Somewhere in my subconscious I harboured images of the Taiwanese capital as fiercely industrial: factory stacks coughing out plumes of black smoke; high-rise buildings closing in on narrow streets; a heavy smog weighing down on a crush of commuters. Perhaps this came from the fact that half of my wardrobe and many of my appliances started life on this island. But my imaginings were far from reality. The city sits in the Taipei Basin, an ancient lakebed, and is surrounded by undulating hills.
To get a sense of this surprisingly green capital, we zip up to the 89th and 91st floors of Taipei 101, the city’s 1,670-foot landmark skyscraper, the tallest building on Earth when constructed in 2004, and look out at the patchwork of architecture that nestles at the base of the ‘Four Beasts’ mountains. We stay until the sun sets and the city becomes a switchboard of twinkling lights.
Back at ground level, it’s time to head to Tianmu Stadium to experience the nearest thing Taiwan has to a national sport: baseball. First introduced to Taiwan over a century ago by Japanese occupiers, the game is now weaved into the country’s national identity. We pick up tickets for the Fubon Guardians vs. Lamigo Monkeys with ease from a FamilyMart, and as we pay I notice even the 500 dollar note captures a youth baseball team launching their caps into the air in celebration.
For nine straight innings, cheerleaders and mascots dance above the dugout and spectators copy their well-rehearsed moves in between chanting, beating drums and blowing vuvuzelas. Cute kids and unsuspecting Westerners are picked out of the 10,000-strong crowd and punched up on the stadium’s big screen. And we lose count of how many balls soar over our heads right out of the stadium. It’s all good, baffling fun.
Some of our days in the capital have… rocky starts. An earthquake serves as our wake-up call one morning, and hot on its heels is Typhoon Lekima (I’m not selling this very well, am I?). Fortunately, Taiwan is well-versed in the challenges that come with sitting on the ‘Ring of Fire’ seismic fault, and although our plans to explore some national parks further south are hindered, Taipei remains open, so we take the opportunity to get lost in its enticing side streets and alleyways.
In most major cities, this is an endeavour best avoided but, staggeringly, it’s widely accepted that there are no “rough” neighbourhoods in Taipei, and so meandering down tight, lantern-lit lanes of hidden bars and trinket shops becomes a safe, exciting and rewarding pastime.
Wherever we go, local food is never far away – street stalls, night markets, cutesy cafes, high-end restaurants – and we get a lot of nosh for our NT$. We sample the popular beef noodle soup, salt and pepper popcorn chicken, steamed pork dumplings, deep-fried dough fritters dipped in soy milk, and mango shaved ice at eateries across the city, many of which feature in the Michelin Guide (presumably for the quality of their food rather than the service which can be of the no-nonsense ‘get in, eat, then get the hell out again’ variety).
To wash it all down, there’s the Taiwanese favourite, bubble tea. Most boba joints let customers choose the sugar level of their drinks, helping us avoid mid-afternoon slumps. Bars serving local craft beverages are also popping up across the city, but drink responsibly or you might find yourself without your glasses at 3am, for example…
Replacement contact lenses purchased, and with Lekima now a distant memory, we soak in the returning Sun’s rays at Da’an Forest Park, known as the “lungs of the city”, where flora, fauna and social activity all thrive. Locals practice tai chi in the mornings, birdwatchers are on guard with binoculars to spot the many species of their feathered friends in the day, and fireflies dot the air at night.
From there, we wander to Liberty Square, a vast, open plaza that serves as a reminder of Taiwan’s push towards democratic progress. The National Concert Hall stands to the left, the National Theatre to the right, and at the centre a bronze statue of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the former president of the Republic of China, casts an authoritarian stare from a grand Memorial Hall.
One final bubble tea sugar rush and it’s time to head back to Phuket. The seven-hour journey affords me time to reflect on our time in a city that took me entirely by surprise. Taipei is often overlooked in favour of nearby Hong Kong or Tokyo, but our trip served to demonstrate how much it has to offer. Rich in history; beaches, mountains, valleys and national parks a train ride away; and endearing idiosyncrasies at every turn make it a corner of Asia well worth visiting.
So long Taiwan, and thanks for all the dumplings.