I think we made a mistake in coming to Taiwan this time of year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful here. There are lots of parks and nature reserves and the island is relatively untouched by tourism. But unless you know someone here, it’s difficult to figure out where to go and what to do, especially since the websites are not the best. Additionally, it’s colder and rainier than we were prepared for. I truly believe that Taiwan has much to offer, we’re just not doing a good job at taking advantage of it.
Our first day in Taipei we decided to visit one of several hot springs in the area, near Xinbeitou. After a delicious lunch of fried pork and spicy Korean dumplings and traditional style noodles at the market street near our hostel, we jumped on the train. This hot spring is by far the easiest to get to, as it’s a stop on the metro, and contains the only cheap, public access soaking pool. The Beitou hot springs are unique because they contain radium. We first walked along the park surrounding the hot springs and saw the beautiful library building and museum. Along the way Keenen got a little bag of “maltose” (honey) on a stick, and it was the thickest honey we’ve ever tasted.
We walked all the way to the source valley for the hot springs, where we spent a while watching the steam dance as it came off the water. The water here is between 80 and 90 degrees C, and seems to create its own miniature wind patterns. We learned that this hot spring water has an incredibly unique chemical makeup, and it is the only place in the world where the mineral hakutolite forms. We got to see some, Jordan!
Afterwards we attempted to go for a soak in the public hot spring for just $1, but the line extended more than a block down the road and the hot springs were already so full of people that you could barely see the water. Plus, they required a rather conservative attire and neither of our swimsuits qualified. Instead, we opted to head down the road to a bathhouse looked to be used mostly by locals, where we paid $10 to soak in a private, though ultimately less beautiful, bath.
Refreshed by the stinky water (hot springs always smell like sulfur) we made our way towards the downtown area and Taipei’s tallest and most famous building, Taipei 101. We spent 20 minutes trying to navigate the ritzy mall below to find the entrance to get to the top, but once we finally made it in the line I decided that I wanted to see the view during day and night and it wasn’t worth it to go up twice, so we opted to return the next day for sunset. We went back down to the mall and had dinner in the food court, then strolled around town before turning in for the night.
The next afternoon we explored some gorgeous temples near our hostel. One thing that Taipei has an abundance of is temples. They are everywhere, and you can find small temples situated in strip mall-like buildings directly next to restaurants and mechanic shops. Then we decided to rent city bikes, which are our favorite way to get around if a city has them. Taiwan has a huge biking and moped culture, and there are more moped than cars on the road. It’s a tad bit terrifying, because they don’t seem to follow normal road rules.
We had planned to bike towards Taipei 101, stopping at temples along the way. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that most temples and other historical sites all seem to be closed on Mondays. We made it so far as a nearby park before realizing the weather was so cold, terrible, and windy that the view from Taipei 101 would be worse than the day beforehand, so we turned around and went back to our hostel with sourpuss attitudes.
The night turned around when we left again to go to Dihua street, a night market set up specifically to help the locals prepare for Chinese New Year. Described on TripAdvisor as a “moocher’s paradise” this street did not disappoint. Nearly every stand we passed tried to pass us samples. We tried several different kinds of soup and tea, local candies and Taiwanese nougat, roasted meats, unique chips, and had to avoid the stands passing out the retched smelling stinky tofu, chicken feet, seaweed, fertilized eggs, and copious amounts of seafood. The street was packed with people, covered in lanterns, and booming with music, cart owners yelling out their wares, and the laughter of children. It was a lively celebration and brightened our moods from our dismal day.
On Tuesday morning we made our way towards the Maokong gondola and met a friendly German couple on the metro along the way. The gondola was my favorite thing that we have done thus far in Taipei, only made better by the conversation we enjoyed with our new German friends, Sophia and Moritz. We rode across forests and the tops of small mountains, and provided incredible views of the city and surrounding landscape.
Luckily our German friends knew more about what we were doing than we did, and together we set out to find a good place to enjoy a traditional Chinese tea ceremony on the mountain. There were several expensive and touristy tea shops along the roads, but with a little searching we found a spot off a trail with a wonderful view and friendly people. We decided to try the locally made tea. Sophia, whose family is originally from Hong Kong, speaks Chinese (along with Cantonese, German, English, and French! WOW!), so she was able to discern all of the intricacies of preparing and drinking tea from the very helpful and friendly, but only Chinese speaking, shopkeeper. She explained that the first pot must not be drunk, it is only meant to open up the tea leaves. When you want more tea, you pour everyone else’s cup first, beginning with the ladies. You can make 8 small pots of tea before you need to replace the leaves and start over. Together the four of us drank tea for several hours while discussing the differences between our countries, sharing stories, and getting to know one another.
After our bladders and stomachs were full of tea, we went to get some food. Sophia, a vegan, convinced us to finally try stinky tofu. And it actually wasn’t bad. Keenen also tried their version of a corn dog, which he claimed was very different from home (suuure). We tried peanut soup, which is basically peanut butter in creamy soup form with soft, boiled peanuts in it. After dinner we parted ways, and Keenen and I went to the most famous night market in Taipei, Shilin.
There was too much food to try it all, but I knew I had to get the candied strawberries, which were utterly incredible. We also tried sweet potato balls with plum powder. We loved the little fried potato balls themselves, but the plum powder wasn’t great. The night market was fairly similar to others we’ve been too- you could get anything you needed there, from clothes and shoes to food to kitchen supplies. One popular phenomenon that confuses us is capsule machines. Remember those small machines you can find at the front of Wal-Mart that sell little plastic balls with toys inside for fifty cents? Those are incredibly prevalent here. There are entire shops dedicated to these machines, and most of the capsules are filled with bizarre little figurines- sleeping marine animals, ghost cats, gold colored piles of poop, larger than life beetles. And they cost about $2 a pop! We’re still trying to grasp why these are popular.
This morning we boarded a train to travel to a city on the southern tip of the island, Tainan. We’re hoping that we find a it a bit more enjoyable than Taipei, but if not, it is what it is. We’ve had to remind ourselves this week of the advice I gave in first travel advice post. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t, the important part is learning to accept the outcome. And we are still learning.