I re-visited Taiwan with my family this December. I had a mix of feelings towards this trip – on one hand, I was quite excited to travel with my family because we haven’t had a family trip for a pretty long time but on the other, I wasn’t expecting to see a lot of things because the cities on our itinerary are the same as what I have seen last year. Even so, we explored rather different parts of the cities and I came home, amazed by the fact that there is so much to see in a small country and impressed yet again by the Taiwanese hospitality. On a side note, I find it quite weird when people are shocked and remarked that it was quite a feat that my family went on a free and easy trip and actually moved around the island. I don’t think it was too difficult to plan and execute; people here are just too used to being too comfortable.
In Taiwan, apparently the motor scooter ownership is very high (almost everyone has one!) and the Taiwanese people argue that it is easier and more convenient to travel on motor scooter from one place to another as compared to cars which get stuck in traffic congestion. Being one of the more prosperous Asian country, it is surprising that intra-city metro systems are only in place in two Taiwanese cities – Taipei and Kaohsuing so the local people aren’t left with too many mode of transport options. In Taipei, authorities are trying to curb air pollution by introducing a city-run bike rental network. It’s not a bad idea, more effort should be directed island-wide to provide and support a more eco-friendly mode of transport.
Our first stop was Taipei which was roughly an hour taxi ride away from the Taoyuan International Airport. Even though it is the capital of Taiwan, Taipei does not really have a cosmopolitan feel. Instead, Taipei seems to be a prosperous Chinese city and it’s difficult to find elements of other cultures in the city.
1. Shilin Night Market
We first visited the Shilin Night Market (MRT station: Jiantan) and I met up with my Taiwanese friend Debby there. She brought along two other friends, one of which I have previously met and talked to during a Calculus class. What a nice coincidence. 🙂 Shilin Night Market is a very typical Taiwanese Night Market with a wide spread of Taiwanese street food – stinky tofu, squid on a stick, prawn on a stick, fried chicken, coffin bread, oyster omelette etc. My family really likes the squid on a stick and we have that almost in every Night Market that we visited. One thing really interesting about the Night Market food is that there is an option of different flavours for the same dish but it is actually just an option of different seasonings.
Away from the food area, there is another section that sells clothes and accessories. It was quite interesting, we were walking down the aisle and suddenly a woman threw a mat in the middle of the walkway and quickly laid down a wide spread of scarves. That’s quite smart actually, by blocking the walkway, there is a higher likelihood that people will stop and look. But I don’t think the law-frantic Singapore will ever allow such things.
2. Yehliu Geopark
Originally, I wanted to explore the outskirts by public transport but in the end, my family decided to hire a taxi to see more things in a day. We first visited the Yehliu Geopark. It was amazing to see so many mushroom-shaped rocks crafted by the sheer force of the waves (giving rise to the shape of the rock) and the decomposition of small shrimps/ crabs stuck in the rocks (giving rise to the fossils in the rock). God is really the most ingenious craftsman. 🙂 The Taiwanese people have rather good imagination and they name some of the rocks there. I remember a pineapple bun rock, gorilla rock and dragon head rock. But the most famous of all rocks is the “Queen’s head”. There was a very long and ordered line to take photo with that particular rock. We didn’t join the line because it seemed to be too much time wasted at immortalizing one moment with one rock when there was still so much to explore in the area.
3. Jinguashi Gold Ecological Park
We next visited the Jinguashi Gold Ecological Park which was previously a gold mine when it was occupied by the Japanese. Even though there is no longer any gold in that mountain, there are still several pieces of evidence in that area (converted into tourist sites) which serve to remind people of that piece of history today. The “Yin-yang Sea”, a bay with an intense mix of blue and yellow, is a phenomenon caused by the industrial waste from the gold mine. I think tourism is really all about packaging and marketing the site into something unique that people can easily appreciate and I must admit that the Taiwanese are really good at marketing their sites of tourism. This is just industrial waste, some may even say it’s water pollution, but they made it seem remarkable.
There is also a “Golden Waterfall” not too far away which is supposedly yellow-orange in colour due to large quantities of iron in the stream water. It didn’t look too yellow to me though but admittedly, the rocks are more orange and brown than what they rightfully should.
At the Jinguashi Gold Ecological Park itself, we were allowed to visit the former Japanese houses and gain an understanding of how hierarchical the Japanese works. Depending on the ranking, different people live at different altitudes and different houses. On a side note, I guess it’s due to the Japanese influence that the Taiwanese people are more courteous than other Chinese people in the world. There was a gold museum at the top of the hill where they placed a block of gold and allowed people to touch gold. I must say, gold felt hard and metallic, just as what I have expected. There was also a digital number display, telling visitors just how much that gold block is worth based on today’s market prices for gold. It’s surprising that there wasn’t too much security in place in that museum, I imagine people may devise methods to get the gold.
This was the second time that I visited Jiufen and it’s a lot more crowded this time round. In the narrow alleys, at times, we just couldn’t move an inch because there were too many stationary people. It’s actually quite scary to get stuck in human traffic in the narrow alleys and that makes shopping/ eating less enjoyable than it should. Jiufen town resides in the same mountain as the Jinguashi Gold Ecological Park and was especially prosperous during the Gold Rush Era. Inevitably, there is a great deal of Japanese influence here since there were many Japanese in this area at that time trying to get as much gold as they could from the gold mines. Jiufen is quite an interesting place, nearer to the entrance where there is an abundance of food/ souvenir shops, I heard mostly Chinese. When I ventured deeper to the “Spirited Away” alleys where there is an abundance of teahouses, I heard mostly Japanese. It is a charming town but slightly too touristy to my liking.
While Jiufen was historically about gold, Shifen was all about coal. Similar to Jiufen, Shifen does not have any more coal today. Instead of coal, Taiwan is mainly nuclear-powered today. Shifen, the only legit place in Taipei to release sky lanterns, was our last stop for a day of exploration. Beside sky lanterns, Shifen has a beautiful waterfall which is apparently the broadest in the whole of Taiwan. I haven’t really seen too many broad waterfalls; I have seen quite a number of tall, narrow ones. So I was quite impressed by the sight. 🙂
At sites of tourism that charged entrance fee, the Taiwanese usually come up with some sort of package such that when you buy the ticket to see the place, you get some kind of discount coupon for the F & B stores in the area. It is quite a smart move and it makes people more prone to spending. We couldn’t resist the temptation so we bought a cup of coffee from a chic coffee shop while admiring the waterfall.
We later went to the Shifen Old Street and released a sky lantern. It was quite fun to write wishes on each side of the sky lantern. Apparently different colours of the lantern mean different kind of wishes. I think purple was for health. After we were done writing, a man instructed us to get onto the railway track and he took photos of us holding the lantern. After that, he instructed us to turn the lantern several times and took more photos. Eventually, he lighted the lantern for us, we released the lantern and he continued to take photos for us. A rather elaborate tourist trap, I must say. Later on, the train came by and people were rushed to quickly release their lanterns and stand at the side to let the train pass by.
After doing the touristy things, we went to a nearby bridge and caught a rather gorgeous sunset that seems to come right out of a Chinese landscape painting. 🙂
Speaking of writing wishes on objects, sky lanterns are not the only thing Taiwanese use for wishing purposes. We saw people tying bamboo rods (with wishes written on) to standing objects (railing and even a tall tree) somewhere further down the Pingxi Railway Line.
6. Taipei 101
I am generally not a fan of tall skyscrapers. However, Taipei 101 is worth a visit for the following reasons. First, it’s the world’s largest “green” building and second, it has the fastest elevator in the world (1,010 meters per minute). Lastly and most importantly, Taipei 101 has the largest passive tuned mass wind damper in the world and it is also the only one in the world that is open for visiting. Wind damper serves to reduce the amplitude of vibrations in the event of an earthquake and that is certainly useful as Taipei is located in a seismically active zone.
7. Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
This memorial hall was built a couple of years after Chiang Kai Shek passed away. It is pretty impressive and different from the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, this square is grand but more amicable. It is nestled in the middle of modern government buildings and the contrast is quite striking and it is interesting to think that these buildings which are more Chinese are built after some of the modern buildings in its neighbourhood.
Together with many other tourists, we also watched the changing of guards. It’s not the best military display that I have seen and I got quite bored at some point but it’s a good enough gimmick that attract many tourists to view every hour.
On the bottom level of the memorial hall, there is a gigantic board with Chiang Kai Shek’s favourite food and recipes. The Taiwanese are quite thoughtful to remember their influential president in different ways.