Seven months after we left Hong Kong, we unexpectedly found ourselves back in East Asia.
Taiwan was never somewhere we had in our thoughts. Indeed after Indonesia the original plan was to head to New Zealand. But after seeing how expensive the country was, and how many compromises we would have to make, we decided to leave it for another trip when we could do it properly. Also, if we’re honest, we just weren’t ready to leave Asia completely.
So we decided on 2 weeks in Taiwan and 3 weeks in Japan. The reason we chose Taiwan was because it wasn’t somewhere we heard a lot about, so had an element of mystery, and a few blogs I read raved about it. Cross that with being quite affordable, with cheap onward flights to Japan, and it was a no brainer.
We arrived in Taipei after a long day of travelling and eventually got to our apartment at 1am. It was in the Wanhua district, one of the oldest and most traditional in the city. Full of small streets selling textiles and watches, and also plenty of places to eat. It was also home to the beautiful Longshan Temple.
Our first impressions of the city the next morning was that it looked like we were in the 1980s. From the ugly scooters (why Southeast Asia has such cool sporty models available and Taiwan has boxy plasticky ones with tiny wheels I’ll never know) to the dated architecture of the buildings, it was bizarre as it looked nothing like mainland China where almost everything was new.
But that’s not to say Taiwan is dated – underneath that facade it’s undoubtably developed and modern. In the area around the awe inspiring Taipei 101, the glitzy malls felt like the modern Asian city we expected.
Ximending was another area which is what you expect from Taipei, all lit up with neon billboards and lots of bizarre and crazy shops, like a mini Tokyo. It’s the youthful area of the city without a doubt and we enjoyed wandering around there.
A must see in Taipei is Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, named after the much loved leader, and an iconic symbol of Taiwan. The enormous hall has a giant courtyard in front where locals gather, and is surrounded by 2 concert halls and some beautiful gardens to walk through.
Unsurprisingly for us, the highlight of Taipei was the food. The famous night markets were where we ate most nights, chowing down on various dumplings, sausages and pancakes. My personal favourite was a Taiwanese hot dog. A sweet and spicy sausage was placed inside a rice bun (a sausage casing filled with rice) along with picked veg, garlic and chilli sauce – a great meal for just over £1.
We tended to go to Shilin night market over any others. It’s known as the tourist market, not so much to Western tourists but to mainland Chinese. We checked out a local one near to our apartment which specialised in frog (whole in soup), snake and pigs trotters, and decided that while we like to try new things, if we don’t fancy something there really isn’t much point forcing ourselves to eat it!
The first time we visited the market we didn’t even visit it – we thought it was just the rows of food stalls outside. But the market itself is actually underground, where it is even more packed and crazy. Here the most popular dish was steak – Katy had a tenderloin served sizzling with pepper sauce for $250 (£5) which was incredibly soft and would have cost far more elsewhere in the world.
Katy’s birthday was on our last full day in Taipei so we made it one to remember by jam packing our dsy with sights and foods. We started off with a traditional Taiwanese breakfast at Yong He Dou Jiang. We feasted on rice tubes with dried pork, dumplings and Chinese pancakes. It’s probably the most carb filled breakfast I’ve ever eaten but it filled us up for the day.
We made our way over to Taipei Zoo which has got to be the best value zoo in the world. For the paltry entrance fee of $60 (£1.20) we could spend as long as we wanted seeing all the animals and got free tickets to see the pandas at a specific time – I think it’s the first time we’ve seen pandas and they were as cute and adorable as expected.
I have to say we’re both not big fans of animals in captivity and while this zoo was no worse than any other (better than some in fact) you could still see some of the animals just didn’t have enough space and were utterly fed up. I don’t think we’ll be going to any more zoos after this.
At one end of the zoo you can take a shuttle to the Maokong Gondola – a huge Hello Kitty themed cable car. This is also unbelievable value – just $50 (a little over £1) each way for the entire 20+ minute ride, affording incredible views of the city and countryside. For such a big city, Taipei at it’s east side ends rather abruptly due to mountainous terrain, meaning one of the tallest buildings in the world, Taipei 101, looks like it’s sitting out in the countryside from some angles.
Once at the top of the gondola, we decided to get off and explore Maokong a little. It feels like a proper little town in the hills, yet only a cable car away from the city. Around the station were some touristy tea shops but we walked a bit further along some paths and got some good views out over the hills, before coming back on the cable car for sunset.
We finished off the day with a decadent Peking Duck dinner – ok so it isn’t Taiwanese but it was delicious. We ordered a duck for 2 people and were served an enormous whole duck surely fit for 4! We first got a giant plate of the most perfectly cooked duck skin you could imagine, followed by the meat with thick pancakes and plum sauce. It was the best duck we’ve ever eaten but we didn’t get near finishing it – luckily we took home a doggy bag!
There is a wealth of things to do in Taipei, and even with 4 days we didn’t scratch the surface. We’d love to go back sometime.
From the airport, the cheapest way into the city is by bus and the easiest by Taxi. A good balance of the 2 is by High Speed Train. A shuttle bus for $30 runs between the airport and the HST station, from where you can catch a train to Taipei Main Station for $175.
We did this on the way back but when we arrived it was too late for the train so we got a bus from City AirBus which took around an hour and cost around $140 I think.
Around the city there is no point bothering with anything except the excellent Metro. It’s worth buying an ‘Easycard’ which is Taipei’s version of the Oyster card, as you get discounts on every ride and get the whole deposit back when you leave. It can also be used for the zoo and gondola, and in some shops.
We stayed in an AirBnB apartment near Wanhua station. I’d thoroughly recommend it – the cost was the same as a hostel would be for 2 people, and apart from a very hard bed, it was great. It was nice being in a residential and non touristy area (though nowhere in Taipei is that touristy). It also had exceptionally high speed internet which was such a blessing after months of terrible connections in Southeast Asia!
It cost around £20 per night and the link is here. 8/10