where you can find cr̬me filled pastries, noodles, ice cream, stinky tofu, and oyster omelets. The market is conveniently located outside the Jiantan MRT Station.

To the sea

If you’re looking for a day trip, Danshui is a small historical port city located northwest of Taipei. It was the center of commerce in northern Taiwan during the 19th century. The Danshui MRT station is about a 45 minute ride from the Taipei Main Station. Once arriving at the station, clearly marked buses can take you to city’s parks, museums and historic sites. A street market with local foods and cheap shoes and clothes is tucked behind the main thoroughfare, which is five minute walk from the station into the town.

One of the most popular destinations is the Fisherman’s Wharf walking area, a 15 minute bus ride on Red 26 from the station will get you there. Near the boardwalk is the Lover’s bridge, a single slanted white tower cable stay pedestrian bridge made to look like a sailing ship's mast and rigging. The boardwalk is lined with cafes, ice cream stands, and small restaurants with the city’s local foods.

Northern Coast

A trip to Taipei isn’t complete without a visit north to its relaxing hot springs, which range from basic public baths to luxurious private resorts that offer spectacular views of the countryside. The three areas for hot springs are: Beitou, Yangminshan and Wulai. Wulai is located south of the city, while the other two are to the north.

A trip to Yangmingshan hot springs will also bring you into the lush forests of Yangmingshan National Park with its scenic hiking trails. Yangmingshan National Park can be reached by taking bus Red 5 from the Jiantan MRT station.

One of the most intriguing sites on the coast is Yeliou Geopark, located at Wanli. Yeliou is along an 1,700 meter long cape formed by the Datun Mountains reaching into the sea. The limestone layer on the seashore has been subject to erosion, weathering and earth movements, creating unique seawater eroded holes and rocks in the shapes of mushrooms, candle wicks, ginger, and spheres. A climb up to the observation deck gives you a view of the rock structures beneath the crystal clear blue ocean waters.

This quick guide is only a small glimpse into what Taipei has to offer. The city has numerous cultural sites and monuments that offer insights into the island’s history. Parks are scattered throughout the city. Traveling further south is also worth a trip. Eastern Taiwan, cut off from the rest of the island by mountains, contains Taiwan's most striking natural scenery. The country’s second largest city, Kaohsiung, and oldest city, Tainan, are located in the south of the island. The south is more tropical than the rest of the island.

For more information on Taipei and Taiwan:


Shruti said...

Nice job, Anna! I could definitely use some hot springs right now =)

Shruti said...

I should add, ones that you can sit in, not just visit, haha!