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Friday, December 2, 2011

Afterthoughts on Taipei (台北后记)

To be honest, I never intended to travel to Taipei. I had assumed that it was just some boring old city. The original country I had planned to visit was Korea, with Taipei merely as a place of transit. Unfortunately, I could not make it to Korea, but as I badly needed a trip, I decided that Taipei would be a cheaper and nearer alternative that will do for the moment.

As I looked out of the bus on our way to the hotel, a mix of Johor Bahru and Tokyo came to mind. Old and drab looking buildings interspersed with large areas of undeveloped land and forests.

The city center is a little more developed, with modern shopping malls among traditional shops fronting office buildings. More Bugis and Chinatown than Orchard Road, of which the closest match would be the Xinyi district where Taipei 101, Hankyu, Eslite, and the 4 Shinkong Mitsukoshi buildings are.

Transportation-wise, the subway and railway will conveniently take you to the most visited places and attractions in and around Taipei. Failing which, the taxi is a reasonably priced alternative. Start up fares average NT70 (S$3), and the distance between two to four subway stops would set you back less than NT200. 

Trains arrive within 1-3 minutes of the last, and as such, you don't find people packed like sardines in a tin even at rush hour. The Easy Card is a convenient form of payment to use on the subway. Initial purchase will cost you NT500, inclusive of an NT100 refundable deposit, and it entitles you to 20% discount off single ticket fares. The card can be bought from the ticketing machine or control station at any subway station, and functions as a tap and go, just like our ezlink card.

One thing I had a relatively hard time getting used to was the unspoken rule on how one should position oneself when riding the escalator. In Singapore, everyone keeps to the left when standing still, so that those in a hurry may walk up or down on the right. However, it is not a hard and fast rule. In Taipei, it's the exact opposite, and almost everyone follows it rigidly. Now back in Singapore, I find myself still keeping to the right when using the escalators.

As in Singapore, there are a couple of reserved seats in the mrt for the elderly, pregnant, those with children, and the disabled. People in Taipei tend to avoid occupying these seats even though the train is crowded and nobody in need of these special seats are in sight. 

My experience with bus drivers wasn't too good. They do not seem to like answering questions, and when they do on occasion, the reply is a gruff retort. The only cordial reply I've seen, is to a local lady who pandered to the driver, making him feel like he's boss. It makes me wonder if their attitude is the result of how a bus driver's job is being perceived in Taipei, that is, lowly.

The weather in late October is slightly bonkers, cool one day, or even part of the day, then sweltering the next. Sunny one day, then rainy the next. It got a little confusing when deciding on long pants versus bermudas, umbrella or not. Late November and December would probably see nicer (in my dictionary, it means cooler) and more consistent weather.

Street food, like those you find anywhere else, is best approached with caution. I did not notice gloves being used when handling food, but even in Singapore, you occassionally see vendors preparing food wearing gloves, then handling money with the gloves still on! That said, we did not end up with food poisoning after consuming whatever little street food we dared to try. Our best dining experiences weirdly, were in cafes and restaurants.

A mildly, or sometimes greatly annoying quirk, especially when your hands are full, is the habit shops have of  not giving out plastic bags to carry your purchases in, except when the item in question is a pack of sanitary napkins. In the beginning, I had no idea we could purchase one for just NT1, and had to precariously balance hot boxes of freshly microwaved bentos and bottles of drinks back to the hotel. Thankfully, it was just across the road. I also realise that receipts do not have itemised breakdowns on them, except Watsons. You end up with just the total amount spent, which isn't helpful at all in remembering what you bought. I'm guessing there is a 'no returns' policy in Taipei? How would you be able to get a refund or exchange when the receipt given to you does not even indicate what item(s) you bought.

There are quite a number of night markets in Taipei, and we went to four of them, namely, Shida Night Market, Shilin Night Market, Raohe Night Market and Ximending Night Market. My fave would be the Shilin Night Market for the sheer quantity and variety of food and clothing, whilst Raohe Night Market would be the most interesting. Shida, with its mixture of small air-conditioned independent boutiques and regular shops, is a little different from the two markets just mentioned. Somehow, it reminds us of Arab Street. Ximending, on the other hand, fared the worst as a night market. The area is an extremely nice place to shop in during the day, but come nightfall, only a handful of pushcarts selling uninteresting foodstuff and random knick knacks line the street. It was the only night market where we saw the vendors running off due to a false alarm that police had been seen in the area, so perhaps there has been frequent crackdowns in Ximending?

I enjoyed a couple of really nice day trips to Danshuei, Beitou Hot Spring Area, Qiufen, Shifen and Yehliu. If I had to pick just two places, it would be Qiufen/Shifen and Yehliu, but I'm glad I had the chance to visit all of the above spots.

So that wraps up my short experience with Taipei. Yours might differ of course. If you happen to be a local, I hope my post gave you a unique insight into your country as seen from the eyes of a particular foreigner.


cphu said...

Isn't it interesting that people tend to skip Taiwan as a travel destination in asia right? Many of the people who visited the island really really feel its one of the most underrated cities in the east. Its a mixture of Japanese and Chinese culture that make this country unique.

Yes, there are plenty of older buildings in Taipei, but its a much bigger urban sprawl than Singapore (if you go up to the observatory in Taipei 101 you would know what I mean). And that's what make this city unique - old and new, city and jungle, temples and skyscrapers...etc. It takes time to understand this city.

However I feel your comment about the food poisoning is biased; Taiwan is a developed country therefore its food safety is also the high priority; in fact, the food regulation law in Taiwan might even be tighter than the US regulation due to the varieties of cuisine (Taiwan banned the US beef during the E. Coli outbreak).

Another note, just like Japan, I heard Korea is pretty similar to Taiwan with slight differences so I don't think you missed much! :)

chloe.poppy said...

Hi cphu,

Based on reports from friends who merely 'eat and shop and eat' in Taiwan, it sure seemed like an uninteresting place to travel to. Nothing you can't do in Singapore. When we go on a holiday, we are trying to get out, even if it's for a couple of days. I'm glad we went on those day trips though, because that made us change our minds about Taiwan.

About the food poisoning issue, I've mentioned that I approach ALL street food with caution. The last thing I want to be on a holiday, is sick to my stomach. Even in Singapore and Japan, I will avoid all food handled without gloves (if I see it happen of course). However tight food regulation is, there are always recalls happening now and then.

Oh, I'm still hoping to go to Korea, but it's about time I visit countries outside of Asia. Then I'm going back to Japan. It's a country that tugs at my heartstrings, at least for now.

Yours truly said...

Thank you for blogging about your trip. It is very detailed and insightful. I know how time consuming per blog post is. The entries helped me plan my Taipei trip. Thank you again for all the effort.

Yours truly said...

Thank you for blogging about your trip. It is very detailed and insightful. I know how time consuming per blog post is. The entries helped me plan my Taipei trip. Thank you again for all the effort.

chloe.poppy said...

Yours truly,

Glad to be of help :) Have a wonderful trip!